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The limits of science: humanist responses

Read about how humanists might respond to the fact that science can’t answer everything and that that leaves space for religion.

We have already learned how many of the questions that were once considered within the remit of religion are now considered scientific questions (eg questions that asked for explanations of the weather or disease). There are still many other religious, spiritual, or supernatural claims about the nature of reality that are held by some to be beyond the remit of science. However, for many of these claims, it is simply not the case that science cannot address them. For example, claims about whether prayer makes a difference can be empirically tested, as can the claims made by mediums, astrologers, and faith healers. Humanists believe we should therefore be wary about claims that such questions are off-limits to science.

Secondly there are also religious claims about what happened in the past. Although these cannot be tested through experimentation, a humanist believes we should still ask for evidence, just as we would for any historical claim.

Thirdly, when it comes to moral questions, even if we accept that science cannot provide us with definitive answers, that does not mean that science cannot support us to address such questions. Science can provide us with facts about the effects our actions can have on the world (eg the impact of our behaviour on other human beings, on non-human animals, and on the environment). This still does not mean science can tell us what we should do, but (as we shall learn more about in Week 5) humanists believe that through the process of adopting empathy and reasoning about moral problems (weighing up the evidence and thinking about the consequences), we can reach conclusions about which ways of acting are more morally appropriate than others.

Finally, when it comes to so-called ‘ultimate’ questions about meanings and purposes, such questions are only important or meaningful if you believe such meanings and purposes really exist. For a humanist, some of these questions can simply be dissolved. For example, questions around why bad things happen and human beings suffer, which may be of fundamental importance to believers in a benevolent deity, can for an atheist simply be answered through scientific descriptions of the way the world is. Other ‘ultimate’ questions can simply be reinterpreted or redefined in more human terms: ‘What is the meaning of life?’, for example, for many humanists, becomes ‘How can I make my life meaningful?’ or ‘How should I live my life?’. We will look in more detail at a humanist approach to questions around meaning and purpose in Week 4.

Humanism is not therefore scientism. Many (although not all) humanists accept that there are questions that science cannot answer. However, many of the questions which are not amenable to science remain amenable to reason.

We cannot explain everything about human beings in terms of the natural sciences. Science can sometimes support us to answer questions about love, beauty, morality, and culture. However, our human understanding of such concepts often involves more. Nonetheless, for humanists, this does not require us to invoke explanations from beyond the natural or human world.

‘One of the challenges for humanists is to explain that there is more in life than natural science can register, without invoking anything supernatural.
‘In meeting that challenge, we will draw on our common culture, including the better parts of the religious traditions within it. However, we will not have fallen into theology, because in drawing on the products of human thought and experience such as the works of poets, dramatists, novelists and historians and the stories included in the religions, we will not pretend that these stories are anything other than what they are, tales told by humans to humans.’
Brendan Larvor, Aspects of Humanism course

Question: If science cannot answer everything, what is the best way to approach such questions?

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Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

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