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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Can Science Explain Everything? Anything?" by Steven Weinberg

Steven Weinberg is a Nobel laureate in physics, and the author of ten books, at least some of which are aimed at an intelligent lay audience. (It is possible that all of them are, but the only one I have read is his The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. Here's the link to the Amazon page on the book, and here is a link to a service I am not familiar with, namely Questia, through which, apparently, you can read the entire book on-line.) My impression is that Weinberg has been a highly qualified scientist, and also one who has thought deeply about the relationship between science and society. As nearly as I can figure out, he is a liberal Jew. I don't know whether he is a religious Jew or not.

On May 31, 2001, an article that Weinberg had written for the New York Review of Books was published. I saved that article at about that time. As far as I can determine, it is no longer available freely on-line. The article has the title given in quotes in the title of this blog post. The article is available, at cost, or with a proper membership, here.

I wish to muse about the article.

Early in the article, Weinberg asserts that "There is no purpose revealed in the laws of nature." Soon after, he indicates that science declines to discuss the question of purpose in nature, although theology claims to look for such.

Much of the article is given to a discussion of the meanings of the words "explanation," "fundamental," "deduced," "principle," and "description." This is an important discussion, and Weinberg brings considerable insight, and, I believe, even some clarity to this discussion. He concludes that science can, indeed, explain some things. Then he moves to the question of whether science can explain everything.

Weinberg claims that there are some types of phenomena that science, or scientists, cannot explain. These include the following:

The results of accidents, wherein we cannot know all the initial conditions that led up to the accident. (Weinberg indicates, that, in these cases, if we did know all the initial conditions, we could explain the phenomenon.) He gives some examples, one of which is a comparison between the assassination of President Lincoln and the attempted assassination of President Truman. Weinberg says that we will never be able to explain completely why one assassination attempt resulted in a murder, but the other didn't.

He says that we cannot explain moral principles: "The moral postulates that tell us whether we should or should not do [some particular action] so cannot be deduced from our scientific knowledge."

He further says that we will never be sure how good our current explanations are.

Finally, Weinberg says that we cannot explain the most basic scientific principles, and does not believe that we will ever be able to do so.

He does not say so, but I would add to his list that we cannot explain why there is something, rather than nothing. This relates to the first statement from the article that I quoted, and it seems that Weinberg believes that that is another question that science is not going to be able to explain, although he doesn't say so explicitly.

Weinberg has by no means given up on science. He thinks that we should work toward finding a Theory of Everything. He does not seem to believe that, even if such a theory is found, it will explain everything. That is, we will only know that, whatever the equations of such a theory might be, we won't know why they are as they are.

Thanks for reading.


Pete DeSanto said...

And so when science cannot answer something where are we left? Does Weinberg reference any sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, zoologists, or biologists regarding possible origins of morality?

I don't understand this reliance on the speculation of a few people regarding the bounds of science. 400 years ago, Newton speculated that science will never be able to explain why gravity does not result in the collapse of the universe and that it must therefore be God "winding his watch from time to time."

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Pete.

I would say that when science can't answer something, we are left with philosophy, theology, politics, etc., or just our ignorance.

No, Weinberg does not refer to any of these experts on this point. I quote his entire paragraph (that's all he had to say on the matter, here, anyway):
Further, science can never explain any moral principle. There seems to be an unbridgeable gulf between “is” questions and “ought” questions. We can perhaps explain why people think they should do things, or why the human race has evolved to feel that certain things should be done and other things should not, but it remains open to us to transcend these biologically based moral rules. It may be, for example, that our species has evolved in such a way that men and women play different roles—men hunt and fight, while women give birth and care for children—but we can try to work toward a society in which every sort of work is as open to women as it is to men. The moral postulates that tell us whether we should or should not do so cannot be deduced from our scientific knowledge.

Some philosophers would disagree with Weinberg on the question of "ought" from "is." I don't think he said that we can't explain the origins of morality. You can read what he did say.

As to relying on a few people, there have been quite a few prominent individuals who think that science has bounds, and some of them, including Weinberg, I believe, are far from a belief in a supernatural God. Some of those supposed bounds have been transcended, as you indicate. I don't think we can do more than "speculate" that all of them will be transcended.

Martin LaBar said...

P. S. from my previous comment.

I don't doubt that Newton said what you say that he did. I don't know why he said it. He may have said it for scientific reasons, or he may have said it because of his religious belief. (or both)

Some of the proposed limits of science, such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, have been proposed for scientific reasons. And Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, which, I know, is not strictly scientific, was proposed for mathematical grounds. That doesn't mean that either of them are correct, of course, but it does mean that they weren't proposed because of a belief in a Creator.

Pete DeSanto said...

Yeah the ought-is problem is something! I guess I was thinking more in terms of origins of morality. I'm aware of a lot of speculation about the bounds of science, but what those bounds are (if they do indeed exist) is hard to say until we run up against them!

When science can't answer something, we are left with speculation and wonder, although most politics these days seems to eschew either of those!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Pete.

We seem to be agreed all around on your last comment.