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Would you say this is a controversial point, or one most people in the sciences would agree on? Despite all our scientific progress in explaining (at least superficially) why things happen the way they do, we've gotten no closer whatsoever in answering the most fundamental question facing humanity. Questions like how something can come from nothing (a seeming logical absurdity), why there is something instead of nothing, whether matter is infinitely divisible or somehow composed of a simple substance (neither option being conceivable), whether there is free will, and whether there is any external, objective meaning to anything. Would we all agree that science has gotten us NO closer to answering these, and that based on its failure to even make progress, we can at least guess that these are simply unanswerable questions that reside outside the reach of human cognition? Controversial or pretty agreed on?Thoughts?

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  • It's possible they only appear to be outside of the scope of scientific inquiry because there has not been a line of inquiry that brought forth an answer or an understanding that was a sufficient match for the question. Things seem impossible to understand until they don't.
    – dgo
    Feb 3, 2014 at 5:45

3 Answers 3

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I'd say that something-from-nothing hasn't gotten very far (either the "how" or "why").

The nature of matter is almost completely answered, save for lingering questions about dark matter and dark energy. We've found the Higgs Boson, the Standard Model fits experimental data to within a few percent, and quantum chromodynamics hangs together decently well. Sure, there's relativity mucking things up, but we know what matter is and how it behaves under a vast range of situations. New theories won't overturn those any more than Newton's laws were overturned as explanations of how planetary motion works: even if there's a more complex way to look at it, -G*m*M/r^2 is pretty much how gravitation works across most scales.

Free will has been penned into a pretty small range of possibilities by neuroscience. That mind is implemented by brain is almost without doubt at this point, and if so we know plenty about the physical world to scupper ideas of Free Will as being some causal source unlike all others. No, we pretty much know that it's just a fancy algorithm running on our fancy brain-hardware, and we just have to work out how, and decide whether we should be disturbed, or whether our role as deciding-information-processing-agents actually gets us the freedom we were after in the first place.

The universe gives pretty clear indications that nothing matters objectively in the most global scale. We also know that evolutionary fitness matters as much to living creatures as anything can. The universe enforces this one with brutal strictness: go extinct, and there are no more of you, ever, which also pretty much ends any value system that requires you to value things. If we want a near-universal source of meaning, we can find it there. But we seem less interested in knowing that it's objectively stupid to make ourselves go extinct (too obvious?), and a lot more interested in knowing whether gays should serve openly in the military. And if that has any bearing on our fitness as a species at all, the answer could only possibly be had from asking "Well, what will the consequences be?" And to answer that you have to do experiments, and it will depend heavily on the social and ecological context in which we find ourselves, and just doesn't look like the kind of crisp principled answer we want at all. So things which matter-to-us but have even less objectivity (like human happiness) tend to receive the bulk of the attention.

Science has done a pretty remarkable job here in my opinion. I don't see how it's going to get the "something from nothing"-style questions. But a couple hundred years ago I don't think I could have foreseen how science would have tackled the other three. So I'm not going to proclaim with too much confidence that it cannot.

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  • Be wary of what will or will not be overturned. Quantum physics is a very precise and intricate set of models, while Newton laws are three intuitive approximations. Comparing them is not very sound.
    – Evpok
    Feb 3, 2014 at 8:08
  • @Evpok - The agreement with theory is correspondingly precise. I'm not worried. QM is a good model even if imperfect. Plenty good enough to answer the "what is matter" question, since any other theory will have to explain the same data, and therefore will have to reduce to QM in those areas where it does particularly well.
    – Rex Kerr
    Feb 3, 2014 at 8:22
  • Now there we disagree. Physics doesn't try to answer “what is matter” but “Is there a better model of what matter is for what we are trying to achieve”. Science doesn't deal with the nature of reality, it deals with models of reality.
    – Evpok
    Feb 3, 2014 at 8:43
  • @Evpok - What is the distinction if the model captures the behavior of reality?
    – Rex Kerr
    Feb 3, 2014 at 9:07
  • Depends on the objectives you are setting, of course, but in my understanding of the OP, the question was “what matter really is”.
    – Evpok
    Feb 3, 2014 at 9:54
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This really depends on your definition of science. (Remember much of what we now consider science started as "natural philosophy".)

I like to think of science as the study of empirical (that is, observable) reality, leaving questions of methodology aside. Under this definition, science addresses precisely those questions that can actually be answered.

In other words, if the truth or falsity of a proposition has observable consequences, then it can be studied scientifically. If not, then there is no way to establish whether the proposition is true or false.

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I think some people would say science[1] does address the fundamental questions and the other more "spiritual" (here in the Hegelian sense) questions are just noise generated by the way the bio-chemical-physical system that is a human being works.

Conversely, others will say science does not have the capacity to address fundamental questions precisely because they are not fundamentally of a nature where you can discover them by making sense of how matter works. I think this type of thinking is at work in your strain of suggestions that science has not succeeded in explaining away free will, etc.

To draw both points together, the real question is what are the fundamental questions and in what sense do we hold them if we can name them (the expression here is convoluted because one way that breaks scientism would be if we can ask the question of science on a fundamental level outside of science). I think there are some resources for addressing which approach to fundamental questions is better.

For the scientists, a key feature will be increasingly precise physical explanations and the belief that explaining is explaining away. On such a view, our perceptions are seen as the experiences of biochemical brains qua minds, so what we want to do is strip off the illusions experience places us under. Conversely, those who don't think science can address fundamental questions precisely because these questions are not about explaining away or getting to fundamental particles.

A principle of parsimony (e.g., Occam's razor) seems key to both sides insofar as no one wants their view to depend just on unnecessary entities. And here it kind of boils down to whether you think one God or an infinite number of universes is a more egregious breach of parsimony.

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  • Yea I think my point is geared more towards the idea that the mind sets inherent limitations on scientific inquiry, and that science can only operate within a phenomenological realm set by our minds to begin with. If the mind is a box, then the size of the box are the inherent, immutable limitations set by the mind. Science must operate within the box, discovering things our mind can comprehend to begin with. The question is,are those questions up there (the most fundamental regarding existence) outside the confines set by the box, thus rendering them irrelevant to science?
    – Clayton
    Feb 3, 2014 at 16:44
  • If structured in that way around the box analogy (or we could say Plato's cave), then clearly science is the limited one and philosophy handles the fundamental questions.
    – virmaior
    Feb 3, 2014 at 17:32
  • @Clayton I don't subscribe to this view (box). The reason being that you are expressing a categorical-type of thinking (inside/outside) that has no real foundation other than sensory perception; If you decide that we have the incapacity to process the information around us you can begin to try to see things differently, but only for fun (key pt). Ultimately the most encompassing answers (to me) come from silent conclusions about the cohesion that exists between everything we chose to call separate. When taken to its limit there are, are not, and gibberish differences between "separatenesses".
    – val
    Feb 4, 2014 at 5:08
  • @val It seems like to deny the box example would be to deny the relationship between the mind and reality. Reality, to me, seems like a synthesis of what is 'out there' and our minds processing of it. Science looks to make objective what is perceived by the subjective, but how can that ever truly be the case? Basically, I'm going back to Kant and his Copernican turn, where he focused philosophical thought back on the mind and argued the numenal real consisted of objects in-and-of themselves, forever barred from human understadning
    – Clayton
    Feb 5, 2014 at 4:43

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