Saturday, September 25, 2010

The limits of science

I. Introduction - About Science

Exact Science has been for a long time now the tool used by most humans in order to understand the physical world. The great successes of sciences like physics or astronomy in predicting things and helping the everyday life of people has established "exact" science as the ultimate tool to discover the truth. This has unfortunately led to a decline of the importance other scientific fields of human thinking have - sectors as important as philosophy, history, religion, linguistics. We tend to forget that law or history can be as scientific as quantum physics. We tend to forget that science is seeking the truth with a systematic way and that fields of science like physics or chemistry are only a small portion of it. Science is not only physics. It is also the exploration of human affairs, the attempt to explain why humans fight each other, the struggle to understand what "bad and good" is. Anthropology, sociology and law are fields of science in the same way cosmology is. Science is not only about evidence. Many people confuse science with "empiricism", that is the philosophical dogma that all valid knowledge can be based on human experience only. These people tend to forget that even cosmologists and physicists dream about parallel worlds or alternate universes, hypotheses that can never be proved or disproved by evidence.
Before someone starts dealing with science, he/she must pay a visit to a good philosophical dictionary so as to make sure that he understands all words with their correct meaning. I strongly recommend the Dictionary of Philosophy, Dagobert D. Runes, 1942, New York as a basis for your knowledge / word seeking.

René Descartes. Portrait after Frans Hals, 1648. A (great?) philosopher of science 

It is unfortunate that the abovementioned misconceptions have led humans away from thinking about humans. Fortunately many thinking people of our time have pinpointed the problem and insist on thinking "scientifically", rather than thinking "scientifically as physicists"...Science is not only "thinking numbers based on physical evidence" - it can also be "thinking logically" or "thinking systematically". And even more important is the fact that really great science is about thinking "out of the box", it is about thinking in a way that one would consider "illogical"... The greatest scientific theories were the result of irrational thinking of great minds, who went outside the "logic" of their time...

Everywhere science is enriched by unscientific methods and unscientific results,
[...] the separation of science and non-science is not only artificial
but also detrimental to the advancement of knowledge.
If we want to understand nature, if we want to master our physical surroundings,
then we must use all ideas, all methods, and not just a small selection of them.
Paul K. Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975)

II. About exact science: A definition

Exact science is based on observation and induction. You observe one phenomenon, then you observe a similar one, then another one and so on, until you reach to a conclusion about how such phenomena work. Then you formulate a theoritical model that predicts similar phenomena in the future. If your model works, then your theory is accepted by other scientists (the infamous "peer-review" model, which can lead to weird applications of auto-cencorship for not widely accepted ideas [1] - but this is only out of the scope of this article). Until a phenomenon not following your set of rules is observed...

Other fields of science

Besides the "exact" sciences, there are many other fields which exist. These other scientific fields are based on the "logical and structured way of analyzing a specific subject" and include sectors like anthropology, linguistics, law, psychology etc. One of the most negative impact of the "exact" sciences' domination in modern times is the demise of these other equally "scientific" fields. Fortunately most people are beginning to realize the mistake in that and a regeneration of interest in these "human" sciences is observed. People have to start realizing that there are more things than having GPS devices or new high-technology clothing which play MP3 while you wear them. Understanding our past (via History), other people (via Anthropology) or our own selfs might be far more important...

Definition of Science

Science is the systematic search for truth. And in that context physics and chemistry are not the only fields of science that exist. Many people confuse science with "empiricism" (i.e. all knowledge is based on human experience only). Empiricism is a philosophical dogma and a very outdated one, I might say. [2] My articles have the purpose to clear such confusions. And it is of great importance to understand that many scientific breakthroughs have been conducted via totally illogical and "unscientific" (at least according to the common definition of "scientific") bursts of genious inspiration.

Given any rule, however 'fundamental' or 'necessary' for science,
there are always circumstances when it is advisable not only to ignore the rule,
but to adopt its opposite. For example, there are circumstances when
it is advisable to introduce, elaborate and defend ad hoc hypotheses,
or hypotheses which contradict well-established and generally accepted
experimental results, or hypotheses whose content is smaller
than the content of the existing and empirically adequate alternative,
or self-inconsistent hypotheses, and soon.  [...]It is clear, then, that the idea of a fixed method, or of a fixed theory of rationality,
rests on too naive a view of man and his social surroundings.
To those who look at the rich material provided by history,
and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please
their lower instincts, their craving for intellectual security
in the form of clarity, precision, 'objectivity', 'truth', it will become clear that
there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances
and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes. Paul K. Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975)

III. Limitations of exact science

Exact sciences like physics have many limitations, often disregarded by their "followers" (i.e. people who think that measuring, evidence-based exact science is all that there is in the scetor of human knowledge-seeking). I will discuss the main of these limitations here.

1. Axioms of Exact Science turn into Dogmas

The main limitations of science are a result of the things science takes from granted - i.e. of the axioms it uses as the basis for any further research. When you use an axiom, then you start on the wrong foot. You cannot prove axioms and if you base everything on them, then you guarantee that your whole theory cannot be ultimately be proved.

Some of the main (wrong, according to my opinion) axioms of exact sciences are:

1. Sciences like physics have excluded anything spiritual from the "equations" of the universe. Physics axiomatically says that the cosmos consists of nothing more than electrones, protons and other particles that obey some physical laws - while at the same time denying anything of 'spiritual' nature. In that context, no wander scientists cannot find 'evidence' for God or clues for the existence of any kind of 'Purpose' in our existence. After you have axiomatically accepted that a system consists of A, B and C only, how do you expect to find D anywhere? [2] The science of biology also makes the same mistake: it uses an axiom as dogma without ever questioning whether it is right or wrong. Modern biology takes for granted that humans are animals and that evolution rules apply to everything, without prooving it. Modern science is based on the doctrine of materialism [3], also known as "physicalism" [4]. However we must remember that materialism is a dogma and not a proven case. [5]

2. All natural laws are universal and apply to everything and everyone. This has never been proven yet. It is just a thing scientists believe that is true. [6] This axiom is also what causes problems in the explanation of the basis of our human nature: "free will". If we are to accept the existence of universal physical laws then no free will can exist. But most of us think otherwise. Most of use feel that we "decide" what to do. Science simply cannot explain that.

3. All things are measurable. This is based on a highly materialistic view of the world and has nothing to do with reality (whatever that word means...). Things like moral, emotions, aesthetics and love cannot be measured, even though they are very important for human life. Science fields like physics, mathematics and chemistry simply cannot deal with these things.

4. We can know everything. Many scientists wrongly believe that humans will someday come to know everything, that there is no such thing as "un-knowable" area. However Godel has proved them wrong: he proved that there are truths that cannot be proved anytime by anyone.

5. Our Logic works correctly. This may sound odd, but it was one of the main axioms used to form the foundations of science. Out logic "must" work properly if we are to trust it. [6]

We also tend to forget the main issue: Logic is based on axioms! This is what makes illogical not something "wrong" but just a different option of axioms contrary to the ones we have used so far!
An indicative list of the axioms used in the infamous "objective" Mathematical Logic (source):

Zermelo–Fraenkel axioms
These are the de facto standard axioms for contemporary mathematics or set theory. They can be easily adapted to analogous theories, such as mereology.
  • Axiom of extensionality
  • Axiom of empty set
  • Axiom of pairing
  • Axiom of union
  • Axiom of infinity
  • Axiom schema of replacement
  • Axiom of power set
  • Axiom of regularity
  • Axiom schema of specification
  • Axiom of choice

Other axioms of mathematical logic
  • Von Neumann-Bernays-Gödel axioms
  • Continuum hypothesis and its generalization
  • Freiling's axiom of symmetry
  • Axiom of determinacy
  • Axiom of projective determinacy
  • Martin's axiom
  • Axiom of constructibility
  • Rank-into-rank
  • Kripke-Platek axioms

ILLOGICAL is then by definition something which does not follow these axioms.
And things would be fine if we stayed there.

However things become increasingly dogmatic when we start forgetting that we even use axioms!~

6. Everything can be replicated in an experiment. Because science needs experiments to prove or disprove theories, it cannot deal with one-off events (that happen only once and cannot be reproduced). This is a simple but rather important axiom: we believe that all phenomena can be studied by experiment or observation. What happens with things that happen only once in the Universe's history? A very good example is the creation of the Universe. If it did happen only once, how can we replicate?
And here we should note that the biggest scientific discoveries were made by great thinkers despite of contrary hard experimental data of their time! De Broigle created the theory for the double nature of particles despite that no experimental proof existed then with regard to this. Everett has created his theory of multiple worlds and he has convinced with this most scientists today, despite that this theory can never be confirmed with experimental data! Einstein thought of the theory of relativity based on mind experiments and not on physical experiments! When D.C. Miller published his experimental criticism of the theory of relativity [13] Einstein said that "I did not take them [the experimental results of Miller] seriously not for a moment". [11] When he was asked where he drew his conviction from, he said "from the intuition and the general sense of the situation" (die Vernunft der Sache). [12] [14]It must also be noted here that even Descartes (to whom we owe the dogma that everything in the world can me mechanically replicated) in his great work Dioptrique found the law of refraction with the use of mathematics only and NOT with experiments!!!! [16]

7. Mediocrity and Copernican principle (principle = not proven declaration): In cosmology, the Copernican principle, named after Nicolaus Copernicus, states the Earth is not in a central, specially favoured position. More recently, the principle is generalised to the simple statement that humans are not privileged observers. In this sense, it is equivalent to the mediocrity principle, with significant implications in the philosophy of science. The mediocrity principle is the notion in philosophy of science that there is nothing special about humans or the Earth. These two principles combined form the basis of our current cosmology. [7] [8] Even though the Theory of Relativity states that we can choose ANY point of reference for basis of calculations in the universe (which means that we can easily put Earth in the center of everything and form the physical laws with that as a reference point), even though the universe seems the same in any direction we may look and all galaxies seem to drive away from us (as if...we were in the center of the universe as Hubble himself admitted, but then denied simply because that would be opposing these two "principles"! [9] [10] ) some people still maintain their "belief" (dogma?) that humans are just grains of dust in the cosmos. I do not say that I know for sure that we are or we are not. But I cannot agree with someone that takes that for granted. I cannot argue with dogmatic people...[read the related article Earth is at the Center of the Universe? for more on that]

8. Dialethism is false. All science is based on the axiom that a proposition can be either true or false (i.e. that dialethism is false). However there are substantial evidence towards a different "reality". Consider for example the logical proposition "this proposition is false". Is it false? If yes, then it is true. Is it true? If yes, then it is false. Graham Priest has argued that the only way out of this infamous paradox is to accept a different axiom: that a logical proposition can be true and false at the same time! [1] Other great philosophers have also argued towards the point that the distinction between "right" and "wrong" could be something imposed by the limited abilities of the human mind (see Feyerabend - Harmonia Philosophica).

9. Time exists. People in the past may have felt that time, as Newton described it and used it, was indeed something that "exists". We think time passes. But there are more and more scientific views (see Godel and Rovelli, to start with) are in favour of the theory that time is just an illusion. If this is correct, the implications to philosophy could be icredible. And the implications to science also would be tremendous: all our ideas about motion and events is based on this elusive concept of time! [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

10. The notion of "change" exists: At the time before Socrates in Greece, the idea that things "change" was a topic of discussion between philosophers and not a matter solved. How can a thing be changed without losing its identity? Perhaps things do not change eventually, said Parmenides. The cells which constitute our body as humans are changed several times during our lives. How do we know that we are who we think we are? Is there a "reality" beyond what we see? Finally the theory of Democritus and Leukippos (according to which things are changing) prevailed over the theory of Parmenides, and that has defined profoundly our scientific thinking ever since. Is that what is actually happening though? [22]

[See the
Harmonia Philosophica at Knol or at Blogspot for the implications the non-existence of "time" and "change" could have to the main issue that troubles people from the very start of their existence: Death]

Hubble let many of his philosophical beliefs guide his conclusions...

