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The Limits of Science

February 28, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Is there a limit to what we can know? Does the scientific method stop working after a certain point? And if there is a limit, how close are we to the edge and how will we know when we get there? These are questions tackled in a recent Guardian Science podcast by Peter Atkins, the professor of chemistry at Oxford University, author of a leading physical chemistry text book, and author of popular science books “Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science”, and “On Being: A Scientist’s Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence” (which deals with origins and other fundamental topics).

Atkins is optimistic that there is nothing science can’t answer, and that it will replace all myths about the unknown. He agrees there are many things that we have no answer for now: consciousness, and what came before the Big Bang would be two examples. But he thinks that just because we don’t have an answer now that doesn’t mean will never have one.

Naturally, I agree. There is no way to really prove that science can answer every question and there is no way to prove that it’s even the best way to answer any question, but there are two informal reasons why I think we should accept both of those ideas. First, science gets results: in all the years various philosophies have been applied to the world’s problems it is only since we used science that we have made significant progress. And second, it just makes sense. If you want to understand something you should observe it in an objective way and set up unbiased experiments to test ideas. That is the scientific method.

Atkins identifies three routes to “knowledge”: old texts (religion); sitting around thinking about it (philosophy); and examining the world, and doing experiments (science). Of course the word knowledge in that context doesn’t really mean facts. After all, how can examining old texts lead to facts when they all say something different and there’s no way to tell which (if any) might be true? And just thinking about a subject is a great way to come up with ideas but how do we know which ideas are real unless we use experiments and observation?

When asked why it had taken so long to get to the point where science is extensively used he replied that it was a matter of breaking the power of those who prefer the other methodologies.

The Greek philosophers generally used pure thought to decide what was true. Famously Aristotle thought women had less teeth than men. A simple observation would have tested that idea! Note though that there might have been good reason for the belief: apparently at the time women were often deficient in some vitamins leading to greater tooth loss. But Aristotle could have counted the gaps. Still, the point is not as simple as it initially seems!

And religious leaders rely on revealed “knowledge” from holy books and oral history. Reading something in a book or hearing it from an elder is fine but unless there is some skepticism about the information errors will never be corrected. Plus there is the problem that a lot of the content of religious books is designed to strengthen the religious group rather than reveal real truth.

Science flourished in the western world after the Enlightenment when the authority of the church was broken and science, skepticism, empiricism, maths, and logic took over as the preferred way to establish the truth. Clearly that process is still happening and many churches are still fighting a ridiculous rearguard action against the facts of science, such as evolution, today. They can’t win because the truth always becomes apparent in the end. It just takes longer for some people!

When asked “Is your intention in the book to do away with mythical creation type stories?” He replied “Oh, absolutely … Myths are placeholders, not actual explanations of what went on … Science is showing that reality is even more wonderful than what the myth makers have imagined.”

Again, I completely agree. Myths were ideas some people had when there was no good information to formulate a real theory. They are interesting and fun but they are useless as an indicator of what is true. It’s great to see authors not being scared to criticise religion. It has taken a while but Hitchens, Dawkins, and the other new atheist have lead the way.

He says don’t resort to referring to handbooks (such as the Bible, Koran, etc). They are collections of anecdotes about people’s ideas on solving problems in the past. You can use them as a guide, but don’t treat them as a unarguable authority.

So he doesn’t seem to be inspired much by theologians and religious people, what about philosophers? I’m afraid he’s pretty condescending to them as well! He sees philosophy as a millstone around science’s neck. It is used to point out the deficiencies in theories of knowledge (which is fair enough) but to also suggest that some things just cannot be done or known.

I think this is a bit unfair. I agree there are some philosophers who say science can never know anything but there are plenty of others who recognise the validity of the scientific method. If anyone was being truly honest they would say we can never be 100% sure of anything, even of our own existence, but most would embrace a more pragmatic compromise view where certain things were assumed to be true even if that isn’t strictly formally accurate.

But what about areas of knowledge where science doesn’t work? Are there any? The areas of ethics and spirituality might be good examples. Atkins says what we often regard as being outside of science’s domain: religion, spirituality, etc, are actually open to scientific investigation because they are aspects of the psychology of people.

It’s hard to disagree. In my opinion the only subjects which cannot be answered scientifically are “non-questions”. That is sets of words which seem to be questions but when they are analysed carefully they have no meaning. Here are a few “profound” questions I found on the web…

Question: Why did the Creator become man and identify himself with us, dying for us? Answer: He didn’t. There is no creator, and the Jesus story is almost entirely a myth.

Question: Who am I? Answer: I presume you want a deeper answer than your name and other identifying information. If you do then ask the question in a way which makes it clear exactly what you want to know.

Question: Why do we yawn? Answer: Because we’ve read too many boring, inane questions. Actually that’s not true. This is actually a really good question and no one seems to have a definitive answer yet. There are various theories involving increasing oxygen intake, social signals, and others, but (as is always the case) more research is needed!

Question: Does anything really exist or is it all just an illusion of our mind? Answer: Wow! Great question. I can’t think of any way that science (or religion or philosophy) could really prove that anything really exists. After all, even if we devised an experiment to prove something wasn’t in our mind couldn’t that experiment be a delusion created by our mind as well? Maybe that’s one genuinely difficult question which nothing can answer!

But are there some things which are just too hard for our brains to comprehend? Maybe, but the internet now allows for faster collaboration which helps minimise those limitations. And there is some reason to believe that computer technology might advance to the point where computers can do the thinking for us. A thinking computer might be the last invention ever necessary.

Finally, despite all the enthusiasm for science Atkins was gloomy about the future. First there is fundamentalism which he says diminishes self respect and imposes constraints on real progress. Plus the related topic of what he calls stupidity: wars, terrorism, etc.

This certainly seems to be true but there are signs that things are gradually improving in the west. The Islamic world just seems to sink further into the depths of superstition and ignorance though. That is unfortunate, as is the fact that a large part of the population, even in the US, still doesn’t believe a theory (evolution) which has such overwhelming support that it would require willful ignorance to reject it.

So out of all the contentious points which arose in the discussion it was only the outright rejection of philosophy which I was a bit doubtful of. The rest was totally realistic!

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  1. OJB
    October 31, 2016 at 9:11 am

    It has been pointed out to me that claiming that science is the best way to answer *all* questions is clearly unjustifiable. There are questions which belong in the realm of the arts: history and literature for example, which are best handled by experts in those areas; and there are questions which don’t have specific answers, like questions relating to values, which are best handled by philosophy.

  1. October 29, 2016 at 1:56 am

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