Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Limits Of Science - Continuing A Discussion

This is a bleed-over from a discussion started on the blog Debunking Christianity where I am a very infrequent commenter, on a quote from the new Stephen Hawking book: The Grand Design. If you want to see the previous argument follow the link and read the comments. This is in reply to Rob R and now it has turned into a discussion on the nature of science.

You're seeing this in a very black and white way. Some questions are just not scientific to ask, but that doesn't make science inept. For example, I'd say science in principle could explain why we desire for dignity and worth. But that wouldn't give dignity itself. Where does that fit in your view? Science in one sense is very capable of explaining who we are, but in another sense it is not.
I actually don't. The lines are blurry. I grant that science can say some things about who we are. But where it can't, it is regarding the most profound aspects of our existence.
Science doesn't need to give dignity, but that doesn't change that the methodology in principle could explain how dignity is felt, why dignity is needed to be felt, and what purpose dignity serves. What you're asking for is justification, which you're never going to find in science. But that doesn't take away from the point that science can explain who we are.

This other sense, where science just hasn't gotten around to explaining, but is in fact just categorically inept is where philosophy and theology demonstrate their explanatory power (which and thus their epistemic worthiness). So with theology, this isn't merely a matter of a God of the scientific gaps, but a God of a gap in science which is there because science doesn't belong there.
I grant that philosophy has a role complementary to science, even to examine science itself ("There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination." - Dan Dennett), but that doesn't draw away from Stephen Hawking's point about modern cosmology nor does it mean theology has any domain of relevance whatsoever. I wonder what theology as a discipline can illuminate on anything that philosophy can't, or illuminate anything at all for that matter.

and yes, there is overlap here. Since theology has so much explanatory power for who we are, it has explanatory power for the most important profoundly interesting entities in the universe that we have encountered in our immeadiate universally accessible experience... us! conscious passionate valuing beings. And nothing would be worth anything without the subjective beings from whence worth arises. And if theology explains the most important entities universally available to our experience in this universe, you can bet that the universe itself isn't out of the scope of what theology has to say.
Theology can have a lot to say, whether any of it is true is another matter entirely. Take astrology for example, it has a lot to say about people's personalities, about their lives, about the events on earth. Yet we don't take astrology as a serious discipline. Just because people can make predictions about personalities doesn't mean that those personality predictions map to reality. Plenty of people take horoscopes seriously, believe that star sign develops personality, and use birth charts as a means to understand their destiny. We could take that has having great explanatory power - about us! But we don't take astrology seriously, it's for people who don't understand that constellations are merely artefacts of the relative position of the sun in our galaxy and that any patterns seen are imposed by our minds. Likewise those personality traits that are linked to star signs show no empirical merit whatsoever.

Astrology has plenty of explanatory power, yet the discipline suffers from having no plausible account for said explanatory power and contradicting empirical validity. Likewise I'd say anything theology attributes to who we are is taking something that arose in the evolutionary process and claiming it as God-given. The attributes we have got that way because they were selected-for by the environment, mutations that gave a survival advantage carried on. So how can we claim that this falls under theology any more than personality falls under astrology?

But when it comes to the state of love itself, we aren't in the realm of science any more. I don't use science to tell me how to love, I just experience it.
Exactly, but interestingly, you don't even have to go to something as lofty as love to run out the aptitude of science. The mere experience of color is a problematic one. Try to explain to a person born blind from birth how to identify blue and distinguish it from other colors without relying on accidental associations (blue is the color of the sky, or your mother's eyes) if he were to be cured. It's not possible. This linguistic disconnect would even be problematic for hypotheses which are linguistic in nature, yet this aspect of our existence doesn't yield to analysis that can be expressed linguistically in and of itself, but only in how it is layered into our experiences. Associations with wavelengths eye structures and neurologically maps just aren't going to shed any light on that and make it any less non-linguistic. We can only refer to it and label it as experienced. It's not some equation that we can dissect further.
But modern neuroscience is starting to be able to probe experience, it's now opening a frontier and again this would be where it would be important to have a strong scientific background where previously it was a philosophical question.

Though on this issue, one of my friends used to do volunteer work at a science centre. He told me a story of one deaf girl who was with her mother going through a sound and colour exhibition. Because she was deaf they were going to skip it, but he decided to try to explain it to her. Long story short, he was able to help the deaf child understand what it was like to listen to music through analogy and an understanding of the science involved. Of course that doesn't touch on the experience of it, but it does illustrate the relationship between the insight that comes from scientific inquiry and the ability to understand it.

I know what you are saying though and I had a similar discussion with gearheded. I came to the conclusion that science itself uses more than one notion of truth, in our understanding of different paradigms. Scientists do indeed say that newtonian physics is false, yet scientists and engineers will also do research and develope technologies and make predictions on the basis of Newtonian physics and they will not think of their conclusions thinking as wrong at all just because it isn't worked out for greater precision than many of our crude scientific devices (ones that don't have anything to do with quantum or relativistic measurements). And even in daily life, when I for example drive down the road, I don't even give it a thought that my speedometer is wrong just because it is not absolutely precise or that I couldn't even read it to such an absolute sense. I understand that there is a pragmatic notion, but when science advances, scientists are very much interested. And yet, when we want to advance science, we do regard some of these theories as false precisely because they fail to be absolute, because when we do with them what we need to do with physical forumulas, extrapolate and predict, they fail. It's because they are not absolutely true that we look for the next theory that succeeds where this one failed. It is very much a persuit towards absoluteness that scientists like Hawking are seeking a "theory for everything".
I think this suffers from the notion that there is a God's eye view of reality and that's all that matters. What I don't get further is how this is a problem for science, it's the strength of the discipline. Perhaps I don't understand what it's like to take an absolutist mindset to anything, but I really don't get why it's a problem that a discipline has fallibility as part of the process. Relativistic physics didn't so much replace Newtonian physics as show that it has boundaries. Newtonian physics is still used because it works, the boundary cases where it doesn't work aren't relevant to engineers.

