The Power and Limits of Science

Two quotes caught my attention this week. One was by a prominent atheist; the other by a prominent Christian. In The Limits of Science, Nobel Prize winner (and atheist) Sir Peter Medawar, writes:

Science is a great and glorious enterprise – the most successful, I argue, that human beings have ever engaged in. To reproach it for its inability to answer all the questions we should like to put to it is no more sensible than to reproach a railway locomotive for not flying or, in general, not performing any other operation for which it was not designed.

I am impressed with these words of Medawar. They show an uncommon humility that recognizes that his favourite discipline, the one he has pursued most of his life, will not be sufficient to answer all questions.

Sir John Polkinghorne, a former professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge and an Anglican priest, has said something similar.

I submit that no-one lives as if science were enough. Our account of the world must be rich enough – have a thick enough texture and a sufficiently generous rationality – to contain the total spectrum of human meeting with reality.1

Science has great power; and part of what makes it so powerful is its absolute reliance upon data. In its truest form, science does not speak beyond the data. Extrapolations and deductions lead the scientist to further experiments that will, in turn, result in more data. The quest in science is to collect more and more data to support a theory and thus increase the probability that the theory can be proven (in a technical sense of the word “proof”). Science seeks to never speak beyond the data. Science’s great power results from this self-imposed limit.

Scientists such as Medawar recognize that it is wrong to ask science to pronounce on issues outside its jurisdiction. Polkinghorne recognizes that people do not typically live solely by the scientific method. Science is powerful; but it is not enough.

1 Quotes found at “From the Archives: Miracles and Science, Part 2; Biologos Forum”;

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