Science is Limited

2021 Mar 28

Science is a fantastic human endeavor. It has enabled us to know our world better and make a better life for many, many people. However, I don't think that science can solve everything because science is limited.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, “The statements of science must invoke only natural things and processes.”

I see this as a statement that confirms science is limited. And I will show several of these limitations:

  • Science depends on non-science for its existence.
  • Science tells us constrained truth.
  • Science is unable to give us answers about many things.
  • Science seems disallowed from using certain sources of truth.

Outside Dependencies

First, science is an impossible work if we do not start with certain philosophical assumptions: note

See also Darwinian Metaphysics for this and a longer list of related metaphysical assumptions.

  1. Truth exists and is knowable
  2. Truth can be inferred from evidence, artifacts or experiments

If these two statements are not true, then science would be unknowable and would simply be the private opinions of so-called “scientists”. Nothing of the scientific method could work or could bring us any truth. Any scientist who believes they are working to discover truth must first trust these statements are true.

However, science itself is powerless to validate these statements as true. It is possible to measure physical quantities and to measure them repeatably. However, truth is not a physical quantity. Truth is not included in any of the SI units of measurement. There is no experiment, therefore, that can measure truth. A scientific conclusion might very well be good truth because it reflects what is real. However, the necessary foundation in thought that enables a scientific conclusion doesn't actually come from science.

The statements of science, therefore, are fundamentally based on non-scientific statements. Science that brings us much truth about the world depends on non-scientific sources of truth. These necessary metaphysics of science do not come from natural material things or from natural processes. They come from mind and intellect which exists in living humans in this physical world. Philosophy did not exist in this world before living humans because it is not a natural thing, nor is philosophy a natural process. note

Note also that life occurring by natural processes in this universe is an astounding physical impossibility. (See The Probability of Life) Therefore, natural processes are impotent to have produced the humans who have developed philosophy.

If someone were to argue that philosophy is not a human endeavor because it exists independent of humans, then that existence of philosophy itself would be a profound validation of truth from a non-materialistic and non-natural-process source.

So science is limited because any truth in science depends on truth from outside of science. note

And also this shows that science is not the only valid source for truth. Truth which is fully valid can be had from sources other than science.

There is a related axiom that seems to have some popular support: “The statements of science are the only valid truthful statements.” This idea can be seen when non-scientific answers are rejected without consideration. However, this statement is false and is self-refuting since it itself is a non-scientific statement! So, it cannot possibly be valid and true.

Constrained Truth

Note that even the best statements of science are not complete truth. The business of science is to generate models that are testable and accurately predictive. note However, models are never perfectly predictive. A model is like a map, and as philosopher Alfred Korzybski correctly said, "A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”

See also What is Science?

Science is useful because it has been able to come up with good models (i.e. maps) of the physical world, and these have enabled humans to better understand how the world works. So the best that science can do is very good indeed, but even that is never fully true. There are always inaccuracies. note Good science practitioners already know they can only produce limited truth.

As proof of this, it is standard scientific practice to report the confidence factors of measurements together with results. This explicitly is saying that the reported results cannot be known to be absolutely true.

In addition, a scientific experiment may have results, but this is not yet scientific truth. The truth comes after a human makes an inference from the data. The production of truth is part of a human process to turn results into meaning. The scientific method is a process that does much to optimize for truth, but it does depend on everybody looking for truth with minds open to being changed by the data.

Can't Answer That

Not only is the truth of science constrained, but there are many things in this world for which science is unable to determine truth at all. Is an all-time great song more beautiful than a song of random pitches strung together by a child? Science is unable to say. Science is unable to measure beauty. It could do a survey of people and determine which song most people think is the most beautiful, but that is just statistics on opinions and is not a scientific determination. Even though aesthetics matters a lot to humans, science is unable to quantify it or to generate formulas for predicting it.

Science is able to answer questions of what and some questions of how, but it is generally not able to answer the questions of why. note Why questions are generally questions about purpose (teleology), and science doesn’t know much about that. You have to go to sources other than science to learn about ultimate purposes. If science was our only source for truth, then our own purpose, the reason for our existence could not be known. Most humans need to have a reason for living; science fails to have answers them.

Science is not even able to answer the questions of children! As examples:

  • Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
  • How do I know that I’m real and not just a dream of someone else?
  • What will happen to me when I die?

Science is severely limited in the questions that it is able to answer. Certainly then it cannot be the only source for valid truthful statements.

