• John
  • Felde
  • University of Maryland
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • USLHC
  • USLHC
  • USA

  • James
  • Doherty
  • Open University
  • United Kingdom

Latest Posts

  • Andrea
  • Signori
  • Nikhef
  • Netherlands

Latest Posts

  • CERN
  • Geneva
  • Switzerland

Latest Posts

  • Aidan
  • Randle-Conde
  • Université Libre de Bruxelles
  • Belgium

Latest Posts

  • TRIUMF
  • Vancouver, BC
  • Canada

Latest Posts

  • Laura
  • Gladstone
  • MIT
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Steven
  • Goldfarb
  • University of Michigan

Latest Posts

  • Fermilab
  • Batavia, IL
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Seth
  • Zenz
  • Imperial College London
  • UK

Latest Posts

  • Nhan
  • Tran
  • Fermilab
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Alex
  • Millar
  • University of Melbourne
  • Australia

Latest Posts

  • Ken
  • Bloom
  • USLHC
  • USA

Latest Posts

Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

The limits of science

– By Byron Jennings, Theorist and Project Coordinator

Many minds, great, mediocre, and small, have pondered from time immemorial the ultimate nature of the universe. They were all searching for the same thing: the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. Naturally, being people, and having no real criteria to decide on the correct answer, they came up with a collection of contradictory answers, including:

  1. Materialism: The idea is that what you see is what you get. There is no man behind the curtain manipulating things. In this view, the mind and consciousness arises from the material brain.
  2. Idealism: Largely the converse of materialism. Here the mind is fundamental and the material objects only exist in the mind.
  3. Solipsism: An extreme form of idealism that says that all that exists is my mind. You are out of luck. Or vise versa. This one appeals to me since it makes me the center of the universe.
  4. Deism:  Materialism with an Omphalic twist. God or gods created the universe and then took an extended coffee break. This tended to be the default view of intellectuals in the age of enlightenment, most notably Thomas Paine (see The Age of Reason).
  5. Theism: God or gods created the universe and stayed around to interact with their creation. This is typical of western religions – Greek, Roman, Germanic, and the Mosaic religions.
  6. Orwellianism: Reality is what the Party says it is. The idea that there is reality apart from what the Party says is a pernicious superstition. This is the extreme case of ideology trumping everything else.
  7. 42: If you do not understand this answer you do not know what the question really is (Deep Thought from the Hitch Hikers Gide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams).

Number 7 we can ignore (sorry Douglas Adams fans), although the real problem probably is that we do not understand the question. Number 6 is a chilling reminder of what can happen when ideology rules. For all the rest, the scientific method, as a method, is agnostic.

Contrary to popular opinion, the scientific method does not assume materialism, realism, or any other -ism. All one needs to carry out science are observations that can be used to construct and test models. Whether the observations are the result of a material world impinging on the mind through the senses, or purely illusions of the mind as in solipsism, does not really matter.  The relation between the models and reality is different for each of the options one through five, but observation cannot discriminate between them. At best, all observations can do is force ever more creative uses of the Duhem-Quine thesis. No matter how materialistic the universe may appear, there is always a place for God to hide; even if a being with vast knowledge and power showed up, there would be no way to prove he was God and not just a being from some highly advanced civilization.

Scientific models depend not just on observation, but also on simplicity—which is the only antidote to Duhem-Quine. Combining observation and simplicity, the current models of science tend strongly towards materialism. But this could change the next time science lurches in a new direction. Indeed, some claim that this has already happened with quantum mechanics. The measurement process in quantum mechanics is taken by some, possibly misguided souls, to indicate that consciousness has a vital role to play, hence tilting science towards idealism. Quantum mechanics and idealism may be no farther apart then classical mechanics and materialism.

While simplicity is an essential ingredient in constructing our scientific models, can we actually use it as a guide to reality, itself? Perhaps reality is not as simple as our models assume (note the word assume) and the world is only 6,000 thousand years old as Gosse suggested.  The lack of God or gods in our scientific models may be only a symptom of the failure of the simplicity assumption. The mind of God, if he exists, is unfathomable, so there is no guarantee that he would respect simplicity.

How do the models of science relate to the ultimate reality? That is unknown and unknowable. In classical mechanics, the particle trajectories and three-dimensional Euclidean geometry were assumed to be real. The first was destroyed by quantum mechanics, the second by relativity. There is no reason to assume the underpinnings and constructs of any current model will not be similarly undermined by future paradigm shifts. Independent of all that, our models stand, giving us the only useful knowledge available for how the universe works. Niels Bohr stated, “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” As for the ultimate nature of reality, we find that in a song by Iris DeMent, Let the Mystery Be:

but no one knows for certain
and so it’s all the same to me
I think I’ll just let the mystery be

Share