Places Science Cannot Reach

mad_scientistThere was an exchange in the comments section here recently that went something like this:

COMMENTER A: And while he (meaning me, Brad) is a pretty strong supporter of science he’s always said that he thought there are places that science can’t reach — that goes as far back as Hardcore Zen (the book).

COMMENTER B: Yeah, this is a big part of what bothers me about the new book, and I do realize that it does go all the way back to Hardcore Zen. It has always bothered me, and I have always thought it a consequence of Brads lack of science knowledge or education.

You can learn a lot of things by staring at a wall, and many very important things, I will give you give you this. But there are many, many things that you can NEVER learn by staring at a wall. These also are Very important things.
So when you plainly state that there are things that science cannot reach…
Really shows a lack of science knowledge, and not that you know something that science doesn’t.

Yet I continue to insist that there are things that science cannot reach.

This conversation has continued in the comments section and taken some different turns. But I think that I ought to try and clarify what I mean since the commenters may not be the only ones for whom what I said was confusing.

I think that my saying that and having said recently that science doesn’t yet have an agreed-upon theory for why the universe exists at all (it started with the Big Bang, but why did the Big Bang happen? Where did the stuff come from?) makes people think that when I say there are things science cannot reach I must be referring to stuff like that. Like I’m one of those guys who says that since science can’t explain absolutely everything then we ought to believe in God. I’m not. I think those people are being stupid.

Some readers seem to assume I mean that science will never explain the existence of the universe. But I think it’s highly probable that there will one day be a scientific explanation for why the physical universe exists that will be backed up by enough observation and evidence that most scientists will agree with it. I imagine that in order for that to happen science may have to change a lot and may have to incorporate aspects of what we now call “mysticism.” But I could be wrong. Maybe there a nice clean nuts and bolts explanation that won’t sound at all mystical.

In any case, that’s not what I’m talking about when I say there are things that science cannot reach. What I mean is that science is, by necessity, limited in the types of things it can inquire into.

For example, what is love?

Science may be able to explain love in terms of heart rate, endorphin levels, galvanic responses, changes in blood pressure, changes in activity in specific regions of the brain, and so forth. But would that tell you what love is?

Science can’t tell us what love is because that’s not what science does. I find some of the recent theories about the activities of oxytocin fascinating. If you’re on a hot date, it can be informative to know that changes in oxytocin levels may be affecting your cognitive processes. But that still doesn’t tell you what love is.

I remember when I first grokked this concept. Someone was challenging Nishijima Roshi when he said something similar about the limitations of science. I can’t remember his complete response but I do remember four words of it and those four words were, “a girl is crying.” I can still hear how he said those words, his accent, his idiosyncratic intonation when speaking English, the image that came to my mind upon hearing those words. It was a big deal to me. Funny, huh?

But I too was one of those people who very strongly objected to the notion of there being any gaps in the world of scientific inquiry. I knew there were things science hadn’t explained yet. But I also believed that given enough time and enough research there was nothing science couldn’t one day explain.

Now I don’t think so.

And if I may be so bold, I would include God among those things that science won’t ever really get.

Again, God as an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing is easy to refute. I don’t posit God as an explanation for the Big Bang or any of that nonsense.

But there’s another way of understand this word “God.” God is like love. It’s something we experience that can’t be explained away. Or even when it can be explained, the explanations really don’t finalize anything for anyone.

Scientific knowledge is objective knowledge. It is the knowledge of things as objects. But God (or whatever you want to call it) can never be an object. Yet God is also not totally subjective either. The separation of subject and object break down at some point and that is the point that I am provisionally calling “God.”

Here is what the same commenter said to me by email:

You mentioned in your comment that you “believe” in science.
Science is not something that you believe in.  It is something that you do.  It is a process.  It is a process that is so basic and fundamental, that we do it all the time.  And I’m not talking about using the technologies that have been developed through science.  I’m talking about the basic scientific process.  No one could live without it.  There is nothing to “believe” in.
If you hold that the process does not work for something.  That would be a position to hold.  But there is nothing about “belief”. 

But I would also suggest that a certain degree of faith or belief is required in science. I’m going to paraphrase Karen Armstrong’s A Case for God here. The words “faith” and “belief” used to indicate something more like trust or commitment. Jesus wasn’t asking anyone to believe that the theories he proposed were true in the way we use the word “believe” these days. He was asking them to trust him and to commit to his teachings.

