The limits of science: non-scientific questions

‘Humanism does not have a supreme or unquestioning faith in science and reason, but it does not accept that the progress of humanity can be furthered without reason, reason grounded in empirical, scientific progress.’

Jeaneane Fowler, Humanism: Beliefs and Practices

Some critics accuse humanists of scientism. Scientism can be defined in a number of ways, but it is often described as something like a ‘worship of science’, a belief that science can answer all our questions, or that science provides the only way to understand human beings and the world.

Typically, however, humanists will not go so far. Some do argue that if science can’t answer a question, then it is not a well-formed question. Others might claim that as our study of the mind and the way it works develops, all questions about human beings will become part of the natural sciences. However, many humanists accept that there are meaningful questions that lie beyond the remit of science.

Non-scientific questions

Firstly there are those questions that look for meanings or purposes behind things, eg questions around why the universe exists, or why it is the way it is, or questions about the purpose of our existence. Some people describe these as ‘ultimate’ questions, beyond the realm of science.

Then there are moral questions: questions about how we should behave and how we should treat other people. It was a philosopher much admired by many humanists, David Hume, who drew the distinction between facts about the world and conclusions about how we should act. Science can support our understanding of what is, but it cannot tell us what we ought to do.

There are also conceptual or mathematical puzzles, which would again appear to be questions that science cannot help us with. Take the classic conundrum, ‘Brothers and sisters, I have none. But that man’s father is my father’s son’. This is not a puzzle with which the scientific method of experimentation would appear to help us. (Although it could be argued that the method of forming a hypothesis and testing it is still useful when solving the problem, in our heads or on a piece of paper.)

Many humanists are therefore prepared to acknowledge that there are questions that science cannot answer. This, then, raises a further question. Do humanists have to accept that there is still a space for religion or the supernatural to understand the world and our place in it?

Some people claim that science and religion do not try to answer the same questions and that we need religion to answer those questions which fall beyond the realm of science. During the scientific revolution, such people proposed a dividing line between the realms of science and religion. Many religious people have claimed that these two realms are distinct. Some scientists, such as Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002). have described science and religion as ‘non-overlapping magisteria’, meaning that each should keep to its own turf and avoid interfering with the other. Sometimes this has led to a land grab by religions on areas of knowledge that are held to be beyond science – in particular, morality.

In the next step we’ll look at how humanists might respond to these non-scientific questions.

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK