On scientific imperialism

Alister McGrath outlines the excellence, and the limits, of science.



Alister McGrath outlines the excellence, and the limits, of science.


I think many people would say that science is so good at explaining things that in effect we only need science. And some would go further and crystallise this in the following way: that reality is limited to what science is able to uncover and therefore this is no need, in fact there’s no point in proposing there’s anything else, because science determines what reality is.

I think there’s some very significant challenges we need to make from that point.

Number one is historical. If we look at how that method is applied, then reality today is much bigger than it was 500 years ago because in effect we now know more, the universe is bigger and more complicated than we thought. In other words, reality is changing. What we need to suggest is maybe reality is actually always the same, it’s just that science is able to access more of it. In other words, there is a reality beyond science which science is able to access, but science cannot be allowed to limit what reality is because in a hundred years’ time we’ll realise we had unnecessarily and improperly restricted what reality is.

But there’s another point here and that is actually this is really about scientists saying, “listen to us, don’t listen to anyone else”. And I love science, but I worry about what I might call scientific imperialism – when, in effect, scientists try to take over everything. “We don’t need philosophers, we’ve got science!” I’m sorry, we do need philosophy. We need to bring critical tools to bear on everything, including science itself. And for me, discovering the philosophy of science was incredibly important, because it brought home to me the naivety of some of the things that scientists were saying.

They were unaware of their own history, they were unaware of the implicit contradictions in some things they were saying. The philosophy of science, I think, is a very necessary check on the kind of immensely simplistic things that some unthinking scientists say. Happily, there are many other scientists who are much more aware of the limits of science, of its excellence in certain areas but its inability to answer fundamental questions and others.

One of my scientific heroes is Sir Peter Medawar, who died back in the 80s. He was a Nobel Laureate and thought long and hard about what science could do and what it couldn’t do. And he said, look, when it comes to things like meaning or value, science just can’t answer those questions. You distort science if you try to answer questions of meaning (why are we here) or value (what is good).

But I want to make the suggestion that what is the meaning of life, what is good, how do we lead the good life, are incredibly important questions for human beings. And you cannot answer those questions scientifically. If you in effect collapse meaning and fact, which some scientists do I’m afraid, you can – but they are trivial, in effect, inadequate answers. To lead an authentic life we need more than science can give. In other words, science fills in part of a big picture, but there’s a lot more filling in needs to be done and has to be done from somewhere else.