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“Science and Its Limits” — BreakPoint Column

Posted on Feb 21, 2014 by Tom Gilson

My February “Worldview and You” column at BreakPoint is about “Science and Its Limits.”  An excerpt:

But I am speaking too carelessly: I need to identify more clearly what I mean by science. There is science as a practice by which we acquire knowledge, chiefly about nature; and there is science as a multifaceted institution of research, education, publishing, and technology. It is humans, not their methodologies, who are prone to the effects of power, and it is the human institution of science in practice that is prone to overstep its proper bounds.

This overstepping is commonly known as scientism: roughly, the belief that science is the one useful source of knowledge in all areas of human interest.

Science is not scientism; scientism is not science. Scientism has more to do with a philosophy of knowledge than with the pursuit of knowledge. You could say that scientism is science gone imperialistic with respect to knowledge. It’s built on the belief that science is not only a very good and powerful way to acquire knowledge, it is the only reliable way; thus what is not known scientifically is not knowable at all (and probably isn’t even real).

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33 Responses to “ “Science and Its Limits” — BreakPoint Column ”

  1. djc says:

    Which leads to Gelernter’s great question, “What is consciousness for?” It’s an especially challenging question for those who believe we came to be through unguided evolution. Evolution cannot “select for” anything other but objectively accessible features like physical characteristics and observable behaviors. Why then has it included consciousness in the human package? Why are we humans and not zombies? What is humanness for?

    I doubt anyone would claim consciousness evolved any more than one would claim sound or light evolved. Rather, the claim would be that evolution resulted in biochemical machinery that can use sound, light and experience consciousness, all three being preexisting fundamental aspects of the universe.

    The kinds of biological machinery or information processing that results in the experience of consciousness is definitely a question open to science and being explored today. A challenging question, yes, but not one answered satisfyingly by religion as far as I can tell.

    But the question of the origin of consciousness is in the same category as questions of the origin of matter or energy or any aspect of this universe. What is light for? Why does this universe have it?

  2. Ethan says:

    djc

    You say:

    “The kinds of biological machinery or information processing that results in the experience of consciousness is definitely a question open to science and being explored today. A challenging question, yes, but not one answered satisfyingly by religion as far as I can tell.”

    How did you come to that conclusion? How eager/open-minded are you to explore the explanations that philosophy and religion do provide about consciousness? From your above comments, it seems your mind is already settled on scientism.

  3. SteveK says:

    Rather, the claim would be that evolution resulted in biochemical machinery that can use sound, light and experience consciousness, all three being preexisting fundamental aspects of the universe.

    Consciousness is a fundamental aspect of the universe? Sounds nothing like naturalism.

  4. GrahamH says:

    The argument may depend a little on how science is defined, but ultimately doesn’t matter either. If it is defined very narrowly as a “hard” natural science only, you can foresee it having difficulties with certain subjects such as ethics or politics. But why I say it doesn’t matter is because even if that is the case, what is wrong with it trying? Either it will succeed or fail or somewhere in between.

    If science is defined more generally as rational thought applied to empirical evidence, then I see no limits required (or I would be interested in the basis behind why those limits need be imposed and who/what acts as the arbiter of that potential dispute). Knowledge must be consistent with the input of the empirical world. Are there other ways of knowing? Most likely not.

  5. Rather, the claim would be that evolution resulted in biochemical machinery that can use sound, light and experience consciousness, all three being preexisting fundamental aspects of the universe.

    “Consciousness is a fundamental aspect of the universe? Sounds nothing like naturalism.”

    This. I don’t see how you compare waves of light and sound to consciousness.

    Shane

  6. cornelll says:

    Science is great but still overrated, take away the laws of logic and rational thinking is impossible. Go ahead try it :)

  7. cornelll says:

    Graham have you experienced all possible experiences in the empirical world?

  8. djc says:

    Shane,

    This. I don’t see how you compare waves of light and sound to consciousness.

    Light and sound are more easily measured as phenomena but when you get down to it, what are waves really? Electromagnetic radiation, which is what? Photons, which are what exactly? At some point you get down to some elementary concept which “just is”, as far as we can tell. Such could be the case with consciousness.

