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The limits of science: Derek Burke


Is there anything science can’t explain? Do we need religious explanations at all? Some say not. One approach was to look for gaps in the scientific account and say “God does this”. The current debate about creationism is full of this. But it is a perilous path. Too often a scientific explanation has been found and then the “God of the Gaps” vanishes. As a Christian, I believe that there is an ultimate purpose in trying to explain the whole of the natural world. But could science and faith both be right? We all know that science works by asking “how” questions: “How does it work?” But we also ask “why” questions: “What purpose does my life have?” This is the sort of question that religious faith claims to answer but science can’t, and never will, because science is not set up to do this. So we have two sorts of questions and two sorts of answers, which complement each other.

Historically, keeping science out has not worked, and I, as a practising Christian, have nothing to fear from inquiry. My faith, though bound into history, is not as insecure as that. I’m happy to pursue science without arbitrary boundaries. But there are certain questions that involve experiments that should not be done – for instance, any involving human torture – and that must limit certain lines of inquiry. Ethical limits to experimentation need not block trying to explain something by science, but may block ways of getting data. So we need ethics and we need values, and these come from outside science. Science is not enough.

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This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue