Scientific Hubris: Why Science Can’t Answer All the Big Questions

Big Think has printed another of a class of essays written by scientists, common these days, announcing in triumphant tones all the things that science can do outside its particular and limited domain. Almost without exception, these essays, which implicitly aspire to philosophical eloquence, fly too close to the sun. The only difference being that, while Icarus was able to gain a little altitude before the wax started melting, these writers never gain much altitude at all before flaming out, so ill-conceived.

These articles have a number of characteristic features. First, they are usually written by scientists almost completely unfamiliar with the philosophical issues they seem to feel qualified to address; second, they betray a marked ignorance of their own unquestioned metaphysical assumptions, assumptions outside the realm of science altogether, and which, moreover, are often question-begging; and third, their chief rhetorical mode of procedure is not reasoning, but a kind of naive optimism that often descends into cheerleading.

“Science,” says author Peter Atkins,

has proved itself to be a reliable way to approach all kinds of questions about the physical world. As a scientist, I am led to wonder whether its ability to provide understanding is unlimited. Can it in fact answer all the great questions, the ‘big questions of being’, that occur to us?

Well, first of all, why should we think it is unlimited? There are obvious limitations to science. Like all disciplines, it is limited by the unique tools at its disposal: in the case of science, it is the tools of mathematics and empirical observation. The tools of science are quantitative; they are therefore limited in the possible answers they might give to quantitative answers.

When a scientist is faced with a non-scientific, qualitative question, he should realize that he is out of his depth and would be better off treading lightly.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. History has produced a number of scientists who were also formidable philosophical minds. Alfred North Whitehead was one. Henri Poincare was another. A number of physicists (I’m thinking of Werner Heisenberg, Richard Feynman, and, more recently, Paul Davies) have been able to cross over and still make sense. Even popular science writers like Martin Gardner and Stephen Jay Gould were able to sound articulate even when they spoke outside their field of scientific expertise.

Unfortunately, Atkins is not among this august assembly.

First, he makes a distinction between two kinds of “big questions.” The first, he says,

include questions of purpose and worries about the annihilation of the self, such as Why are we here? and What are the attributes of the soul? They are not real questions, because they are not based on evidence. Thus, as there is no evidence for the Universe having a purpose, there is no point in trying to establish its purpose or to explore the consequences of that purported purpose. As there is no evidence for the existence of a soul (except in a metaphorical sense), there is no point in spending time wondering what the properties of that soul might be should the concept ever be substantiated. Most questions of this class are a waste of time; and because they are not open to rational discourse, at worst they are resolved only by resort to the sword, the bomb or the flame.

“They are not real questions, because they are not based on evidence.” Hmmm. How do we know this? What evidence is there for the statement, “The only real questions are questions based on evidence”? It is a metaphysical assumption that is simply unverifiable in itself and suffers from not being able to comply with its own criterion, since there is no evidence for it.

Then he takes a little, hidden leap: These kinds of questions “are not open to rational discourse.” In other words, metaphysical questions are not rational because there is no evidence for them. But there are all kinds of mathematical questions that depend on no evidence at all. Geometry is full of them: They’re called axioms and postulates. There is no evidence for them at all. We simply assume them.

The field of logic itself has all kinds of assumptions for which there is no evidence that even Atkins would be loathe to reject, among which is the Law of Non-Contradiction.

And then there is science itself. As the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume pointed out, the major premise in induction is that the future will always be like the past. There is no evidence for it. None. In fact, it is impossible for there to be evidence for it. Scientists postulate that there is such a thing as cause and effect. But these are metaphysical conceptions which, again, as Hume pointed out, are completely beyond the reach of evidence. Empirically speaking, there is only correlation. To posit cause and effect is to go entirely beyond the actual evidence.

And even supposedly empirical science goes beyond the evidence. Where, for example, is the empirical evidence for dark matter?

The second kind of “big question,” Atkins says, includes

investigations into the origin of the Universe, and specifically how it is that there is something rather than nothing, the details of the structure of the Universe (particularly the relative strengths of the fundamental forces and the existence of the fundamental particles), and the nature of consciousness. These are all real big questions and, in my view, are open to scientific elucidation.

Well, okay. This is a mixed bag. The question of the “nature of consciousness” is something very different than the “relative strengths of the fundamental forces and the existence of the fundamental particles.” How is the nature of consciousness even conceptually empirical? He gives no account.

And here is where Atkins employs a typical scientistic trope to make something sound scientific when it is not: “How is it that there is something rather than nothing?” is a disguised form of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This is the trick that Laurence Krauss pulls in his book A Universe from Nothing (somewhat unfortunately subtitled Why There is Something Rather than Nothing), as I pointed out in my review of that book.

To get the general idea, compare Atkins reasoning here:

The first class of questions, the inventions, commonly but not invariably begin with Why. The second class properly begin with How but, to avoid a lot of clumsy language, are often packaged as Why questions for convenience of discourse. Thus, Why is there something rather than nothing? (which is coloured by hints of purpose) is actually a disguised form of How is it that something emerged from nothing? Such Why questions can always be deconstructed into concatenations of How questions, and are in principle worthy of consideration with an expectation of being answered.

With Krauss’ here:

At the same time, in science we have to be particularly cautious about “why” questions. When we ask, “Why?” we usually mean “How?”

… So I am going to assume that what this question really means to ask is, “How is there something rather than nothing?” “How” questions are really the only ones we can provide definitive answer to by studying nature, but because this sentence sounds much stranger to the ear, I hope you will forgive me if I sometimes fall into the trap of appearing to discuss the more standard formulation when I am really trying to respond to the more specific “how” questions.

This is the practice Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek has likened to throwing a dart against a blank wall and then, only afterward, drawing a target around it. You take the why question, change it into a how question, and, presto, it becomes amenable to scientific resolution.

It’s hard to believe that this move is not just intellectually dishonest. “Why” questions “are often packaged as Why questions for convenience of discourse”?!!! No, actually they’re not. They’re two entirely different kinds of questions, and Martin Heidegger, who famously asked the “Why” question about something and nothing, would have had a good laugh (which is a rare thing for a serious German philosopher) if he had heard this kind of nonsense.

Then, as if he had not already displayed enough hubris, Atkins says:

I see no reason why the scientific method cannot be used to answer, or at least illuminate, Socrates’ question “How should we live?” by appealing to those currently semi-sciences (the social sciences) including anthropology, ethology, psychology and economics.

Wait a minute. I could have sworn that Atkins said that questions like this [“How should we live”] “are not real questions, because they are not based on evidence.” And now questions of how we should live are open to scientific inquiry?

As Chesterton once said,

To mix science up with philosophy is only to produce a philosophy that has lost all its ideal value and a science that has lost all its practical value. I want my private physician to tell me whether this or that food will kill me. It is for my private philosopher to tell me whether I ought to be killed.

Finally, Atkins just settles for an altar call and asks everyone to come forward:

The lubricant of the scientific method is optimism, optimism that given patience and effort, often collaborative effort, comprehension will come. It has in the past, and there is no reason to suppose that such optimism is misplaced now. Of course, foothills have given way to mountains, and rapid progress cannot be expected in the final push.

Amen, Hallelujah. In the rest of the paragraph whence those sentence came I counted four “maybe”s and one “perhaps”. Would if the enthusiasm were supported by actual evidence.

Print Print

Add your comment