Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Book Review: "The Limits of a Limitless Science and Other Essays"

“When people cease to believe in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.”

So wrote the ever-witty writer G.K. Chesterton, the apostle of common-sense and prophet of the century to come. As men turn increasingly away from belief in a supernatural God, they are increasingly places their trust in the natural sciences, and particularly in physics. Physics is, after all, the basis for most of the other natural sciences, for it is the laws of physics which govern the motions and even formations of the stars in the cosmos and the rate of reaction amongst molecules; and in turn these may govern biology and geology, and the atmospheric and oceanic sciences. Indeed, physics is the most exact of the sciences, perhaps because it is the most exactly mathematical; as such, it has no limits amongst the things with material, quantifiable properties.

A materialist might thus argue that physics is limitless, and he would be right but for the fact that his philosophy is wrong. It is wrong, because it is incomplete, having rejected anything outside of the material universe. Such claims to the complete limitlessness of physics have only increased since the advent of quantum mechanics; no less a physicist than Richard Feynman has written that “today we cannot see whether Schrodinger’s equation contains frogs, musical composers, or morality—or whether it does not.”

This is all-to-often a consensus amongst the more prominent physicists and their admirers amongst faculty in the history and philosophy of science departments. There are, to be sure, a few notable exceptions, but this belief in the limitlessness of science in general and physics in particular is certainly the majority opinion amongst the scientific community. One such exception to this rule was the late Fr Stanley L Jaki, Distinguished University Professor of Seton Hall University. In his “The Limits of a Limitless Science and Other Essays,” Fr Jaki takes to task those who see science as the Summum, Infinitum, et Perfectissimum Bonum.

Fr Jaki notes that science is limitless only within its own sphere of competency. “It would be mistaken to assume…that science, or rather its quantitative method, finds new entities in the ontological sense….In other words, there is a most fundamental limit to a limitless science. Science has no limits when it finds—and in whatever form—matter or material properties. There is no limit, for instance, to measuring the physiological processes which take place in the brain when one thinks as much as a single word. I is possible that one day brain research will be so advanced and exact as to give a complete quantitative account of all the energy levels of all the molecules in the brain when one makes the conscious reflection on the “now.” But even then there remains the radically non-quantitative character of the experience, a character clearly recognized by Einstein. He merely failed to recognize the limits of science when he stated that whatever cannot be measured and therefore be expressed in quantitative terms, cannot be objectively real.”

This should give real pause to the materialists and strict monists who insist that the day will come when computers have “minds” in the same sense as do humans. For there is no such quantitative means of programming the experience “now,” yet this very experience is constant in a person’s consciousness. “Non-quantitative concepts to not become any less real, just because it is not possible to ascribe to them quantitatively exact contours. Patches of fog are just as real whether looked at from a distance or from close range. Thus, the notion of forest does not become any less valid just because a forest, when looked at close range, merely shows single trees.”

Indeed, this concept of now cannot be accounted by physics, for physics presupposes the existence of now. “For unless the experience of now is taken for an objective reality, the physicist can never be sure of being conscious of his objective results and cannot communicate them to another conscious being, whose very consciousness rests on the experience of now” (both emphases in original). This is a humbling thought for those who attribute to physics no limits whatever; such thinking is in fact necessarily self-refuting, as to think means to be consciously pondering an idea in the present, e.g. in the now—a concept which lies outside of the realm of the calculations and even the abstractions of physics. To posit, as has Professor Watson, that “there is no need to invent anything else” aside from molecules to describe all human life, is to deny to it the place of thought or indeed even experience.

While physics is indeed quite adept at interpreting the behavior of a real, physical, quantitative system, it runs into two great limits at the extremes of this. The first extreme is nothing, the second everything; a third limit exists as an intermediary, and this is something. By this first extreme is meant, literally, nothing, which is more than the mere absence of tings. “The very word, nothing, this most metaphysical creation of the human mind, proved the very opposite. For if every insight is restricted to the sensory, the very denial of all sensory, indeed of all existence, is impossible to account for.” This concept of nothing is not an empirical concept, because “In a broader sense, empirical is that procedure which relies on experiment or observation. In a stricter sense, empirical is a proposition which is capable of proof or verification by means of experiment or observation.” But nothing is that which is by its very definition incapable of being the object of observation or experiment.

The existence of the limit of nothing implies a second limit to science, namely, everything (or even something). “Science in fact is unable to assert even the existence of its instruments, although scientific work has to start with them. Scientists must presuppose the reality of matter before they can talk of its quantitative properties…. inferences are the foundations of knowledge even in exact science.” Here, then, enters that limit of science which is everything, which is the universe. This is not merely taken as billions of galaxies and the space between stars, planets, and other cosmological objects; rather, it “is the strict totality of things.” And though the universe “has become…a rational object of science, it can never become an object of observation. Nobody can go outside of the universe to observe it.”

Furthermore, there can not even be a complete theoretical proof of all which is—that is, there can never be a compete physical, that is mathematical, theory of everything. “Dreaming about a final theory can indeed be an exercise that can be universally destructive…. The impossibility of formulating a final theory of the physical world, which would contain its own proof of being true, relates not to the always shifting grounds of aesthetic considerations but to logic or mathematics… is now over half a century since the world of mathematics has been shaken to its very foundation since the publication of Godel’s incompleteness theorems. According to them no non-trivial set of mathematical propositions can have its proof of consistency within the system itself…. Apart from that logic, those who find only in a personal Creator the ultimate existence of a specifically ordered physical universe, have always known that a necessarily true final theory has always been a philosophical pipedream.”

Finally, lest one believe that Fr Jaki the theologian has placed restrictions on the limits of physics to an extent that it becomes impotent, Professor Jaki the scientist emphasizes also the limitlessness of this science. He is well aware of the Church’s constant teaching that faith and reason ought to be in harmony. Jaki’s statement concerning proper orders of physics (or the “hard” sciences in general) and philosophy would not conflict with Thomas Aquinas’ statements regarding the harmony of faith and the intellect. Nor would Jaki find fault with Pope John Paul the Great, who wrote in his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth….the priority of faith is not in competition with the search which is proper to reason.”

Jaki warns against those philosophers and theologians who would dictate the scope of science or overrule and deny its conclusions. “About quantities, insofar as they are embodied in matter and drawn out of it by measurements and mathematical operations, science alone is competent. In that sense, and in that sense alone, science is unlimited, while remaining limited to quantities. All other considerations that relate to non-quantitative features, are beyond the quantitative competence of science which is its sole competence. Conversely, quantitative considerations, insofar as they are to be empirically verified or measured, are beyond the competence of philosophy or theology, to mention only the principal fields of inquiry that do not aim at measuring anything in sensible matter.”

The greatest limit, then, to the limitless science is the non-quantitative. Professor Jaki is fond of saying, throughout the book, that “What God has separated, no man should try to fuse together, lest confusion should arise.” Physics is immensely competent when interpreting things of a material, quantitative nature; but that competency vanishes and is replaced only by a mockery when it is used to describe things of a non-quantitative nature: be they psychological, philosophical, theological, moral, or social. Physics is competent regarding material processes, which may be calculated or otherwise mathematically modeled; physics and the other “hard” sciences become incompetent as the subject of interest is removed from the merely material or mathematical. “Human knowledge, whether we consider it to have come from the hands of God or not, concerns to separate realms, quantities and non-quantities, and these two realms are irreducible to one another. It is not profitable for man to chafe under that restriction. Those who did…created only confusion for themselves and others.”

Imported from the Nicene Guys site.