    Or maybe a better comparison is to quantum gravity. Gravity is a phenomena not made of matter or energy exactly but rather an effect resulting from the nature of time and space. Or maybe it is a particle, the massless graviton. Is this all that qualitatively different from the mystery of consciousness? Doesn’t trivially seem that way.

    A possible path that science can take to learning more about consciousness may lie in first understanding the fundamental nature of computation, time, and quantum theory.

  9. djc says:

    Ethan,

    How did you come to that conclusion? How eager/open-minded are you to explore the explanations that philosophy and religion do provide about consciousness? From your above comments, it seems your mind is already settled on scientism.

    If religion would offer answers as detailed and consistent as scientific explanations, I would adopt religious answers without hesitation. But the answers I see religion providing to the questions of physical reality are sketchy, vague, unsatisfying to me.

    Further, when one rejects a religious explanation or finds it wanting, one suddenly is subjected to some degree of moral judgement within that religion’s belief system. Science, at least, by design does not bring morality into discussions of truth. It’s a dispassionate search for the most consistent explanation so far.

    Now I have an important caveat to this. Religion, in my view, does provide powerful and persuasive answers for one area of phenomena and that is social cohesion. Religion provides extremely useful and detailed models and methods for bringing people together into strong, loyal, stable communities.

  10. Hi djc,

    The elemental particles and forces of the universe exist without a sentient mind to experience them and they exist everywhere. There is no reason to believe consciousness does.

    “Now I have an important caveat to this. Religion, in my view, does provide powerful and persuasive answers for one area of phenomena and that is social cohesion. Religion provides extremely useful and detailed models and methods for bringing people together into strong, loyal, stable communities.”

    Except that social cohesion can be witnessed in all manner of higher animals without religion.

    Cheers
    Shane

  11. Ethan says:

    djc

    You just jumped from “consciousness” to “all physical reality”. But anyways, my point, with regards to consciousness specifically, is that when you’re settled on limiting it in terms like biological machinery and information processing, then that is all it will ever be to you. The blinders are on, blocking explanations of philosophy and religion from your line of sight, no matter how detailed and consistent they might be.

  12. Tom Gilson says:

    djc, you wrote,

    I doubt anyone would claim consciousness evolved any more than one would claim sound or light evolved. Rather, the claim would be that evolution resulted in biochemical machinery that can use sound, light and experience consciousness, all three being preexisting fundamental aspects of the universe.

    I’m afraid a lot of people say that consciousness evolved. Thomas Nagel wrote something to the contrary in Mind and Cosmos, and was virtually locked hands and neck in the pillory and stoned for it. Read Gelernter’s article (linked from mine here) for a conveniently available summary of how he was treated.

    Not only that, but it’s hard to see how this next thought of yours fits with what you had written before:

    The kinds of biological machinery or information processing that results in the experience of consciousness is definitely a question open to science and being explored today. A challenging question, yes, but not one answered satisfyingly by religion as far as I can tell.

    I’m not sure why consciousness should be the result of biological machinery, if consciousness is inherent to the nature of all reality. I should think that biological machinery might function as the expressive organ for consciousness, but not as its cause.

    I’m also not sure how the question of consciousness is completely open to science today. Science can certainly explore the brain’s role in consciousness, but there are fundamental aspects of consciousness that seem to be beyond the reach of science (Daniel Dennett notwithstanding). If you have an answer for how that limitation could be overcome I’d be interested to hear it. Religion, specifically the knowledge of God as the fundamental reality, does help, however, in explaining consciousness, just by helping us understand how consciousness could be fundamental to the reality that we experience. It also helps us understand what light is for—which, by the way, was a great point you brought up in your first comment here.

    This thought from you raises a logical concern, however:

    If religion would offer answers as detailed and consistent as scientific explanations, I would adopt religious answers without hesitation. But the answers I see religion providing to the questions of physical reality are sketchy, vague, unsatisfying to me.

