The Limitation of Science and Human Reason
Are you interested in the tension between science and religion?
Have you ever worried that science might undermine your religious beliefs?
Would you like to be able to explain to someone else how it doesn’t?
If you answered yes to any of the above, then you have come to the right article.
Immanuel Kant provided a fundamental demonstration that there are permanent and inescapable limits to human reason in his work, Critique of Pure Reason, and those who insist that science or sense-reliant human reason somehow represents the only method of accurate knowledge about the world are actually foolish for having so little understanding of the nature of human thought.
The idea that human reason and understanding was limited, and that there are separate realms of reality, is as old as philosophy itself.
Plato likened human beings to people living in caves, shut off from the light of the sun, seeing only shadows and mistaking them for reality. Socrates regarded himself as the wisest man in Athens only because he alone knew how little he actually knew. Unfortunately, many scientists are terrible fools, by Socrates’ standard.
What Kant did was conclusively demonstrate that there was a fundamentally FALSE assumption being made by empiricists relying on their “rational, scientific approach” to give them full access to external reality. Reason, in order to BE reasonable, has to investigate its own parameters and limitations. Nothing can be more valid than its presuppositions. If “science” was to depend upon human reason to know all that can be known, then it was incumbent upon scientists to do more than merely assume without demonstrating that human reason was capable of providing a foundation capable of supporting such a structure.
What Immanuel Kant essentially did was to demonstrate that human reason raises questions that – such is the very nature of human reason that itself – it is incapable of answering. In other words, Kant turned reason upon itself to prove the limitations of human reason.
Kant asked questions that any empiricist should be challenged to answer: How do we know what we claim to know is really real? How do we know that our human perception of reality corresponds to reality itself? To put it in practical terms, how do we know that we are not brains in a vat, for instance, with alien scientists stimulating various parts with electrodes to stimulate various sensory illusions?
Kant began his experiment by noting that there are primary and secondary properties. Properties are defined as a thing itself (e.g. a dog as a dog), secondary properties are in the human mind and sensory apparatus. For example, when we perceive an apple, the mass and shape of the apple are primary properties in the apple itself. But the redness of the apple, its smell, and its taste are NOT in the apple, but rather in the person who sees and smells and tastes the apple (e.g., an alien with different visual senses might perceive it as orange, for example). Therefore our knowledge of external reality comes to us from two sources: from the external object and from our internal perceptual apparatus. Reality does not come directly to us from the external object, but is rather “filtered” through our senses that we ourselves bring to our perception of anything.
Kant further pointed out that it is simply IRRATIONAL to presume that our experience of reality corresponds to reality itself. Seeing a thing filtered through the medium of our eyes and our visual cortex is not the same as directly experiencing a thing in itself. There are things in themselves – what Kant called the noumenon – and of them we can know nothing. All we CAN know is the phenomenon. If you have a cat, you can know what it is like for you to hear, smell, and pet the cat. That is your phenomenal experience of the cat. But you will never truly understand what it is like to be a cat no matter how many “experiments” you perform. That is the noumenal – the thing in itself. The cat as a thing is beyond our understanding. (I remember reading a great journal article called “What’s it like to be a bat?” that came to the same conclusion. Basically, a scientist could learn everything about bat physiology, bat behavior, and so forth, but he could never understand what it would be like to actually BE a bat).
Consider a tape recorder. It can capture only one mode of experience: sound. But it cannot see or touch or tasted or smell. Thus any aspect of reality that cannot be captured by sound is beyond the reach of the tape recorder. And we are like that. The same is true of human beings and their limited five senses. We can apprehend reality as mediated by our senses, but we can’t directly experience reality. Our senses place absolute limits on what reality is available to us.
The point is that the reality we apprehend is not reality in itself. It is merely our experience or “take” on reality. We have no basis to assume that our perception of reality ever resembles reality itself. Our experience of things can never penetrate to things as they really are (in the “God’s eye view” of the world). Ultimate reality remains permanently hidden to us.
How could you demonstrate that your experience of reality is any way like “reality” itself? We can compare two things and see if one thing resembles another. But in the case of ultimate external reality, we can make no such comparison – for we have never even seen it. All we have is our experience, and that is all we will ever have. We will never even in theory have the basis for inferring that our perception of reality and reality itself are comparable. Further, to the extent that all human beings may experience something the same way (often they don’t, or we would always agree and never disagree), it is only because we have the same sensory equipment. But take a bunch of mechanical sensors and make the same change in each one, and they will all give the same flawed reading. And all the test equipment we devise also must invariably fail, because it is humans reading that test equipment with their limited senses.
Kant didn’t degrade the value of science, but he believed and proved that science should be understood as applying to the world of phenomena only, rather than to the noumenal (or greater reality). The noumenal world clearly exists, because it gives rise to the phenomena that we experience (i.e. you can’t have the phenomenon without the noumenon). Our experience is an experience of SOMETHING. And additionally there are certain facts about the world – such as morality and free will – that cannot possibly be understood without postulating a noumenal realm. There is the reality we experience, and there is reality itself – and experienced reality and reality itself are only identical for God (the God’s eye view).
Thus the scientific empiricist begins with a presumption that he cannot possibly validate, and he assumes without any evidence or proof whatsoever that his experiences and his “science” somehow give him magical access to reality. In equating experience and reality he is making a huge unwarranted leap – which itself amounts to a complete breakdown of reason. And Kant proved that well over 200 years ago! The ridiculous irony is that the people who proceed in this irrational way (people like Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins) rather idiotically think of themselves as following strictly along the pathways of reason. Their outlook survives only because they refuse to examine their terribly flawed premises, and because the media does not seem to possess the intellectual rigor or motive to challenge them.
No one who understands the doctrines of any of the great religions should have any problem understanding Immanuel Kant, because his philosophical proof is congruent with the teachings of religion. The empirical world we inhabit is not the only “world” there is; ours is a world of appearances only, a transient world that is dependent upon a higher, timeless, and more ultimate reality. And that reality is of a completely different order from anything we know. While reason and science can point to the existence of this higher domain of reality, it has to stop there; it cannot on its own investigate or comprehend that domain. As St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 13, “for we see in a mirror dimly.” (Paul added that ultimately God would perfect us and allow us to see as He Himself sees – but not yet).
Therefore, in actual point of fact, scientists like Richard Dawkins, who arrogantly call themselves “brights,” are really more like Homer Simpson, who thinks everyone else is a fool when it is HE who is the greatest fool of all. They call themselves “brights,” I call them “Homers.”
Naturalist scientists’ point about science and religion or the soul is trivial. They commit a category fallacy. Science cannot locate God, the soul, or the supernatural because the soul is the sort of thing that science is not equipped to find. Science can only find the phenomena; it cannot even in principle find the noumena. For a Carl Sagan, a Richard Dawkins, a Christopher Hitchens, or a Sam Harris, it is rather like a deaf man denying that sound exists. And given the fact that the phenomena that they think alone exists logically depends upon the noumena that they deny, it is actually even worse than that.
Let me at this point ask you a question: why does the water boil? A scientist might talk about the interaction of molecules under heat. But that’s only a trivial part of the answer: the water is boiling because I wanted a cup of tea. The water would NOT have boiled had I not wanted that cup of tea, because I wouldn’t have put it on the stove! Science can’t ever get to that intentionality, which is why many physicalists deny that intentionality and individual identity altogether. There is so much beyond what science can tell us. Kant wanted scientists to have that humility. Sadly, too many have been too arrogant to have any sense of humility at all.
Another way of stating some of the arguments Kant presented would be to say the following:
Consistent atheism, materialism, empiricism, etc., which represents itself to be the most rational and logical of all approaches to reality, is actually completely self-defeating, incapable of logical defense, and self-referentially absurd. If indeed all matter combined by mere chance, unguided by any Higher Intelligence, then it necessarily follows that the molecules of the human brain are likewise the product of mere chance. In other words, we think however and whatever we do merely because the atoms and molecules of our brains happen to have combined in the way they did, completely without any guidance or control. Therefore all the philosophies of men, all their systems of logic, and all their approaches to reality are nothing more than the result of chance. There would therefore be no absolute validity to any argument advanced by the atheist against the position of theism or against any other position, for that matter.
Lastly, it is important to recognize the origins of science and the scientific method itself. Science was discovered only once, in Christian Western Europe. Other religious traditions (as already mentioned) understood that there were two aspects to reality, but these religions had nothing to connect the two together in a way that could give rise to modern science. But Christian thinkers in monasteries (the first universities came out of the Christian monasticism) realized that God created the world good, and that it was not intrinsically evil. And therefore the material world was worth studying. They understood that God (who obviously had “the God’s eye view”) created man in His own image (AS A SOUL). Therefore there was something possessing the capability, however dimly, of apprehending actual reality. So attempting to learn by science was worth the effort. They understood that God created the world for man, and that God gave man dominion over the world. And as they explored the world that God made for them and gave to them, they began to learn more about the wonder of His creation. They celebrated His handiwork, in their words thinking God’s thoughts after Him. Incredibly, the founder of the scientific method itself, and the founders of every single major branch of science, were publicly confessed Christians.
Science emerged uniquely from essential religious premises and presuppositions, and could not have originated without them. And the scientific method and the resulting science that these great Christian minds developed is itself necessarily limited to the study of the material world. Only a mind that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of science would believe that science and rel
Only a mind that fundamentally misunderstands the historical development of science would claim that science and religion are in any way incompatible; only a mind that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of science itself – or the human reason that developed it – would claim that science in any way proves that God or the soul do not exist.
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity
Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led To Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, And The End Of Slavery
Tags: branch of science, Christian, Christopher Hitchens, empericists, human reason, Immanuel Kant, limits to reason, monasteries, noumena, phenomena, Plato, primary properties, reason, religion, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, science, scientific, secondary properties, Socrates