As I know, one of the ideas of postmodernism is

Science is not enough for a complete understanding of our reality

Which arguments are used to reinforce such statements?

Maybe there are some concrete examples of the incompleteness of the scientific approach?

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    Is this an essay assignment? – Conifold Jun 16 at 3:57
  • @Conifold, No, of course. I am physicist and try to understand some modern humanitarian trends. – Nikita Jun 16 at 4:55
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    @Gordon, the reference very intresting, thank you! There are no professors! This is my personal question! – Nikita Jun 16 at 6:25
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    Gadamer is not a postmodernist, but the sort of critique of science in the OP quote is not postmodernistic to begin with, it sounds more like old school idealists (Hegel, Schelling), phenomenologists (late Husserl, Polanyi), hermeneuticists (Gadamer), critical theorists (Adorno, Horkheimer), life philosophers (Bergson), existentialists, etc. What is more specific to postmodernism is claiming that science is tainted by cultural biases of scientists rather than is "objective", and that scientists mislead the public about it. – Conifold Jun 16 at 6:25
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    how is this a post modernist idea, let alone a quote? no way are you a physicist, sorry – user46524 Jun 20 at 4:28

10 Answers 10


While this may strike others as an opinion-based question, I am going to buck that trend and claim that science itself answers this question, and therefore, properly cited, is a question that is a good fit for our site. So, don't let anyone inside or outside the analytic science school of thinking dissuade you from asking about the relationship between Science and Human Values. The greater philosophical minds ponder this question.

As a physicist, you are of course familiar with the hallmarks of science which should be seen as a collection of philosophies and their communities and practice rather than a monolithic entity. The demarcation of science takes many people who have taken even undergraduate-level science courses by surprise, and it is a frequent misconception that there exists SCIENCE with an adequate definition that covers all forms of scientific inquiry. You are in a good position as a scientist in the hard sciences, because your interests are very objective and deductively logical in nature. This means from a philosophical perspective you have been raised in a school of science very much interested in positivity which stands in distinction to the philosophical notion of normativity. In fact, the logical positivists are considered to have raised positivism in an attempt to divorce science from human subjectivity to its pinnacle, and likewise are considered to have failed epically.

Many lines of attack defeated logical positivism's aim to divorce science from philosophy and discount subjectivity, not that logical positivists are the only philosophers looking for deductive certainty in thinking. One of the first challenges came in the form of quantum physics and the notion of the observer having an effect by way of measurement. It is a philosophically challenging notion to accept particle-wave duality which asks a scientist to accept that something is both a particle and a wave, but only as a function of human observation. Even molecules evince wave behavior when measured correctly! This puts a scientist in a place where one has to second guess traditional philosophical presumptions in the West, like that of natural kinds which has long attracted philosophical interest. How do we describe reality if we reject natural kinds?

Another interesting interplay between reality and science was the issue raised by Kuhn and his thesis in Scientific Revolutions. His claim (with vast oversimplification) is that science's description of reality is driven by politics and changes with the times as different communities vie for dominance. He talks about ideas like paradigmatic and normal science. The moment one begins to question the motivation of the communities and individuals describing reality, the implications become controversial. In the history of science, for instance, consider how miasma theory prevented germ theory from being accepted despite the good science done by Pasteur, Semmelweis, and Snow, among others. If you reject sociology or economics as a science (as many hard scientists are wont to do), then science simply can't accommodate these irrational tendencies of science to produce based on the idiosyncratic nature of scientists and the accidents of history.

But ultimately, some philosophers reject the notion that science can adequately describe reality because it cannot function very well within the phenomenological tradition. While philosophers like Daniel Dennett seek to reduce all theory to physical theory, others have moved in the other direction and attempt to show reality is largely a function of thought, not physics. George Berkeley denied physical substance entirely and promoted subjective idealism which is a far cry from eliminative materialism. These sorts of thinkers have even gone so far as to try to provide philosophical foundations for science that are phenomenological in nature like phenomenological reductionism. I know from my own materialist position, these are radical notions about knowledge and epistemology.

So, if science is largely considered with what is "objectively real", and many people refuse the presumptions and arguments of science, they often use these philosophical lines of attack on more materialistic schools of thought.

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    this is an outstanding piece of expository prose. As a recovering ex-engineer with a hobby interest in physics and a tendency to lurk here, I commend you! – niels nielsen Jun 17 at 17:42

Probably an ill-formed question. Notice you are using the concepts "describe reality" and "understanding reality".

