5 Things Science Cannot Explain (but Theism Can)

The Limits of Science and Danger of Scientism

The heart of scientism is the conviction that science can explain virtually everything. If there is not a valid scientific explanation for an event or state, then that is not properly an object of our knowledge. In reality, though, there are many things that science cannot explain. And the problem is not that we lack sufficient data—the problem is that these are the sorts of things that science cannot explain, even in principle. Moreover, these things are items that we know to be true. What makes all of this especially interesting is that theism can explain them.

Let’s look at five things that theism can explain but science cannot.

1. Science Cannot Explain the Origin of the Universe

For at least three reasons, science cannot—even in principle—explain the origin of the universe.

First, science explains one aspect of the universe by appealing to another aspect of the universe, often by connecting the two by subsuming them under a law of nature. For example, we explain the formation of water by appealing to the chemical properties of hydrogen and oxygen, along with some energy-releasing event that caused the two to come together according to these chemical properties. We explain the death of the dinosaurs by appealing to different catastrophic events. In all cases of scientific explanation, one already has to have a universe in existence before scientific explanation, initial conditions, laws of nature, and so forth have something to which they can apply. Scientific explanations presuppose the universe in order for those explanations to be employed in the first place. Thus, a scientific explanation cannot be used to explain the very thing (the universe) that must exist before scientific explanation can get off the ground.

Scientism and Secularism

J. P. Moreland

This book exposes the inadequacy of scientism by demonstrating its self-defeating nature and 7 important facts it can never explain, arguing that together science and theology have true things to tell us about the world.

Second, scientific explanations apply to ongoing temporal states or changes of states (both are events) of various things according to relevant laws. The moving of the continents, the formation of the solar system, the development of life, the decay of uranium into lead are all events or changes of state that are explained by other events and laws that connect the events. The ongoing event of a gas retaining its pressure at constant volume is explained by the gas’s retaining its temperature according to the ideal gas law.

And so scientific explanation presupposes time (events are temporal episodes, and no sense can be given to the idea of a timeless event) and the reality of events. Two things follow from this. For one thing, science will never be able to explain the first event (the beginning of the universe) because to do so, it would have to appeal to a prior event and a law connecting them. But in this case, the origin of the universe would no longer be the first event; the prior explanatory event would be. But then, to explain this first event, one would need to postulate another prior event, and a vicious regress ensues.

For another thing, since scientific explanations tie one event to another via a law, such explanations presuppose time for those laws to be applicable. Thus, again, science cannot explain the origin of the very thing (time) that must exist before scientific explanations can be proffered in the first place.

Third, coming-into-existence is not a process but an instantaneous occurrence. Consider the process of walking into a room. One starts completely outside the room, then one is 20% into the room, then 30%, and so on, as one passes through the entrance. Finally, one is 100% in the room. But coming into existence from nothing is not a process. It is not as though the entity in question starts off being 100% nonexistent, then is 90% nonexistent and so on until it is 100% existent. Remember, by “90% nonexistent” I don’t mean that 10% of the entity fully exists and 90% is completely nonexistent. Rather, I mean that the entire entity is 10% real. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that notions like 90% nonexistent are incoherent.

Something either does or does not exist. Period. It follows that, apart from the creative activity of God, there can be in principle no reason, no explanation for why one thing—say, the universe—popped into existence as opposed to another thing— a Honda Civic, a bass’s backbone, one half of Mount Everest, or a pair of chicken wings. Science can only be applied to transitions of one thing into another, but coming into existence is not a transition; it is, as it were, a point action or instantaneous event. So science cannot in principle explain the coming-into-existence of the universe from nothing.

2. Science Cannot Explain the Origin of the Fundamental Laws of Nature

Not all laws of nature are equally fundamental. Some can be derived from others. For example, Newton’s first law of motion (an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force) builds on Galileo’s concept of inertia (the tendency of matter to resist change in velocity; objects do not spontaneously change their velocities, which will remain constant unless acted upon by friction).

However, such derivations cannot continue indefinitely. There must be—and it is widely agreed that there are—fundamental or foundational laws of nature. But the existence and precise nature of these laws cannot be explained by science, since all scientific explanation presupposes them. As far as scientific explanation is concerned, these foundational laws are simply brute givens to be used to explain other things scientifically but which themselves cannot be explained scientifically.

So, how do we explain the existence and nature of these laws? Where did they come from? There are two major options here: (1) take them as unexplainable, brute entities, or (2) provide a theistic explanation. For many thinkers, myself included, the “unexplainable-brute-entity” option is not a good one. Since the actual brute entity might not have existed, we naturally seek an explanation as to why the contingent entity exists instead of not existing. And the fundamental laws of nature are contingent realities—after all, it is easy to conceive of worlds that have different fundamental laws of nature. So why does our world contain certain fundamental laws instead of others?

This seems like a perfectly permissible question, but some atheists reject the question on the grounds that it assumes The Principle of Sufficient Reason, which either begs the question (the only reason to believe it is if one already believes in God) or is just a brute principle that atheists are free to reject. The principle has different formulations, but one is this: For every contingent existent, there is a sufficient explanation for why it exists as opposed to not existing.

Theists have responded that the Principle of Sufficient Reason does not, in fact, presuppose the existence of God, and they insist that it is a rational principle that stands behind and justifies the human quest for explanations of why certain things exist and are what they are.

The atheist seems to be committing the informal taxicab fallacy. This fallacy occurs when someone hops into a principle or system of reason and uses that principle until he no longer likes the implication of the principle (or system), whereupon he hops out of the principle (or system) and stops using it. Applied to our discussion, we use the principle of sufficient reason all the time (e.g., when your car breaks down, your mechanic assumes there is a reason for why the engine exists in a bad way as opposed to existing in the way it should, so he tries to find that reason), and it has proven itself over and over again. But when we apply the principle of sufficient reason to the existence of the fundamental laws of nature (or, indeed, to the contingency of the universe we live in), the atheist rather arbitrarily stops using the principle because it most naturally yields a theistic explanation. He or she then jumps out of the taxicab.

3. Science Cannot Explain the Fine-Tuning of the Universe

What do we mean by fine-tuning?1 Our universe contains various constants (like the gravitational constant G in Newton’s law of gravity: F=G(m1m2/r2) and certain arbitrary physical quantities (such as the specific low entropy R2 level in the universe—the amount of disorder or useful energy to do work in the universe) that are not determined by the laws of nature but, as far as science is concerned, are brute facts that are just there.2

Given this information, philosopher William Lane Craig defines “fine-tuning” as follows:

By “fine-tuning” one means that small deviations from the actual values of the constants and quantities in question render the universe life-prohibiting or, alternatively, that the range of life-permitting values is extremely narrow in comparison with the range of assumable values.3

These factors are in principle incapable of being explained by science because they are ultimates—brute givens plugged into scientific laws. However, they can be explained quite persuasively by a theistic explanation. To see this, consider the following.

William Dembski has analyzed cases in which it is legitimate to infer that some phenomenon is the result of a purposive, intelligent act by an agent.4 Among other things, Dembski analyzes cases in which insurance employees, police, and forensic scientists must determine whether a death was an accident (no intelligent cause) or was brought about intentionally (caused on purpose by an intelligent agent).

According to Dembski, whenever three factors are present, investigators are rationally obligated to draw the conclusion that the event was brought about intentionally:

  1. The event was contingent, that is, even though it took place, it did not have to happen. No law of nature required that the event happen (unlike in the case of water, which, given the laws of nature, must freeze at a certain temperature).
  2. The event had a small probability of happening.
  3. The event is capable of independent specifiability (capable of being identified as a special occurrence besides the simple fact that it did, in fact, happen).

These three factors constitute what Dembski and others have called the design filter, which is used in various areas of science (e.g., forensic science).

In the last several years, scientists have made a discovery so shocking that it played a prominent role in leading to atheist thinker Antony Flew’s conversion to belief in God. In fact, in light of the discovery, Flew began to ask, Did the universe know we were coming? He was compelled by the evidence to answer in the affirmative.5 Of course, the universe is dead matter and, thus, cannot know anything, so Flew actually affirms that it had to be God who knew we were coming.

