Saturday, May 1, 2010

What can science do?

At times I make the following claims.
"Science is not philosophy. It can say little about meaning and purpose."
"Science cannot explain why it works."
"Science cannot explain the purpose or meaning of things."
"Science cannot tell us what is ethical, of value, or just."
Commenting on this, Sudarshan, makes an excellent point in response:
[see the first Comment on this post]
Isn't this such a cop-out statement to make? can we instead say that "science has not yet explained the purpose or meaning of things and what are ethics, values or just."
His point is well taken. However, I would modify my claims to something like:
"Science has not yet explained why it works, the purpose or meaning of this, and what is ethical, or value, or just. However, it is not clear that it will ever be able to."
Why is that?

Science deals with quantities and concepts that must be objective, i.e. in principle everyone should agree on what these quantities and concepts are, regardless of their culture, gender, race, religion, geographic location, ...
In contrast, meaning, values, and purpose are usually not objective - they can vary significantly between cultures.
What is the meaning and purpose of life? There are many possible answers to get rich, to have a family, to be famous, to serve others? How could science ever assign a relative value to these?
The claim that only science can answer such questions (or the more moderate position that only questions that science can answer are meaningful and important) is often referred to as scientism.
But, that does not mean that there is no true answer.
I think that is where we have to turn to alternative approaches and sources of information (and revelation).

He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

1 comment:

  1. Dear Professor,
    I wish you also give a talk sometime in IISc on Unweaving the Rainbow and your views on it.
    The very fact that everything is a complex interconnected system of which humans are an insignificant part has a humbling effect. Universe and earth will go on unconcerned if humans are there or not is even more humbling for an ego centric humanity. Ethics, Values, Purpose etc can also result from this awareness. How improbable life is tells how precious it is. How vulnerable earth is in a pea soup of cosmic rays and entirely dependent on its magnetic field and a wafer thin ozone to support life -- tells how we much respect and conserve its resources.
    How dependent we are on ocean currents and fresh & salt water balance tell how important it is to change any climate altering lifestyle of the society.
    To say that such values cannot arise from science is unacceptable in my opinion.