Expecting science to provide a complete description of reality is like expecting a map to be identical to the terrain in all possible senses.

Science is not intended to describe reality. Moreover, knowledge (science is just a subset of knowledge) is not intended to "describe reality"; perhaps it is a mean to "understand reality", but the goal of knowledge is complementary to judgement, probably, improve our surviving probabilities.

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    The analogy implies every relevant aspect of reality can be represented in the map. The point of my answer is to state that science cannot tell whether it is missing some key elements of the map. Therefore, it is, as a method to know reality, incomplete. – luchonacho Jun 19 at 14:27
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    a) Science is not "a method to know reality". Science is a type of knowledge. Not even knowledge is "a method to know reality". b) "science cannot tell whether it is missing some key elements of the map".. are you joking or you don't really follow the logic? The analogy implies that SCIENCE IS THE MAP. How could it tell if it, itself, is missing something? This is like telling that a map would describe what it does not describe! Just in case you don't follow, in the analogy, science is represented by the map, and reality is represented by the terrain. – RodolfoAP Jun 20 at 5:18
  • I don't trust in analogies. I was trying to show why. In your terms, the map cannot list all things it does not describe because it is not aware of their existence on the terrain. – luchonacho Jun 22 at 9:28

"Science is not enough for a complete understanding of our reality"

"Our reality" depends on an understanding of being. We have a handle on extant beings - the things we can observe, or for which we can infer various aspects of existence. We have much less of a handle on the living beings that do the observing (or creating). For instance, can you understand Einstein's mind?

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When Auguste Comte and a host of followers delineated two categories of qualities, Primary and Secondary, he included in the first only those things which could be measured; solidity, extension, motion, rest and number. The secondary qualities were relegated to the subjective world of individual experience; color, taste, smell and sound. That's where the reductionist theory began. Science continued this delineation by further contending that whatever could not be 'measured' is not 'real'. Hume comes along and points out that the method of measurement in place, cannot be at all acceptable because the only knowledge that human's can lay claim to involves the present and so all we know is reduced to assumptions about 'conjunction'. Prior to all this Spinoza recognized that those things which are 'real' can only be grasped 'intuitively' and that all of the sensible world is part of the finite modifications of reality or (Substance). All he meant by this is that the subject matter which science singles out does not involve 'causation' and therefore we can have no true 'certainty' about its origin or nature. If you wish, a recent paper written two months ago describes this in detail. It is titled; Deductive Theory/Inductive Method, at academia.edu. Charles M. Saunders

But it would be advisable to just google, 'shortcomings with the scientific method'. That would get you started and lead to other interesting places. CMS

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    Well said. I see no mention of Berkeley. He seems like you would rally behind his argument. I'm upvoting. – J D Jun 17 at 17:01
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    The primary/secondary qualities of objects distinction predated the positivist Comte, and was first most explicitly (though not originally) articulated by John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary/secondary_quality_distinction) – gonzo Jun 17 at 19:38

Postmodernism is just trolling. Declaring all scientific work as "fake news" for any agenda, drawing on diverse examples of flawed science, illegitimate doubt is cast on all of science.

Rational and justified doubt on science is of course possible, and the scientific methods generally encourage and show constant re-evaluation of any beliefs, but this rational doubt is not what is called postmodernism.

There are diverse limits as to what science can discover and describe. In the dimension of time, certain facts are lost in the past (like who killed JFK), and the future can be hard to predict due to chaotic influenced. Very small events like quantum events can be hard to observe. In cosmology, the state of other stars can only be observed once their light teachers us, so we cannot observe the present state of stars. And there are areas of the universe that no human ever will ever be able to see (the event horizon). Same for the insides of black holes. Philosophically, qualia pose problems to science.

But all those limits are not postmodernist discoveries, those are all limitations that science is very much aware about.

Science is not enough for a complete understanding of our reality

This quote implies that there is something else other than science that can give a more complete understanding of our reality. This view would be upheld mostly by religious or esoteric forms of postmodernism, claiming that maybe holy scripture, prayer, meditation, drugs like LSD, prophecies or horoscopes can yield understanding of reality not subject to science.