One of my faculty colleagues, David Horner, took his doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University. One day while he was walking past a lecture hall, he heard one of the world’s leading atheists (I won’t mention his name) speaking about this discovery. Horner heard him frankly admit that it provides significant evidence for God’s existence and he really didn’t know how to respond to this new evidence as an atheist.

So, what is the discovery? It is that the universe is precisely fine-tuned so that life could appear. More than a hundred independent, hard facts about the universe have been discovered in the form of basic constants of nature or arbitrary physical magnitudes which are, scientifically speaking, brute facts and for which there is no further scientific explanation (e.g., the force of gravity in the universe, the charge of an electron, the rest mass of a proton, the rate of expansion resulting from the Big Bang). What blows the minds of so many is that, if any single one of these—much less all one hundred!—had been slightly larger or smaller on the order of a billionth of a percentage point or more, then no life could have appeared in the universe. The universe is a razor’s edge of precisely balanced life-permitting conditions:

  • If gravity’s force were infinitesimally stronger, all stars would burn too quickly to sustain life; if ever so slightly weaker, all stars would be too cold to support life-bearing planets.
  • If the ratio of electron to proton mass were slightly larger or smaller, the sort of chemical bonding required to produce self-replicating molecules could not obtain. The same is true for the electromagnetic force in the universe.
  • If the strong nuclear force were slightly stronger, then the nuclei essential for life would be too unstable; if it were slightly weaker, no elements but hydrogen would form.
  • If the rate of the universe’s expansion had been smaller by one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed and could not form or sustain life.
  • Quantum laws are precisely what they need to be to prevent electrons from spiraling into atomic nuclei.
  • If the Earth took more than twenty-four hours to rotate, temperatures on our planet would be too extreme between sunrise and sunset. If the rotation of Earth were slightly shorter, wind would move at a dangerous velocity.
  • If the oxygen level on our planet were slightly less, we would suffocate; if it were slightly more, spontaneous fires would erupt.

I could go on and on and on with additional facts. It should be clear why these discoveries shocked scientists and philosophers. These precisely balanced factors are (1) contingent (it is easy to conceive of them being different, e.g., that the mass of a proton or the expansion of the universe could have been quite different from what they actually are); (2) extraordinarily improbable and balanced to an infinitesimally small degree; and (3) independently specifiable (they are exactly what is needed for there to be life).

Regarding this last point, for the longest time scientists thought that these numbers could vary significantly with no impact on whether or not life could appear. But no longer. They now know that life-permitting universes have features that are precisely formulated within a range of billionths of a percentage point from what they actually are in the real world. Thus, the actual values fall within razor-thin ranges that are required for life to appear. These values are special quite independently of the fact that the universe’s actual values correspond to them.

4. Science Cannot Explain the Origin of Consciousness

Various features of human persons, consciousness being among them, have provided very serious problems for scientistic naturalism. But consciousness is easily explained, given theism.6 Consider the following quote from Crispin Wright, one of the world’s leading advocates of scientism and naturalism:

A central dilemma in contemporary metaphysics is to find a place for certain anthropocentric subject-matters—for instance, semantic, moral, and psychological—in a world as conceived by modern naturalism: a stance which inflates the concepts and categories deployed by (finished) physical science into a metaphysics of the kind of thing the real world essentially and exhaustively is.

On one horn, if we embrace this naturalism, it seems we are committed either to reductionism: that is, to a construal of the reference of, for example, semantic, moral and psychological vocabulary as somehow being within the physical domain— or to disputing that the discourses in question involve reference to what is real at all.

On the other horn, if we reject this naturalism, then we accept that there is more to the world than can be embraced within a physicalist ontology—and so take on a commitment, it can seem, to a kind of eerie supernaturalism.7

Wright is right (pun intended). Given naturalism, there is just no place to put consciousness (he calls it the “psychological”), semantic meanings, and so forth. So the naturalist either (1) has to say that these things (e.g., a feeling of pain) just aren’t what they seem to be from first-person introspection and, instead, are actually physical things; or else (2) has to deny that they are real in the first place (e.g., consciousness does not exist!). But if we reject naturalism and the strictly physicalist ontology (view of reality) it implies, and accept the common-sense view of these things, we come perilously close to embracing theism.

