The Limits of Science

Are there any? In my post last week on consciousness studies, I argued that neuroscience will never tell us anything interesting about how the water of the brain becomes the wine of conscious experience:

Even if neuroscience discovers the neuronal correlates of consciousness one day - assuming they can even be found - the answer still won't be very interesting. It still won't explain how we exceed our cells, or how 40 Hz oscillations in the pre-frontal cortex create this, here, now. It is ironic, but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know.

Needless to say, I got more than a few comments charging me with unwarranted skepticism, and reminding me that science has continually proven its skeptics wrong. Point well taken. But I find the opposing claim - that science can solve any and every empirical problem - to be even more improbable. After all, our cortices are evolutionary creations, and we didn't evolve them with epistemology or theoretical physics or neuroscience in mind. The experimental process is a powerful tool - it manages to correct for many of our cognitive flaws - but is it that powerful? Can it really give us answers to everything?

I'll begin the discussion - and I really hope this turns into a discussion, because I'm not sure what I think - by quoting Richard Dawkins, from his new book The God Delusion. In a section titled "The Poverty of Agnosticism," Dawkins admits that while science might never prove that a theistic God can't exist, it can make Him seem woefully improbable. In other words, even if science can't give us definitive answers, it can still serve as a reliable probabilistic guide. God might be theoretically possible, but he's damn unlikely.

Much to my surprise, I agree with Dawkins. While we often think of science as dealing with immortal truths and cold facts, much of our scientific knowledge is actually bracketed by uncertainty. We will never really know how the universe began, or how life started, or whether or not other life forms exist elsewhere in the universe. Nevertheless, we manage to continually refine our understanding of these questions, and ascribe probabilities to various hypotheses. The universe probably began with a Big Bang. Life probably began with nucleic acids. There is a decent chance of life existing on other planets.

But I'm stilI not sure that probabilistic assessments let us escape the question of scientific limits. For one thing, they aren't very satisfying. Evidence is nice, but certainty is a lot nicer. Besides, isn't that statistical margin of error itself a reminder of scientific limits? Won't there always be things that we just can't know?


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Some interesting points here...

I agree 'somewhat' with regards to observational limits but only up to a point. Eventually you get into Zeno's paradox...

How small can you slice your 'observations' into certain and uncertain? Mathematically you can continue ad-infinitum. In reality there comes a point where you can say that the error is entirely negligible (depends on the context). Is a 'measurement error' on the order of planck's constant reasonable or unreasonable? certain or uncertain? Depends on what you're measuring, of course.

We 'know' that 'heisenbergs principle' was originally considered an impassable barrier in experimental physics... but recent (and not so recent) experiments have made it a little more fuzzy in reality.

Our knowledge based expectations, founded or un-founded, are continually being expanded and refined, allowing (in some senses) a bypass of uncertainty -- in many areas we can 'know' the simultaneous terms of the metric being observed... it's simply that some are known by inference, while others are directly observed/measured. Carefully crafted skeins of experiments allow deeper understanding, and more detailed knowledge.

But to get to the point.... I don't think there are necessarily limits to science.... but there may be perceptual limits to our non-mathematical/non-physical understanding of science.

(BTW: the error-bar is a good thing! I WANT there to be room for boojums and barsoomians in the universe, however improbable they may be! And however improbable they are, Allah, Yahweh, God, etc., are even more improbable!)

good post, and thanks for the thoughtprovoking material. i don't think there are limits to science. unless one defines scientific truth in terms of certainty (and that isn't a very workable definition; I'm a Popperite, and favor falsifiability), then I don't see why there are scientific limits. has history given us any limits? science has only been around for a few hundred years - and has only been sophisticated fro the last two centuries - and look at how much we have already accomplished. i also think that if science admits strict limitations, then it will only become more vulnerable to religious attacks.

There will always be questions that science cannot answer. But saying that is the easy part. The hard part is when you have to say which questions those are.

By speedwell (not verified) on 10 Oct 2006 #permalink

Science can't answer questions of meaning. Science may eventually provide explanations for every phenomenon in the universe, be they absolute or probabalistic, but to determine meaning requires value judgements outside the realm of science (since, to be honest, there really isn't any many meaning not imposed by consciousness).

