Can Science Explain Everything?

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Is science complete and unitary? Does it offer an overarching and all-inclusive description of reality, reaching from the foundations of space-time to the self-illuminating capacities of consciousness? This question strikes at the heart of much of the debate between science and religion as atheists argue that the explanatory powers of science make religion irrelevant. Stepping beyond the forever-contentious arena of science vs. religion, the question of completeness stands at the center of hard-core philosophical debates about the nature of world and our access to it.

 couple of weeks ago my co-blogger Alva Noë raised the issue of the relationship between our experience of the world and the underlying reality science describes. Alva said that we are "confabulators," creating a world of odor, color and flavor where no such fundamental reality exists in the realm of fundamental particles upon which everything sits. Reading over Alva's provocative piece I was struck by another puzzle implied in his argument: can science explain everything as a seamless whole?

There are many different kinds of science: physics, chemistry, biology and sociology. Each discipline also breaks down into its own subfields. Physics is really particle physics (quarks, etc.), nuclear physics (nuclei), condensed matter physics (the study of aggregates of matter like solids), quantum optics (the study of light) and astrophysics (to name a few). The common narrative of science is that one can begin at the bottom in a field and work up to the top. If you know the foundational laws of a field then you should be able to work up, level by level, to first embrace the sub-disciplines and, eventually, end up with a complete, coherent account of all phenomena. This reductionist vision is dominant in science and we discuss it frequently here at 13.7. Today, however, I'm interested in something different.

The question on the table today is more straightforward. Does the science we have now constitute anything like a unitary whole? How well do the theories governing one branch, or even one sub-discipline, of science make the transition into other domains? Does science comprise an explanatory pyramid of universal laws built from a broad, solid foundation, or is it a collection of smaller relatively separate temples, each dedicated to some smaller piece of the world?

Written By: Adam Frank
continue to source article at npr.org

38 COMMENTS

  1. Piffle.

    First off, the proper question is not does science offer an overarching and all-inclusive description of reality, but whether it can offer such a description. Just because we can’t explain everything at the moment doesn’t mean we won’t ever be able to.

    Second, this is a false dichotomy. Even if science can’t explain everything about everything, that doesn’t mean that religion can (or that it can explain the “gaps” where science fails). Made up stories by ancient civilizations have no claim whatsoever to any sort of explanatory authority.

    In other words, the scientific method is the only way we can explain anything about anything. If something can’t be explained via the scientific method, it can’t be explained, period. Lot’s of room for ideas, suggestions and general wishful thinking, true, but not actual explanations.

    • In reply to #1 by godzillatemple:

      Piffle.

      First off, the proper question is not does science offer an overarching and all-inclusive description of reality, but whether it can offer such a description. Just because we can’t explain everything at the moment doesn’t mean we won’t ever be able to.

      Second, this is a false dichotomy….

      …that neatly wraps up exactly what I was going to say.

  2. As so often happens, the title oversimplifies the question. Answering the question, “Can science explain everything?” is easy: No. “Everything” is a really really big category (as Douglas Adams might have put it) and it only requires a single counterexample to break such an ultimate generalization, and science, by definition, cannot explain “unknown unknowns.” Also, there are areas such as mathematics that are outside of science. Science does not even try to explain all theorems that mathematics could ever contain, and even mathematicians don’t think that all provable theorems will be proven, let alone the enumeration of true but unprovable theorems (thank you, Kurt Gödel).

    However, the better question is about what can be explained that makes a difference in our lives. As others have noted, not having a scientific explanation of something does not mean there will never be such an explanation, nor that any grounds for assuming the supernatural have been established, thereby.

  3. Does the science we have now constitute anything like a unitary whole? How well do the theories governing one branch, or even one sub-discipline, of science make the transition into other domains? Does science comprise an explanatory pyramid of universal laws built from a broad, solid foundation, or is it a collection of smaller relatively separate temples, each dedicated to some smaller piece of the world?

    The answer to all these questions I would have thought is we don’t know yet. A more interesting question I think is whether we have any evidence that science can’t in principle be a unitary whole. I don’t mean “gosh it’s difficult to explain life in terms of quantum field theory” I mean something that suggests that reductionism is fundamentally wrong.

    Got evidence ?

    Michael

    • In reply to #5 by mmurray:

      The answer to all these questions I would have thought is we don’t know yet. A more interesting question I think is whether we have any evidence that science can’t in principle be a unitary whole.

      Science aspires, sooner or later, to explain everything it encounters, so it may well explain everything in particular fields. Whether the volume of data is too great for the thinking capacity of particular cultures, is unknown at present. The volume of potential data, and the potential mental processing capacity, are both large but unknown.

