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I've recently come across several statements to the effect "there are questions science can't answer", mostly from proponents of religion and mysticism, but also from scientists and secular philosophers as well.

However it seemed to me that there was an inherent contradiction in statements of the type "Science doesn't have all the answers" or "Science can't answer all questions". This is hinged on what is meant by "answering a question". It seems to me that to answer any significant question is to provide 2 things:

  • An accurate and objective explanation of the current state of affairs, in terms of relationships, causes and effects.

  • Based on that explanation, a method for making decisions if one is faced with future scenarios similar to or related to the current state of affairs, and for predicting future states of affairs with a certain amount probability, i.e the explanation is useful for future purposes.

But then if a field of inquiry is able to provide accurate, objective and useful information regarding a question, doesn't that field simply become part of science?

As examples:

  • If some school of mysticism is demonstrated to truly improve the happiness and well being of it's practitioners, then wouldn't that school's mystical teachings simply be incorporated into mainstream psychology and psychotherapy?
  • Similarly, if a political ideology is proven to provide better economic conditions and less crime, less pollution, etc...then this ideology's principles would become an accepted part of social sciences?

To put it more simply: Science has all the answers, because science IS anything that can provide objective and useful answers to a question.

Am I not talking about the demarcation problem per-se (at I least I think I am not), because even disciplines which are agreed upon as failing various demarcation criteria (such as astrology or intelligent design) are still trying (and failing) to be scientific in the sense I mentioned above. If they did start to provide answers, science would have to take them into account. Moreover, various philosophical schools of ethics are trying to be scientific in their explanatory framework, they are just not able to provide verifiable and falsifiable statements to prove their precepts (and probably would do so if possible).

My questions then are:

  1. Per those who claim that science can't answer all questions, what type of question are they talking about? Do they have a demarcation criteria for such questions? (I'm not asking for examples, there are already plenty in the links I posted above).

  2. If a field starts providing objective, accurate answers, doesn't it just become a subfield of science?

  3. Is there a second demarcation problem between "carckpot" pseudosciences (such as astrology or numerology) which are providing the wrong answers and legitimate fields of inquiry (such as political theory or ethics) which are trying to provide answers but so far have failed to provide verifiable and falsifiable statements or accurate predictions?
  • Do you consider epistemology to be a science? I don't mean brain science, I mean good old philosophical epistemology. If so, then I think you have a broader theory of what science is. If not: then, epistemology has questions and answers that specialized science depends on (this is in reference to Eddington's two inch sea-creatures routine). – user6726 May 26 '15 at 22:52
  • @user6726 I would classify epistemology under the category I mentioned "legitimate fields of inquiry (such as political theory or ethics) which are trying to provide answers but so far have failed to provide verifiable and falsifiable statements or accurate predictions". I need to look up the two inch sea creatures. – Alexander S King May 27 '15 at 2:54
  • @user6726 Just looked up the 2 inch sea creature ref. How is that different from Kant? – Alexander S King May 27 '15 at 3:39
  • Science provides answers but not all the answers. №1 They are talking about questions that cannot be subjected to Scientific Method. №2 No; e.g., mathematics. №3 No. – Ron Royston May 27 '15 at 4:21
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For 1) I would go with Wittgenstein's notion that some things cannot be said but must be shown, and the most basic aspects of ethics are among those. Science might tell us why we think killing one another is wrong, but it will not tell us whether that sense is right or not. At some point you have to give in to some sense of intuitive faith, and just accept deep moral sense, but as consistent as the answer might be from human to human, it is not scientific, because it is not discovered, it is just decided irrespective of experience. Science might say that now is the time to start thinning the population aggressively, or we will go extinct. And we would ignore it based upon genetic intuition.

About 2) Feyerabend would say yes, but he is kind of alone in insisting all demarcation criteria are ultimately flawed, and we just shouldn't choose one. From most normal perspectives, science has to be sort of democratic in the sense that it can be reasonably understood by everyone with a given level of intelligence.

