Can Science Explain Everything? MIT Scientists Says ‘No’

2011 Faith and Science Week: Part 1

By David Wheeler in Percolator

Ian H. Hutchinson is professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Washington — There’s a new bully on the intellectual block, shoving scholars around. Lots of them are caving into the threats. The bully’s name is “scientism,” the belief that science has a monopoly on all real knowledge. All other knowledge, scientism asserts, is simply opinion, irrationality, or utter nonsense.

That was the perspective Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offered at an event titled “Can Science Explain Everything?” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week. Lisa Randall, a professor of physics at Harvard University, had a different take. The high-minded discussion that filled an auditorium and some overflow seating on a rainy night in the nation’s capitol might surprise the electorate, which often views intellectual affairs here as limited to bickering between elephants and donkeys underneath a large dome.

The speakers’ differences didn’t lie precisely on the axis between the poles of science and religion, but they were in that neighborhood. Randall said that science has clear limits in finding knowledge and that religious faith is another way to access the truth. Hutchinson said science’s limits in understanding the universe are not clear yet.

Hutchinson, the author of Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism, said that science is in the middle of confrontation with religious faith and with many other forms of belief. He is proud of science’s achievements thus far. But he thinks that, in part because of its overwhelming success, members of other disciplines, seeking the authority that science has, try to make themselves out to be scientists. An alternative course, he suggests, would be for scholars such as sociologists and political scientists to firmly declare that they have ways of building knowledge that are simply different from science, not “unscientific.”

Science has two key elements, reproducibility and clarity, Hutchinson said. Reproducibility means essentially that an experiment done in one place by one person can be repeated somewhere else by someone else. Clarity refers to the unambiguous nature of science’s measurements, descriptions, and classifications. History is an example of a discipline that has produced real knowledge that is not scientific knowledge, he said. History at its best is based on facts, but historians cannot reproduce Henry VIII’s exploits to find out if accounts of them are true.

The beauty of a sunset may be 'true,' but not in a scientific sense.

Mr. Hutchinson listed other phenomena that may be “true” but that he believes are outside of science’s scope: the beauty of a sunset, the justice of a verdict, or the terror of a war. Many humans may share similar perceptions of these phenomenon but the basis of those perceptions will lack clarity. “Ambiguity is an intrinsic part of these things,” he said.

Where, exactly, does God fit into this picture? Mr. Hutchinson says that while the universe has physical laws, God may be behind them. Science would be helpless to detect an act of God that violates the laws of physics since it would not be reproducible.

Scientists should have no problem being religious…


Read Wheeler’s account of Lisa Randall’s skeptical response to Hutchinson.

See also Ian Hutchinson’s video and posts on Biologos: Engaging Today’s Militant Atheist Arguments

Download a pdf of Hutchinson’s entire Engaging Militant Atheist Arguments paper here.



Percolator is The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s blog about ideas and how they happen.