How many times have a you heard someone utter a phrase like this: Well, there are just some things science will never be able to explain.
People who follow this blog know that I’m all about science. I believe that science is the key to improving ourselves and the world around around us. Science satisfies a natural curiosity within us. We intrinsically want to know why things are the way they are, how they got that way, how they’re going to be, etc. And that’s why I find statements like the one at the beginning of this piece to be so interesting.
A statement that puts some sort of cap or limit on what science will ever be able to tell us or explain would seem to indicate that at some level, people are okay with having questions unanswered. Or at least certain questions. This is often framed against the backdrop of philosophy. Science call tell me about the physical processes that govern a sunset, but it will never be able to tell me why I find it emotionally stirring and beautiful. At least that’s the claim. But is there any validity to that claim?
People–in most cases very rational people who accept science–still view some things as beyond the reach of science. Things like emotions. Morality. Art. Beauty. Truth. Things that have traditionally been thought of as the philosophical. Well, why can’t science deal with any of those subjects? Why can’t science say anything about art? Or beauty? Or morality? Objectively, there’s no reason why science can’t inform these subjects…but we as a society still separate them.
It’s almost like people believe that if we can scientifically explain something like beauty, that that explanation will somehow change the nature of beauty. I don’t know why. Science can explain the sensation of taste–does that mean you enjoy food less? Science has hearing pretty much down pat, yet music doesn’t sound different. So why should it be different with beauty? If science can explain why you find the things you do beautiful, why should that change the fact that you find them beautiful?
And that’s the crux of the issue. The ability to explain something does not change reality. If I didn’t know anything about music, and I played the c note on a piano, and someone explained to me which note I played and how it was made, have I changed the sound? No, I haven’t. So if science can explain to me why we have certain morals, has it somehow changed morality? No. Just because there’s nothing ethereal or mysterious about a feeling or value doesn’t somehow invalidate it. Science can explain why we’re empathetic. So? Does that explanation somehow devalue empathy? No, of course not.
But the threat of science explaining things that people have traditionally considered “unexplainable” is certainly a real thing. As we understand more and more of the human brain, science is beginning to be able to explain why we see things the way we do, why we perceive things the way we do–even why we believe what we do. And a lot of people don’t like that idea. Why? Well, I can’t speak for these people, but I certainly have my theories.
Like most things, it comes down to ego. Human beings want to feel like their existence is special, purposeful. If there isn’t some intangible, almost magical essence to being alive or being human, then people start to panic. If we aren’t all special, if every life doesn’t have some philosophical purpose, then what is our place in this big universe? If science can explain everything, then aren’t we reduced to mere parts in a cosmic machine? I understand those fears. Hell, I even have them myself from time to time.
Another element to this sentiment is the idea of control. Humans like control. We like to think that we control things or that things are being controlled. But the more science discovers and explains, it becomes apparent that while there is a degree of symmetry and order to the universe, it is for the most part chaotic, random, and entropic. The thought of a rudderless universe utterly terrifies people.
So it seems perfectly normal to me that people envision a limit to science. It seems like a psychologically protective measure to want to maintain some mystery about life and the universe. I can understand the phrases like, human beings will never know everything. That may very well be true, but is knowledge really infinite? I’m not sure that it is. And if it isn’t, there may very well come a day when we really can explain everything. That day may be thousands or millions of years in the future. We might all blow ourselves up before we can reach that point.
But to bring this home, I don’t think that there are any subjects off limits to science, nor should there be any. Scientific discoveries may force us to change our philosophical outlooks and values. So what? To argue against that is to argue for stagnation, for some static existence. Arguments for putting limits or boundaries on what science can explore are self-defeating. It’s willful ignorance. It’s being too afraid to move forward, too afraid to learn more about yourself and the universe you inhabit. Again, I understand this fear. And I don’t begrudge anyone for the way they feel. I guess in a sense what I’m arguing is that all fields of study are interrelated. Every -ology and -ism overlap, and at the center is science. Science is a slow process, and I only hope that if the pace is slow enough, human beings can grow and adapt accordingly.