The Limits of Science (Newbigin)

  Science delivers “an ever growing abundance of things to have and to do, beyond all the dreams of earlier ages.  It offers no guidance, however, on the questions of worth: What things are worth doing?  What things are worth having?  Perhaps the most poignant example of this tragic situation is the way in which the wizardry of satellite television is now employed to pour a cataract of trash into every living room.  In the 28th chapter of Job, the glowing description of the marvels of human technology is founded by the haunting question: ‘But where shall wisdom be found?'” (page 47 of Proper Confidence).

“No one can deny the brilliance of our technology.  The problem is rather what our technology is used for.  We display astounding brilliance in devising means for any end we desire, but we have no rational way of choosing what ends are worth desiring” (page 24 of Truth to Tell).

“…The age of reason [science] had banished teleology from its way of understanding the world, and so ‘happiness’ had no definition except what each autonomous individual might give it.  Each individual has the right not only to pursue happiness but to define it as he wishes.  …The methods of modern science provide no grounds for belief that there is anything beyond death.  Hence, the whole freight of human happiness has to be carried in the few short and uncertain years that are allowed to us before death ends it all.  The quest for happiness becomes that much more hectic, more fraught with anxiety than it was to the people of the Middle Ages” (pages 26-7 of Foolishness to the Greeks). 

Note: The WSC bookstore sells Proper Confidence and Truth to Tell for a decent price – I promise these are stimulating reads!

shane lems

sunnyside wa

4 Replies to “The Limits of Science (Newbigin)”

  1. Excellent post- right up my alley!

    This is an outworking of the naturalistic fallacy- one can’t reason from is to ought. In other words, we can scientifically discover all sorts of facts about life and reality, but we can not derive any ethical obligations from these conclusions. Science can tell us about how life perpetuates itself, but not why. Nor can we take these facts as rationale for why life ought to be protected and preserved.

    I was talking with a mutual friend of ours a couple of weeks ago, and he was discussing some ‘lean manufacturing’ things he’d learned in a seminar at work. One was that any industrial problem could be solved with five “why” questions or less. For example:
    1) Why did the machine break? Because the bearings froze.
    2) Why did the bearings freeze? Because they were not maintained.
    3) Why were the bearings not maintained? Because we employ idiots.
    4) Why do we employ idiots? Conclusion- idiots should not be employed.

    The same principle works when defending the gospel against skeptics. Their world view can be defeated in way less than 5 “why’s”:

    1) Why do I exist? Skeptic: Because we evolved from a puddle of goo.
    2) Why did I evolve? Skeptic: ???
    3) So why should I behave according to certain norms? Skeptic: Because these norms are a universal law, like gravity.
    4) So why are there laws? Skeptic: ???

    I love the last paragraph where Newbigin shows the absurdity of the skeptic’s position. The only gripe I have with it is that if the skeptics were consistent and would acknowledge they have no basis for morality, we’d annihilate ourselves in a matter of days, not a few years.


    1. CW:
      Thanks, and right on. I was thinking of this in local schools that teach darwinian science. How do they expect the kids to behave while they lecture on science (or on anything)? Why would a kid respect a teacher if morality isn’t based on anything solid? How could an ethics or “life choices” teacher expect kids to do the “good” if “good” is as relative as the weather? The strong rule in this system, not the good.

      And I agree with Newbigin that that our culture is more fraught with anxiety than the Medieval period. I doubt kids in the Medieval period were overweight, oversexed, dabbling with drugs, and cutting themselves even before their teenage years.



Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: