Einstein on the Limitations of Science

Secular scientists often argue that the rapid expansion of scientific knowledge has left little need for faith-based truth claims such as those maintained by religious communities. They insist that as they refine their ability to explain natural phenomena with the aid of rigorous, empirically verifiable methods, they eliminate any necessity to resort to mythical or religious explanations, and that it’s best to put those primitive habits aside in favor of more dependable forms of inquiry. Some atheists go so far as to argue that science can provide answers to life’s biggest questions, such as how we ought to conduct ourselves ethically, without any need of metaphysical hypotheses. Others argue that faith and science are necessarily incompatible, and that we must chose between rationality and mysticism.

In the midst of this ongoing debate it may be of interest to note that one of the 20th century’s greatest physicists recognized that religion plays an essential role in the ordering of human priorities and social activities. Albert Einstein, while clearly not an orthodox theist, argued persuasively that science and religion are not at odds with one another, but exist independently as mutually beneficial registers of knowledge. Though we as Christians cannot accept Einstein’s dismissal of the Judeo-Christian conception of a personal deity, we can employ his arguments against those materialists who hold that science provides all we need to live meaningful, ethical lives.

In a 1956 essay entitled “Science and Religion,” Einstein wrote: 

“For the scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other. The aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capable, and you will certainly not suspect me of wishing to belittle the achievements and the heroic efforts of man in this sphere. Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations. […] And it is hardly necessary to argue for the view that our existence and our activity acquire meaning only by the setting up of such a goal and of corresponding values.” 

This is a startling confession for a world-renowned scientist, especially in light of the arrogance of modern scientists and the New Atheists who defiantly claim that we are without need of metaphysical theories to lead meaningful lives. Against this trend, Einstein claimed that it is “hardly necessary” to demonstrate that life acquires meaning only when we posit a transcendent goal by which to direct our actions. He thought it obvious to all that without such a goal we are toiling without purpose. Science itself cannot provide this goal, Einstein argued, nor can it support its own epistemological claims. He continued: 

“The knowledge of truth as such is wonderful, but it is so little capable of acting as a guide that it cannot prove even the justification and the value of the aspirations towards that very knowledge of truth. Here we face, therefore, the limits of the purely rational conception of our existence.”  

To suggest that the very value of scientific inquiry is contingent upon something other than what science itself can prove is a radical statement for an atheist scientist, but his logic strikes me as incontrovertible. Contemporary Christian philosopher Alvin Plantingahas argued that there are no reasons to assume, given a materialistic universe, that scientific findings correspond to the world as it actually is. We need a metaphysical account of why it works, he insists, before we can confidently place faith in scientific claims. Einstein, like Plantinga, recognized the necessity for exactly this kind of metaphysical explanation, writing: 

“To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man.”  

Rather than reject religion outright as incompatible with scientific rigor, Einstein admits of the need to couple science with religion. He summarized his position in the now famous words: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” 

While the debate over science and religion wears on, it’s refreshing to read such a venerated scientist boldly defend the role of religion in guiding human action. While we cannot claim that Einstein accepted the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible, we can use his argument as evidence that highly intelligent scientists do view religion and science as compatible, even necessarily conjoined. 

(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)