      I don’t mean “gosh it’s difficult to explain life in terms of quantum field theory” I mean something that suggests that reductionism is fundamentally wrong.

      Nobody has ever produced a working credible alternative to reductionism. (Although some dwell on whimsical self-delusions of some such.) Reductionism has proved very effective in providing scientific and technological knowledge which works when applied.

      • In reply to #12 by Alan4discussion:

        Nobody has ever produced a working credible alternative to reductionism. (Although some dwell on whimsical self-delusions of some such.) Reductionism has proved very effective in providing scientific and technological knowledge which works when applied.

        This is out of genuine curiosity, not hostility, but is chaos theory reductionistic? I remember reading in a sci-fi book somewhere that self-organisation was not reductionistic, though I don’t remember any specific reasoning being given. Also, doesn’t reductionism run into the infinite regress problem, at least in theory?

        • In reply to #14 by Zeuglodon:

          This is out of genuine curiosity, not hostility, but is chaos theory reductionistic? I remember reading in a sci-fi book somewhere that self-organisation was not reductionistic, though I don’t remember any specific reasoning being given. Also, doesn’t reductionism run into the infinite regress problem, at least in theory?

          Don’t know about chaos theory, but the infintite regress problem from a deconstructionist viewpoint isn’t really a problem unless we imagine that we one day run out of new things to unravel.

          I wouldn’t go so far as to say that reductionism is the only game in town, but it is more often than not the simplest approach and starting point for investigation.

        • In reply to #14 by Zeuglodon:

          In reply to #12 by Alan4discussion:

          Nobody has ever produced a working credible alternative to reductionism. (Although some dwell on whimsical self-delusions of some such.) Reductionism has proved very effective in providing scientific and technological knowledge which works when applied.

          This is out of genuine curiosity, not hostility, but is chaos theory reductionistic?

          A good question about which I am not sure. I would suspect the effects of chaos theory could be tracked retrospectively but not predictively.

          I remember reading in a sci-fi book somewhere that self-organisation was not reductionistic, though I don’t remember any specific reasoning being given. Also, doesn’t reductionism run into the infinite regress problem, at least in theory?

          I think any investigative research eventually leads a regressive argument, with a need for further investigation, so at some point we have to say we do not know beyond this point. That does not prevent the research producing a reductionist understanding of the subject up to that point within defined areas. – With further research closing gaps and joining up these areas.

        • In reply to #14 by Zeuglodon:

          This is out of genuine curiosity, not hostility, but is chaos theory reductionistic?

          Do you mean reductionistic or deterministic ? Sometimes people say in the chaotic system the initial conditions don’t determine the later states. That would mean it was non-deterministic. But that isn’t generally true. A better definition is in wikipedia:

          Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions—an effect which is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for such dynamical systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.[1] This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved.[2] In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.[3][4] This behavior is known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos. This was summarised by Edward Lorenz as follows:[5]

          Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.

          The actual precise definition has some other features but that’s the basic idea.

          Also, doesn’t reductionism run into the infinite regress problem, at least in theory?

          I don’t see why. There there is no reason the reduction has to go on forever. There could be a fundamental collection of particles and forces and when you understand their interactions you understand (in principle!) all the behaviours of large assemblies of them like us. I would have thought in fact most particle physicists believe this is true.

          Michael

          • In reply to #18 by mmurray:

            In reply to #14 by Zeuglodon:

            This is out of genuine curiosity, not hostility, but is chaos theory reductionistic?

            Do you mean reductionistic or deterministic?

            I did mean reductionistic in the sense of being able to explain, say, macroscopic phenomena with reference to smaller components and their relationships to other parts, though I certainly don’t begrudge you expanding on determinism. However, are there any reasons to suppose that chaotic systems have a non-reducible aspect about them? Would emergent properties of chaotic systems, such as self-organizing complexity, count as irreducible, for instance?

          • In reply to #22 by Zeuglodon:

            However, are there any reasons to suppose that chaotic systems have a non-reducible aspect about them? Would emergent properties of chaotic systems, such as self-organizing complexity, count as irreducible, for instance?

            A distinction needs to be made here between reducible in practice and reducible in principle.

        • In reply to #14 by Zeuglodon:

          Also, doesn’t reductionism run into the infinite regress problem, at least in theory?

          I don’t see what the infinite regress is. Reductionism to me means you can explain various theories in terms of the next theory “down” i.e., that deals with smaller more fundamental concepts. So a theory of mind eventually has to be reduced to a theory of biology. A theory of biology has to reduce to a theory of chemistry, chemistry to physics and then you are done. No regress, it’s physics all the way down.