(Feyerabend's primary counterexample to this is Chinese medicine that involves sensing 'chi', which cannot generally be felt by everyone, and is not detectable by any physical device. The effectiveness of the resulting medicine proves, for him, this is science despite the presence of a privileged perspective. But we know how other forms of highly articulated placebos, like hypnosis or narrative therapies, can be more effective than better-grounded medicine. And we know privileged authority amplifies their effects ('sensitive-looking' women and older men make better therapists).)

If we accept that (rejecting the counterexample as otherwise explained), an oracle from heaven that simply always gave the correct answer, would, in that sense, not be scientific, because it is privileged access to truth that is not readily passed along or elaborated for other people, or future understanding.

That same sense applies to 3). I would say that making sense is scientific, whether or not you get to the point of application. If nothing else, formal theoretical manipulation proceeding from shared intuition is mathematics, and that is still science of a sort.

The rest of 3) seems equally obvious. The predictions of ethics and other 'modal' disciplines (religion, literary theory, depth psychology) cannot be disproven in the way that the predictions of astrology can, because they are always suspended in modal logic, implicity wrapped in 'oughts' or 'mights' or 'woulds'. So I am not sure we need a different demarcation criterion, because the nature of the predictions themselves are different and the methods of challenge are totally disjoint. If I am predicting a certain class of people are going to have better communication skills during a given week because of the position of Mercury relative to the house of their birth, that is a statistical statement that can be disproven. But I cannot prove infanticide is wrong without some context.

The predictions of political and historical theories can be tested. The fact that failure does not dissuade anyone, is human psychology dismissing uncomfortable logic, rather than some magical difference between a fact and an opinion. Other weak disciplines like social psychology are still required to beat the odds, and they manage to do so by checking themselves against the odds in artificially statistical inquiries. So whenever you are addressing a prediction, wrong is wrong and weak theories should give way to more successful ones, but they can only do so when better ones actually exist.

  • The field of psychology seems to be imploding on itself with the advent of using Randomised Clinical Trials to "prove" psychological theory to be correct. Hansson, S. O. (1996). Defining Pseudoscience and Science In:*Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem* Pigliucci & Boudry (Eds.) Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press gives a strong argument. – Chris Rogers Mar 20 '18 at 17:51
  • @Chris That 'advent' came with Rogerians in the 1940's. So if psychology is imploding, it is doing it really, really slowly. Various schools of clinical psychology have overstated their points. But many of the points themselves are testable outside their framing, and can be folded into modern practice. And it remains true that for many cases, there is still no form of treatment, including drugs, more effective than just talking to someone in the right way. But, as Rogers makes obvious, "the right way" does not need to be anchored in some prescriptive understanding of mental process. – user9166 Mar 23 '18 at 18:20
  • @Chris And despite something published in 1996, in 2001 Linehan and DBT were very strongly validated by clinical trials. She had to go well out of her way to prove this approach effective, because it addressed a range of patients everyone had been treating ineffectively for a long time (and making a lot of money at it.) – user9166 Mar 23 '18 at 18:26
  • Forms of clinical psychology based in observation and not theory are alive and well, and not imploding. Other forms have rolled the proven effective practices into their abstruse theories, forcing those theories to evolve despite themselves. – user9166 Mar 23 '18 at 18:35
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When you say that answering a question involves giving an objective explanation of the current state of affairs in terms of causes and effects, you are implying that questions that do not concern objective states of affair or facts are meaningless. This begs the question against non-scientific Q/A. Questions that science could not answer could be precisely those that do not fall under this scope, for example ethical or metaphysical questions.

Your examples of a succesful mystic theory/political ideology assumes that ethical and metaphysical questions could be amenable to factual questions but again this is question begging. How would you evaluate happiness objectively, without presupposing a definition of happiness in factual terms? And how would you know that your definition is the right one? Relying on the success of your happiness evaluation would be circular. All you can know is that your framework is succesful by its own standards but the viability of these standards (that happiness thus defined is really what we should aim at) would remain disputable. You'd have a sub-field of science indeed, but the foundations of the field (including the route from facts to values) would remain open to criticism.

