Can Science Answer Ultimate Questions?

by Vern S. Poythress, Ph.D., Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Westminster Theological Seminary
"Science has now provided answers to almost every question man can ask. There are only a few questions left, and they are the esoteric ones. Where do we come from? What are we doing here? What is the meaning of life and the universe?"
   Langdon was amazed. "And these are questions CERN is trying to answer?"
   "Correction. These are questions we are answering."
--Maximilian Kohler, in Dan Brown, Angels and Demons.

Can science answer the ultimate questions? Dan Brown's Maximilian Kohler promises that it can. But a more searching inspection of the culture and methods of science turns up limitations. Natural science studies matter and energy and forces and interactions in time and space. In biology it studies the complexities of living things, but it stills focuses on understanding these within the framework of forces and matter and energy at the bottom.


Explanation on this level can never rise beyond its starting decision to focus on one level of structure within our world. For the sake of detailed progress and understanding at one level--the physico-material--it restricts its focus to that level. It leaves out consciousness, human personality, moral right and wrong, beauty, worship.

Strict materialists believe that matter and motion are all that is or ever can be. But that is a philosophical postulate, not the inevitable product of scientific reasoning. If science deliberately restricts itself to the material dimension, its conclusions will necessarily speak about the material dimension. The conclusions may be impressive and insightful. But it is a fallacy to think that they establish that the material is all that there is. The fallacy overlooks the human choice of a restricted standpoint at the beginning.

Believers in materialism may nevertheless be devoted to their philosophy. Because of the confusion about where materialistic assumptions are smuggled in, it seems to many people that materialism gains prestige from the triumphs and insights of science. Moreover, materialism can be satisfying after a fashion because it gives answers to big questions, or at least says that some kinds of questions cannot be answered. According to materialism, we ourselves are the chance byproduct of matter and motion. We have come into being by chance, and our destiny for the future is a matter of chance.

Then what is the meaning of life? Most people want an answer in terms of purpose and personal meaning. The materialist claims that there is no such answer, but that all meaning reduces to atoms and motion. It is a grim philosophy. No one can consistently live on that level, because we crave meaning, love, beauty.

Paradoxically, beauty crops up in the very structure of scientific laws, as well as in the world governed by those laws. And the materialist has no explanation for the laws themselves. Why is there something rather than nothing? And why are there laws at all? In fact, the laws reflect the character of an infinite God. We as human beings are in flight from God. So it is spiritually "convenient" to forget the laws and to claim that the matter and motion exhaust reality. It gets us off the hook from confronting our responsibility to God.

Further Reading

Vern S. Poythress, "Scientists Motivated by God."

Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach
Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006. See especially chapter 1 on scientific law.

Vern S. Poythress, "The Quest for Wisdom," in Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church: Essays in Honor of Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Ed. Lane G. Tipton & Jeffrey C. Waddington. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008. Pp. 86-114.

John Byl, The Divine Challenge: On Matter, Mind, Math, and Meaning. Edinburgh, [Scotland]; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004.

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