Russell and Duenes

Science Explains All Known Phenomena?

with one comment

A generous and thoughtful commentor left the following comment (in italics here) on my previous post. Here is my response:

I would argue a couple of points mentioned here.  Specifically, I think it is manifest that no such system exists that “provides an exhaustive list of what sorts of ultimate things there are.” So to call out “science” for not accomplishing this feat is a phantom argument. However, does science provide an exhaustive list of things that are known to exist?  Yes it does. Can any given religious worldview offer the same? None that I have ever encountered.

I don’t think it is a phantom argument to call out science for not accomplishing this, for it is this assertion that “scientists” like Searle and Sagan and many others often make. When Searle says that “the universe consists entirely of extremely small particles,” and “that there is really nothing in the universe but physical particles and fields of forces acting on particles,” is he not making a totalizing claim, saying that nothing but that which is physical can possibly exist in the universe? And he says that “science” has shown this. I don’t believe it has, and so I am not knocking down a straw man. I’ve quoted Searle’s own argument, and I could add countless others to his name who are making similar claims.

Secondly, I don’t believe it correct to say that “science provides an exhaustive list of things that are known to exist.” As far as I know, science has no explanation for how non-physical information can exist, yet we know that it does. My thoughts and your thoughts are known to exist, and yet science has no ability to see them or measure them. It certainly cannot tell me, and then demonstrate by experiment, how they got here or where they are. If they are in my brain, then why can we not see them? They surely exist. If they do not exist, then you and I are not really thinking and thus, science is not really happening.

Further, you seem to imply, though I may have you wrong on this, that “things that are known to exist” cannot include non-physical realities such as, say, God. But I and many others believe that we know that God exists as surely as you know that 2 + 2 = 4. You may not agree, but I would ask: What empirical, scientific basis is there for knowing that 2 + 2 = 4? Indeed, tell me upon what empirical, scientific basis we can know anything? You explained that we know about wavelengths and such, but how do you know our brains are giving us reliable information about wavelengths? Epistemology is not properly a domain of science, and no true science can even get off the ground without certain metaphysical/ epistemological presuppositions which people take on faith, whether they believe in God or not.

From this perspective, the “scientific worldview” is the most comprehensive and utilitarian worldview to date.  Nothing is presumed to exist under a scientific worldview that has not been observed or measured to exist (directly or indirectly), which while a precautionary principle of sorts, is one that would have certainly saved our ancestors much trouble from the weather demons and illness demigods of old.

I’m not sure it would be correct to say that “nothing is presumed to exist under a scientific worldview that has not been observed or measured to exist (directly or indirectly).” The scientific worldview certainly presumes that “truth” exists, though this has not been observed or measured, nor can it be, in my opinion. The scientific worldview certainly presumes “rationality” to exist, though this has not and cannot be observed or measured. Further, the scientific worldview presumes that reliable thoughts exist, and this is an article of faith and cannot be observed. The scientific worldview cannot demonstrate that everything we think we see right now is not an illusion and that our brains are not just tricking us. And if you attempt to show that our brains aren’t tricking us, I would say that you will then be engaging in metaphysics, not physics. I know scientists attempt to explain these things naturally, as Searle does, but I think their attempts are not scientific.

Indeed, no single scientific theory claims to explain everything.  But each scientific discipline, having “divided and conquered,” so-to-speak, breaks down the nature of existence into manageable parts. So, as Dallas Willard mentions, a long, conjunctive sentence linking the various scientific disciplines does indeed define a comprehensive understanding of what is known to exist, and by extension, what is known to be available to existence.  In this way, an understanding of what it means to exist is developed.  Just because Willard claims this to be metaphysically unsatisfactory, (which by definition sits beyond what the scientific worldview would acknowledge represents anything other than abstraction,) does not mean that this worldview is physically unsatisfactory – which is the entire point of a scientific worldview.  And to boot, honest scientific principles do not rule out the existence of something simply because of an absence of evidence.  However, unlike much in metaphysics,
a scientific worldview does not presume the existence of anything prior to measurable evidence of its existence, and it does supply a mechanism to rule out the existence of something: by devising a refutable hypothetical scenario and testing it.  Metaphysics supplies no such mechanism.

