Humans are really good at asking questions. Just prompt any toddler and you’ll immediately get barraged with question after question ranging from the mundane (what’s for dinner?) to the existential (what happens when we die?). And a single answer is never enough for a child who always feels compelled to continue with why why why.
In the end both children and adults are just trying to make sense of the world around us. Of the confusing massive sensory perceptions bombarding us and the random chaotic forces of nature. Not to mention the vagaries of human relationships and societies. It’s all a giant complex mess, and most of us get through the days by simply stopping asking so many questions and just focusing on getting work done and enjoying time with our families.
That doesn’t mean that the questions don’t linger. What is for dinner? What does happen when we die? We’ve come up over the centuries and millennia with a variety of techniques for answering questions. Philosophy, theology, superstition, just plain guessing, and the latest entry in a series of techniques in our quest for answers: science.
Science is best viewed as a particular branch of philosophy the deals with a specific set of questions, especially those regarding the workings of the natural world, using a very specific set of techniques, namely empirical observations coupled with heaps of mathematics and inductive logic. This philosophical approach is by far the youngest of the ways of answering questions, first developed in fits and starts about 400 years ago and not really even codified into its modern form until the mid-twentieth century. And as all other ways of knowing, it’s constantly changing and evolving.
This technique of science is fantastic at answering certain kinds of questions. Want to know how some stars blow up in spectacular fashion? Science has got your back. Want to know why there are so many different kinds of weird looking animals on the Earth? Science can give you a very cool and satisfying answer. Want to know how old the universe is? You might be surprised that we actually have a rather precise answer to that, thanks to science.
The techniques of science are so fantastically good at answering these kinds of specific questions that often times we feel tempted to apply the same techniques to other questions. What’s for dinner? What happens when we die? Can science provide us with answers to these questions?
No, at least not in a very satisfying or fruitful way. I dare you to try to answer the question of “what’s for dinner?” using the scientific method. Are you going to perform a controlled experiment where you cook two dinners at the same time, blindfold yourself, eat samples from each and see if that’s what you would have preferred? No you’ll just pick something based on (probably literally) your own gut instinct you just cook it and eat it.
What happens when we die? Well science does tell us how the human body works, and based on everything we know about the brain you simply cease to exist. But we don’t really know the answer to that the same way we know how, say, plants get their energy from the sun. One of the difficulties of answering this question is the obvious point that all potential research subjects that we could interview are be definition dead and very non-responsive.
So obviously there are sets of questions that science is not very well equipped to handle. Does that make these questions useless and invalid? It’s pretty important to know what you’re having for dinner. And yes you can certainly wonder what will happen to you after you die, and that might affect how you live your life and treat other people. These are two very important questions with very real-world implications.
What is the meaning of justice? What’s the best form of government? How can we deal with heartache and grieving? What is the nature of beauty? Why do we fight wars all the time? What is the nature of the divine, assuming it even exist?
Science can perhaps partially inform some of these questions, but the questions themselves are not rooted in a scientific base. And yet they are important. They are vital. Their answers form a large part of the fabric of our daily lives and very existence. Science isn’t equipped to give us answers to all the questions that we can possibly pose. And that’s a good thing.