Book Review: Science and Its Limits by Del Ratzsch

Science & Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian PerspectiveScience and Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective by Del Ratzsch is a useful and concise philosophy of science primer from a Christian point of view. The text is a brief 170 pages and is easy to read, yet covers the subject well. The author takes the reader on a journey through a brief history of science, exploring its definition, various conceptions and approaches to science, and then discusses what science can and cannot tell us about the world. The book concludes with a few chapters dealing with Christianity as it relates to scientific pursuits. This review will provide a brief overview of the content.

Ratzsch’s ten-chapters book begins with the discussion of what science is, and then what the philosophy of science is: “The philosophy of science is basically the study of what science is, what it does, how it works, why it works and what we should make of it.” (7) He defines natural science and its general aspects:

A natural science is a theoretical explanatory discipline that objectively addresses natural phenomena within the general constraints that (1) its theories must be rationally connectable to generally specifiable empirical phenomena and that (2) it normally does not leave the natural realm for the concepts employed in its explanations. (13)

Ratzsch’s opening chapter also ask questions about the presuppositions of science, such as: “Why must science be empirical?”; “Why must science be rational?”; “Why must science be objective?” Ratzsch argues that such things as the uniformity of nature and “that observable patterns in nature provide keys to unobservable patterns and processes” (14) are assumed, but must have some necessary justifications, which the Christian worldview can provide:  “So the fundamental characteristics of science and the fundamental assumptions of science have some foundation for the Christian, but the secular thinker must often accept them as mere assumptions – brute presuppositions.” (16)

Ratzsch explores the traditional conception of science, that is, “the general view dominant from the seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth century.” (17) He looks at the Baconian view, then moves on to discuss the traditional conceptions of science involving rationality, the empirical element, and objectivity, along with their implications. The author expounds on the movement of positivism and its subsequent decline, as well as the decline of the traditional view in light of Popper’s falsification view. A chapter is also dedicated to the philosophy of science in the 1960s and 1970s, which discusses, primarily, the impact of Thomas Khun and the publication of his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Chapter four discusses the contemporary situation and outlines the current landscape of philosophy of science at present.

Chapter five is entitled The Competence of Science: What Can It Tell Us? In this chapter the author explores “what theories are, their status with respect to conclusive proof or refutation, the outlines of the realist/antirealist dispute, and the underlying dispute over the problems with empirical confirmation theories.” (73) Ratzsch talks about why theories cannot be proven true and why they cannot be proven false. The author also sums up his findings:

The general conclusion then is that science is capable of discovering truths concerning objective, independent, real matters beyond the direct scope both of our observation and of observability, that theories we arrive at may be true, that it is often rational to believe them to be true (or at least approximately true), and that science can produce theoretical knowledge. That is not to say that the process is automatic, foolproof and unmolded by the foibles of humans and their subjectivity. It is not. But there seems little reason to think that it ought to be, or that that should bar us either from truth or from knowing. (91)

Chapter six discusses what the book’s title alludes to: The Limitations of Science: What Can It Not Tell Us? Ratzsch says: “it is just as important to know what science cannot tell us as to know what it can.” (92) He jumps right in: “One limitation of science is its inability to provide proof of its results.” (92) The author then explores a few different categories where science comes up a bit short: the foundations of science, ultimate origins, and ultimate purpose. In regards to foundations, Ratzsch notes that “science cannot validate either the scientific method itself or the presuppositions of that method.” (93) He also points to the foundational presuppositions of science: “The axioms are not themselves the results of the system.” (93) And further, “with science there must be some methodological presuppositions with which to begin, and those presuppositions are not generated out of science itself.” (93) Ratzsch concludes that, “either accepting science itself is not justifiable or else there is some nonscientific, justifiable basis for accepting science,” (93) which implies that, “science cannot be the only legitimate basis for believing something.” (93) As for ultimate origins, Ratzsch maintains that “science cannot give any ultimate naturalistic or mechanical explanation for the existence of the universe with which it deals.” (94)

In chapter seven, “Scientific” Challenges to Religious Belief, the author looks at “four challenges – that religious belief is defective in not being scientific, that it is defective in not being provable, that it is defective in that there is no (or insufficient) evidence for it and that it is scientifically superfluous.” (100) Ratzsch deals with each objection in turn, showing that the first two undercut themselves. The other objections are examined more carefully as the nuances are teased out.

Chapter eight is an additional chapter, added into the second edition to deal with the developing intelligent design movement. Ratzsch doesn’t take a hard line one way or another on the issue. Rather, he looks at some of the key facets of design, such as artifacts, the difference between patterns and designs, designed artifacts, agent activity, and gaps. He also explores the differences between the concept of finite designedness and supernatural design. Ratzsch makes the observation that “the identity of the designer need not be of crucial relevance to the proper identifiability of design.” (121) The author’s own view is that, “for the moment the question is genuinely open. We are not in a position to say definitely that design concepts offer nothing that science will ever need or will ever find genuinely useful in its attempts to make sense of what we may discover within the cosmos.” (131) And further, “I think that it is in principle possible for defensible design cases to be made, and such cases need not violate any fundamental requirements or conditions of science.” (132)

Chapters nine and ten deal with Christianity and scientific pursuits. Ratzsch deals with the question of whether science is a legitimate pursuit for Christians, some of the Christian foundations of science, and the various views on how science and religion may or may not overlap. The appendix is a final exhortation to Christians to “speak the truth in love,” be better listeners, and explore issues of controversy with more charity.

In sum, Science and Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective is a small yet helpful book that offers a good introduction to philosophy of science and briefly explores the contemporary scientific issues from a Christian view. The book is sure to be beneficial for those interested in the ongoing debate between science and religion.

* Del Ratzsch, Science and Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

Written by

Brian Auten is the founder emeritus of Apologetics315. He is also director of Reasonable Faith Belfast. Brian holds a Masters degree in Christian Apologetics and has interviewed over 150 Christian apologists. His background is in missions, media direction, graphic design, and administration. Brian started Apologetics315 in 2007 to be an apologetics hub to equip Christians to defend the faith.

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