The ultimate questions

Science does not supply answers to the ultimate questions of meaning

A few years ago I had to give a series of lectures in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. As I was making the preparations for the journey, it struck me how much we depend on science and technology to smooth our path. I was vaccinated (medicine). I bought maps and books on the country (geography and history). I ordered my ticket (computer science) and travelled by plane (aviation).

I commented on this to a fellow passenger who was sitting next to me during the last leg of the flight between Nairobi and Entebbe. He was a biologist himself, a native Ugandan, who had been forced to flee the country during President Amin’s reign of terror.

“You’re righ”, he said to me. “And Uganda needs the help of science right now. We have to find a way to stop AIDS. In Kampala alone more than 30% of people are HIV positive. We also have to find new pesticides that are safe and that can effectively protect our maize and coffee. But science can’t do everything.”

“Like what?” I asked him.

“One of the main problems in Africa, and even world wide, is the inferior status ascribed to blacks everywhere. I live in England and often see discrimination at work.”

“But surely science can do something?”, I said.

“It can, or rather, scientists can. In 1772, in Liverpool, a negro slave called James Somerset was given his freedom when a scientist declared in court that the black man was a human being. But scientists have also made terrible mistakes. Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau, Houston Stuart Chamberlain and Alfred Rosenberg, for instance, promoted as a scientific theory that blacks come from inferior races from which the white race should be kept separate.” (See : JOSEPH-ARTHUR Comte de GOBINEAU, Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, Paris 1853-1854, new ed. 1967; H.S.CHAMBERLAIN, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, 2 vols. 1911; Race and Personality, 1925.>

“That’s awful”, I said.

“Exactly. And it was not science that was at fault, but the scientists as persons. For science can only answer limited questions, according to the nature of each discipline. It can compare blood groups, or genetic data, or languages, or cultural customs. But it cannot answer questions about the value of things, or their ultimate purpose. If we ask why we should respect all human beings equally, science has no answer. The question will only be answered because of one’s philosophy of life, or one’s religion.”

Science has a limited focus

The spectacular advance of science is an achievement of our own age of which we can rightly be proud. When the knowledge of science joined the power of technology, our world was truly revolutionized; and on the whole for the better. Through science we are able to make the most of our available resources (see: C.P.SNOW, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, New York 1959).


Science is a method of studying things systematically. Suppose my area of interest is tulips. I proceed in a scientific way if I make detailed observations, and note them down; if I compare my findings with those of other botanists; if I advance a hypothesis and test the hypothesis by controlled experiments; if I publish the results and listen to peer criticism. In the end I help build up a reliable set of data and theories that will advance our scientific knowledge of tulips.

But by the rigorous limits science rightly imposes on its methodical study, other aspects of human life are excluded from its view. Think of beauty and art.

A riot of crimson, purple and yellow tulips can enliven my garden and fill me with excitement whenever I see them. A bouquet of tulips can convey a message of esteem and affection. Arranging tulips Japanese style can be my form of Ikebana meditation. In other words: tulips mean much more to me than botany can ever disclose. Of course, as a sociologist I can study the value of flowers in human interaction, but describing such values is one thing, experiencing beauty, art, purpose, love and joy quite another.

Unfortunately, people are often unaware of the limitations of science. They believe that science and technology cover all aspects of life and that the meaning and purpose of existence can also be established through scientific study.

Science as such is neither for nor against religion. It is merely an instrument. It is we, human beings including scientists, who have to discover the wider, religious, dimension of life, beyond science.

“Yes, the unspeakable exists. It manifests itself; it is mystical reality . . . . Even if all possible scientific questions had found their answer, the real problems of life still remain untouched . . . . The solution for the riddle of life in time and space, lies outside time and space.” L.WITTGENSTEIN, Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus, New York 1951, pp. 185-189.>

Ultimate questions transcend the limits of science, as also leading atheists admit.

“Questions about the nature of existence and the destiny of man, how things began and how they will end, why there is something rather than nothing, and why it is as it is, are not questions which any of the sciences asks and are not questions which any of the sciences could attempt to answer.” H.J.BLACKMAN, Humanism, Harmondsworth 1968, p. 41.

The author goes on to show that it is not a matter of hoping that science will eventually be able to supply the answers. Ultimate questions “lie outside the terms of reference of the positive sciences”.

In other words: for the answers to ultimate questions we need philosophy, ethics and especially religion.

I am not speaking of external, organized religion here, in the way we can speak of more `religions’ in the plural, each having a specific sets of doctrines, traditions, rites and practices; that is: `religions’ in a derived sense. I am speaking here of religion as such, of spirituality, of ultimate search, of openness to all dimensions of reality.

Religion, not science, tackles questions such as: Is there a purpose to our existence? What is the meaning of my life? To whom am I ultimately responsible for my actions? Science cannot provide an answer because these questions lie outside its scope.


The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of religion