Are Scientific Explanations the Only Show in Town? 7 Quick Points
by Saints and Sceptics
Science has an incredible track record for discovering the truth about the material world. But if science answers one kind of question—questions about the nature of the physical world – remarkably well, it does not follow that it will answer every kind of question remarkably well. An it certainly doesn’t follow that these are the only type of question worth asking. We are in danger of missing answers to questions about value, meaning and purpose if we restrict our evidence to the evidence provided by the physical sciences.
1. Scientific explanations use impersonal objects and laws of nature; we observe and measure how some events regularly follow others. We then use our knowledge of those regularities to explain some state of affairs; we discover how previous events produced other events by mechanical forces according to natural laws. For example, we can explain why Mars in its present location by describing the solar system, where the planets have been recently and Newton’s laws. Or scientific explanations can explain objects by breaking them down into their constituent parts and structures. So we can see how atoms form molecules, and how molecules form cells. Many – but by no means all – scientific explanations make precise mathematical predictions which allow for rigorous testing.
2. However, there are other types of explanation. Rather than laws of nature and previous states of affairs, agent explanations involves persons and purposes – explaining an event by citing an agent with specific powers and intentions. But can’t agent explanations be reduced to scientific explanations? Only if there is no free will; only if we never really choose and our nervous systems just act and react. If so, we do not control any of our actions; events just happen to us. Agent explanations explicitly deny this view of human nature. Humans are agents who sometimes choose one action over the alternatives. Agents are the initiator of causal chains, and not merely the physical systems in which pre-existing causal chains play themselves out.
3. If any agent explanation is true, there must be more to the universe than physical particles and forces. We have to believe that there is more to us than the physical parts that make up our bodies; we must have non-physical minds that have some level of control over our actions. Cognitive science and philosophical investigations have demonstrated that the idea of a non-physical agent is coherent and intuitively clear; now perhaps the atheist does not believe that humans are immaterial agents. But that does not mean that immaterial agents could not exist, and that we could not have evidence of their existence…
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