Rich's response was spot on. Your focusing too much on the marginal uncertainties (which is one of the attacks creationists use).

Of course, there are built in uncertianties in science especially with the study of those messy organic things. However, this doesn't mean that we won't be able to trim those uncertianties till they are so miniscule as to be meaningless.

We've already trimmed off a lot of the uncertainties in the science of mind and the brain. Of course, there is a lot we don't know, but we've gotten pretty far in the past century. And personally I see no reason why we won't continue to learn more.

I think the biggest problem is that we have no reasonable way to make inferences about things we don't know at all. We don't know what we don't know. Our brains are not wired to accept such ignorance, so would say an evolutionary psychologist. We hope that dark matter and dark energy are what we might guess they are, but there's no rational way to put odds on such a thing when we don't know what's possible.

Dawkins says science can make God highly improbable. In what sense? Science makes God as micromanager of physical things highly improbable already, but God as something completely beyond the physical world with some part of our consciousness reaching out there to Him is impossible for science, even in terms of gross probabilities. To say otherwise is to be overly simple in one's vision.

I think it's a fascinating position to be both open and willing regarding what we don't know, yet understand that there are some things we know very well now and will know much better soon, like molecular genetics. I don't trust people who talk about embracing the mystery so that they can believe whatever they want. Knowledge has much more utility than mystery, but that includes knowledge of what we don't know.

Then there's consciousness. Will neuroscience remove all the mystery from consciousness just as there will be no mystery left to what's genetic, or will consciousness prove to be more than the emergent property all materialists would like it to be? I don't know. I'd hate to even speculate, because what I think I know best is that the next century of neuroscience will at least show that consciousness is either easy to understand or impossible. Maybe someone will build a conscious machine, maybe not. Sometimes I think "maybe" is a wiser answer than "yes" or "no".

This may make some of you uncomfortable, but I'm going to quote Leon Kass, appointed by President Bush to chair the President's Council on Byoethics. In 2002 he wrote:

Life and soul [yes, he said "soul"--sorry, let's pretend he didn't and rush on--] are irreducibly mysterious.
Today's science is overconfident of its ability [to explain what's strange and perplexing]; it treats "mystery" as simply that which has not yet been understood. To insist today that nature contains REAL mysteries--things INCAPABLE of being understood--is generally to plead guilty to scientific heresy. For this, one gets called a mystic and is encouraged to transfer to the theology department."
--Kass, "LIfe Liberty and the Defense of Dignity"

So Jonah? I know you're not saying miracles and Divine Intelligence are required to explain how nature works, but by proposing that those questions may have to remain forever open, the divine 'explanation' gets a toehold, doesn't it?

Is that OK with everybody?
Not with Dawkins, certainly. Not with most biologists, certainly. NOt with the Seed Blogger crowd, I'm imagining.
But there He/It/She is. Lurking.

By R Krulwich (not verified) on 11 Oct 2006 #permalink

Please find my comments here. Excerpts:

Science operates within an interpretative framework that formulates questions and interprets answers. When will the gung-ho materialists catch on to the fact that this framework is itself not testable?

Isn't it time we wake up to the possibility that other options exist besides the notion of a theistic God and a "scientific" materialism?

what should be the limit of science* even answer for thişs question may not be so has a great way in error and revision for finding the things that should be discovered however it still has still cannot explain exactly how the life on the earth began with the theories...creationism still has a wider area that scientific views cannot reach...

As uncomfortable as it makes some people feel, there is evidence of God's existence in the Hebrew Bible. God transcends time/space, and has given predictive prophecy as the evidence of his existence beyond our realm of perception.

One example is contained in the Book of Daniel, in chapter 8, which contains a prophecy made more than 2500 years ago (or, if you want to rely only on science, only about 2200 years ago as indicated by carbon dating of the text of Daniel from the Dead Sea Scrolls), a prophecy that had its fulfillment in 1967 in Israel during the Six Day War.

Here's my 2-page condensed explanation of that prophecy, on file at the website run by some academics to document the 1967 war. Read and consider the evidence for yourself at

The referenced prophecy is just one of several chrono-specific prophecies that have post-Biblical fulfillments that testify to the existence of a time-transcendent God (or whatever you want to call an intelligent entity that has accurately predicted events in history separated by 2500 years).