On the Problems and Limits of Science
This is a post that’s quite dear to me, and yet also one that’s quite challenging. I’m not sure how well I phrased and backed up the points I’ve been trying to make; and yet I’ll keep this up.
Science * can’t explain everything. It never could. It never will.
Yet science is run as if it could explain everything. It is run completely unchecked. And this unchecked pretense of omniscience and omnipotence is a problem for us for a number of reasons.
Science disrespects life. (Somehow, science took on the misguided and psychotic idea that to understand life one has to kill it, as practiced in research laboratories.)
Science belittles and erodes spirituality and religion, on the assumption of implied all-knowingness. (It thus distances us from another part of us, and from learning lessons in these areas.)
Science dehumanizes, for if everything is supposed to be explicable, humans must be, too. Accordingly, science will claim to identify methods to do everything, ultimately leading to prescribe humans all but the most meaningless activities. (Science, unchecked, would scientifically “optimize” our diet, career, social circles, family, and everything else of relevance, leading us straight to less, not more fulfilled lives.)
Science undermines our discussion culture, for it encourages to demand proof for the simplest statements. (Demanding proof has already become a lazy way of silencing ideas one doesn’t agree with.)
Science, without realizing, actually fails in its mission, for it asserts authority on issues it will never be able to explain. Science, ironically, has never shown it can explain everything so to bully around as if it could, nor why everything had to be explained.
What we could benefit from instead:
Understand that science is first and foremost limited to physical reality. (Any thought experiment that defies physical laws can give an idea of how different physical and psychical reality function. Even though, as Wilhelm Wundt established, psychical laws may apply, too, what our minds can do is largely outside scientific reach. If our imagination falls short then for it’s grossly untrained, not because physical laws applied to it.)
Recognize that at our current stage of development it can be hard to tell whether something is due to physical or psychical phenomena. In the latter case, science needs to back off and yield to other, if any, explanations. (Yet even in the physical sphere, science may need to be reined in, for we don’t know the exact boundaries or overlap of physical and mental realities—think of placebos. That said, only recognition of science’s inherent limitations will lead us to progress in finding those boundaries. Identification of these boundaries is, in my eyes, one of mankind’s biggest and most promising challenges.)
Stop asking for proof for everything. Instead, think and foster intelligent, healthy debate that eventually produces evidence on its own—for of course, statements shall still be probed and tried.
One more thing. There is a tendency for science to confuse cause and effect (at a higher level, not in the “correlation is not causation” way). I don’t want to discuss the perpetuity of causality but simply add that there is the idea that experiments may show what the experimenters believe (or doubt) they’ll get. Medical researchers, for good example, may find but physical manifestations of beliefs held by the same researchers and their patients—and such physical manifestations are effects. (This is most difficult to grasp when one’s afraid of uncertainty and at the same time denies one’s powers and responsibilities, and so it will take a while for us, well including myself, to fully understand how powerful we are, and to accept and use that power well.)
To conclude, there is a place for science—and so this post isn’t “anti-science”—, but that place is not everywhere, all the time. Science is, for all we can tell, limited to parts of physical reality. The question of “which parts?” seems like a step in the right direction; keeping on assuming it can explain everything may be two in the wrong one. Yet, to who’s so convinced that science is the only valid view on reality systems: prove this then, and prove it before continuing to mutilate and kill life, and “scientify” everything.
So people stop short at natural laws as at something unassailable, as did the ancients at God and Fate. And they both are right and wrong. But the ancients were clearer, in so far as they recognized one clear terminus, whereas the modern system makes it appear as though everything were explained.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922).
This was a snapshot of my early studies, as well as I could share them. There’s certainly more to add, and there are likely more effective ways to elaborate. Which leads us to an actually astonishing amount of literature supporting the ideas of this post. For example, John Dewey, Everett Dean Martin (in The Behavior of Crowds), and others have criticized science for being “destructive of intellectual freedom” and “producing merely high-class trained-animal men.” The work of Jane Roberts (or Seth) is of great significance, for it comes with a model of reality that actually is one. More recent rebuttals have appeared with treatises like What the Bleep Do We Know!?, though that one is just fresh on my mind. And so on—and I’m sure we’ll talk about that “so on” again.
Update (February 21, 2016)
In other words, you just read my own argument against scientism, written before I most happily learned how many very prominent people there are with even more concerns about it.
Update (June 28, 2016)
Uh. Covering the theory of science (during my studies at the Universität Hamburg) rather confirms my concerns, but I’d now lay these out quite differently from how I did it here. And I’d add ideas like Laudan’s pessimistic meta-induction, which says that if past scientific theories which were successful were found to be false, we have no reason to believe that our current theories are true. I’m looking into writing a more “academic” version of this post.
* Science here stands for the scientific method and the arguably (as this post attempts to show) unwarranted idea that everything can and has to be explained.
I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma. I love trying things, not only in web development, but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
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