The Limits of Science

In the October 18, 2013 issue of the Inquirer, a letter written by Dr. Jose A. Aguilar was published in which he expressed his skepticism about dogmatic scientific claims that Dr. Den Trumbull made in the letter he wrote that appeared in the October 7, 2013 issue of the same paper.

Dr. Trumbull stated that “at the completion of the process of fertilization, the human creature emerges as a whole, genetically distinct, individuated zygotic living human organism, a member of the species Homo sapiens, needing only the proper environment in order to grow and develop. The difference between the individual in its adult stage and in its zygotic stage is not one of personhood but of development.” Before he made this statement, he posed the question, “What does science say about this issue (when does human life begin)?” So we are made to understand that Dr. Trumbull’s assertion is the answer of science to the question.

Dr. Aguilar, however, responded that this answer is not a scientific one: “Dr. Trumbull’s statement is more of a political or religious view but not science as I understand it.”

I agree with Dr. Trumbull when he said that after the process of fertilization a new human life has began. But I think Dr. Aguilar has a point when he said that such a statement is not a statement made from the purview of science. Contrary to Dr. Aguilar’s view, however, I think it is not really a political statement, if we understand politics to mean the art or science of governing a state or society and it is not exactly a religious pronouncement, if we understand religion to mean a set of beliefs and practices that are accepted on the basis of religious faith. It is really a philosophical affirmation.

Dr. Aguilar’s objection just goes to show that proving that human life begins at fertilization falls outside the scope of science. What science can do is to provide empirical evidence and elements to aid reason so as to arrive at the conclusion that life begins at fertilization. But this conclusion is itself a philosophical one. The reasoning behind it is quite simple: If we say that Peter is the same person we saw today and yesterday, we can say he was the same person the day before and so forth all the way until the moment he was conceived. He would not become a person if he was not one the moment his life began. What science has provided this reasoning and conclusion is the evidence that at the moment of fertilization the zygote has the complete genetic composition of the person and that its life is now autonomous (self-law) though still dependent on the mother.

I just have one last comment about Dr. Aguilar’s view of science. He claims that, “Science is a process of arriving at our best understanding of nature and will always be subject to revisions depending on new evidence or updated findings. You can say that there are no absolutes in science or ‘final answers’.”  If Dr. Aguilar were to follow his view of science, he could not even make the statement he just made, because it is made in an absolute manner and it seems he wants us to take it as final.

Science does provide us with absolutes, if by absolutes we understand definitive statements. Take the formulas everyone knows: F=ma, E=mc2. Science does give final answers. Doctors know that finally we have cures for certain illnesses. I understand, though, what he is trying to say: that science always moves forward so as to present new theories to better understand the world and nature. That is true. But what we cannot say is that science does not arrive at truths with great certainty. If that were the case, we cannot send a man to the moon. What is also true about science is that its truths are always valid within a context, that in which the conclusions were arrived at. And so, Newton’s conclusions are valid and true for Newtonian mechanics but not for relativistic mechanics or quantum mechanics.

Science is the great endeavor of the human race and, in a way, it has united the world. But like anything that is the product of human work it needs philosophy or wisdom to make sense out of it.

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