International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Rationality and Science: Can Science Explain Everything?

by Roger Trigg

Introductory Essay by V. V. Raman

One offshoot of the ever-increasing successes of modern science is a growing confidence that everything known can be rationally explained. That claim has been challenged and analyzed by many thoughtful philosophers during the past few centuries. Roger Trigg’s book is a good contribution to that debate. It provides insightful critiques of many twentieth century philosophers on these matters. The book is a forceful argument against postmodern attacks on reason and the relegation of everything to relativism.

The book begins by lamenting some modern trends (from logical positivism to postmodernism, especially Wittgenstein) and their impact on science. “All this has a shattering impact on the status of science” [32]. It goes on to discuss the virtues of pragmatism as a justification for science, but notes that it “refuses to take the threat of scepticism seriously, and thus fails to provide an antidote to it” [57].

Trigg is concerned about accepting non-rational modes as no less valid roads to knowledge. He points out that “rational justification must of its very nature transcend the presuppositions of any particular community” [62]. He insists that “reason must be able to transcend its immediate context” [79]. This idea is amplified in his discussion on naturalism when he says: “Unless it is accepted that human reason is capable of transcending the causal influences which undoubtedly constrain us, we can never hope to distinguish between the good and the bad” [83]. Trigg points to the danger “that our epistemology is governed totally by whatever happens to be the currently accepted theories in science” [101]. From this he concludes that “rationality, and not just the scientific theory… lies at the root of our understanding” [101].

He discusses the idea of a God’s eye view of knowledge and suggests that “the apparent necessity of a God’s eye view can be a subtle way of reducing metaphysics to epistemology. It changes the subject from what is real to what can be known, and even to whether we can know it” [111].

In his chapter on Science and Humanity Trigg writes that “just as we could never have lived in a universe totally subject to the vagaries of chance, so human rationality is only possible, because it is able to reflect, however partially, the order that is present in all things” [148]. Defending the validity of objective scientific truth, Trigg alludes to the mistake of many sociologists of science in supposing “that once science has been knocked off its pedestal… then ideas of truth have to be abandoned” [155]. As to whether science can explain everything – the subtitle of the book – Trigg affirms that science cannot, even in principle, enable us “to predict infallibly, or control absolutely, the world of which we are a part” [193]. He discusses the legitimation of science and comments that “science has not only not got a proper understanding of the conditions which make it possible. There is no way it could ever have” [209]. In sum, Trigg reminds us that “we have to keep our balance on a tightrope between being credulous about hidden powers on the one hand and on the other merely insisting that contemporary science determines what can be known” [227].