Big Think has printed another of a class of essays written by scientists, common these days, announcing in triumphant tones all the things that science can do outside its particular and limited domain. Almost without exception, these essays, which implicitly aspire to philosophical eloquence, fly too close to the sun. The only difference being that, while Icarus was able to gain a little altitude before the wax started melting, these writers never gain much altitude at all before flaming out, so ill-conceived.
These articles have a number of characteristic features. First, they are usually written by scientists almost completely unfamiliar with the philosophical issues they seem to feel qualified to address; second, they betray a marked ignorance of their own unquestioned metaphysical assumptions, assumptions outside the realm of science altogether, and which, moreover, are often question-begging; and third, their chief rhetorical mode of procedure is not reasoning, but a kind of naive optimism that often descends into cheerleading.
“Science,” says author Peter Atkins,
has proved itself to be a reliable way to approach all kinds of questions about the physical world. As a scientist, I am led to wonder whether its ability to provide understanding is unlimited. Can it in fact answer all the great questions, the ‘big questions of being’, that occur to us?
Well, first of all, why should we think it is unlimited? There are obvious limitations to science. Like all disciplines, it is limited by the unique tools at its disposal: in the case of science, it is the tools of mathematics and empirical observation. The tools of science are quantitative; they are therefore limited in the possible answers they might give to quantitative answers.
When a scientist is faced with a non-scientific, qualitative question, he should realize that he is out of his depth and would be better off treading lightly.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. History has produced a number of scientists who were also formidable philosophical minds. Alfred North Whitehead was one. Henri Poincare was another. A number of physicists (I’m thinking of Werner Heisenberg, Richard Feynman, and, more recently, Paul Davies) have been able to cross over and still make sense. Even popular science writers like Martin Gardner and Stephen Jay Gould were able to sound articulate even when they spoke outside their field of scientific expertise.
This is an excerpt from Martin Cothran’s article published at https://www.memoriapress.com/articles/scientific-hubris-why-science-cant-answer-all-the-big-questions/