This is actually a problem for science as a whole. When a conceptual framework happens to answer questions in a systematic, objective and empirically accurate way, then indeed you can call it science. However there always remains questions regarding the foundations of this conceptual framework (what is a cause? An explanation? A fact? Can we distinguish facts from theoretical assumptions? Theoretical/methodological principles from metaphysical assumptions? From values/aims/intentions? What is truth? Etc.). These are not scientific questions, but the philosophy of science has shown that there is no straightforward answers and that facts, theories, metaphysical assumptions and values are much more interwined than one could naively think. There is always room for questioning the foundations of any scientific field, and these are the questions that science cannot answer.

Your question seems to concern the use of such arguments to promote religious or magical thinking. Indeed religion often attempts to answer metaphysical and ethical questions, and this is the kind of questions science doesn't directly answer (for the reasons mentioned above: they are implied in the very foundations of science). However the fact that science doesn't answer everything certainly doesn't imply that religion or mystical intuition does, and arguably, dogmatism is no more desirable in ethics and metaphysics than it is concerning factual judgments.

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    Re "How would you evaluate happiness objectively, without presupposing a definition of happiness in factual terms?", that's been done by the United Nations apparently every year since 2012 (inclusive). The method was to ask people. General happiness apparently correlates strongly with lack of religious beliefs, e.g. Norway is about the 4th happiest country and last year the number of atheists here matched the number of religious people, 30%. – Cheers and hth. - Alf May 27 '15 at 20:34
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    The objectivity of the indicator and its independence from cultural/linguistic aspects was criticized. In any case the value question remains (does happiness represent the ultimate aim?) – Quentin Ruyant May 27 '15 at 21:43
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One simple kind of question that science cannot answer because of the methodologies involved (in sciences) but yet can be known certainly by at least the subject, is the content of the mind. Science is not capable of analyzing ideas. I.e. it works by using ideas, but cannot empirically or objectively analyze certain ideas and or thoughts. For example, does the idea of redness appeal to this man? One can only indirectly try to ascertain this, for example by asking the person and looking at his physiological responses, however this is still not a direct observation of the content of the mind. So in general science can only study that which is observable to anyone in some way. 1+1=2 is observable by the definitions that are available to everyone. There exist things which are not observable to everyone in principle.

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    Heard of fMRI? 'Does what this person is seeing right now appeal to them?' is something we can largely determine from blood flow in the brain, so your question is not a good example. The idea that the answer to this question can be known, with good accuracy, but that our means of getting it somehow does not qualify as 'direct observation of the content of the mind' seems like a linguistic dodge. – user9166 May 27 '15 at 21:09
  • It is not merely a linguistic dodge by differentiating between the physiological expressions of a certain state of mind and the state of mind itself. I can understand that my answer was not very explicit, perhaps the mention of qualia would better express what I mean. Everything a scientist can know about the state of mind of a person, still does not equate to the state of mind of a person. The sensation of liking red is not the same as knowing which parts of the brain are stimulated during such a sensation. – St.Clair Bij May 27 '15 at 21:29
  • Since we don't know exactly what qualia are, it is premature to declare them outside the scope of any science. Emergentists admit we might well be able to answer the question of whether someone likes red, but it would require luck and not just labor to make the exact discovery. The brain may not be reducible to physical explanation, but it is still physical, and has trace indicators of most things going on in the mind. Knowing something is not dependent upon the mode of discovery. So you have to go deeper than taste to find things that are not scientifically detectable. – user9166 May 28 '15 at 15:33
  • (You are not wrong in principle, but your example is very close to being wrong in fact. We can detect positive emotional experiences already, and we may be able soon to trace them to their sources.) Ethics is a better place to look -- science will never answer the question "Is punching your little brother really bad?" nor, do I think this merely a matter of opinion. Math has some places like that, too. "How strong a model of infinity in the Reals is best?" An answer might shape science, by giving it one or the other set of tools, (Dirac spikes, e.g.) but not the other way around. – user9166 May 28 '15 at 15:42
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I asked in comments for a definition of science for purposes of this question/answer, because the best answer to your question varies depending on which definition of science is the most meaningful to you. Reproducing your answer below:

...because science IS anything that can provide objective an useful answers to a question.