If I understand rightly, you are saying: No particular scientific theory explains everything, but when we put them all together, then they do. Hmm. If no scientific theory claims to explain everything, then why is there such confidence among many neo-Darwinian scientists – for lack of a better term – that “the universe is all there is?” Wouldn’t it be better, as I suggest, for them to make much more modest claims? And wouldn’t it be better for them to stop saying that “only things that occur in purely natural, material terms” can be counted as science? This would stop them from coming up with “just so” stories about how, say, the eyeball got here, when in reality they don’t know how it got here and have never seen it happen in nature or in the lab. They have to come up with these “just so” stories about how it “must have happened” because they assume physicalism a priori. And this assumption is metaphysical, not scientific.

Your assertion that, “a long, conjunctive sentence linking the various scientific disciplines does indeed define a comprehensive understanding of what is known to exist, and by extension, what is known to be available to existence” seems to beg the question. How can any long string of scientific theories and disciplines tell me that angels do or do not exist, or demons, or God?  You may say, “But you don’t know those things exist, whereas we know that gravity exists.” But this throws us back onto epistemological issues about which science cannot have anything to say. What I think the scientific worldview has done is to set up an a priori theory of what counts as knowledge and fact and how we know facts. Science has not arrived at these epistemological theories by demonstration or empirical observation through any scientific discipline, and I don’t believe it can.

You rightly argue for “honest scientific principles,” but what, under a materialist, scientific worldview, could “honesty” mean? As I said earlier, I think science does indeed presume the existence of things prior to measurable evidence of their existence; things like honesty. I assume you believe that thoughts exist. Have you measured them? Has anyone? If someone were to say, “We know that they exist because we have them,” he or she would be making a metaphysical assertion, not an empirical, measurable one. Indeed, in metaphysics and epistemology, some things are taken on faith and must be accepted that way. The metaphysician accepts this. The problem is, the scientist under the physicalist worldview must also take certain things on faith, but he keeps trying to tell us that he musn’t and that he doesn’t

As for the alleged lacking assertion or scientific discovery about the nature of the universe, the “universe is made entirely of” statement, it can be found, quite simply, in the first law of thermodynamics.  Matter can neither be created nor destroyed – only changed in form.  And hence, if matter is known to be composed of quantum particles, themselves equivalent to energy, and this understanding produces, predicts, and accounts for all known phenomena to date, and considering that nothing is presumed to exist without evidence of its existence, then yes – the discovery of this, the laws of thermodynamics, the nature of matter, and the nature of energy – the very nature of known existence in the universe – has been made and continues to be made as a conjunctive string of the latest discoveries in quantum mechanics, classical physics, and relativistic physics.  In this light, it seems to me that Willard’s metaphysical arm-waving is surprisingly ignorant of the state of modern scientific understanding, (unless he claims metaphysical existences are hiding in cosmological Dark Energy, which is currently being researched… But I doubt that is his implication.)

From whence come laws? Don’t laws presuppose some sort of metaphysical reality? Science can’t give us its own laws; they must come from outside of science, by a lawgiver. If you were to say, “We know the scientific laws because we observe that things in the physical universe happen always and inexorably according to these laws,” I would respond 1) by using David Hume’s argument that we cannot call something a law simply because it happens repeatedly in the same way, and 2) there have been cases when these laws have been suspended, as in the case of miracles. The scientist may say, “Miracles have not and cannot happen.” I will say, “Can he know this from science? Many people have been eyewitnesses to miracles that defy the “laws” of science. Can one objectively show their claims to be false? Can one do it on the basis of empirical science? Or can one simply say, “Science shows us that miracles don’t happen?” which it don’t believe it can show.

Secondly, information exists, and it is not matter. It is non-physical, and thus is not composed of particles.

Third, you’d have to define what “known phenomena” is. I think it is “known phenomena” that God raised Jesus from the dead, just like I think it is known phenomena that Abraham Lincoln was shot to death. I think both of these can be known based on reliable eye-witness accounts and the results that followed. There are many things that give “evidence of their existence” which cannot be accounted for by any naturalist, materialist theory. I don’t believe Willard is “hand waving” when he asserts that Searle has not shown, nor has any scientist shown, that “mental phenomena…are themselves features of the brain.” You’ll pardon me for being skeptical, but I’d like to see the lab results that show this. I just don’t think that “modern science,” has not shown that my thoughts are a feature of my brain.

Further, unlike religious worldviews, the obvious objection to this statement is systemically addressed.  “But what if there is more to existence?” one asks?  —  If more to the universe exists than particles, energy, and the fundamental forces that accompany them, the good news for adherents of the “scientific worldview” is that science itself is not closed.  It is an open, evolving understanding.  So, should evidence of further planes or types of existence come to light, such evidence will be examined, tested, and incorporated into the “scientific worldview” in due course.

I think we’re seeing quite a lot of dogmatic naturalism that claims, to quote Sagan again, “The universe is all there is, was, or ever will be.” This doesn’t appear open to me. How open has the scientific community been to the idea of design? All one need do is consider the responses that have been made toward Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell. The science of the book has not been refuted. Rather, Meyer is subject to ad hominem attacks by “scientists” who won’t even bother to read his book. “It’s not science,” they say, and dismiss it out of hand. There certainly is evidence for the existence of things that cannot be “examined” or “tested” by the scientific method, and one of these facts is the presence of information in our cells. We can’t see it, and thus we can’t physically measure it or test it. Yet it’s there.

Science has been all we need to explain existence in the universe so far, from stars to squid, from violent human impulses to volcanoes, and from gravity to grains of sand.  Until we find phenomena that science simply finds itself incapable of addressing, I don’t personally see any reason why this array of practical scientific theories, itself forming a matrix of universal understanding, is anything other than what Searle purports.

I just don’t see that science can tell us how life got here, how it arose, or from whence it came. A scientific theory attempting to give answers to these things does not amount to a demonstration of evidence. Even Richard Dawkins says that he doesn’t know how life got here. I believe I’ve shown that we have found phenomena that science is incapable of addressing, and that’s the whole point of my original post. Whatever “science” is, and people can’t seem even to agree on a definition, it cannot address all human phenomena, much less that in the entire universe. If Searle were on track, he would be able to give us a simple empirical demonstration of how “mental phenomena…are themselves features of the brain.” I don’t think he has done so, thus, I don’t think he can give us a “universal understanding” of all the phenomena that can be known.

Thanks for your thoughtfulness. I hope I’ve been fair. You certainly have been.

Two more cents.



Written by Michael Duenes

November 4, 2010 at 7:09 pm

Posted in Duenes, Science

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Wow. I am humbled to see the effort put into this reply, and I thank you for taking the time. As I mentioned in a previous comment, I don’t ordinarily have the time to engage in discussion of this nature, but I find them important.

    Indeed, I have found your reply to be quite fair, and with your indulgence, there are a couple of points I would like to take a moment to address.

    Before I do so, however, I would like to make an acknowledgment (in part related to your first comment): There are many half-misstatements and much dogma on the “science” side of the fence. When scientific worldview proponents (like Sagan) say, “The Universe is all there is, was, will be…,” etc., when pressed, what I think they would agree that what they really mean is that the universe is all that we can reasonably confirm has existed, exists, and can be shown will exist to date. So, I would say most scientist-philosophers are guilty of a bit of either intentional or unintentional generalizing. -I’d just like to say that up front, because I feel like few do.