In the 17th century scientists began using the word “belief” to mean “intellectual ascent to a hypothetical proposition.” For example, if you didn’t actually do the calculations Copernicus did you could say you nonetheless believed them to be correct based on your faith in Copernicus being a competent scientist and in others who may have duplicated his calculations.

I myself believe in general relativity 1) because I trust that Einstein did the math and that others have replicated his equations even though I can’t understand them any more than Richard Dawkins understands the Holy Trinity and 2) because I’m typing this on a computer that works, in part, because Einstein got it right.

But often I don’t have something like #2 above to go on, in which case it’s just faith alone. Because I’m hopeless at math and all I can do is trust people who are better at it. I therefore believe in science in almost the same way as the folks who built the Creation Museum in Kentucky believe in the Bible. I take science as authoritative. I would argue that there is far more hard evidence for my belief in science than their belief in the Bible (see my example above of my computer and add in high rise buildings, automobiles, jet planes, Western medicine and a zillion other pieces of very solid evidence I interact with all the time). But in the end, internally the process is much the same. Someone I trust says something and I take it on faith that it’s true.

I would further add that my belief in zazen is not completely unscientific. For 2500 years or more, thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions) of human beings have done a controlled experiment with their own bodies and minds and have reported very similar results. These results tend to be phrased, much like scientific results, in language that only those who have done the experiment themselves can comprehend. However, many of these experimenters have produced literature aimed at lay people to explain in ordinary language what they experienced. Like scientists, they’ve had to rely on metaphorical descriptions to get their point across. Also, like scientists, they are usually quick to caution us that these metaphors should not be taken literally.

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75 Responses

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  1. Justin Lewis
    Justin Lewis July 28, 2013 at 6:45 pm |

    I’m still not sure about that whole ‘speed of light’ concept being the speed limit of the universe, but science makes much more sense to me than Christianity and those were two of my biggest influences in early life. I never wholeheartedly believed in either.

  2. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 28, 2013 at 8:23 pm |

    Harlan, thanks for that rendition of “Play It All Night Long”.

    “Our model, however, should never be confused with reality.”

    When the bottom drops out of the bucket, who’s up for a quick game of kick the can?

  3. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 28, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
  4. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 28, 2013 at 8:29 pm |

    Michael Hedges says his inspiration was this man:

  5. senorchupacabra
    senorchupacabra August 2, 2013 at 9:17 am |

    People interested in the subject should read the work of David Bohm. Bohm is one of the most brilliant scientists of all time, but he was very open minded and was well aware of the limitations of science. I’m oversimplifying quite a bit, but what he basically says is that science, because it is based on symbols and models, will never be able to accurately reflect “the whole.” Science, by it’s very nature, is about fragmentation and isolation. You take one “part” of the “whole” and you see how that part works. But because that is the nature of science, it will never be able to represent how the whole works. You can’t isolate and examine the whole. Otherwise it wouldn’t be the whole.

    Personally, I believe one’s beliefs should jibe with science. Nothing a person believes should contradict what we know from science. I also think it’s important to understand that science itself does not have all the answers. It can tell us “how” but never “why.” I know how a plant grows, but I don’t know why life exists in the universe in the first place.

  6. wbtphdjd
    wbtphdjd August 7, 2013 at 9:43 pm |

    Science will never explain why the universe exists because that is a question of intention, which science has no ability to assess. Or, we’ll have to do a lot more work on understanding human brains before we can offer a compelling explanation of intention in terms of brain chemicals. I think Quine’s case for the indeterminacy of translation still holds: we can only evaluate what a statement means to another human by observing her behavior. We have no way of knowing exactly what any given statement means to her, what exact mental state it produces. She stopped at the red light, but did she do so because she just wants to avoid getting a ticket, or because she is so full of compassion that she cannot tolerate the possibility of causing harm by running it? Or some other option? Is she schizophrenic, and her voices told her to obey all traffic laws that day?

    Science absolutely depends to a certain extent on faith. Empiricism obviously works extremely well for purposes of allowing humans to manipulate the material world, but no one has ever offered a complete, robust explanation of exactly what empiricism is or why it works so well. It’s kind of magical.

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