By that definition, your first question is easy: "But then if a field of inquiry is able to provide accurate, objective and useful information regarding a question, doesn't that field simply become part of science?" The answer is "yes, because you defined science to be as such."

What I do find interesting is the natural corollary to this, which is that science cannot answer questions which cannot be phrased objectively. Subjective questions are those whose answer must necessarily be relative to the self. By the definition provided, science cannot answer these questions because science only answers objective questions with objective answers. Science can peel layers away from the Self, but it cannot actually reference it per the particular definition we are using here. Doing so would violate its objectivity.

One question which must be important, by this definition, for which science cannot have an answer is "Are there any questions which cannot be phrased objectively that matter to me?" Such a question is inherently subjective by my word choice. I have found sidestepping this sort of question particularly tricky, so there is a high likelyhood that it qualifies as "a question science can't answer" from your point of view.

  • I see your point. But there's something that I am not entirely groking from your answer and the others in this discussion. "Subjective questions are those whose answer must necessarily be relative to the self." Fair enough - but I feel there are levels of subjectivity. Is is one thing to say "Science can't answer whether I should have red curry or green curry for dinner" , it is an entirely different one to say "Science can't answer whether individual freedom trumps social justice or not". – Alexander S King Jun 7 '15 at 14:04
  • It is relatively easy to hide subjectivity within the English language. Consider how hard it is to define words like "freedom" and "justice" without relying on subjectivity. Those words are tricky because there is sufficient agreement on their meaning that they appear objective, but we have found historically that attempts to peg them to an objective definition sucks the meaning right out of the word. Also, usually the sentence is usually phrased with "should individual freedom..." rather than "whether individual freedom..." "Should" questions are subjective questions. – Cort Ammon Jun 7 '15 at 16:19
  • (unless you add to them a definition of a value system or a goal as an extra clause, as in "should I add salt to make water boil hotter") – Cort Ammon Jun 7 '15 at 16:20
  • Note that you can also convert any subjective call to an objective score by scoring the subjective calls, which extends the reach of science a little bit more (not that much, due to limited sample sizes and inability to probe causal factors). – Rex Kerr Jun 7 '15 at 19:12
  • @RexKerr yes. Specifically, it extends science exactly as far as individuals are willing to subjugate their own opinions to objectionable scores. As an example, people are more than willing to rate how happy they are with a cup of coffee from 1-10 in exchange for the information a scientific experiment regarding coffee may tell them, but rating their happiness with life on a similar scale is less accepted. – Cort Ammon Jun 7 '15 at 19:20
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In 19th century a famous speech was given by Du Bois-Reymond entitled "Limits of our knowledge of nature". Its last passage culminates in confronting "ignoramus"(we do not know) with "ignorabimus" (we will never know).

Du Bois-Reymond stays completely in the domain of science, mysticism or spirituality was not his topic. For him, two scientific questions remain unanswerable: 1. What are matter and force? 2. How to derive consciousness from its material substrate?

In modern terms the first question could be stated as the search for the origin of energy at start of the cosmic evolution? The second as the explanation of subjective feeling on the basis of its neurological substrate. In short: How to explain mental properties by the methods of neuroscience?

Du Bois concludes: But as regards the enigma what matter and force are and how they are able to conceive, he [the investigator of Nature] must resign himself once for all to the far more difficult confession - "IGNORABIMUS!"

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Popular_Science_Monthly/Volume_5/May_1874/The_Limits_of_our_Knowledge_of_Nature

Note. The linked English translation of the German text contains an error. I tried to correct it above.

