Science and Limits

Nietzsche declared in 1882 that God was dead. Nietzsche is now dead, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that what he meant was that God had been removed from society. And He had. After Darwin all we had left was science -- science, which had once been the method by which curious people learned more about God’s creation. But the science we have now has forbidden God to have any part in experimental hypotheses. Even when the evidence clearly points heavenward, the presence of a creator cannot be considered.

Yet science can explain very little, and that is disappointing to a generation of materialists. If all that is, is merely matter, then science should be able to answer all our questions. If there is no God, in the Judeo-Christian sense of the word, and no supernatural forces operate in this universe, then science should be able to formulate hypotheses, construct experiments, repeat those experiments with similar results and, either adjust the initial assumptions, or conclude they were correct to begin with. It should be doable. But it’s not.

Let’s look at some of the marvels of this world that science can address only in a shallow and mechanistic manner.

Hummingbirds and owls, for instance. Their specific, fine-tuned attributes are so complex, so specifically designed for those species that random mutation seems really silly explanation. The owl can fly in almost absolute silence -- something no other bird can do -- and science can’t explain how it got that way. The hummingbird is able to vary its metabolic rate drastically, can rotate its wings in a helicopter hover, and retract its long insect-seeking tongue into a channel that winds around its skull. How could that have happened by guess and by golly?

Butterflies are another good example. No one knows what goes on in that chrysalis soup let alone how it happens. What survival of the fittest advantage does that peculiar arrangement provide? How do those chemicals know how and when to rearrange themselves in that miraculous metamorphosis? Nor do we know how the monarch manages its 6,000-mile migration that only happens once every other generation.

Which brings up migration in general -- how do animals, sans GPS or maps or directions find their way each year to the same place? Whether we speak of Canadian geese or Coho salmon, we’re baffled by the complexity of the task of moving entire populations enormous distances with no clear mechanism for so doing. Yet they always arrive on time.

And what’s with Fibonacci and his amazing number sequence that pops up everywhere in nature? Explanation please.

Those are just a few of the little things that push science into a corner. What about the BIG questions that plague us all?

I started asking these questions in earnest decades ago when I first read Virginia Woolf’s wonderful essay, "The Death of the Moth". It’s a short descriptive piece that paints a wistful picture of a moth fluttering around a lamp just before it dies. The perplexing part of the essay is that the moth dead appears to be exactly like the moth alive, but life is gone. So what is life? We know it has something to do with movement, if nothing more than lungs sucking in air. It has something to do with brain waves, electrical impulses, but beyond that a dead person appears to be all there and yet totally different than when he was alive. What is that difference? Is there a “ghost in the machine?” Apparently, but science has no answer for us.

Which brings up the question of mind. What is that? We don’t know how the brain works exactly. We have metaphors we use to talk about that clear, but incomprehensible difference; my brain is an organ I have; my mind is Me and I am different from everyone else. Somewhere lodged in that material brain is a strong sensation of ethereal self -- that ghost in the machine again. C.S. Lewis once wrote: You don’t have a soul: you are a soul. You have a body. That dichotomy is black and white, and yet scientifically inexplicable.

And science has no clue about what’s going on when we sleep. We know that we fall apart if we don’t, and we feel a lot better when we do. But science, so far, hasn’t been able to explain it any better than that. We dream when we sleep and though many theories about that phenomenon exist, none are any more than theories. Pharaoh found his dreams important and accurately predictive, but most of us find them either amusing or disturbing. I still have those awful college dreams where I show up finally on the last day of class unprepared for the exam. That never happened; I was a diligent student, but the dream haunts me, and haunts many who’ve slogged through higher education. And science can’t tell us why, let alone how our brains run those movies in our sleeping heads.

Even the hard sciences come up empty when push comes to shove. Ask a physicist to tell you what gravity is. We know it is some exquisitely tuned force that’s essential to all the workings of the universe, but that’s about it. We don’t know the cause, the source, nor can we explain its precision. As I age I feel its force more keenly, but it is constant and dependable. I can’t look down at my bathroom scales and complain that gravity is obviously growing stronger. It doesn’t do that, but we don’t know why.

Science can’t explain the existence of music. It doesn’t in any measurable way improve our survivability as a species -- though we do know that those who can and do play musical instruments sport brains that are more efficient than those who don’t. Science can’t explain the other arts, either, though we know from cave paintings that man had that sophisticated ability early on in human history. And science cannot explain our amazement, joy, and appreciation for the artistic accomplishments of others. Why does the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto make me cry? I did likewise when I stumbled across the Degas bronze of the dancer standing demurely in her own little room at the Metropolitan. I cried -- with joy at the realization that someone else in this world had once loved dance as I did? Partly, but that wasn’t all of it. Can any scientist confidently explain that completely in terms of chemical reactions and electrical charges? No.

Nor can science explain evil. Good is somewhat understandable in that the survival of the species is dependent to a certain extent on us behaving ourselves. But evil –- the desire to cause pain to others just for the fun of it –- makes no evolutionary sense. Competition makes sense, but not cruel, violent, damaging domination. So why does it exist? Is it buried in our DNA? How so? We don’t know. Nor can we explain what makes some people willing to give up everything for someone else. Altruism isn’t very evolutionary either.

And yet, science is worshipped like the Oracle at Delphi. All is science. God is not dead, but mankind is getting good at shutting Him out of all of our understandings. But when we do that we have to live in an artless vacuum; we have to put up with answerless questions –- questions that urgently need resolutions –- questions about our purpose, our future, our social decisions. Science is a wonderful tool for appreciating the world God has made, but it is a lousy substitute for Him -- science knows nothing of love.

Deana Chadwell is an adjunct professor and department head at Pacific Bible College in southern Oregon. She teaches writing, logic, and literature. She can be contacted at

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