The limits of Science

Let us consider what the domain of science covers. There is a hierarchy in science arranged like a tree: physics, chemistry, geology, biochemistry, biology. Each one is constrained by the rules of its parent, yet at the same time exhibits behaviors that go beyond those of the parent.

But physics is itself the child of mathematics, and hence mathematics is the sine qua non of science. An event that cannot be counted, weighed, timed or otherwise measured is not amenable to the procedures of science; it is a one time event, a fluke, a chance confluence of nature. Science only considers phenomena that can be treated mathematically in some way.

Some observers claim that mathematics is a language created by humans to describe the world around them. This seems unlikely. Mathematicians take simple starting points and construct concepts that have no connection with reality – until one day, it is discovered that they do. Eugene Wigner wrote of this in his paper “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences“. Mathematics was not created to explain the world around us; instead, that world is found to match mathematics. This is a very peculiar state of affairs.

But it is not just this uncanny matching that is strange – it is the fact that there is any matching at all. Why should gravity obey an inverse square law? Why is road damage proportional to the fourth power of the axle weight? The physical universe and mathematics are inextricably intertwined, and I suggest that the two are in fact one – that the physical universe is the manifestation of mathematics. At the macroscopic level, the equations are impossibly complex, but at the level of an elementary particle such as an electron or photon, there is no difference between the particle and its mathematical description – the particle is its wave function.

Several conclusions follow from this. One is that the universe is, in some sense, eternal. The laws of mathematics are not going to be repealed in the future, and there was no time when they did not apply.

Secondly, consider Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which states that in a mathematical system of sufficient complexity, there are propositions which cannot be proved true or false. The system can be extended to cover these propositions, but further undecidable propositions will always arise.

That is to say that science is necessarily an incomplete explanation of the world.

4 Comments on “The limits of Science

  1. I detect a lovely wavefront of neo-Platonism collapsing into a glowing non-material Buddhist quark.
    I agree that any person trying to think about the world with any depth nowadays has to confront the aspect of reality in which the relationships between the entities we define have mathematical descriptions that can also be seen as the origin of the entities to begin with. If it comes down to how the describer-self defines the self that is describing reality, it then appears to be turtles all the way down….

  2. Yes, consciousness is still a thorn in the side of science. Try this article on panpsychism.

    These century-old arguments bring me to the conceptual framework of the integrated information theory (IIT) of psychiatrist and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It postulates that conscious experience is a fundamental aspect of reality and is identical to a particular type of information—integrated information. Consciousness depends on a physical substrate but is not reducible to it. That is, my experience of seeing an aquamarine blue is inexorably linked to my brain but is different from my brain

  3. I just ran across this quote. Speaking of the universe, Galileo said, “It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *