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Director’s Corner: Can Science Explain Everything?

Jennifer Wiseman

Welcome to the DoSER Director’s Corner! Here Jennifer Wiseman will share her reflections on public dialogue at the interface of science, ethics, and religion and how DoSER is working to support constructive exchange and understanding between these communities.

Can Science Explain Everything?

Dear DoSER Friends,

For centuries, science has captivated our interest and spurred our curiosity as we’ve pursued a better understanding of the world around us. One might think that after all this time we would be used to our horizons continually broadening, but even so, science time and again takes our breath away. Today science gives us insights into the natural world that we never expected. Cosmology is peering back to the very infancy of our universe. Particle physics has discovered the unimaginably small sub-atomic particles that constitute all matter, and accelerators are giving us clues to the origins of matter, forces and even possibly other dimensions. Genomics and genetics have sequenced the entire human genome and identified the specific genes responsible for a number of diseases. Behavior and experience, even the perception of free will, is seen to correlate both in expected and in surprising ways with the workings of our brains. And the list goes on. Science is even sometimes sought as an ultimate authority on all kinds of societal issues. But are there realms of reality that science is not equipped to address?

Science can tell us how fusion reactions in the cores of stars produce light and how turbulence in the atmosphere causes them to appear to twinkle. But can neuroscience alone explain why the sight of a twinkling star overhead prompts longings and wishes within us? Is there valuable insight into the world and the human experience that can be ascertained through avenues other than science? Can the beauty of a symphony be every bit as true as an equation? Can a poem encapsulate human experience better than a computer simulation or artificial intelligence? And with scientific methods geared to study nature as governed by natural law, is there reality beyond what scientific study can address?

On December 6th, DoSER will be welcoming two exciting speakers to discuss the power and limits of science and how perceptions of scientific authority are affecting society at large. Dr. Lisa Randall joins us from Harvard University where she researches theoretical particle physics and cosmology. In her recent book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World, Randall proposes that science addresses physical reality, while religion, for example, addresses psychological or social human desires and needs. Dr. Ian Hutchinson, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT studying plasma physics, asserts that real knowledge can indeed be found outside of science. But rather than detracting from science, “Recognizing science’s limitations, and properly identifying what we call nature, liberates both science and non-scientific knowledge.” His thoughts can be found in his new book Monopolizing Knowledge: a scientist refutes religion-denying, reason-destroying scientism.

DoSER invites you to explore these fascinating ideas in conversation with the speakers at our special event “Can Science Explain Everything?“, Tuesday, December 6th at 5:00 pm at AAAS headquarters. Presentations and discussion will be followed by our annual Holiday Reception. But don’t worry: if you can’t make it, we plan to post the session online after the event.

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