So, Can Science Explain Everything?
The speakers for the AAAS DoSER Holiday Lecture were physicists Ian Hutchinson and Lisa Randall. Dr. Hutchinson, a plasma physicist, is a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT. His research is aimed at harnessing nuclear fusion to produce energy for society. Dr. Randall, a theoretical physicist, is a professor of physics at Harvard University. Her research involves improving our understanding of the Standard Model of particle physics, supersymmetry, cosmological inflation, and dark matter. Welcoming remarks by AAAS CEO Alan Leshner noted the importance of the topic for science and society and the broad public interest in the diverse views of scientists on the nature and limits of scientific inquiry. Both speakers were asked to assess the question, “Can science explain everything?”
“What is science?” Hutchinson asked at the beginning of his talk, and what role does it play in society? He offered a provocative illustration of the authoritative role of science in the modern world, particularly in the media. For instance, BBC News announced a discovery with the headline, “Indian language is new to science.” Though this claim may seem innocuous, Hutchinson pointed out, “Since when have languages been science? In my view, they never have been.” This headline is a product of a popular notion that science is the only source of real knowledge, something that Hutchinson views as a fundamental misunderstanding. Accordingly, his first step in addressing the evening’s central theme was to establish an accurate definition of science.
Hutchinson explained that science contains two essential characteristics, “reproducibility” and “clarity.” Scientists explore aspects of the world that that they can repeat under carefully controlled experimental conditions. In some research fields, like astronomy or historical geology, one may not be able to reproduce a particular event in a laboratory so these scientists rely on numerous observations and measurements of very similar phenomena. Using these techniques, scientists rely on a multiplicity of cases to help them overcome the error that may result from observing any individual event.
The other defining characteristic of science, which Hutchinson describes as “clarity,” is to provide unambiguous descriptions of results in a mechanical or mathematical form. The value of this strategy is that these explanations can be universalized-making them independent of any researcher’s language, culture, place, or time.
Hutchinson then noted that many forms of intellectual inquiry, such as history, philosophy, sociology, political science, legal studies, and religion, lack one or both of these characteristics. Therefore, it is inappropriate to label any of them as “science.” Nevertheless, Hutchinson insisted that just because something isn’t “science” doesn’t mean that it’s not capable of producing reliable knowledge. In fact, there are other rigorous, dependable methodologies that are more appropriate for other fields of scholarly inquiry.
Not everyone agrees with this view. In response to the question, “Is science the only source of real knowledge?” some people answer with a resounding “Yes!” Hutchinson criticized this position as indefensible and argued that it is a speculative, philosophical preference called “scientism.” In its extreme form, scientism holds that if a truth claim is not a product of natural science, it is nothing more than an opinion, emotion, superstition, or pure nonsense. As a scientist himself, Hutchinson regards scientism as “a ghastly intellectual mistake.”
Hutchinson claimed that much of the hostility towards science in our society is a result of confusion between rigorous science and speculative scientism. On the one hand, the scientific community has discovered extremely consistent, uniform properties of the physical universe. Once they are formulated into laws, they have unsurpassed predictive, explanatory power. However, the sweeping claim that “everything that ever happens in the universe must obey the laws of physics, without exception,” is a departure from the rigor of science and into the realm of philosophical speculation.
Hutchinson concluded his presentation by addressing a question fraught with conflict in scientific and religious communities: “How could God act in the world?” Often implicit in this question is an assumption that the laws of physics are completely self-sufficient, and God is either completely constrained by them or he must violate them in order to “intervene.” But Hutchinson also described another theory of divine action that accounts for both the regularity of natural laws and the Judeo-Christian tradition. As the ongoing sustainer of the universe, God’s action in the world is so consistent and reliable that the primary behavior of the universe is fully accessible to scientific analysis. Singular, unique events, as well as those that are not readily quantifiable, require different methodological approaches. In the effort to “explain everything,” we must draw from a wide variety of scholarly fields, not just science.
Randall also began her talk by considering the definition of science. She explained that in order to understand the nature of science, we first need to understand the scale of the universe. Our immediate perceptions and senses give us access to things that we measure in units like centimeters, meters, and kilometers. However, we humans and our perceptions fall in the middle of the universe’s almost inconceivable range of size.
Randall then observed that while certain scientific laws or theories apply consistently at one scale they don’t necessarily apply at all scales, so that much of what science does is study what rules apply at different scales. According to Randall, this concept is not widely understood and leads to a common misperception that science is rigid and unchanging. She argued that the relationship between scale and scientific principles is fundamental to the understanding of science because it illustrates that science is both consistent and predictable but also adaptable and evolving. This duality distinguishes it from other forms of knowledge.
Next Randall turned her attention to describing how science is distinct from art and religion. She maintained that art is concerned primarily with human perceptions, sensations, and interactions with nature. Art draws its strength from the fact that it is deliberately subjective, and each viewer may experience it differently. Science, in contrast, tries to understand things about the world that are independent of individual perceptions. A scientific explanation should be the same for everyone, regardless of who, when, or where the observer is.
In addition to art, religion also belongs to a realm distinct from science. According to Randall, when we treat religion as a human phenomenon, it may have significant social and psychological value. However, there is a problem with believing in a god who exists outside the human mind, as it conflicts with a proper scientific understanding of the universe. Randall concluded, “Believing in an external deity is an unscientific way of thinking.”
Though science has great explanatory power and insights, Randall cautioned that it has limits, too. Science doesn’t ask every possible question, it doesn’t look for purpose, and it doesn’t tell us what’s right or wrong. Instead, science tells us what things are and how they came to be. In particular, Randall asserted that String Theory is not actually “the theory of everything.” Such a claim is deeply misleading, and she warned, “When we put absolutes on things we get ourselves in trouble.” We need to remember that uncertainty is a part of science. But rather than seeing this merely as a weakness, Randall explained that with uncertainty “there is room for error, and room for advancement, too.”
The final topic of Randall’s presentation dealt with the role of science in society. In an age where our political discourse has become fractured and intractable, she maintained that “scientific thinking can be more unifying than we give it credit for.” And although policy-making is not an exact science, she noted that there are many aspects of scientific thinking that can help us in making policy decisions.
In response to the big question of the evening, Can science explain everything? Randall answered, “We don’t know.” But in any case, she concluded, “Scientifically inclined people–with or without faith–will try to pry open the universe to find answers.”
21 December 2011
Return to the Can Science Explain Everything? event Web page.