Many today have decided that there is no activity more rational than science. To be sure, science—the systematic study of natural causes through observation and experiment—has earned due reverence. There’s no doubt that the scientific method is an eminently rational way of pursuing understanding of how the physical world works.
But is science pre-eminently rational? Is it rationally superior to, say, philosophy and theology? This is an idea we should reject.
Something is rightly called rational—say, a thought, a theory, an argument—if it aligns the mind with reality. Science is rational because it puts the mind in accord with truths concerning the natural world. But what does it mean to say science is the most rational way of knowing?
Just imagine if there were a scientific theory that could explain all of physical reality in one shot. Imagine a supreme theory of nature—that than which nothing more rational could be thought. What would such a supreme theory need to be like?
At the very least, it would need to be: 1) intelligible, 2) extraordinarily simple, and 3) able to explain everything (or as close to everything as any scientific theory could possibly get) in the physical world. In short, the supremely rational theory would need to be supremely fundamental.
“Explaining everything” with utmost elegance is exactly what philosophy and theology claim to do. But maybe this is too much of an oversimplification. Here’s a better way of putting it: science, philosophy, and theology all set out to explain as much as they can according to the data their method affords—science by experimental data, philosophy by logical data, and theology by the data of revelation.
Science does not have a monopoly on the task of “explaining everything.” Nor has it in any way proven itself as the rightful monopolizer. As physicists Paul Davies and John Gribbin admit in their book The Matter Myth:
The image and distillation of science as the pure and objective distillation of real world experience is, of course, an idealization. In practice, the nature of scientific truth is often much more subtle and contentious.
Today, however, science is often celebrated as the one truly objective, detached way of approaching reality for the sake of obtaining knowledge. But as Davies and Gribbin imply, science has its own significant impurities to bear. Here’s one example. Both relativity theory and quantum theory are widely accepted as eminently “rational”—and yet they are incompatible with one another. If they could be merged, scientists would at last have their “theory of everything.” But logic prevents their merging. Yet we consider these two theories to be, perhaps, the most rational of all scientific theories despite the fact that at least one of them must be incorrect.
This isn’t meant to be scandalous. It just highlights the fact that science is not as infallible and omniscient as modern rhetoric sometimes suggests. It has flaws and shortcomings. In fact, the flaws and shortcomings of science are not so unlike the ones that theology is often accused of having.
For one thing, science—like theology—embraces its own kind of “faith.” As physicist Stephen Barr observes:
We see in science something akin to religious faith. The scientist has confidence in the intelligibility of the world. He has questions about nature. And he expects—no, more than expects, he is absolutely convinced—that these questions have intelligible answers. The fact that he must seek those answers proves that they are not in sight. The fact that he continues to seek them in spite of all difficulties testifies to his unconquerable conviction that those answers, although not presently in sight, do in fact exist. Truly, the scientist too walks by faith and not by sight.
This is not an indictment of science. It is a recognition that science is always an activity of the human person. It never happens in a vacuum. For we must always consider the inevitable influence of bias and assumptions on human pursuits of knowledge. Moreover, even the most objective scientists—just like theologians and philosophers—will always be subject to the influence and authority of others. This is just a fact of human nature. As the esteemed philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright points out: “Scientists, after all, operate in a social group like any other; and what they do and what they say are affected by personal motives, professional rivalries, political pressures, and the like. They have no special lenses that allow them to see through to the structure of nature.”
Often theology is indicted as pre-scientific. History, we are told, testifies to this. Religion or “God” or “gods” used to be a way of explaining natural phenomena—but now we know that thunder, lightning, floods, and disease are caused not by supernatural agents, but by natural and impersonal ones.
It is true that some theologies have proven themselves to be sad superstitions. It is true that some Christian theologies have gone so far astray that they can hardly be taken seriously. Indeed, it is true that some Christian theologies have adopted doctrines that are justly called anti-scientific. But as with scientists, we should allow theologians to be wrong. We should allow them to be wrong—even dreadfully wrong—without resorting to a full scale renunciation of the entire theological project.
Science’s track record through history is not without its own resounding hiccups. At times, the “best science” has turned out dead wrong. There was Aristotle’s physics before Newton; geocentrism before heliocentrism; luminiferous ether before special relativity; the static universe before the inflationary model. We don’t write science off because of what has gone wrong—and there’s no guaranteeing that Newton, heliocentrism, special relativity, and the inflationary universe will never be proven wrong. Rather, we rein science back in when it’s errant and refine it according to what we’ve learned. We make it better.
Even the greatest scientists are capable of getting things drastically wrong. Albert Einstein thought Georges Lemaître was nuts for proposing the notion of an expanding universe (and eventually the idea of what would become known as the Big Bang). But eventually, Einstein changed his mind and would go on to call his initial rejection of Lemaître’s theory his “biggest blunder.” Again, the point is that we don’t measure the value of science solely on the basis of its limitations and flaws. We measure it on the basis of its proven merits. It should be not at all different when it comes to philosophy and theology.
The scientism so many embrace today—the movement that bears upon its flag the words “say yes to science and no to religion!”—needs to go. For one thing, scientism does no service to the scientific project. It is wholly unscientific, a purely ideological enterprise. More than that, it is an irrational philosophy. For where or when or how has science’s superiority to theology ever been proven? Here is one thing science cannot prove: its own superiority. For science deals in quantity, not in quality.
Science and theology—both of which share the common bridge of philosophy—are methodologies, ways of obtaining knowledge about the world. And it cannot be denied that as a methodology for understanding how physical reality works, modern science has been tremendously successful. But you don’t prove a methodology’s pre-eminence by its abundant fruit. That only proves that it works.
To prove the superiority of a way of knowing, you must place it in the presence of all other competitors. It is here that we encounter the root of the scientistic lie. Science and religion, properly understood, are not in competition. On the Catholic view, they were never intended to be.
The wisest among us will take both science and religion for all they’re worth. And a dynamic complementarity will therein be discovered, for as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once put it, “science takes things apart to see how they work; religion brings things together to see what they mean.”