Postmodernism is not a viable form of philosophy, it is not constructive and has not produced any knowledge gain. Flat-earthers, young earth creationists, vaccine-rejectors, Holocaust-deniers, UFO-spotters, suicide cults, those are the main body of postmodernism. Those will not agree on any alternative truth, but just join forces to troll against science for their respective agendas. While science can sometimes be biased politically or otherwise, postmodernism definitely is.

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Premise 1: There might be some phenomena in Reality that cannot be grasped, studied, and experimented with science (e.g. the existence and nature of God(s))

Premise 2: Science cannot tell whether that is the case or not (e.g. science cannot disprove the existence of Allah or Krishna)

Conclusion: Since science cannot tell whether science has complete grasp of Reality or not, it follows that science does not have a complete grasp of Reality.

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One argument might be that science doesn't have a "complete understanding of reality". And that is the case from psychology to physics.

The claim that science never will never be all there is to know, is not especially postmodern. Descartes was an early modern philosopher, who claimed

Thus the whole of philosophy is like a tree. The roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences, which may be reduced to three principal ones, namely medicine, mechanics and morals. By “morals” I understand the highest and most perfect moral system, which presupposes a complete knowledge of the other sciences and is the ultimate level of wisdom.


Perhaps you means "postmodern" to mean any philosophy that did not emerge around the beginning of the last century.

Logical positivism, also called logical empiricism, a philosophical movement that arose in Vienna in the 1920s and was characterized by the view that scientific knowledge is the only kind of factual knowledge


However seriously we take the so called "Received view", very, very few -- zero -- philosophers would claim that only scientific practice as we know it today has any utility -- which seems to be the implicit motivation for your question. If it were the case, we may as well give up in a "complete understanding of reality" right away -- as we don't have it yet.

Some philosophers would agree we will one day have a "complete understanding of reality" in science. Others would be more concerned with the unity of the sciences

Is there one privileged, most basic or fundamental concept or kind of thing, and if not, how are the different concepts or kinds of things in the universe related? Can the various natural sciences (e.g.,physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology) be unified into a single overarching theory, and can theories within a single science (e.g., general relativity and quantum theory in physics, or models of evolution and development in biology) be unified? Are theories or models the relevant connected units? What other connected or connecting units are there? Does the unification of these parts of science involve only matters of fact or are matters of value involved as well? What about matters of method, material, institutional, ethical and other aspects of intellectual cooperation? Moreover, what kinds of unity, not just units, in the sciences are there? And is the relation of unification one of reduction, translation, explanation, logical inference, collaboration or something else? What roles can unification play in scientific practices, their development, application and evaluation?


I suggest starting there if you want to be up-to-date.

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The terms "our reality," "complete understanding" and the "scientific approach," need more robust definition. As is, answers to you query will be hit and miss affairs that may fail to fully satisfy (cf the varieties of answers you’ve received already, including my own). Moreover, while all are anti-realists, and claim that the world/reality is constructed, rather than discovered, all the way down (our concepts do not “cut reality at the joints," as they like to say), and hence passionately reject the correspondence theory of truth, there are various brands of postmodernism, each of which posit different alternatives to word-world correspondence.

Derridian PM, for instance, holds that that while there is a signifier [a word/concept], there is no [there is an “absence” of a] signified [a corresponding object in the world]. There is no word-world relationship to speak of, texts refer only to other texts, words to other words, ideas to other ideas, beliefs to other beliefs, concepts to other concepts, etc. Foucaultian PM claims essentially that all knowledge [including scientific knowledge] truth and rationality are chimera, are no more than functions of power, tools of the powerful, the oppressors, as a way of maintaining their power and control over the oppressed. (See, for instance, Frankfurt School critical theory [https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/] etc.).

As a natural scientist, however, it seems to me that the ground upon which the skepticism highlighted in your question is better addressed by coming to terms with the 20th Century notion of post positivism, commonly characterized as:

A metatheoretical stance that critiques and amends positivism. While positivists believe that the researcher and the researched are independent of each other, postpositivists accept that theories, background, knowledge and values of the researcher influence what is observed.

This utterly reasonable notion arose within the tradition of Anglophone Analytic, as opposed to Continental [PM's birthplace], philosophy. However, both Postmodernism and Postpositivism are children of the Kantian idea that all knowledge is necessarily mediated, that we have no access to the thing in itself, the noumena [i.e. to unmediated reality], but only to phenoumena [i.e. appearances]. So the salient issue in epistemology and the philosophy of science has essentially come to be whether and to what extent the world/reality constrains what we can say/know about it.