    My concern is that it seems to be question-begging. Here’s why I say that. Science is in the business of discovering detailed cause-effect relationships between physical entities (objects, systems, forces, etc.). That’s not all science does, but I think it’s the relevant piece here. Suppose consciousness were indeed fundamental to all reality, and that it were that way just because God is mind, and he created humans with mind. In that case, can you even formulate a way of approaching the problem of consciousness so that it could produce “detailed … explanations”?

    I think you’ve stacked the deck against God by requiring that he be something like a complex physical system. That’s begging the question of God’s reatlity.

  13. Tom Gilson says:

    Social cohesion is a fairly uninteresting aspect of religion to me. I can imagine all kinds of ways social cohesion could be developed and maintained without religion, just as Shane said.

    The interesting questions with religion have to do with whether some religion is true (I’m convinced that Christianity is), whether there really, truly is a God (as I’m convinced there is), and how we can know God.

  14. djc says:

    Tom,

    I’m afraid a lot of people say that consciousness evolved. Thomas Nagel wrote something to the contrary in Mind and Cosmos, and was virtually locked hands and neck in the pillory and stoned for it. Read Gelernter’s article (linked from mine here) for a conveniently available summary of how he was treated.

    I don’t believe that anyone would say exactly that consciousness, as a phenomena, was designed and created by evolution out of thin air. What Nagel is criticized for is his claim for “natural teology”. See here:

    The critics have focused much of their ire on what Nagel calls “natural teleology,” the hypothesis that the universe has an internal logic that inevitably drives matter from nonliving to living, from simple to complex, from chemistry to consciousness, from instinctual to intellectual.

    Even the most eliminative of materialists like Dennett don’t claim that consciousness evolved out of thin air but rather that the fundamental nature of computational models of mind naturally give rise to the perception of consciousness. In that case, the universe must support computational modeling before evolution can use it and it would be imprecise to claim that evolution designed and created computational models out of thin air. The potential capacity had to be there first.

    [Tom again:]
    I’m not sure why consciousness should be the result of biological machinery, if consciousness is inherent to the nature of all reality. I should think that biological machinery might function as the expressive organ for consciousness, but not as its cause.

    That biological machinery is not the cause or origin of consciousness was my point. However, yes, there is the question of why certain kinds of biological machinery happen to experience consciousness. But the proper framing would be, in my view, first, how does biological machinery give rise to computation, information flow, and intelligence. That question seems possible to answer. Then the follow-up question would be why do certain kinds of computational models experience consciousness. Dennett would say that’s just the nature of computational processing and we don’t have to worry about consciousness at all.

    So my working theory would be: the capacity for computational models that this universe supports was used by evolution and then coincidentally matched the capacity for consciousness this universe supports. Dennett would say no coincidence required, they’re one and the same.

    I’m also not sure how the question of consciousness is completely open to science today.

    I see some illumination possible with brain-interface models. Imagine your brain hooked up to Petabyte ethernet in some future. Or imagine your own brain connected wirelessly neuron for neuron with another brain. How would consciousness be affected? Our experience expanding our own brains with technology will offer a great deal of insight here.

    Suppose consciousness were indeed fundamental to all reality, and that it were that way just because God is mind, and he created humans with mind.

    I think then science will make no progress on consciousness and God (or something like “God”) will win in the end.

  15. Tom Gilson says:

    djc,

    Is there a difference between your view of consciousness evolving and the idea that it arose as an evolutionary spandrel? Just wondering; it will help me understand where you’re coming from here.

  16. Tom Gilson says:

    By the way, I don’t think that any believer in naturalistic evolution would think that anything whatsoever was “designed and created by evolution out of thin air.” If you think that was the view I had in mind to dispute, it wasn’t. So it would also help me if I knew more about what you thought I was saying.

  17. GrahamH says:

    Tom can you please explain this from #12 “…consciousness is inherent to the nature of all reality”; and also the basis behind there being some attribute to it unique only to humans?