    So, metaphorically rolling up our sleeves:

    You say that science cannot measure or confirm thoughts, and therefore science cannot account for them or their existences as phenomena… (and therefore science has not been able to catalog and address things that exist.) I say this is untrue. Science certainly does have the ability to detect thoughts. By neural tomography, “science” sees that thoughts are associated with electrical activity in the brain, and a lack of thinking equates to a lack of electrical activity. Therefore, it could be considered that a “thought” is more a result of various biochemical causes than an single object, (much like how “sight” doesn’t itself exist as a single, tangible thing, but is instead more the name given to a result of a process – electrical impulses being transmitted from our retinas through the optic nerve and interpreted by the visual cortex of our brain). Indeed, there are now (admittedly frightening) machines that employ this technology to detect whether or not a person is lying by detecting in which part of the brain a person is thinking. If activity occurs in the memory portions of the brain, a person is accessing (thinking) a memory thought. If the creative part of the brain is active, the person is inventing information (new thoughts), i.e. lying. So, the fact that “science” doesn’t see individual thoughts with today’s technology isn’t a problem with science, it’s the immaturity of the technology. With time, resolution will increase, and technology will improve. Mark my words – for good or ill, scientific mind-reading is only a matter of time. The technology is already here.

    You mention addressing the inability of science to address the existence of immaterial things or non-physical realities. You then relate God to a mathematical proof. I say (with all respect) that the comparison is an excellent one. Math is a human invention, an idealized case of universal relationships that does not, itself, exist anywhere in the universe except as a human concept. So far, (scientifically-speaking,) the same can be said for God. -And merely possessing a concept does not make the concept any more real than Twain having written down Huckleberry Finn made Huck physically exist somewhere in the universe. So, I agree that the concepts of mathematical relationships exist, but the human experience is amongst the least reliable of all evidences for the existence of something. Science has demonstrated that our native senses are too limited, too coarse, too easily misled to grow beyond even a rudimentary scientific understanding unassisted. So, to say that because someone “knows” something to be true holds no water to the scientific worldview until one can find a way to test it. Can one test 2 + 2 = 4? Yes. Can one test for the existence of God? Not yet. I do cede your point that eventually, an epistemological starting point must be accepted. For the honest scientific worldview adherent, I think the only “faith-based” requirement of a scientist, and there really only is one, is this:

    The Universe is knowable.

    Everything else can be analyzed, challenged, and verified. (-And as a skeptic I’ve done quite a bit of it myself.)

    You next argue that, “The scientific worldview certainly presumes that “truth” exists, though this has not been observed or measured, nor can it be, in my opinion. The scientific worldview certainly presumes “rationality” to exist, though this has not and cannot be observed or measured.” –However, I think you confuse the nature of material existence in the eyes of “science” here. Science acknowledges that concepts exist… as concepts. Human inventions. As such, does science consider that they “exist” without humans to experience them? Not at all. Truth has no physical counterpart, and does not physically exist. Nor does the number 2. Two *of something* can obviously exist, but 2 as a concept is not wandering somewhere in the wild. If all conscious beings vanished from the universe, concepts of truth and rationality have no anchor and evaporate, leaving only cold rock, unfeeling waves of water, etc. From this perspective, then, the existence of concepts (like scientific theories, music that is not being performed, literature while not being read, etc.) do not exist at all except when they are conjured into being by a conscious agent, and even then only as electrical signals representing information on the part of the experience-r. Yes, this may be seen as a cold reality, but a scientific worldview presumes and requires nothing more.