11. The whole can be analyzed if we examine its parts. This is not certain by any means. If we examine hydroger and oxygen, we will never find out any information about the wetness of water. If the universe is holograpgic, as many modern physicists postulate, then by examining the parts we achieve nothing…

[See the Harmonia Philosophica knol for the implications the non-existence of "time" and "change" could have to the main issue that troubles people from the very start of their existence: Death]

More dogmas

The dogmas of science are practically endless. Rupert Sheldrake pinpointed a few more in his lecture “The Science Delusion” (see here). An indicative list of dogmas I have collected over the years follows:
  • Everything is matter
  • Matter is unconscious
  • Laws of nature stay the same. For now and for ever, this is what we have. Except of course from the moment of the Big Bang when all those laws were created. It is like the joke which states “Give us one free miracle and we’ll explain the rest”. The miracle in this case is the sudden creation of all matter, energy and fixed laws of the Universe in an instant. Hehehe...
  • The sum of matter and energy stays the same. (that is, except from when a huge mass and energy was created out of nowhere in the Big Bang)
  • Nature’s purposelessness
  • What humans inherit from their parents are material (everything is in the genes)
  • Memories are in the brain (even though noone knows how it works) [and despite the evidence we have against this idea, I would add - see "memory" and "mind" in Harmonia Philosophica]
  • Your mind is inside your head
  • Psychic phenomena (like telepathy) are not possible, despite the evidence against that view
  • Mechanistic medicine is the only medicine that works. No alternative theories exist.
  • Occam's razor: Why should the most simple solution be the correct one? If the real solution is complicated, we will never find it... (see here)
  • Balance is inherently natural. But why even think about that? Keeping balance requires much effort. (see here)
  • Viruses come from the "outside". But how many know that there are theories which postulate that viruses could come from within? (read here)
  • It is impossible to achieve >100% efficiency in thermal machines. Really? (read discussion here)
  • The observed exists. But how many of us have considered that thinking about the observed precedes the observation? (see here)
The abovementioned axioms are the basis for the limitations of science. However one might say that this is not a problem - that every theory must start from somewhere. I cannot agree more. My objection is not in the use of axioms by itself, but in our completely forgetting that we use those axioms. When we believe that our science is based on "true" arguments, then we forget the basis of our science. When we forget that we use axioms (and that if we use other axioms we will reach completely different conclusions) then those axioms turn into dogmas. And dogmatism, in any form, is not a good thing...

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.
Oscar Wilde

2. Exact sciences cannot measure

It sounds strange to say "exact science cannot be exact", but it is absolutely true!
Ask a physicist to measure the length of a table in your house. He will take the necessary tool to measure length and will measure, let's say, 80 cm length. But is this true?
Just imagine another physicist comes to your house and measures the same table with a different - but more accurate - tool. He will measure the length equal to 80.095 cm. Is this correct?
Another ones comes to your house and with a tool of greater accuracy measures the length equal to 80.0949988988171716 cm. Could this be our final measurement?
I am afraid not. Every time you use greater accuracy, you end up with a different number!
Ok, one might say. I will use a SEM and measure the mength at the atomic level. Ok. Try it. You attempt to do just that only to realize that at an atomic level you stumble on the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg: you cannot know where the electrons are exactly!
What does this mean? Does it mean the table has no length? It must have a length, since we see it in front of our eyes. The point here is that the table has a length, but our science cannot measure it. That is not a limitation of our science today. We know that we will never be able to measure the exact length of the table due to quantum mechanic phenomena occuring.
Final outcome: you do not know and will never know the exact length of your kitchen table! Weird conclusion for what we call the "exact sciences"...

