Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Limits of Science

Hooray for science! Without it our lives would be "poor, nasty, brutish, and short," as Thomas Hobbes put it in another connection. Much as I prefer science to non-science, I know that mankind does not live by science alone. We also live by such extra-scientific phenomena as emotion and faith. (Even scientists have faith, though it may not always lie in a religious direction.)

I am an avid reader of novels and watcher of movies (forms of entertainment that appeal to emotion). The fruits of science enable the production and distribution of novels and movies, but the people, places, and events depicted therein are (or can be) wholly fictitious. Others -- who may or may not read novels or watch movies -- find solace, guidance, and (in their view) salvation in religious faith: a belief in God and adherence to the precepts of a religion that is based on the existence of God.

In sum, science neither provides nor explains everything of value to humans.

Consider these three categories of knowledge (which long pre-date their use by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld): known knowns, know unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Here's how that trichotomy might be applied to a specific aspect of scientific knowledge, namely, Earth's rotation about the Sun:

1. Known knowns -- Earth rotates about the Sun, in accordance with Einstein's theory of general relativity.

2. Known unknowns -- Earth, Sun, and the space between them comprise myriad quantum phenomena (e.g., matter and its interactions of matter in, on, and above the Earth and Sun; the transmission of light from Sun to Earth). We don't know whether and how quantum phenomena influence Earth's rotation about the Sun; that is, whether Einsteinian gravity is a partial explanation of a more complete theory of gravity that has been dubbed quantum gravity.

3. Unknown unknowns -- Other things might influence Earth's rotation about the Sun, but we don't know what those other things are, if there are any.

For the sake of argument, suppose that scientists were as certain about the origin of the universe in the Big Bang as they are about the fact of Earth's rotation about the Sun. Then, I would write:

1. Known knowns -- The universe was created in the Big Bang, and the universe -- in the large -- has since been "unfolding" in accordance with Einsteinian relativity.

2. Known unknowns -- The Big Bang can be thought of as a meta-quantum event, but we don't know if that event was a manifestation of quantum gravity. (Nor do we know how quantum gravity might be implicated in the subsequent unfolding of the universe.)

3. Unknown unknowns -- Other things might have caused the Big Bang, but we don't know if there were such things or what those other things were -- or are.

Thus -- to a scientist qua scientist -- God and Creation are unknown unknowns because, as unfalsifiable hypotheses, they lie outside the scope of scientific inquiry. Any scientist who pronounces, one way or the other, on the existence of God and the reality of Creation has -- for the moment, at least -- ceased to be scientist.