          Chomsky makes the claim that Reductionism is not even theoretically something people think can be done in most cases. For example, he claims there are certain laws of chemistry that simply can’t even in theory be reduced to talking about physics although they are still compatible with them. He makes the distinction between reconciliation (what he says has been done with chemistry and physics and what people are trying to do with quantum and relativity) and reduction. I have to admit that’s one of his arguments I never quite completely got though, I don’t know enough about chemistry and physics and how the two relate.

          • In reply to #28 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #14 by Zeuglodon:

            Also, doesn’t reductionism run into the infinite regress problem, at least in theory?

            I don’t see what the infinite regress is. Reductionism to me means you can explain various theories in terms of the next theory “down” i.e., that deals with smaller more fundamental…

            Yes, I agree that the modern trend in science is towards what E. O. Wilson calls consilience, or the interrelatedness of scientific fields, and that this can be attributed to the success of scientific-reductionistic explanations. However, I don’t think you have satisfactorily answered my question, and I’ll explain why.

            The regression I was referring to goes like this: reductionism postulates that the best explanation for a particular phenomenon is with reference to smaller phenomena and the interactions between them; for instance, that social systems can be best explained as the outcomes of all the individual people, how they relate to each other, and what psychological rules they are obeying. In the abstract, this would suggest that the answer to each phenomenon would be to dissect it and see how it works, how its “anatomy and physiology” piece together, so to speak. But then those parts could be explained in the same way, and then the parts of those parts, ad infinitum. We might discover a technology that could break down quarks into even smaller components, or, say, as a subset of space-time phenomena, thus uniting particle physics and (potentially) relativity.

            At what point do we reasonably stop? Will physics be reducible to a new field – say, a form of empirical cosmology – and if so, what can we say about it now? Think of the Münchhausen trilemma I linked to a while back, and hopefully you can see where I’m coming from. Would a hypothetical Theory of Everything fall afoul of one of the three shortcomings in the trilemma? While I’m not saying reductionism is useless – quite the contrary – I am wondering how far it can be taken.

          • In reply to #31 by Zeuglodon:

            In reply to #28 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #14 by Zeuglodon:

            Also, doesn’t reductionism run into the infinite regress problem, at least in theory?

            I don’t see what the infinite regress is. Reductionism to me means you can explain various theories in terms of the next theory “down” i.e., that deals w…

            I agree the way you defined Reductionism it is open to an infinite regress and I think the problem is with your definition of Reductionism. You said:

            reductionism postulates that the best explanation for a particular phenomenon is with reference to smaller phenomena and the interactions between them

            If people use that as their definition I think its clearly flawed. For one thing what does “better” mean in that statement? True? More elegant? I don’t see any good argument that an explanation that is in reference to smaller phenomena is somehow “better” than one that isn’t.

            Consider a real example: language competence in humans. Is an explanation based on neurons firing “better” than a more holistic explanation based on concepts that can’t be directly mapped to neurons like grammar? There are examples of verbal behavior that we can explain very well by appealing to grammar (the child is making a common kind of mistake because they haven’t learned rule X yet which is common for children of that age) even though we have no idea what neurons “knowing Rule X” would correspond to in the child’s brain.

            What I would say is not that an explanation in terms of smaller stuff is always “better” but that for any discipline of science there always needs to be, at least in theory, a mapping from one discipline to the next. So it’s fine if I describe things using concepts like grammar that can’t be measured in the brain now and probably for a very long time to come but if I start using concepts like “the soul” that are fundamentally incompatible with what we know about the rest of the physical world THAT is a problem.

            BTW, I think that is the error that really permeates the article. When the people in the article talk about nonsense like the “dappled world” they are assuming that it somehow has some logic that is outside the rest of the natural sciences, which there is no evidence to support at all.

            Getting back to the infinite regress the reason my reconciliation argument isn’t a regress is that each discipline needs to (ultimately) reconcile with the other. So it’s as important to reconcile physics with chemistry as vice versa, if physics makes predictions about the way specific atoms will behave that seem to be violated in certain chemical reactions we don’t just say “no big deal, two different models” we take it as a sign that there is an interesting problem that needs more research.

          • In reply to #33 by Red Dog:

            I hope you aren’t suggesting some sort of downward causation. The only reason that the different fields reconcile is because everything is in principle reducible to physics.