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It means whatever you want it to mean, but:

I take it to mean that science is largely amoral. Science, at it's most basic, is a method of piecing together how objective reality works. What it doesn't do is answer moral or ethical questions.

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    Or metaphysical questions – Neil Meyer Jun 6 '15 at 6:10
  • Genetics tells us how our genes influence us at a fundamental level. Neuropsychology tells us about how our thoughts and emotions function at a fundamental level. Sociology tells us about how humans interact as groups. Game theory and chaos theory tells us about the mechanics of complex systems. If we combine the data acquired from these fields alonf with other scientific fields, what is it that is lacking to answer moral / ethical questions? – John Slegers Jun 6 '15 at 15:50
  • @JohnSlegers: What's lacking is one's choice, one's basic set up of instincts and learned behavior modifiers and beliefs about the world etc. One person's answer isn't another's. I upvoted this answer because it's the only one that makes sense. Other literally true answers (or observations, rather) could be given, e.g. if I encrypt something with a one-time pad and destroy the key, then science can't answer what the original message was. But such true answers are not meaningful; they're not what's meant by the expression. – Cheers and hth. - Alf Jun 6 '15 at 16:38
  • @Cheersandhth.-Alf : Do you consider it impossible for scientists to develop a moral framework based on science that's highly (if not fully) compatible with human instinct? And assuming such a framework is possible, won't teaching it to children from an early age onwards allow us to modulate learned behavior modifiers according to that framework? – John Slegers Jun 6 '15 at 18:18
  • @JohnSlegers: I think many such frameworks can be devised, but in the end the choice is very personal and individual. The idea of a scientific moral framework has been floating around since at least the 1920's, and in 1933 Alfred Korzybski published "Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. After WWII somewhere Johann von Neumann created game theory. Then, somewhere in the 1990's?, researchers discovered that game theory isn't all: we're innately altruistic. – Cheers and hth. - Alf Jun 6 '15 at 21:54
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Generally and in most practical usages I've come across, it means that a particular kind of (generally unstated) "science", namely, empricism, can't answer (because they rely on something subjective or "on faith").

This is the problem with both religion and science: they both favor their own methods and cannot or do not breach into each other`s domains.

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Is science just a more refined and effective method of philosophy? As I explained in my answer to that question, philosophers tend to disagree on the matter and are (more or less) split between two camps here: Atheistic naturalists and its opponents.

According to Atheistic naturalists, only those questions that involves whatever exists beyond the observable, testable segments of the universe can't be answered be science. However, also according to Atheistic naturalists, such questions are fundamentally unknowable, can't be answered with any degree of reliability by any non-scientific means either and are therefore moot.

Others, who reject Atheistic naturalism, typically argue either that moral questions (and often questions of meta-physics) cannot be answered by science. Religion or philosophy are usually invoked to either answer such questions or to qualify them as unknowable.

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It seems to me that to answer any significant question is to provide 2 things:

An accurate and objective explanation of the current state of affairs, in terms of relationships, causes and effects.

Your first requirement may not be wrong, if it includes the ideas that people have about what they should so and the means available to do it.

Based on that explanation, a method for making decisions if one is faced with future scenarios similar to or related to the current state of affairs, and for predicting future states of affairs with a certain amount probability, i.e the explanation is useful for future purposes.

This requirement is wrong. What will happen in the future depends on what knowledge we will have in the future. If we knew what knowledge we will have in the future we would already have it, and we don't. So predicting future states of affairs is impossible in problems where people are involved.

You ask for a demarcation criterion between rational and irrational ideas. It is possible for a person to adopt an idea that stops the correction of errors in some or all of his ideas. One example of this is not holding claims to make predictions to a high enough standard. People who think astrology is valid are making this mistake since its predictions are either vague, or rely on information supplied by the person for whom the prediction is being made.

You might want to read "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch for more on the issues raised by this question.

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