Why? Well, in the beginning either there was the Logos or else there were the “particles.” If you start with brute (unconscious) matter, and then understand the history of the universe to be how they come together according to random collisions and the laws of nature to form larger and more complex rearranged groupings of particles, you will end up with—you guessed it—mere groupings of rearranged particles. If consciousness were to arise in this naturalistic creation account, it would be a case of getting something from nothing. But if you start with God (the Logos), your fundamental being is conscious and there is no difficulty in seeing how God could bestow consciousness on various creatures at his choosing. And this is what Crispin Wright correctly understands.

5. Science Cannot Explain the Existence of Moral, Rational, and Aesthetic Objective Laws and Intrinsically Valuable Properties

Most people acknowledge the existence of objectively true laws in morality, rationality, and aesthetics. Examples in morality are “It is wrong to torture babies for fun” and “One ought to pursue love and kindness and avoid racist bigotry.” If you violate one of these laws, you have done something immoral. Examples in rationality are the laws of logic, principles of evidence evaluation in jury trials, and statements like “If a belief coheres well with other reasonable beliefs you hold, that increases its chances of being true.” If you violate one of these laws, you have done something irrational. In aesthetics, there are principles of objective beauty; e.g., if you want the painting to be beautiful, pay attention to symmetry and color combinations. If you violate one of these laws, you have done something ugly.

The problem for scientism is that science is descriptive, not prescriptive; science attempts to describe what is the case, but it cannot prescribe what ought to be the case. Thus, science must remain silent when it comes to normative laws and principles. As one of the leading philosophers of evolutionary biology, atheist Michael Ruse, puts it,

Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.8

Ruse’s point applies with equal force to rationality and aesthetics. However, if there is a virtuous, good God, then the moral, rational, and aesthetic duties he imposes on us will be objectively true (that is, true independent of what humans think or believe), conducive to prescriptively good human flourishing, and real whether one believes in them or not.

Besides rules and principles, there are also intrinsically good, valuable states of affairs and things in the world. A human person has deep, intrinsic value, and all human persons have equal, intrinsic value and rights precisely as human persons. Certain states of the mind are intrinsically rational and are states one should seek if he or she desires to be a normatively rational thinker. For example, if one’s mind contains the complex thought “If consciousness is irreducible and real, then physicalism is false; consciousness is irreducible and real; therefore, physicalism is false,” this is a rational state of affairs for a mind to be in. Again, if one had the true belief that “the physical, circumstantial, and eyewitness evidence against the defendant is overwhelming, so I find him guilty,” that person is in an intrinsically rational state of mind. Likewise, certain things are intrinsically beautiful, e.g., sunset over Maui, or snow-covered mountains.

Now if the universe began with a being who was himself the bearer of intrinsic goodness, rationality, and beauty, then there is no problem with how these things could exist or from where they came. However, if scientism is true, the entire history of the universe is a story of how strictly physical things (strings, waves, particles, etc.) with strictly physical properties (mass, charge, size, location, and so forth) combined according to the laws of nature to form other strictly physical things with strictly physical properties. There is no need or room for intrinsic, normative value properties—whether moral, rational, or aesthetic—to come to be. As the late atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie admitted, the emergence of moral properties would constitute a refutation of naturalism and evidence for theism: “Moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.”9 Yea, verily, and amen!


So here we have five distinct phenomena that science simply cannot explain, even in principle. They do, however, fit quite nicely with theism. I conclude that these features support theism and provide strong evidence against scientism.


  1. I am indebted to William Lane Craig’s excellent discussion of this topic by William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 158–159.
  2. For a list and nice explanation of these constants and physical quantities, see Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos, 3rd rev. and expanded ed. (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), 145–167.
  3. Craig, Reasonable Faith, 158.
  4. William Dembski, Intelligent Design (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999).
  5. Antony Flew, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), chapter 6.
  6. See J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei (London: SCM Press, 2009).
  7. Crispin Wright, “The Conceivability of Naturalism,” in Conceivability and Possibility, ed. Tamar Szabo Gendler and John Hawthorne (Oxford: Clarendon, 2002), 401. The paragraph breaks are mine.
  8. Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), 262–269.
  9. J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982), 115. Cf. J. P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist? (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1993), chapters 8–10.

This article is adapted from Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology by J. P. Moreland.

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