The Competencies and Limitations of Science | The BioLogos Forum

(system) #1

Note: This essay is a part of a booklet entitled "When God and Science Meet: Surprising Discoveries of Agreement", published by the National Association of Evangelicals. The booklet can be downloaded for free here. Reprinted with permission from the author, and from NAE.

Science provides humans with a powerful way of understanding creation and harnessing it for the common good. When Galileo’s observations, supporting the idea that the Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun, were criticized as contrary to biblical revelation, he replied that the use of our intellect in a systematic way must be what God intended: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.”

Over the last five centuries, consistent application of the scientific method has enabled immeasurable advances in technology and medicine. Experiments typically begin with asking questions, formulating hypotheses, planning investigations and making observations. Scientific research continues through interpreting and analyzing data, building models and sharing results. Throughout these steps run the common threads of the peer review process (subject to the scrutiny of peers most knowledgeable with the topic in question), and repeatability (results can be duplicated by independent researchers). These two factors are key to how “science works, by achieving consensus,” a consensus that is based not on opinion and conjecture, but on documented fact and proven theory.

Science identifies physical relationships and principles that explain the world around us. Often, these principles can be extrapolated far beyond the conditions in which they were observed. This ability to extrapolate lends science a unique and powerful predictive power. For example, after the planet Uranus was discovered by Herschel in 1781, astronomer Le Verrier used Newton’s Law of Gravity to deduce the existence of another planet perturbing its orbit. Based on mathematical analyses, he was able to predict exactly where this new planet, Neptune, would be discovered. As ecologist Hugh Gauch states in a book on the scientific method, science builds on “deductive and inductive logic” to make “bold claims of rationality and truth.”

In the area of climate change, the scientific method can document how climate is changing. Science can test all of the hypotheses that could explain the observed change and identify the one that is most consistent with the data: humans are responsible. Physical principles regarding the infrared absorption by heat-trapping gases and the exchange of heat between the atmosphere and ocean form the basis of complex earth system models. These models are what we use to understand the implications of the choices our society makes: What will the future look like if we continue to depend on fossil fuels for energy, compared with a future where we transition to other, cleaner energy sources?

What science cannot do, however, is tell us which choice is the right one. As the American Association for the Advancement of Science states, “There are many matters that cannot usefully be examined in a scientific way.” This concept is amplified by the K–12 science standards, which say that, “Science and technology may raise ethical issues for which science, by itself, does not provide answers and solutions.” The limitations of science were expressed even more vividly by Erwin Schrödinger, the Nobel prize-winning Austrian physicist, when he said,“[Science] puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart … it knows nothing of beautiful or ugly, good or bad, God and eternity.”

To answer the difficult questions (How should we respond to climate change? Is genetic engineering acceptable? Why are we here? Is there hope for the future?), we need to look beyond facts, data and observations. To paraphrase the author of Hebrews, science is the evidence of things seen; faith, on the other hand, is the “evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, King James Version). Our ultimate significance in life, the inner sense of the infinite that we possess, our final purpose and destiny: These are topics on which science is silent, but our faith is loud. As N.T. Wright points out in his lecture “Can a Scientist Believe the Resurrection?” neither historical evidence alone, nor scientific evidence alone, will convince someone to become a believer. We have to be open to ways of knowing suitable to the new creation: hope, faith and love. Our knowing is based on the hope of a new life, faith in the risen Christ and experiencing the Father’s love for us. Wright concludes, “All knowing is a gift from God, historical and scientific knowing no less than that of faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.” That love is what leads us toward the answers to our deepest and most difficult questions.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Brad Kramer) #2

The authors are not available for comment, but you are welcome to discuss their ideas.

(Phil) #4

Good discussion of the issues we face. This past Sunday, I was in a passing conversation with a man at church who was commenting on his son’s first week at college (Baylor University). He stated that he had a difficult time as his lab instructor in biology put forth that evolution was true, and his son “Didn’t want to listen to that crap.” Sigh…
How to begin the conversation in a kind and loving way was beyond me, and nothing would be resolved on the sidewalk as we were leaving church, so just commented that I’m glad his second week went better.

(Patrick ) #5

Biology can only be understood in the context of Darwinian evolution. If the student doesn’t want to listen to that crap, the student is not ready for college level biology. Seems to me that parents misguided this young man. Is he really prepared and ready for college? Are they and the student wasting a lot of money attending a very good university when the young man isn’t ready for education on how the real world really is and how the nature works? But I am optimistic, as most freshman will “get it” around mid-October that their parents and others have indoctrinated and protected them from the harsh real world. Most will figure it out and move forward with their lives and get good grades in biology and other subjects they are taking. Others will change majors a few times. But in the end they all grow up eventually.


@jpm, I wouldn’t demonstrate disapproval towards that young guy. What I would do is congratulate him because he has an opinion on the origins debate. Then, why not purchasing him the two best books representing yec/id, and evolution. By doing this he will be better exposed to the matter and will learn by the means of comparison. That is a risky thing to do, but by doing that we demonstrate him we don’t fear the subject. This young guy will learn from your attitude that knowing and learning represents a great adventure.

(Patrick ) #7

I would try to get that young man some professional help. See if they can treat his obvious mental illness. Suicide in young people is tragic and preventable. More should be done to provide help. But that help shouldn’t include any religious dogma as that tends to make the problems worse.

(Phil) #8

Perhaps my comment has led us away from the topic and for that I apologize. It was made out of the frustration felt in living in a church community whose more vocal members are of the YEC variety, including some of the staff. We need skills in addressing the issue in ways that do not threaten or demean, and also do not force those bringing up the science-religion debate to the outskirts of the village. I think the idea of providing reading materials which can be absorbed and allowing the individuals to make a rational synthesis of the ideas presented is good, and I have used the “Origins” book for that purpose, as in it the theological problems of the various views are outlined fairly.


Patrick, there’s a well known and very smart evolutionary biochemist in Toronto who is telling that it is good for critical thinking to debate creationists. @jpm may be so very interested in reading it too. The interview in Forbes deals with what this evolutionist is doing. Take a look at it. Sure you will like it!

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #10


James, I am glad you brought this conversation up, even though it is not exactly on topic.

I understand your frustration of not knowing what to day to the father. However what you did was good because you expressed concern and left the door open to a conversation in the future.

I think that our concern should be for the needs of the student, not for where we stand on this debate. We really need for him to understand that evolution is an important aspect of the biology curriculum and he could well fail the course if he does not accept this scientific theory. That is simply a fact of life.

Then he needs to know that there are many Christians who think that evolution is compatible with Christianity. Then the student has the choice of accepting or rejecting help. If you are offering help you could share your experience which I expect has much to offer.

So you could seek out the father next Sunday or even before and open the conversation by expressing concern for the son based on your conversation and offer to talk to the son to see if the son is open to discussion this problem. If the son is not, then don’t push the issue, but offer sympathy and a willingness to listen and talk.

(Patrick ) #11

I agree with you. The material on the Biologos site is great for that. Their evolution and genetic explanations are second to none.

(Numbers Logos) #12

Is there any science whatever in your diagnosis of “mental illness?”

(Patrick ) #13

Mental illness is certainly an area where science has and continues to work on. More funding is needed so more people can be helped.

(system) #14

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