3. Main limitations of scientific tools

Other limitations of science come from the tools it uses. Some of them are discussed below.

1. The tool of 'induction' is by itself a problem for science. Lets say you observe a frog and see its green. Then another frog and you see that it is green also. Then another, and another - until you are convinced that all frogs are green. Then you write a theory about frogs. Everythings seems quite good up to this point, quite 'real', quite 'scientific'. Until you observe a black frog... [3]

2. Science is based on our senses. The limitations of them may pose significant limitations to how we understand the world, that we may never be aware of [1]. Since we do not know if our senses work "correctly" (mainly because we do not have a benchmark as to what is the "correct" way for senses to be receiving signals from the world), we will never know how "close" we are to "Reality".

3. One of the main problems of science is that we do not have a single clue about what the 'real' reality looks like, so that we can understand how close we are to the ultimate truth with our scientific theories. Withour being able to know what the goal is, it is very hard to know if you are going the correct way [1].

4. Science uses Logic as a tool to reach to conclusions. However even Aristotle, the founder of Logic, did not know how logic could be useful: as a tool to reach the truth or as merely a tool to analyze language and its structure? Many modern philosophers, like Wittgenstein, think that human language has many limitations and that due to these limitations, one must be careful as to talk only for things he/she can talk. The faith in the whole structure of science is based on the faith that logic works. If the latter collapses, then science is without any justification at all. One of the greatest mathematitians of all times, Russel, actually proved that logic has great limitations. The greatest logician after Aristotle, Godel, proved that science cannot prove it can prove things! Even logic requires faith to rely on after all...

4. Mathematics cannot spell numbers

From the beginning of human science, mathematics is considered to be the most crystal clear, provable, safe, well documented and better founded field of knowledge. Due to its nature, mathematics were the first field were an attempt to set the foundations of a fully justifiable / provable theory was conducted - and failed (see Hilbert program, Russel and Godel incompleteness theorem).
However mathematics have problems even in more fundamendal things. Try to ask a mathematician to write down the π number. He will start writting the first digits 3.14159... and then stop. You will ask him "why did you stop?" and he will answer "I stopped because π has infinite digits and we do not know all of them. We have also proved that its infinite number of digits does not follow any repetition pattern. So we cannot write all of them". But you are not satisfied...You want to know what π is.

The impressive thing about the above story, is that you will never get an answer and that mathematicians feel comfortable with that! Mathematics have named some numbers as "irrational" ("άρρητοι" in Greek), meaning that they cannot be expressed in writting since they have infinite digits that will never follow a pattern. One of these numbers is π. The square root of 2 is another example of irrational number.
Does that explanation is enough for the thinking human? No. When mathematics claim to be the most exact and well-founded scientific field, it sounds rather "basic stuff" to ask for a mathematitian to just write a number down on paper. But this is exactly what he/she cannot do! They say that we should be happy with the 1 billion digits we have calculated for π, but can we be happy when the "measurer" cannot measure?!?
This is more than just a good "trick" to play with. This shows an innate inability of mathematics to use its own language so as to just speak! And if we start with that, who knows what other inabilities we have overlooked?

5. Exact science does not understand reality

Exact sciences are a tool to formulate theories so as to explain what we see with our senses. Those scientific fields tells us nothing about what we call "reality". Reality is what "exists". We filter that reality via our eyes and ears and we then attempt to understand what that "world of our senses" is.

                                               SCIENCE                                   RELIGION
Theory  <=========>  World of senses  <=========>  Reality

For example, things fall on the Earth. That is the reality. We sense that reality with our eyes and "see" apples fall onto the soil. We then try to explain what we see by formulating the theory of gravity. Many people think that since apples fall due to the theory of gravity and that since we see the apples, then the theory of gravity "exists". That is not correct: when the theory of gravity is proven wrong and replaced by another theory (that is happening all the time with all scientific theories), apples will continue to fall! Our theory, our interpretation of what we sense, will have changed, but that would have no effect whatsoever to the thing we call "reality". Another example is the invention of the transistor. The transistor works as the modern theories of physics say. However when all these theories are replaced by totally new ones, the transistor will continue to work...

