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Post No. 96 (The limits of science?)

August 11, 2012

The August (i.e. the eighth month, not majestic) edition of BBC Focus runs a piece by Robert Matthews about tinkering with the atmosphere with the aim of solving the problem (?) of global warming.

He ends the commentary as follows: […] if there’s one thing we know for sure about the atmosphere, it’s that it pushes science to its very limits.

I have quite a high opinion of Matthews, but I found this statement confusing.

What he must be referring to are not the limits of science. They are the limits of our current techniques. Nobody would have thought – up to twenty years ago – that they were going to find the Higgs boson. In the late 80s the Intel 80486 was cutting edge technology. How does it compare to today’s processors?

Data? Kb to Mb to Gb to Tb.

We could go on forever.

Science is not delimited by the precision of its instruments or the adequacy of its technique. Science reaches its limit when one begins to ask “Why?” Science can only answer “How?”

(When one asks e.g. “Why does it rain?” one is looking for a “mechanistic” answer – which is obviously a “how” question.)

I think that herein lies the clue to one of the greatest stumbling blocks for “agnostics”

Science will tell us – if it doesn’t already – what happens when we are happy. It can never tell us why the sound of  Air on a G string, say, initiates the chemical reactions that result in that which other people have no trouble in interpreting as our ecstasy.

We will discover what happened at the first picosecond (0.000000000001s) of the big bang. We may even end up staring at the wormhole that’s linking us to the universe from which ours branched out, sort of. Or perhaps, we may have a straight line of sight through these wormholes that allow us to look back right up to … what? It’s inconsequential, to a point.

To transpose Shania Twain “OK, so you got a telescope. That don’t impress me much”

Why can we make sense of the “laws of nature?” Why can we predict the existence of particles and phenomena just by calculating stuff? Why can we see the sense in the structures of proteins?* Why can we tell that the structure of flowers are enticing to insects? It’s not like we’ve ever been insects ourselves.

There is an intelligible logic to the universe; it speaks to us in ways we can understand.


That is the true limit of science. The very method that identifies our activity as science is dependent on the fact that this intelligibility of the universe exists and the fact that despite all the fluctuations at all observable levels there remains a constancy through time and space.


*The folded structure of proteins has been more successfully sussed out using computer games than by using computer simulations


From → The Elephant

  1. In my experience, I don’t often come across atheists or agnostics who equate “how” answers with “why” answers. When science enthusiasts boggle over the awesome power of the natural world, I don’t believe they’re claiming an understanding of the why. They’re just boggling. I don’t quite understand the reaction, I’ve never felt that astonished at any particular phenomenon in natural science. But, to each his own.

    But I suppose the world has no deficit of ignorant people. People who might, or probably do, equate some understanding of the mechanics with a kind of metaphysical knowledge. So, your point is taken.

    However, if I may retort. An even greater stumbling block is when someone confuses the human craving for “Why” with a kind of necessity. A void which must be filled with an answer, and right quick. And, without questioning this impulse, or giving thought to how to properly proceed, they arbitrarily leap to faith. And faith provides some answer (though it may be incomplete, and cloaked in mysticism) to the why. Whether it’s actually, verifiably true is difficult to say, because it’s not subject to any kind of discipline the way “how” knowledge is earned in the material world. The human “itch” for the why has been satisfactorily scratched, but something is lost in these particular means. The mad dash for an answer.

    • Hi again Dungy. Apologies for the late reply, but i was away for a while.

      When we look at creation (on all levels) we make the universe aware of itself. We are complete persons. The thirst for understanding is part of who we are.

      You can call the Air on the G string “vibrations in the air”, but it does not adequately answer why it evokes the “neurological responses” it does.

      And that is precisely my point.

      You can even mention the “famous six numbers” – without which there wouldn’t be life on earth or even a universe. You can say that if they weren’t what they were we simply wouldn’t be here to winder about it. True, but being human we will want to know why. Some of us are even impressed by the “coincidence”

      Can science answer why the way things are just the way they are? Unluckily not. It can only tell us the way things are.

  2. Okay, so science can perhaps never answer the ‘why’ questions. (My opinion is that science makes the ‘why’ question irrelevant/unnecessary, but let’s not get into that for now.) But then what/who can answer these questions? Do you think religion has the correct answers? If so, which religion? (I am afraid you are going to say: “my religion”.)

    • “Why?” can be very easily countered with “Because”. One can always argue that it’s pointless asking why because things are just the way they are and that is reason enough in itself.

      As to which religion answers questions best, well … no religion has the monopoly on truth, even though some have a better grasp of truth than others.

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