  18. Ray Ingles says:

    Consciousness is obviously a process, or at the bare minimum incorporates a process. (Imagine a ‘statis field’ that stops time for things inside it. Put someone in it, time stops. Are they conscious? If you answer ‘yes’, please explain what they are conscious of.)

    Until and unless someone can explain how that process works – whether it’s supernatural or natural – I don’t see how we can claim to have any handle on what consciousness actually is. And thus, any claims about how it ‘must’ be constituted would seem to be shaky, at best.

  19. Tom Gilson says:

    Until you can formulate a non-question begging way of asking how that process works, Ray, I don’t know how to proceed toward an answer. Do you understand the problem with the way you’ve asked it here?

  20. djc says:

    Tom,

    Is there a difference between your view of consciousness evolving and the idea that it arose as an evolutionary spandrel? Just wondering; it will help me understand where you’re coming from here.

    I should first note that I’m not trying to offer any radically new ideas or concepts, here really, just elucidating popular materialists/naturalists understanding. So my view most of the time is not much more than an attempt to summarize/generalize over the set of theories or state of knowledge from a materialistic or naturalistic point of view.

    Consciousness is not a spandrel in the sense you used it: “show[ing] up fortuitously alongside some other adaptive feature”. There must be direct, intrinsic relationship between the adaptive feature and the phenomena itself to qualify as a “spandrel” in evolutionary biology, no fortuitous luck allowed. In this case, the adaptive feature would be a brain capable of a certain level of computation/intelligence and the phenomena would be consciousness. The direct, intrinsic relationship between computation and consciousness must be found before the idea that consciousness is a spandrel goes from speculation to fact.

    But, yes, I do think there must be an intrinsic relationship between certain computation models and consciousness so I would consider the spandrel theory a working hypothesis.

    By the way, I don’t think that any believer in naturalistic evolution would think that anything whatsoever was “designed and created by evolution out of thin air.” If you think that was the view I had in mind to dispute, it wasn’t. So it would also help me if I knew more about what you thought I was saying.

    Okay, but then the section “What is Humanness For?” seems to answer itself:

    Why is consciousness included in the human package? Perhaps because it is intrinsically associated with intelligence/computation which in turn are selected for by evolution.

    Is consciousness an illusion? No, the strictest reductionists are saying that consciousness reduces to computational models which may be themselves fully capable of the very real experience we have of being conscious. These models “reduce” consciousness by transferring its power and mystique to computational models, but nothing important disappears.

    Is consciousness an evolutionary spandrel, intrinsically associated with intelligence and computation models which are selected for by evolution?
    Perhaps yes.

    Is consciousness too complex and too essentially human for it to have been a mere evolutionary ride-along? Well, first, no one is saying consciousness is a mere evolutionary ride-along, as explained above. Rather, it is hypothesized that it is intrinsically associated with unique kinds of computation that occurs in brains, which also give rise to intelligence, which natural selection can well operate on. Second, calling consciousness complex seems difficult to define. Complexity surely is more directly seen in the billions of neurons and trillions of connections in a physical brain. Finally, if some things are “too human” to have evolved, that kind of rules out evolution by definition. The point of science is not to draw lines in the sand defining what is allowed and what is not allowed as a conclusion; only the evidence should be allowed to do that.

  21. Ray Ingles says:

    Do you understand the problem with the way you’ve asked it here?

    No, I really (“seriously”?) don’t.

    Consciousness is a process. Something is changing over time. (As noted before, that means if God is conceived as something unchanging and eternal and atemporal, I don’t see how it could be conscious.)

    What is changing, and in what manner is it changing? We know some symptoms and properties of consciousness, but we don’t have any deep understanding of what it is and how it works. It’s like trying to understand or define organic life without having any clue about biochemistry.

  22. Tom Gilson says:

    The problem, Ray, is that when you ask for how a process works, you’re asking a question that cannot be answered except in physical terms. When you say we can’t have a handle on what consciousness is unless we can explain it that way, you’re saying we can’t have a handle on what consciousness is unless it’s explainable entirely in physical terms.

    Your request/requirement seems to rest on the assumption that consciousness must be entirely physical. It assumes your conclusion, therefore it’s question-begging.