    You follow with, “Further, the scientific worldview presumes that reliable thoughts exist, and this is an article of faith and cannot be observed. The scientific worldview cannot demonstrate that everything we think we see right now is not an illusion and that our brains are not just tricking us.” –I also argue that this is plainly untrue. Yes, any single person may be tricked by their brains. This much as been made quite clear in any number of circumstances, (mental illness or the influence of drugs as notable examples.) In fact, this very reality is why the scientific method was invented in the first place. The experience of one person is intrinsically unreliable. However, when something is measured by multiple people by multiple means, (and further by unconscious technical objects,) and that when in each case that something has been repeatably shown to possess a given quality or attribute (i.e., the scientific method,) it suggests quite a cosmic conspiracy to say that this is coincidence, and that the qualities of the object cannot be empirically shown to objectively exist. (See my “colorblind” comment on your previous post for another example.) The existence of a deaf person doesn’t imply that sound does not exist in all the universe, nor does our inability to personally “see” x-ray light imply that such light does not exist or that the universe is variable. It only implies the limits of our own biological capabilities.

    As for the existence of scientific “laws,” they do not imply a “law-giver.” We just named them “laws” for conceptual convenience. We could just as easily called them, “things in the universe which are constant.” This is an empirical quality. Why does the universe possess these qualities that are constant? Science does not have an answer. This is not to say that science says there is no answer, we’re just not there yet. Call it a limit of current understanding. However, I do not believe this is an impenetrable limit. When we reach a point where we are able to conceptually unify the fundamental forces and “laws” of the universe in a more elegant way, (we’ll get there eventually,) then we’ll be in a better position to start attacking the problems of cosmic architecture. We have to walk before we can run. (And this is what I meant by science having yet to find something it cannot address. Even this question, “Why are there laws?” – Science is clearly unprepared to answer it now, but science has not shut the door and declared this information unknowable.)

    I’m familiar with Hume’s argument against forward implications, and to me this is impotent. I believe in order to reasonably make Hume’s argument, we must have multiple universes from which to make the inverse conclusion that the future state of something cannot be predicted, by showing that in a given universe “laws” can change. We have no such advantage or example, so logically it is equally impossible to know that laws *will* change with time. And unlike the supposition that laws will change, we have the weight of the observable universe confirming that constants like gravity, electromagnetism, nuclear forces, thermodynamics, atomic properties, radioactive decay, etc., are indeed unchanging, and nothing to suggest they change (or even can). [And I know many science-types state this and walk away. So, in the interest of not spouting the dogma most who engage in conversations like this regurgitate, I’ll take a moment to explain. Foremost amongst the proof of unchanging laws are stars themselves, which represent a delicate balance of thermonuclear reactions driven by gravity, which is warring against thermodynamics, opposed by electromagnetism, and fueled by the nuclear forces. Any slight shift in any of these relationships will immediately alter the size, luminosity, color, nuclear properties, etc., of stars. However, throughout the cosmos, stars with vastly differing ages betray stellar relationships that remain constant, declaring a universe of unchanging laws. Or at least, unchanging within our measurement error… which admittedly leaves a little wiggle room to date.]

    As for miracles providing evidence of changing laws, I have yet to see a miracle documented by anything other than an eyewitness account. The David Copperfields of the world survive on the reality that witnessing something is unreliable, and the mind can be easily tricked, confused, influenced, suggested, etc. This is a reason why the scientific method arose to begin with – to verify something in a more reliable way than eyewitness accounts. Certainly, science cannot *prove* that scientific laws are unbreakable. However, until demonstrably performed, (i.e., find a way to repeat a miracle under observation,) anecdotal evidence is not enough to influence the scientific worldview or unseat what otherwise appears to be unchanging laws of nature. (Else, every time someone sees a flat horizon, the roundness of the Earth is called into question.) Let me put it this way: An experiment performed by a researcher with no set method, with an unknown process, which produces a result that runs contrary to universal constants in all other cases, and which is unrepeatable, is a very poor science experiment, indeed.

    You say that information exists, and is not material. I also believe this to be false. Where does this information exist? If in a book, the words in the book that represent the information physically exist as ink on a page. They are material. Without it, the information no longer exists. Is the information on a CD? -Indentations in the disk that reflect light, which is material. On a hard-drive? -Magnetic stripes, which are, again, material. In our minds? -Stored biochemically in our neurons. (Don’t believe me? Look at the logical reality of memory loss or personality change with brain injuries. The information is lost, just as if a page were ripped out of a book.) Just so, to simply say that science concludes that “information exists” is not true. As abstract concepts, the information does not exist. It only exists when it bears a physical manifestation.