Disallowed Truth Sources

At the start I took the statement about “natural things and processes” as one that shows science is limited. However of course, I realize this was not the intent of the statement. This statement instead was meant to enforce something called methodological naturalism on learners and practitioners of science. This is the idea that things and processes which are not natural are disallowed from science. In many cases, this is a good approach because it keeps us honest in science to cite effects from causes which are real and are capable to generate those effects.

However, this statement of methodological naturalism also limits science such that it prevents it from being successful in explaining certain categories of things. This is because there are some real things which cannot derive from natural things and processes.

Are anthropology or archeology sciences? They are certainly considered to be. However, they don't limit themselves to natural processes for the explanations of what they find. They are an unusual exception to the norm. These branches of science accept agency and choice (of humans) in their explanatory tool box because methodological naturalism fails in the context.

Ineffective Causes

Methodological naturalism also fails in the context of cosmological origins and life origins.

  • Our universe cannot have originated from any natural process and there certainly was no natural thing that it originated from. (See The Multiverse God)
  • Natural processes are profoundly impotent to generate life, and the functionally specified information encoded in the cells of living things is not a natural thing. (See The Probability of Life)

These are not speculations about what we do not know. They are not about gaps in our knowledge. They are based on things that are actually well understood. They are about limitations that are known as foundational. And, the reasoning about getting to areas where we are naturalistically limited is logical and easy.

There are suggested naturalistic ideas in science to explain both the origin of our universe and of life. However, close inspection of these ideas actually shows concepts of pure imagination which have not been tested; it does not show functioning natural things or processes. note The ideas are presented as if they happen naturally, but that has never been demonstrated. The causes are either not real or are not capable to generate the claimed effects.

  • The multiverse generator is posited, but is not able to be detected. It is therefore never testable, so it can't be known to even be functional or effective.
  • Time, motion, chemistry and conjunctions have been shown by all practical science to date as being adverse to producing life in a pre-biotic context. Knowledge gained in recent decades especially shows that likelihood of success for abiogenesis is receding, not getting closer. See Addressing Abiogenesis & Common Misconceptions.

I see this as intellectual dishonesty. Science makes models and then tests them, however, these suggested models can't even pass the test of thought experiments. This may be a problem that exists because naturalistic answers for these topics are desperately wanted. Regardless, this is a problem of bad metaphysics and it is damaging to good science. It would be much better to acknowledge that these supposed answers are not naturalistic and especially acknowledge that methodological naturalism fails in these contexts. Maybe instead then better ideas could be used to explain these problems.

If you have an unshakable confidence that a naturalistic explanation must exist for all questions (even for the universe and life) then you might not notice the massive gap between your acceptable causes and the necessary effects. This would be a fault of your philosophical opinion flooding all over your science. You might limit the quality of your science because of your metaphysics. You might make the serious mistake of thinking that naturalistic science is not limited.

Effective Causes

The key for good science gets back to invoking causes that could be real, and causes that are able to generate the effects observed. For the universe and life, the problem is that the suggested materialistic causes of the universe can never be known to be real, and also that materialistic causes are incompetent to create life. In fact we have very good reason to believe that no materialistic cause could ever be satisfactory for these problems.

The first big problem is that this universe requires an uncaused cause (a first cause). It also needs a cause that is outside of this universe (thus the multiverse idea). note There is no way around this, and an uncaused cause or an outside cause is not a natural thing or process.

I assume that some descriptions of the multiverse generator see it as an eternal entity. Although that could establish a first cause, the idea that it was timeless would be purely metaphysical.

However, I think even the multiverse generator had a beginning. It is described as expanding, and if you run that backwards, it goes to a starting singularity. This is the same logic that convinces us of our big bang. Therefore even this entity had a beginning and needs a cause. (All mechanistic explanations for things require causes.) And so it too ultimately needs an uncaused cause.

 

Note that the multiverse idea specifically agrees that the cause for our universe must be an outside cause.

In regard to life: It continues to exist in this universe because of incredible fine-tuning at levels that are outside of all plausible naturalness. This fine-tuning was set up from the beginning of the universe. Regarding biology: All experience in chemistry shows that nature either destroys necessary biological products, or that nature makes the wrong products. Because of this, natural processes have never been able to start life from non-life. Life also requires certain content in the form of functionally specified information. By all human experience, this information only comes from intellect. These problems can only be solved all together by a cause from an intelligence with foresight that also (again) is outside of the universe.

Since science already invokes non-materialistic causes in some branches, why not accept a non-materialistic cause for the universe and for life? The only answer would be for philosophical reasons and not for scientific reasons. A non-materialistic cause in this case is the best explanation because it is a cause that could be able to generate the required effects.

Best models

As I said before, the business of science is to generate testable models. Through testing, the models are corrected to correspond to physical reality. The models enable understanding of how things work. The best models are no more complicated than necessary (Occam's razor).

In archeology, the best model accepts a non-materialistic cause (humans) as explanation for what is found. (This is because it is a cause that can generate the observed effects, and it is the most simple model.) The character of the humans is a thing that is mostly separate from the science. (We do not need to know their character because the science is not trying to explain that. However, it could be useful information.)

For the universe and for life, mechanistic causes already fail. Those that have been suggested are also already non-materialistic metaphysics. (And these I think are not very convincing or are not well-constructed ideas.)

However, a different non-materialistic cause for the universe and for life could be effective to create the effects we see in this universe. An agent that is an outside uncaused cause and that can plan and that has intelligence is a cause that can produce the observed effects and would be the most simple model. A sufficient cause has to have these capabilities (and no mechanistic cause is sufficient).

Whatever the cause of this universe, we know it was by superlative power. The power and intellect of an agent which would be able to cause the universe would be superlative, but that is separate from the science. The character of this agent is a thing that is mostly separate too. (The science would not need to know the character because the science is not explaining the character. However, it could be useful information.)

Archeology looks at the known characteristics of humans and uses this to gain more insight into archeological studies. (For instance: How do human family dynamics explain aspects of artifacts that are found?) Similarly, by taking an intelligent cause for origins and knowing ourselves as intelligent creators, we might also leverage what we already know about human-developed design methods. (For instance: How do we manage and use functionally specified information?) Thinking like this opens new ideas for research in biology. note

This way of thinking already has opened new research because today we use models from software system designing to understand DNA coding, biological control systems, and etc. In addition The Dependency Graph of Life extends this model to show relatedness of living things.

Metaphysics

Science is fundamentally a human endeavor. Therefore, it is heavily affected by the metaphysics of its practitioners - both for good and for bad. For science to stay in regions of truth, it depends on minds willing to accept new metaphysics because of the data. Unfortunately, sometimes major scientific advancements have been delayed because a change of metaphysics became needed around a topic (for example: geocentrism to heliocentrism). Obstinate or inflexible scientists have sometimes needed to pass before better ideas could grow.

Our problem in science (if we are honest), is that we know that materialistic sources in some cases fail to provide answers. Therefore, when properly rational thinking indicates that natural things or processes cannot provide satisfactory answers, we all go looking in metaphysical sources.

Clearly we want science not to go the way of conspiracy theories. The "natural things and processes" dictum often helps us navigate around crackpot ideas, but not always. To me the multiverse theory and chemical abiogenesis studies fall into such a category of very bad science (and very bad for science). Continued pursuit of these will be happening for philosophical reasons and not because the experimental science is having success.

Some metaphysical sources of truth are good; however, the tools to distinguish good metaphysical content is not the same set of tools that work for materialistic science. Also unfortunately, scientists are usually not trained for philosophical work. Science became its own discipline after growing out of natural philosophy. Some scientists think they have left philosophy behind, but in reality they are still heavily dependent on it, and they don't have the expertise to work with it.

When natural things and processes fail in a sustained way for giving answers in science, then scientists need to partner with philosophers. Scientists also need to be willing to give up naturalistic metaphysics if the evidence indicates it will fail.

Conclusions

So:

  • There are many things conventional science is unable to give us answers about.
    • Sometimes it is because those kinds of questions don't have any scientific answers.
    • Other times it is because mechanistic answers are completely unavailable.
  • The truths of science are based on sources of truth that are outside of science.
  • Science is heavily influence by the metaphysics of scientists, both for good and for bad.
  • Standard science is a good source of truth for questions that have materialistic answers.
  • When standard sources fail, all humans reach into non-materialistic sources for answers, and some of those sources do supply valid truth.

Materialistic science has found much truth about this universe, but it is not the only source of valid truth. Non-materialistic sources of answers in certain cases provide much better scientific models, and therefore, better explanations. Science needs to realize that when it only accepts materialistic sources of answers it is impoverishing itself by this restriction to a single explanatory toolbox. It could have both.

2021-03-28 updated 2021-09-22   © 2021 Larry Grove