While for Kant our perceptions are mediated by fixed/eternal "Categories" [his pure concepts of mind], the post Kantian Hegelians introduced Historical contingencies that mediate our perceptions of reality/the world. (As an aside, the road to Postmodernism was paved by Hegel's Historicism and Husserl's Phenomenology.) Needless to say, it has all become impossibly complicated.

As I have on numerous occasions here in response to queries of this type, I urge you to peruse intellectual historian, John Zammito’s, A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-Positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour. (https://www.amazon.com/Nice-Derangement-Epistemes-Post-positivism-Science/dp/0226978621), which tracks the 20th Century movement in Anglopone Analytic philosophy from traditional epistemology and philosophy of science (that there is, to a greater or lesser extent a rational basis for theory choice) to the radical constructivism of the sociology of knowledge and of science studies, which have arisen from what Zammito considers to be hyperbolic misreadings of WVO Quine's holism and underdeterminism [of scientific theories], the reasonable when restrained notion of theory ladeness of facts/perceptions [sometimes discussed under the rubric of the "myth of the [unmediated perceptual] given," and Kuhnian incommesurability [of scientific theories], from from his 1962 opus, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Or. as he puts it:

“The three hyperbolic dogmas of antiempiricism [which have] dominated 'theory' over the past fifty years of post-positivist thought: theory-ladenness, underdetermination and incommensurability. None [of which] is justified in the radical form which alone empowers the extravagances of postmodernism.

Given your interests and background, you will appreciate this read. And while it may not fully answer the questions you pose, it will contextualize them, provide you with an etiological handle on the issues they raise, and maybe even enable you to answer [resolve or dissolve] them for yourself.

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Since your question contains a quote, the answers would also be in favor of that quote.

By the term 'understanding' if you mean 'realizing', I wouldn't agree with the quote: "Science is not enough for a complete understanding of our reality." One more point, that when you use the term 'our reality' there must be their reality. If this is true, there must so many realities and I am unaware of that.

As fire and smoke science and the ego often go hand in hand. Holding on to that science we won't understand our reality. So, try to understand how/why/where this ego pops up. Though most people would disagree with this idea I'd like to say this fact. But the basis of that disagreement is the ego and it would be very difficult to realize that also. Nobody will realize the reality without eliminating the ego; many wise men have reminded of it.

"All bad qualities centre round the ego. When the ego is gone, Realization results by itself. There are neither good nor bad qualities in the Self. The Self is free from all qualities. Qualities pertain to the mind only." -- Ramana Maharshi

Everything cannot be experimented and found out. So I didn't mean science with only practical experiments...this is about rational/scientific thought. So, to some people science is enough for eliminating their ego that eventually leads to realizing the reality. Here I wouldn't use the term 'understand' because this term is related to mind. I believe those who understood 'the way of thought that the Upanishads convey' would agree with this idea. You might have known that each Upanishad begins with a prayer. And this prayer helps to eliminate the ego and eventually makes the route clear for the realization. Since my answer is not in favor of the main idea of your question, I don't need to answer to other questions agreeing with that crux. If you are sticking to that word, I'd also have to agree with that statement.

If you wouldn't change the main question, the answer must be, "It is because of the imperfection of the approach."

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"Complete" understanding can refer to:

  1. Comprehensive
  2. Deep
  3. Both deep and comprehensive

We understand something when we can explain it. Our ability to explain, in turn, depends on having an accurate mental model of that particular aspect of reality. From there you can go wide, acquiring relatively simple high-level models to cover more territory. Or you can go deep, acquiring models describing the same aspect in more detail -- that doesn't affect the map coverage, but improves the resolution of that particular piece.

Going for comprehensive coverage (a basic understanding, but of everything) makes you a sage. Going deep makes you a PhD.1. The third option, having both deep and comprehensive coverage would test the limits of the person's human mind.2

1 In terms of the amount of knowledge you would have to acquire, a sagehood is a cakewalk in comparison to PhD -- which makes total sense. As species, we are supposed to have our humanity fully developed -- a sagehood by definition -- while still in our childhood (while optional for children, it'd be nice if adults actually knew what they are doing).

2 Adding sagehood to a PhD should be a piece of cake, tho it can get complicated.

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