Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Limits of Science...Part I

My blog writing is suffering. I have blogger constipation. Not that I don't have things to write about, but I am having a hard time finding the time at the moment. Other things in life are keeping me very busy and away from writing. I realize that is the death march for any blogger. Blogs need to be regular in order to draw any interest. If anyone is visiting my blog on a regular basis (I'm still not sure if that is happening), they are likely getting bored and tired of checking back and seeing no new posts. I apologize and hope to find more time in the near future.

I did have an interesting discussion about science on Facebook  recently. A friend of mine had commented about the recent Nobel prize winner announcements and rhetorically pondered what science will discover next. (This friend is a Christian, as far as I can classify, but also very open minded, knowledgeable, and science-friendly). A friend of his, someone I don't know, commented on his status that he was fed up with science and scientists. This person ranted about all the problems that scientists had not been able to solve yet such as poverty, third-world hunger, wars, the common cold, etc. I thought this was an excellent representation of the pervasive public misunderstanding of science. I added a comment about how his rant really illustrated this misunderstanding of science. I pointed out that science is capable of any discovery so long as enough time and resources are available, but that that does not mean that scientists are capable of solving every human problem that is considered inconvenient. Lumping the common cold in with world peace, for example, is not only like comparing apples and oranges, it is more like comparing apples and Bengali tigers. One is solvable by science (assuming there is a solution) given enough time and resources. The other is not because it does not involve a process of discovery. There is not some phenomenon that would solve hunger and bring world peace if only it were discovered.

The interesting part of the Facebook conversation then began with my original friend. We had a bit of a discussion about the limits of science. This friend pointed out that science has not been about to solve certain things such as the existence of angelic beings and dark matter. Again, I pointed out that the two examples raised are in completely different categories. Given enough time and resources, the whole story about dark matter (and all particles in the universe) is solvable by science since it is a real phenomenon in the natural world. Angelic beings are not a natural phenomenon in the real world (at least, we don't have any evidence that they are), and therefore their existence will never be solved by science. My friend then rightly pointed out that scientists have often been wrong in the past, but the scientific process corrects itself as it goes along, and tried to produce the neat trick of then lumping super-natural phenomenon into that category. Perhaps in the future scientists will find out that they have been wrong about angelic beings. This warping of the limits of science is very common and pervasive. It is by using a bit of truth about science (the process, applied imperfectly by biased scientists sometimes produces error), people often try to point out that science is limited in its ability to discover knowledge in the natural world. It is not. My friend went on to point out a few examples of the usual questions that people think science cannot answer such as, "Why are we here?" and "What should we do?". The first question, of course, has been more or less answered 150 years ago by Darwin. The answer isn't always one that people like or are comfortable with, so the answer gets ignored or rejected and people claim that science cannot answer it. The second question simply needs qualifying before science can answer it, since it isn't a reasonable question as it stands. "What should we do...if we want more elephants in the world?" is a very answerable questions in science. "What should we general with our lives?" probably isn't. This IS an example of the limits of science. Science cannot answer questions for which there is no answer. But, for any real phenomenon, science can provide an answer, given enough time and resources.