The Limitations of Science

E. Everett Pelly

Science has explained so many events that formerly were attributed to supernatural causes, and has made possible such a high degree of technological control of our environment that we begin to wonder if there is any end to the process. Philosophy and religion, at the same time, have apparently been squeezed to a smaller and smaller jurisdiction. That which was thought to be beyond comprehension a generation ago is now quite readily dealt with, by observation, experimentation, hypothesis and proof. What was formerly feared to be a visitation of God's wrath, as an epidemic, an earthquake, an eclipse or a war, is now known to be due to natural or human causes. Not only has the realm of the supernatural been pushed farther and farther back by natural explanations, but science itself takes on the aspect of creator. If it is possible now to prolong life, will science eventually be capable of creating life? Can it ever unravel the meaning of existence, the nature of matter, the functioning of mind and consciousness? Will the universe ever be comprehensible in every degree? Can mankind solve his own problems psychologically, sociologically and politically by the scientific method? In short, are there any limitations at all to the total explanation and control of the environment in which we find ourselves?

One possible limitation would appear to be inherent in the phenomena themselves: by this we mean the infinite variety of substances, the tremendous distances that measure out the stars, the multitude of causes in living creatures, and the difficulty attending the determining of them precisely. For instance, in the study of proteins it is estimated that there are six times ten to the forty-seventh power possible variations, and this is only one field of organic chemistry to be explored.

There is also the question beyond the answer to occupy the investigator. For example, if tides are caused by gravitational attraction of the moon, what causes this gravitation to have its effect? If the answer is the movement of the solar system, what causes it to move? If it is brought about through the nature of matter and of space, what is this essential quality?

The two hundred-inch telescope at Palomar has now opened up a whole new expanse to the universe with countless stars beyond what were previously known. It is also recognized that a limit in the extent of magnification without distortion is being approached. In nuclear physics and electronic experimentation observations seem to indicate that conclusions in these fields are approximate rather than exact, and subject to laws of probability. These questions become still more complex when we deal with the movements and adaptations of living creatures. If there is difficulty in determining exact results from controlled conditions in quantum physics, how much more complicated and interrelated the less completely restricted motivations and capacities of human beings. Even so, it is possible that man may get past this limitation if he continues in his present explorative attitude for millions of years and in a state of relative peace.

But if he does, he comes up against a second difficulty, and that is in the interpretation of his findings. Mankind always wants an interpretation, whether in the cosmology of a slowly unwinding universe, a constantly expanding one, or a universe that is itself creating matter out of the void (Fred Hoyle, Nature of the Universe). In any event all of his observations are either directly impressed through his senses, or extensions of them by instruments, of telescope, microscope, spectroscope, ad infinitum.

Explanations are usually given by words, terms or symbols which, however much they may be standardized, have different meanings for different people. I am not saying that this is an insurmountable obstacle, but it is one which presents enormous difficulties. The very notions in which the scientist deals of time, size, weight and distance are conceptions in the human mind and all subject to his innate capacity of comprehension. Of course, it is possible to agree on standards of comparison, within limits of accuracy. But we come back to our original interpretation of what these concepts mean — whether they are things in themselves or ideas and concepts of the human brain, or a combination — which is epistemology.

Another difficulty presented to scientific investigation is in areas beyond immediate observation. For example, it is possible to get some sort of recording in respect to energy transmission or other palpable measurement of what goes on in our minds when we think, but it is questionable whether in all the millions of years ahead man can ever know all about this fascinating subject. It would be necessary to slice a portion out of the skull to observe the impressions in the tissues and synapses of the nerves, and even then it would be an external observation of an essentially internal function. Though apparently coordinated with physical manifestations, emotion, memory and creative imagination are intangible phenomena, not possible except in a whole, integrated human being. When analyzing, even the most simple bit of protoplasm, the first thing that science does is to add a reagent, or heat it, or pass a ray through it, but then the object or creature is in some degree modified.

Whether life is something beyond material substance, whether mind is in matter, whether there is life after death: these are questions that appear to be beyond the scientific method. The scientist may call these unproductive questions; yet perhaps it is the 'irrational' in man that says they are nevertheless supremely worth considering. Though they may not be provable empirically, it may be that the avenues of philosophic or religious inquiry offer the only possible approach; and the only possible criticism the dialectic of other minds. Understanding may come from depth as well as breadth of experience, out of the intuitional soundings of a human being.