    My contention is that we know enough about consciousness to know that it’s real, regardless of whether we “have a handle” on what it is, and that its in-principle physical inexplicability indicates that we all partake in a reality that is not just physical.

  23. Ray Ingles says:

    The problem, Ray, is that when you ask for how a process works, you’re asking a question that cannot be answered except in physical terms.

    There’s no such thing as a supernatural process? Nothing supernatural changes over time?

  24. SteveK says:

    There’s no such thing as a supernatural process? Nothing supernatural changes over time?

    I thought you said you read Feser’s book?

  25. Ray Ingles says:

    SteveK – I did. Can you tell me what pages Feser explains that there’s no such thing as a supernatural process, that things supernatural don’t change over time?

  26. Melissa says:

    Ray,

    You say you’ve read the book but Feser holds that consciousness can be explained without positing an immaterial part to humans, but only if we don’t have a mechanistic conception of the material.

    Also you attempt to apply every term to God (for example consciousness) in a univocal fashion.

  27. G. Rodrigues says:

    @SteveK:

    I thought you said you read Feser’s book?

    This is obvious, but it bears repeating: reading does not equal understanding.

  28. Ray Ingles says:

    Melissa – I’m responding to Tom, not Feser, and Tom’s arguing for an immaterial part to humans.

    Also you attempt to apply every term to God (for example consciousness) in a univocal fashion.

    I think using the terms analogically tends to conceal the very real differences that must exist. Indeed, I don’t see how an atemporal being could even analogically be ‘conscious’.

    G. Rodrigues – Perhaps reading and understanding would approach each other if you were to help instead of just lobbing snide potshots?

  29. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Ray Ingles:

    Perhaps reading and understanding would approach each other if you were to help instead of just lobbing snide potshots?

    Maybe. And then again, if past experience is any indication, the problem, the main problem, is not in any putative personal unwillingness to help.

  30. Melissa says:

    Ray,

    Melissa – I’m responding to Tom, not Feser, and Tom’s arguing for an immaterial part to humans.

    Tom is arguing that conciousness cannot be entirely physical which is true given the materialist view of the physical. At the risk of putting words in his mouth one of his reasons for thinking this is that the physical excludes any first person experience, meaning and intentionality. Since that is the case, an explanation for these things in terms of the physical will necessarily eliminate them. That is basically the same point Feser and also Nagel make. Now while Feser proposes a return to A-T metaphysics, Tom is not settled on the solution, that does not change the fact that materialism cannot in principle account for these things. Arguing about processes, AI etc is just a distraction from the argument given and does nothing to a answer it.

    Indeed, I don’t see how an atemporal being could even analogically be ‘conscious’.

    No one is arguing that God would be concious in the way we experience but that he is aware and knows.

  31. Ray Ingles says:

    Now while Feser proposes a return to A-T metaphysics, Tom is not settled on the solution, that does not change the fact that materialism cannot in principle account for these things.

    If we don’t understand what “these things” are, that makes pronouncements about what can and can’t “account for these things” questionable. As I’ve pointed out before, it used to be thought that life and reproduction had to have a non-material, supernatural component, that a ‘mechanistic’ model couldn’t possibly account for biology. Then we started getting a handle on molecular biology.

    Until we have some kind of handle on what consciousness really is, I’m not terribly impressed by claims that something can’t possibly account for it.

    No one is arguing that God would be concious in the way we experience but that he is aware and knows.

    In what sense, though? That’s what I don’t grasp. In what sense could an atemporal being be “aware”? And if that ‘awareness’ is so radically unlike human awareness, is the word ‘awareness’ really useful or accurate?

  32. Melissa says:

    Ray,

    If we don’t understand what “these things” are, that makes pronouncements about what can and can’t “account for these things” questionable.

    “These things” are meaning, intentionality and first-person experience. Three things that are deliberately ignored for the purposes of doing science. That is why science cannot account for them and any scientific explanation will necessarily be an elimination. If you have some relevant objection to that then I am happy to respond, otherwise I’ll let you have the last word.

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