The “science can’t . . . ” gambit

So you’ve demolished the arguments advanced by your woo-loving religious adversary: astrology trashed; homeopathy shredded; creationism flushed. But then your opponent’s eyes light up and a wry smile crosses his lips. You know what’s coming, don’t you?

“Science may have brought us many advances, but it can’t answer the big questions.”


No, not in the least. You are not struck dumb by this marvelous insight. For it is not an insight at all. Merely a glib saying that is crammed with so many misconceptions it would take a Ph.D. thesis to unravel them.

But let me try to probe a few.

1. Science has provided us with more than “advances”. It has brought us understanding of the fabric of the universe. It’s common for people with only a spotty knowledge of science to equate science with technology: genetics equals miraculous cures; nuclear physics equals atomic energy; chemistry equals plastics. But discoveries in genetics have led us to understanding the origins of life, nuclear physics and chemistry have revealed the marvelous structure of the atom. These discoveries have not only given us technology, they have given us insight and understanding. We now know better where we stand in the universe.

2. It’s not only science that has done this. Somewhere along the line, about three thousand years ago, we invented reason. The rational thought of Euclid did more to demolish woo than all our recent efforts. Come to think of it, rationality is the earth in which science grows.

3. What big questions? The origin of life? We’re getting there. The origin of the universe? That one is almost in the bag.

4. Then your opponent winds up for what he thinks is the kill. What about the meaning of life? What is love?  He smiles smugly. But you are ready for this. You know the dishonest rhetorical device he has trotted out. The core of his trick has been to ask a vague, important-sounding question. If you fail to answer in a straightforward way, he assumes victory. He wants you to infer that religion or woo contain the answer. You smile smugly back and call his bluff by asking if he can answer those questions.   He will allude to vague fairy stuff which you blow away like cigarette smoke. He will come back to assert that science cannot answer those questions. You refuse to be distracted. You make your main point.

Neither can religion.

About aharmlessdrudge

Way back during the late Bronze age -- actually it was the 1950s -- all of us in high school had to take a vocational test to determine our interests and, supposedly, our future careers. I cannot remember the outcome, but I do recall one question that gave me pause. "If you were to win a Nobel prize, would it be in literature or in physics?" I hesitated over the question: although I enjoyed mathematics and science more than English class, I did have a couple of unfinished (and very bad) novels hidden away at home. I cannot remember what I chose back then, but the dilemma followed me to university, where I switched from mathematics to English and -- after a five-year stint in journalism -- back to mathematics. I recently retired as a professor of statistics. Retirement. What a good chance to revive my literary ambitions. I have finished a novel -- more about that in good time -- and a rubble of drafts of articles about mathematics and statistics is taking up space on my hard disk.
This entry was posted in Atheism and Religion, Crank science, Religion, Science and Medicine, Skepticism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The “science can’t . . . ” gambit

  1. The other day, while I was at work, my cousin stole my iPad and tested to
    see if it can survive a thirty foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation.
    My apple ipad is now destroyed and she has 83 views.
    I know this is entirely off topic but I had to share
    it with someone!

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