    Again, when you mention “known phenomena,” you return to the reliability of eyewitness accounts and the existence of thoughts. Eyewitness accounts are the least reliable sort of information there is. When a scientific breakthrough is made, by what means is it accepted? Replication. Can someone else repeat what has been observed or created? Only then is something given any existential weight. Belief in whatever the conclusion is is suspended until that time, and even afterward, the degree of suspension of disbelief is only lessened. It takes a long time and much experimentation and evidence before something attains the full scientific rank of “theory,” and in only the rarest circumstances does it move to “law.” We *can* see your thoughts at this point, in the form of electrochemical impulses in your brain, though only in a very rudimentary way in our era. However, this coarse resolution does not prove that thoughts are immaterial and cannot be measured, just as poor, early telescopes did not call the existence of planets into question. Quite the reverse. It was via the use of the first, poor telescopes that the existence of planets were confirmed, and in the same way, by our rudimentary neural tomography, the physical existence of thoughts has been revealed. I will never have to pardon anyone for being skeptical – I find this to be the most valuable quality a person can possibly possess. Look up research on neural tomography – it may (quite literally) blow your mind.

    I haven’t read Stephen Meyer’s book, so I can’t speak to it specifically. However, to my knowledge, no cellular activity occurs which cannot be related to RNA and DNA protein transcriptions. Complex? Mind-numbingly so. Does that mean it is too complex for comprehension or does not exist? Not at all. Again, I have yet to encounter something that science is incapable of addressing – even information storage in cells. (So much so that scientists have for the very first time recently “programmed” their own cell – emptied it, created their own information sequences, inserted it, and set the cell operating, just like a machine.)

    You claim that you do not believe science is or can even claim to be capable of addressing the basic questions of life and existence. However, the very purpose of modern space exploration is to address the very questions you mention: How life came here, how it arose, or how it came to be. Admittedly, science does not have this answer, yet. -But it has increasingly good ideas, and is continually progressing. (No brick walls, yet.) Our latest telescopes show that highly-complex amino acids are naturally forming in interstellar clouds of gas guided only by gravity and their natural electrochemical properties. In fact, it looks as thought life *wants* to form, meaning that the biochemical building-blocks of what we understand life to be appear to be naturally forming wherever possible. Can we take this information and generate a scenario whereby these processes led to our existence? Yes. Does this mean that a more esoteric “creation” scenario is impossible? No. However, what I believe frustrates scientists is that, as I said earlier, there is no scientific need to go that route. The discovery of self-forming lipids, naturally-assembling strands of RNA in a water solvent, the cosmic amino acids I mentioned earlier – each of these if considered to “randomly” form would be mathematically impossible. But that’s the great popular misunderstanding of evolution or “origins” research – it isn’t random, though most anti-evolutionists scream this to be true at the top of their lungs. In reality, gravity, chemistry, electromagnetism, thermodynamics – all of these things naturally organize matter, and they appear to *prefer* to organize it into life-like structures. Personally, I think most appeals to a “designer” for these processes to have led to the natural formation of life are impatient and unnecessary. -And, with time, I am confident these questions will be resolved.

    HOWEVER, to ask why the universe possesses the laws it does and more mysteriously, how they came to have the values that they do… This is where I think theology could (should?) be sitting harmoniously with our scientific understanding. We are so far away from being able to address those questions right now, and it is those questions that seem to have so much bearing on the ubiquitous-ness of life-forming processes in the cosmos, that this is why I call myself a Deist instead of Atheist.

    I hope I, too, have been fair. I lament that in most cases the conversation never gets this far, and I truly appreciate the time, understanding, and investment you’ve shown to see that this one has.

    We’ll call this one a full quarter’s worth. 😉



    November 6, 2010 at 1:20 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: