The Limitations of Science Where it Matters Most

By: Will Bryk

Without realizing it, you and everyone you know have been desensitized to the biggest questions of existence.

Every human gradually accumulates consciousness and awareness of his or her existence from the time of birth up through the teenage years. A baby simply does not have the means to contemplate its own existence, while a child does a bit more, and a teenager does. To see why this decade-long process desensitizes us, imagine instead that evolution had gone another way. Imagine that, somehow, only once our bodies and brain were fully grown and ready would we “turn on” and open our senses to the world. Being born would feel like popping into the universe with a fully capable brain and body, but without any knowledge of the universe.

Suppose you were just born this way. A second ago, you emerged from non-existence to full existence instantly. What would your first thoughts be? You would probably not casually start living as you do now. You would probably look around frantically, limbs flailing in all directions, blood pumping, brain racing, knees weakening, collapsing to the floor, and screaming out of sheer bewilderment, “WHAT IS THIS? WHERE DID THIS COME FROM?” The urge to know those answers would be so strong that it would fully encapsulate your being for many years. This “awakening” to the mystery of existence would be the most significant moment of your life, and the sheer memory of it would stir the most powerful of emotions. It is plausible that many people in such a hypothetical world would frame their entire life mission around answering these fundamental questions about existence.

We do not live in this hypothetical world. In our world, we are desensitized to the mystery of existence. Despite how essential, how fundamental, how relevant these questions are to our short existence in this place, most people do not think about these questions. You do not often see people walking around in the street with their arms out in shock, wondering what anything is or where everything came from. But sometimes late at night, with the right music playing and not much else distracting your mind, these questions about existence reappear. They become as obvious as daylight, as important as anything in your life could possibly be. In such moments, we yearn for answers.

Many in today’s age look to science as a beacon of hope to figure out the answers to these deep questions. After so much recent scientific progress, it is natural to expect the trend to continue until even such questions are answered. However, these fundamental questions about existence are precisely the questions that science cannot answer. This great mystery is precisely the one that science can never uncover. It is not just that science has not found answers to these questions yet; it is that science will never find answers to these questions. What follows is an argument in support of the position that science is fundamentally limited in that it cannot answer the deepest, and in some sense, most important questions.

HOW FAR WE’VE COME

There is no dispute that the scientific enterprise has become a beaming torch lighting the path forward toward our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. The past 500 years of scientific progress is a testament to the power of this enterprise. Consider the world in 1500 AD. The universe consisted of the Earth, moon, sun, and the stars, which were visible to the naked eye. Stars were just a name for strange dots in the night sky. The origin of these celestial objects was either some mystical force or some complete unknown, depending on whom you asked. We also had no clue where people came from, or where any living beings came from for that matter. There was no knowledge of a microscopic realm. People fell ill and died without explanation. The fastest mode of communication was horseback or boat.

Compare this to the world of 2017. We now know we live in a universe with hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, many of which have their own planets. Stars are gigantic balls of nuclear fusion. We understand how the planets and stars formed from disks of dust. Evolution tells us the wonderfully detailed story of where humans and all living organisms come from. We have discovered a breathtaking microscopic world no less detailed than our own. We’ve even discovered underlying physical laws that explain the motion of matter. With all this new understanding, we have invented technologies that probe unseen worlds from the molecules of life bouncing around in your finger to the planets of stars thousands of light years away. We now understand the causes of most illness. We can communicate by video with anyone on the globe. The totality of human knowledge is at one’s fingertips at any second. We routinely fly in giant birdlike machines we call airplanes. There are human footprints on the moon.

The mark of science on the advancement of mankind is undeniable. If a visitor were brought to 2017 from the 1500s, they might attribute this unbelievable advancement to some sort of sorcery, but it is instead due, in large part, to a very meticulous method of learning about the world—the scientific method. The scientific method has been instrumental in forming our understanding of nature. It acts like a truth sieve allowing false theories to pass through, leaving only the truth behind. Equipped merely with hypotheses, and physical experiments that test the hypotheses, practitioners of the scientific method were able to uncover general laws that the universe follows. That such a simple method can be so successful is somewhat astounding. Nevertheless, humans are interested in more than just finding the laws of nature. Many will not be satisfied until we know not only the laws, but also the explanations behind the laws.

TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN

Unfortunately, though the scientific method might be a fantastic tool for discovering fundamental laws of nature, it is simply incapable of providing the explanations for these fundamental laws. For instance, Newton pieced together many observations and hypothesized the law of gravity (Fg = Gm1 m2 /r2 ) in the late 1600s. The theory matched observed orbital data and revolutionized our understanding of the universe. Yet Newton also wrote, “Hitherto we have explained the phenomena of the heavens and of our sea by the power of gravity, but have not yet assigned the cause of this power.”1 Newton admitted that the gravitational cause, or explanation, for the motion of the heavens lacks its own explanation. Einstein in fact came along and discovered an explanation. He found that Newton’s law of gravity was an approximation of a deeper truth, namely that gravity was due to curvatures in space-time. However, we now find ourselves in the same problem. If you ask the natural question why space-time has such properties, then you are back in Newton’s shoes a little bit wiser but no more satisfied. The fundamental law changed from Newton’s equation to Einstein’s, but the explanation for the fundamental law still escapes us. Newton’s quote could very well have been attributed to Einstein.

Take another example of unsatisfied explanation. The electromagnetic force is a fundamental force of nature described by Coulomb’s law. The strength of this force is dependent on a certain constant that we call Coulomb’s constant, or k for short. We have a large body of observations that indicate that the value of k is roughly 9 × 109 Nm^2 C^-2. Because of that value, the sun continues to shine, buildings do not collapse, and you can get up in the morning. But why does k equal that particular value? Is it possible that k could have instead equaled 8 × 10^9 , for example? If it is not impossible to imagine a universe in which k equaled 8 × 10^9 , then there must be an explanation for why our universe is governed specifically by k = 9 × 10^9 . Yet the scientific method provides no explanation for this particular value. Thinking in this way, there are all sorts of constants and laws whose fundamental explanations science does not currently provide. Why these constant values, and not others? Why this physical law, and not another? These are the more fundamental questions, the ones we must answer in order to really understand the universe, and yet they are precisely the ones for which science does not have answers.

A physicist might respond that there could be a physics-based explanation for fundamental laws, or for the strengths of constants, but that we have not discovered it yet. It may very well be true that in 100 years, the next Einstein is able to explain the value of Coulomb’s constant. The problem is that this physics-based explanation would itself rely on some assumed axiom, whose explanation would be unknown. At any point in the history or future of science, there will be a set of fundamental laws whose explanations are unknown. Any time an explanation for a fundamental law is discovered, that explanation will itself rely on deeper fundamental laws whose explanations are unknown. Maybe a physicist would instead respond that there are an infinite number of universes, and that we just happen to live in the universe where the laws are the way they are and the constants are the values that they are. Again, we now could ask what is the explanation for the infinite number of universes and why does each one have its particular properties. No matter the explanation, there will always necessarily be a deeper explanation that escapes our grasp.

This central limitation of science is humorously represented by the archetypal curious child. The child asks “Why is the sky blue?” The father, who in this example happens to be a scientist, responds, “Because molecules in the air scatter blue light more than red.” “But why?” “Because of quantum mechanical phenomena.” “Why?” “Because that is how the world works on the quantum level” “Why?” “Because that’s just how things are.” “Why?” Exhausted, the father pauses, considers the big questions for a few seconds, and then responds, “Because I said so!” The moral of the story is that we can always seek a deeper explanation. The child recognizes this. We adults come to recognize this too when annoyed by the child. We then realize that our foundational explanations of the world are mere assumptions based on observation, not pillars of self-explaining truth.

DISSATISFACTION GUARANTEED

A scientist might now note that if we keep making progress and keep finding deeper and deeper explanations, then we are making progress toward a more fu

ndamental understanding, even though, by the arguments above, we cannot reach fully satisfactory answers. We may come up with a singular theory that explains the physical laws and the strength of physical constants—say the conservation of some quantity X, for example. Of course one can ask for the explanation why the conservation of X must hold. But at least we have reduced two questions to a singular, more fundamental one. Science has done this for 500 years. At first we had unlimited numbers of questions about how everything worked. Now we have an understanding of physics that reduces physical phenomena to a small set of laws that can be written on a T-shirt. We might not yet know the full nature of these laws, but in a very real sense, we have come to deeper understanding. So maybe it is true that while science cannot find the explanations for the most fundamental laws, we can be satisfied in our advancement toward those explanations.

This viewpoint is satisfying for many questions. A computer scientist does not need to know how computer chips work in order to code up a website. Similarly, when a father wants to know why the sky is blue, he does not keep asking “Why?” until he arrives at the fundamental laws of the universe. The father is satisfied at some explanatory depth, maybe that atoms scatter blue light more than red, and does not keep asking “Why?” Both the computer scientist and the father recognize their ignorance of the deeper explanations, but at some point, they do not continue to ask for practical reasons. They are satisfied not knowing the deepest explanation.

But there are certain questions that require an explanation which itself needs no further explanation in order to be satisfied. Questions like, “WHAT IS THIS? WHERE DID THIS COME FROM?” are examples of such questions. Unlike the father or the computer scientist, an explanation that X answered these questions would only be satisfying if X needed no further explanation. Right after popping into existence in the “awakening” scenario described earlier, if someone told you that there was a being that created everything, you would not be satisfied. Even though the two questions were reduced to one—“Where did the being come from?”—you would feel unsatisfied until you knew the explanation behind this being, and the explanation behind that explanation, and so on. You would only be satisfied once you somehow had a self-explained explanation, an explanation that needed no further explanation.

Because science is an observational discipline, it always relies on some assumptions whose explanations are unknown. But we cannot have deeper unknowns if we want satisfying answers to the most essential questions. Science therefore cannot answer the most essential questions. At some depth, the torch burns out.

LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL

So far, we have concluded that some questions are unanswerable by science. All this argument implies is that our prized scientific method of arriving at truth is limited. It does not imply that the truth itself is limited. The scientific method cannot answer the deepest of questions, but that does not imply that the answers themselves do not exist. The torch burns out at some depth, but there very well could be more to explore down the tunnel. In fact, there are strong arguments in favor of the position that there must exist answers to these questions. One of the best arguments is simply that the alternative is too absurd to be taken seriously. Though it is certainly possible that answers to recursive questions, such as where the universe comes from, do not exist, it just seems too absurd. It hurts the brain to think that the universe could exist without having an explanation for existing, because we can imagine it being another way and it is not, which warrants an explanation. But this argument is not a proof. It could be a quirk in our brains that we require explanations for all things. One way, still, to get around the potential quirk is to say that even if there is no explanation for the universe’s existence, then that in itself is the deepest answer. In other words, if it is true that there is no fundamental explanation, then that truth becomes the deepest answer, and if you understood that truth you would understand how it could be that there is no fundamental explanation.

We have now come to the conclusion that the scientific method cannot find the answers to the deepest questions, and yet we think these answers must exist. In that case, what do we do if we want to reach those answers? Unfortunately, it may not be possible for human brains to discover these answers. Just because the answers exist does not mean that humans can reach them. For example, we know a fish will never understand general relativity no matter how many millions of years we try to teach it, so we might be like the fish and general relativity like the deepest answers.

Actually, if you think about it, the previous statement was incorrect. There is in fact hope for the fish—because the fish can evolve! The fish and its whole species may not currently be able to understand general relativity, but we know that after a few hundred million years, fish evolved into humans who were indeed able to understand general relativity just 100 years ago. Humans are like the fish. Though the human species doesn’t even have the correct tools to search for the deepest answers, like a fish lacking the tools to understand general relativity, we do currently have the ability to change ourselves until we have the correct tools, like a fish realizing that it could evolve until it has the correct tools.

It seems likely that we would need to enhance our brains in order to comprehend a self-explaining explanation, because such a concept is currently incomprehensible. Artificial intelligence is one example of a technology that presents a realistic opportunity for rapid brain enhancement. For example, we may in the near future be able to mentally connect to a machine with astronomical intelligence at a level we currently cannot grasp. Maybe once we can achieve a certain level of extreme intelligence we would then have the tools to find the deepest answers. If we cannot prove absolutely that this scenario is impossible, then, by definition, it is possible that this artificial intelligence opportunity, or some other brain enhancement opportunity, may arrive within our lifetimes.

It is therefore unlikely but possible that we will discover the answers to the deepest questions within our lifetimes. This is not a conclusion to take lightly. In our lifetimes, it’s possible that we can learn the answer to the totality of existence. From the perspective of someone who went through the “awakening” scenario, it is obvious that there is no greater goal. Maybe it should be obvious to us as well.

 

William Bryk ’19 is a junior in Quincy House concentrating in Physics and Computer Science.

WORKS CITED

[1] Newton, I.; Frost, P. Principia; Macmillan and Co.: Cambridge and London, 1863.

 

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Categories: Fall 2017, Uncategorized

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