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
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