The fact that reality continues to "work" has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that our models work or not. The former does not grant "validity" to the latter. At the point where science attempts to move from observation to general theoritical models, it enters the realm of uncertainty...

IV. Failures of exact science

Science like physics and chemistry have failed to give explanations for many things we see in our everyday lives. Some of them include:
1. No scientific theory exists that requires 'causality' (i.e. that everything happening has a prior cause). As far as scientists are concerned, there could be things happening and their cause happening before them.
2. No scientific theory exists that requires 'time flowing forward' as we feel it happening. As far as scientists are concerned, the 'arrow of time' may as well be heading backwards. Some scientists today have attempted to explain that some scientific theories (like thermodynamics) really demand the arrow of time to go forward, but not with great success.
3. No scientific theory explains human goodnes, human altruism. The theory of evolution - no matter how good it explains many things about species evolution - cannot explain why you may endanger your own life to resque a complete stranger [see Evolution and Intelligent Design - The way to an agreement].
It must be noted that we do not examine here if science is correct or not in saying specific things. For example and as far as the point no.2 above is concerned, time could be one of our greatest illusions and science could be right in not finding evidence to support the "passing of time" (see Godel's circular and timeless universe on that). However this does not matter to my argument. What is important here is the innate inability of science to give a definite "yer"-or-"no" answer to questions, an inability too evident to be ingnored.

V. Success of exact science

Despite the above, fields of exact science are indeed the best tools we have to understand the physical world. Scientists today have created really good models of nature that predict and can help us live better lives, work more productively, understand Universe in much more detail than ever before.

VI. Conclusions - Going forward

We must use exact science carefully and always have in mind its limitations. Humans are more than electons and protons and this calls for the simultaneous use of other ways of thinkings - not only observation and induction. There are other ways that also help in searching for the truth. Believing in one thing only can be really dangerous. Believing that only the 'scientific' way os thinking exists can eliminate humanism, morality, altruism from the world. Many human values are not understandable by science. More philosphy and less 'scientistism' in todays society of gadgets will prove more than useful...

VII. Bibliography

1. "The meaning and limits of exact science" (Sinn und Grenzen der exakten Wissenschaft), Max Planck.
2. "Nature and the Greeks", Erwin Schroedinger.
3. "Philosophy - A graphic guide to the history of thinking", Dave Robinson and Judy Groves.
4. 'Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus', Lugwig Wittgenstein.


  2. 'Dissent Over Descent', Steve Fuller.
  3. Dictionary of Philosophy, Dagobert D. Runes, 1942, New York.
  4. Eliminative Materialism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  5. Physicalism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  6. Materialism's Slipping Hold on Science and Culture, Bruce Chapman, Seattle P-I, 1997
  7. Does Science Need Religion?, prof. Roger Trigg, Warwick University
  8. Mediocrity Principle [Wikipedia]
  9. Copernican Principle [Wikipedia]
  11. Quotes of dogma from "The Observational Approach to Cosmology": (1), (2), (3)
    The Observational Approach to Cosmology, Edwin Hubble, 1937, p. 50, 51 & 58.
  12. Science or God?, John Polkinghorne, Editions Travlos, Athens, 1996, p. 138.
  13. Farewell to Reason, Paul K. Feyerabend, Editions Ekkremes, Athens, 2002, p. 261.
  15. Letter to Besso, cited by Carl Seelig, Albert Einstein, Zurich, 1954, p. 195.
  16. Great Feuds in Mathematics: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever, Hal Hellman, Alexandreia publications, Athens, 2010.

  > Main articles / Κύρια άρθρα   > Limits of Science   > Όρια της Επιστήμης
  > Religion & Science Unification   > Φιλοσοφία Επιστήμης & Θρησκείας

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...