The fourth limitation of science is in the field of value judgments. Science has usually acknowledged that it should stand aloof from this sphere. It does not make decisions as to the worth of an atomic bomb, it merely goes to work and produces it. What is done with it is left to man's other faculties. In the field of psychology, it is usually from the standpoint of an individual's health that therapy is practised, seldom from the standpoint of the moral "ought" or "should" in regard to the person's relationship with other people. This is something beyond the counselor's art. The idea of conscience in science is considered to be an aggregation of habits, customs and rites in an anthropological sense. For instance, a favorite theme is to point out that among the Polynesians patricide is practised and among other peoples infanticide. But if a parade of the differences is to be convincing, what about the similarities? How is it that in all religions and philosophies, whether Christian, Moslem or Hindu, Stoic or Confucian, there is basically so much more similarity than difference? The differences are usually superficial and rare, and the similarities tremendous. Emphasis upon the essential truth of the Golden Rule, and upon the development of wisdom and will sufficient to carry it through, is at the core of every religion that has survived.

The final limitation of the scientific method is in the field of aesthetics. We may analyze a painting as to type of pigment, size of canvas or even development of perspective. But I don't think anyone would hold that this is all there is to a work of art. A knowledge of anatomy and physiology may be drawn upon to enrich an execution, as Michelangelo and Leonardi da Vinci so thoroughly demonstrated. But this knowledge is no more than a tool in the process of artistic creation. The emotional force that develops beauty out of chaos is hardly a thing to be measured in the same manner as a beaker of water. It is as unscientific as it is astonishing, and the nearest thing to divinity in man. It is true that Bach created some compositions in almost mathematical sequence, but this relationship was incidental to an inner unity, else all mathematicians could be composers. Likewise an explanation of the creation of a poem from the dry materials of language alone, would always fall short of the complete, living significance of inspiration. Human beings require the subjective as well as the objective approach to reality. Even the sense of appreciation in ordinary minds is essentially a way of seeing things intuitively and as a whole, in a spirit of wonder.

The points enumerated are indeed limitations of science, yet some of them are more properly limitations of human beings. This is not to say that science should reduce its efforts or draw in its research. It can and should continue its explorative recording and analysis of physical, animate and conscious events. A possible limitation residing in the infinite variety and number of phenomena and in the interpretation of what they mean should not deter continued investigation. It only indicates that for mankind these findings are helpful but not complete. No matter how many facts are collected and organized into principles and laws, we always want to know: what is their significance to us? Human beings need consolation, sympathy, sacrifice, love, courage and humor (rich human values not so easily diagnosed or defined); they need some sort of sense of balance as to their position in the universe.

As science makes its splendid advances it is not for mankind to relax on a philosophic easy-chair. It would be disastrous to do so. The developments of science offer a constant challenge to the other fields of man's progress. Ever more and more questions and problems are presented for his intuition, his experience, his social capacities, his moral judgments and aesthetic powers to attack. If we were to take away science we would reduce civilization to barbarism. If we were to take away those other values we would likewise destroy our society. It is not a matter of one or the other, but of all parts of man functioning together, and the greater challenge today is in the direction of the moral, the social, the aesthetic and the philosophic, that mankind may keep pace with scientific advance. It is imperative in order not to destroy himself that he build an ever more suitable mansion, not only for society as a whole, but for his inner self.

How we are going to use the immense forces at our disposal in the role of human beings is the problem. What does it profit if we have almost instantaneous communication and supersonic transportation, if we do not communicate wise thoughts and transport perceptive persons? What does it avail to develop the most terrifying power, if it is used to the ends of hate, destruction and revenge?

And beyond the problems of utility and control, lies man's insatiable search for spiritual significance, which makes of the thoughtful life a constant quest. Some think that all seeking ends when a factual explanation is presented, but to the questioning soul this is but another beginning. To know that all snowflakes are hexagonal does not destroy the wonder that they are all, in exquisite design, different! Even when it is explained to us that moisture and refraction cause the beauty of the sunset, it is still a mystery why that glorious picture filters through to the human mind. In short, the "why" questions may not be productive to organized research, but they are conducive to contemplative awareness, productive of wonder, and essential to spiritual value.

(From Sunrise magazine, December 1953; copyright © 1953 Theosophical University Press)

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