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Time for the second 400 word essay of the term. This week’s topic is quite a bit more philosophical: “There are things in the world that cannot be understood by science”. Those who know me will know which side I took: the negative! It’s very hard to discuss a complex topic like this in so few words – I actually went 50 words over the limit this time… don’t tell anyone!

I recently received a copy of “The Spiritual Brain” as a gift – so we’ll see if Mario Beauregard will manage to overturn my materialism (not likely – I’m 20 pages in and he’s already questioned the validity of the theory of evolution, and revealed that he is funded by the Templeton Foundation).

Without further ado – this weeks essay:

Topic: There are things in the world that cannot be understood by science. (CON)

In this paper I defend the position that the scientific method can, in principle, understand everything in the world. I take this topic to be a philosophical question of the nature of reality, separate from the pragmatic question of whether or not science ever will reveal everything – before, say, the collapse of civilization (I think it likely will not).

My position is motivated by the belief that the world is essentially materialist – there is no such thing as the “non-physical”. Commonly, objections to the ability of science to understand everything involve belief in “non-physical” entities which are entirely separate from the physical world, and therefore cannot be understood by observation and empirical testing. I don’t so much find this argument as unconvincing as I find it to be completely incoherent. If “non-physical entities” are completely separate from the physical world, then how can they have any causal effect on it? Conversely, if the physical world is causally affected by non-physical forces, then these effects are by definition measurable and therefore can, in time, be understood. It doesn’t make sense to say that a given entity can cause changes to the physical world and yet be unmeasurable.

Since the world is taken to be entirely physical, and governed by physical interactions – the scientific method is uniquely equipped to identify and understand these interactions. By studying data and determining the patterns therein, our understanding increases. Obviously each new gain in knowledge has resulted in new questions which need to be answered, but the principle remains the same. Given enough time this process would inevitably learn all there is to know (though I imagine in reality it will not).

Other objections to the ability of science to reach perfect understanding rely on interpretations of principles of quantum physics, such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. While I concede that perfect measurement is impossible, it is unnecessary for understanding to be achieved. While recognition of uncertainty may lay to rest dreams of creating perfect predicting machines based on the deterministic laws of physics, it has not stopped advances in understanding of quantum physics. Furthermore it does not prove that the universe is not deterministic, just that we can never have enough information to calculate everything at once (which is different to understanding).

Finally, I close by pointing to the many historical examples of things which were thought to be impossible for science to understand – from heavier-than-air flight to the ability to play chess to the recent gains of neuroscience into understanding of the brain and human nature. While not conclusive unto itself, this trend certainly suggests that we should be very skeptical about any claims of scientific impossibility.