  4. I find the title of the article annoying.
    There may well be things that science can never explain, but so what? The beauty and power of science lies in the fact that it is constantly working at finding answers.Think of how far it has come! For folks who evolved from a tiny shrew-like creature,here we are with soaring buildings archiving ponderous tomes filled with information of dazzling complexity, on a variety of subjects.Hardwon, yes very.Science might be a search as long as life itself exists.It’s an adventure.Anything might happen,and does.The life we are living today is completely different from the one our forefathers knew.

    And Science works!!

  5. The opening paragraph sounds like the phenomenology of Husserl and Merleau Ponty. There is something to be said for it in as much as conscious acts make sense of reality “creating a world of odor, color and flavor where no such fundamental reality exists in the realm of fundamental particles upon which everything sits”.

    However…. in ‘creating a world’ we should make our best efforts to map our consciousness to reality not try to distort reality to fit our consciousness. Religios note, this is exactly where we part company. Science does not explain everything and I doubt it can ever do that but…. fanciful ideas about things that can’t be falsified never explained anything.

  6. Talk of grand theories that explain everything make me think of the Münchhausen trilemma:

    If we ask of any knowledge: “How do I know that it’s true?”, we may provide proof; yet that same question can be asked of the proof, and any subsequent proof. The Münchhausen trilemma is that we have only three options when providing proof in this situation:

    • The circular argument, in which theory and proof support each other (i.e. we repeat ourselves at some point)

    • The regressive argument, in which each proof requires a further proof, ad infinitum (i.e. we just keep giving proofs, presumably forever)

    • The axiomatic argument, which rests on accepted precepts (i.e. we reach some bedrock assumption or certainty)

    The first two methods of reasoning are fundamentally weak, and because the Greek skeptics advocated deep questioning of all accepted values they refused to accept proofs of the third sort. The trilemma, then, is the decision among the three equally unsatisfying options.

    In contemporary epistemology, advocates of coherentism are supposed to be accepting the “circular” horn of the trilemma; foundationalists are relying on the axiomatic argument. Views that accept the infinite regress are branded infinitism.

  7. This is one of the questions theists ask (implying that science can’t and religion can) that irritates me. It’s a bullshit question, rather like, “Can you love both animals and humans equally?” or “Can atheism REALLY bring ultimate happiness?”
    Science is an honest endeavor to understand the world using our senses and our intellect (as opposed to our primitive emotions). Whether it ever explains “everything” (I don’t even know that the hell that is supposed to mean) is irrelevant, at least when one sets up a competition with religion, which explains fuckall.

      • In reply to #21 by DHudson:

        I think we’d get bored pretty quickly and start inventing our own problems.

        Scientific problems are real enough to keep us busy. The problem with humans though is our tendency to invent “holistic” pseudo-explanations like God.

        • In reply to #23 by Peter Grant:

          Scientific problems are real enough to keep us busy.

          Hehe…tell that to the muslims, the jews, the christians, the buddhists, the hindus, the scientologists etc, etc., but yeah…it’s a waste of potential.

  8. I must admit to being sometimes amused by the anguish suffered by some philosophers:

    Does it offer an overarching and all-inclusive description of reality, reaching from the foundations of space-time to the self-illuminating capacities of consciousness?

    I would say it’s done a pretty good job so far !

  9. Its not the explanatory power of science that makes religion irrelevant, but religion’s own lack of explanatory power.

    If you can’t explain anything and can’t change to account for new discoveries, then unfitness for your environment guarantees the eventual extinction of your philosophical model when you are in a competition with a model which can do both things.

  10. Humans implement science ……so technically Humans CAN answer Everything…. based on our practice of scientific processes and the boundaries of our current expanding scientific knowledge……if we Cant just yet…we will work out the true answer in time….for now – the closest approximation of accurate scientific prediction can tell us what answers we should aim to clarify…….we just need to know what important questions to ask….

  11. Can science explain everything? IMO: Yes. If something is a real phenomenon, it will have knowable patterns of behavior that define the nature of its existence. These patterns will exist because of features in the environment that lead to the existence of the phenomenon have knowable patterns.

    Does this mean that science knows everything about everything, so far? No.

    Does this mean that science has perfected how to discover what the knowable patterns for every type of phenomenon are? No.

    Does this mean that science currently possesses every type of evaluative tool that can gather, process, and analyze all relevant data in relation to real phenomena? No.

    Does this mean that human-based scientific research will eventually discover all real phenomena, and all of their knowable patterns of behavior? No. It probably won’t.

    Does human-based scientific research have some very effective frameworks in place already for determining the knowable patterns of some phenomena? Yes.

    I possess a Master’s in Technical and Scientific Communication, and I have a strong background in EE. I have worked in aerospace R and D, IT h/w and s/w R and D, and other scientific and engineering projects. Thank you for considering my position. I welcome feedback.

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