Remember that I am defending the use of the word knowledge for science. Not Truth™ but knowledge. You're making the case around a word that I'm not trying to use. Again I think you're trying to see things in a very black & white way.

While we could say that low end sciences are looking for pragmatic truths, extending, high end physics are perhaps really after truths favorable to more of a correspondence theory.
I'm not sure how you distinguish between the two. Think of heat death in our universe, it's an implication that came out of a theory initially done to find the greatest efficiency a steam engine can have. Would work done on thermodynamics count as high end or low end physics to you? Is there some demarcation between the two? The puzzles that vexed Darwin from which evolutionary theory arose didn't exactly stem from trying to solve the big question of being, but his theory certainly does hit on that.

Are you saying that because Newtonian physics has been superseded by Relativistic physics that apples hung in mid-air awaiting the outcome?
I actually don't know that relativity completely replaces everything Newtonian. It would motion wise, we just don't use it because the effects are imperceptible and impractical. Is gravity and general relativity the same way? I suppose. So either that part wasn't superceded or the description of apples falling to the ground can be described with far greater accuracy (albeit an unmeasurable and unpragmatic accuracy).
That's irrelevant to my point. There I was distinguishing between facts and theories, that is to say the explanation for why an apple falls isn't needed to know that an apple will fall.

They're justified through repeated inquiry and empirical validation.
until we run into the experiments where they fail to do what these theories are supposed to do, make predictions through extrapolation and then realize the need to do something more accurate. Well, they'er still useful, but again, for the purposes of high end physics, for the purpose of advancing science to explain the fundamentals of the universe, they turn out to be wrong.
Again it seems you're coming from this absolutist mindset. Either we have a god's eye view, or that we can only ever aspire to it. Why does this straw man come up time and time again? I'll state it clearly. Science does not show absolute truth! It cannot by its own methodology, so even if the was such thing as absolute truth there's no way one could come to it through scientific inquiry. But I'm not defending that position and have already gone to great pains to distinguish from it.

Science works, it's neither merely a pragmatic truth nor a view from a hypothetical vantage point. Facts can be known, theories can be validated. It's just not a matter of avoiding falsification but a matter of being able to make good explanations of how things are.

So you recognize that science is inept on some of the most important issues of human meaning.

I don't get why you need to show science inept at answering non-scientific questions. It's like finding triumph in the view that economics is hopeless at cell division. I explained my position before, science in principle can answer questions of just why it is people feel meaning. In principle, it can explain how the feeling of meaning comes about, how we evolved to be able to feel it, and even why it is important to us. But it can't explain what meaning is - those are questions for philosophy, and it can't explain how it is to experience meaning - that is something we find for ourselves.

That you didn't agree with my interpretation or John's interpretation of Hawking doesn't invalidate the discussion that took place.
The statement Stephen Hawking made I find completely non-controversial, it's obvious what he meant by it. Are you honestly going to say that you can tackle issues of cosmology and the fundamentals of our universe without having a good working knowledge of physics? If so, please illustrate. And as for what John said, I can't say what he meant by it but I would agree with such as statement as I have illustrated already. Of course science can explain who we are, if you try to explain anything about the human condition without looking at our evolutionary history then you're doing it wrong. Yet at the same time the questions you are complaining that science can't answer aren't scientific questions. They make so sense to ask scientifically any more than asking a historian to comment on planetary motion, because after all planets have history too...

I wish more skeptics (if that is your perspective) would get it that science isn't everything to our most important pressing questions.
Science isn't everything, of course it isn't. But to try and illustrate one more time of what I mean. Take music. I listen to music that I enjoy. Now lets say that scientists are able to work out exactly why it is I listen to the music I do: that they can to brain scans on me and see what areas of the brain light up, they can look at my genetic code and brain structure to see what kind of patterns are there. And from a whole host of observations and well-supported theories they are able to tell me exactly what music I like and furthermore can recommend me music that would suit me better than everything I listen to currently. Yet I don't need science to tell me what music to listen to, I do it out of the desire for experience.

That doesn't make science inept, on the contrary science can answer many of the pressing questions. When it comes to why we have the attributes we have: evolution. It explains who we are and where we came from and why we are the way we are, there's just no getting around it. Yet in one sense it doesn't matter where we came from because those tools work fine without that knowledge. An accountant can crunch numbers fine without any knowledge of the philosophy of mathematics or the pressing issues surrounding professional mathematicians. Just as I can have a brain fully (in principle) explainable by science which means I'll live my life much in the same way as my ancestors did. The pressing issues that might be important to me are (in principle) explainable by science, but it hardly matters whether they can be explained or not for practical purposes. Because from my subjective experience it doesn't matter why I feel love or empathy or anger, and it doesn't trivialise my experience whether science can explain it or not.

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