Science Answers What and How — Faith Answers Who and Why

Science has had a lot of success, but it has its limits — in fact, the scientific method cannot even be used to verify the scientific method.

Albert Edelfelt, “Louis Pasteur,” 1885
Albert Edelfelt, “Louis Pasteur,” 1885 (photo: Public Domain)

Let me start by saying that I love science. I will never forget the moment in my high school physics class when I saw the beauty of the equations before me. I vividly remember thinking to myself in chemistry class, “All this stuff just happens without a human making it happen.” I still stand in awe of what we have been able to uncover about the way nature works. I consider my job as a high school physics teacher to be an important and worthwhile vocation.

Let me also say that I do not depart from Church teaching when I affirm the value of science. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out that the natural sciences are an expression of our God given dominion over nature (CCC 2293). In another recent blog, I discussed the origins of science in the Church of the Middle Ages.

However, natural science is very limited, much more limited than our society tends to recognize. I often get the impression from my students that they believe science is the all-knowing and only-way-of-knowing standard of all knowledge. Natural science has had a lot of success, but science itself can only give us a certain kind of knowledge about the natural world. As a matter of fact, science cannot even give us the knowledge that science is a valid way of knowing. The scientific method cannot be used to verify the scientific method. Peter Kreeft wrote, “We have an unscientific attitude toward science. There is no scientific proof that only scientific proofs are good proofs; no way to prove by the scientific method that the scientific method is the only valid method.” The methods of science stand on philosophical grounds, not scientific grounds.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out that the ultimate questions about meaning and existence are on a different order of knowing (CCC 283-284). In other words, our deepest questions are simply outside the arena of science, but when we see science as the only way of knowing, then those questions are either misinterpreted or seen to be without an answer.

We humans think best in pictures and images. That is why metaphors can be so powerful, and most language about spirituality comes in the form of symbols. I have found that trying to explain in philosophical terms the limited nature of science and the problems with science’s exalted status did not always get me very far, so I tried to come up with an illustration. The following story from The Wiseguy and the Fool illustrates the way I see our society’s relationship with science. It was this desire to express philosophy and apologetics through stories that motivated the book as a whole, and this is one example.

The crowd yells, “All hail Science!”

Science enters the hall sheepishly. The crowd goes wild. “Science! Science! Science!...” the audience chants. Science stands wide-eyed, looking alarmedly all around the room. He starts to turn around to leave, but a few people standing near him rush at him and prevent his exit. The crowd gathers in, and science is lifted on top of the sea of people, which moves him by a train of undulating hands of worshippers up to the throne at the front of the hall.

Science is placed reverently but excitedly by the crowd onto the throne which, Science thinks, is a little too big for him. He rises out of the chair and puts his hands up to quiet the crowd.

“He is going to speak!”


Science begins, “Ummm… I thank you for your enthusiasm.”

“We love you!!” cries out one worshipper. Another faints in adoration.

“I … well … I don’t really know what love is,” replies Science.

“He’s so humble!” The audience gives a round of applause.

Science quiets the crowd again. “Why have you brought me here?”

“You are all-knowing!”

“We worship you!”

“There is nothing you can’t do!”

“You have cleared away the illusions of our ancestors!”

“You are the only true knowledge!”

“We believe in you!”

Science can barely hear all of the shouts amid the noise and excitement, but he manages to make out a few of the declarations. The exclamations crescendo into a screaming torrent of adulation, applause and pandemonium. He quiets the crowd again. “I thank you … really … I do. But, I think you have the wrong guy.”

Science is not the fundamental domain. When we look to science for all the answers, we will come to the conclusion that there are no answers to the questions science cannot answer such as the meaning of life, right and wrong, the nature of human existence, whether God exists, etc. Sometimes science can feel like philosophy and even theology, and that is because it has a common origin of wonder. We, by nature, desire to know, and there is so much to know on so many different levels. What, how, why, and Who are all valid and important questions, but natural science can only answer the what and the how. Unless we can learn to look beyond science, why and Who will fall into the realm of obscurity.

If we consider the arts, what present philosophers can rival Plato, Aquinas, or Aristotle?

What Was Then and What Is Now

COMMENTARY: ‘We all want progress,’ writes C.S. Lewis, ‘but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.’