Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Limitations to Science:
The Relevance of Theology in Modern Cosmology

Tamsyn Churchill & James Ryan


Summary by Marty Morrissey

Jim and Tamsyn listed three reasons for the lack of an all-encompassing theory of cosmology until recently (from handout):

  1. The Cartesian Worldview – During the late 18th century there was the widely accepted view of reality as split into two aspects: “mind” and “matter”, theology dealing with the former and science with the latter.
  2. By the 19th century the natural sciences were broken into separate disciplines. This led to specialization but left little room for exploration of science as a whole.
  3. The very nature of the scientific method went against thinking of things as parts of a whole: “The goal was to study and reduce all such wholes (including nature) to their parts” (Brockelman).

Jim clarified these points by saying that scientists were under the impression that if things could be figured out at the smaller level, we could have an understanding of the bigger picture. He introduced two “assumptions” (from handout):

Reductionistic: what is important is what something is made up of; its smallest part
Rationalistic: (Inherited from the Enlightenment) “Science would ultimately demonstrate that reality is entirely rational and knowable” (Brockelman). This became a priori in the scientific world.

Two points question the rationalistic assumption (from handout): Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Niels Bohr’s discovery that an observer of subatomic entities affects that which he/she is observing.

Jim and Tamsyn then presented on Science and Religion: Converging Paths to Truth. Among others, a primary reasoned named for this convergence was Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem: For any consistent formal theory that proves basic arithmetical truths, it is possible to construct an arithmetical statement that is true but not provable in the theory. That is, any consistent theory of a certain expressive strength is incomplete.

Because we are unable to explain even the most fundamental elements of our understanding of the world, it can be argued that we must look to another “path”, and many believe this to be religion.

Jim then brought up George Ellis’ opinions on the limitations of science. Ellis says “The point is that the scientific method itself has fundamental limits, and many important areas lie outside those limits”. He brings up the point that areas like aesthetics, ethics, and metaphysics are not quantifiable in the same way that observable phenomena in the natural world are. Jim argues that we may possess the capacity to, at some point, quantify such phenomena in the same way we quantify other parts of nature through science. He sees these issues as being only more complex “bodily reactions to our surroundings”, and therefore argues that an understanding of these behaviors is indeed possible.

Law(s) of Beauty?

The conversation took a turn to the aesthetic very quickly because we generally regard the idea of beauty and the artistic experience as being somewhat foreign to science. There were some points about our desire for beauty as being an aspect of our physiology, or perhaps an evolved attraction to pieces of nature, which would mean that aesthetics could be understood in terms of science. Yet this was not the overall consensus.

DJ: We’re getting stuck on who thinks what’s beautiful. The real issue is simply the fact that we all recognize that beauty exists; we all have a concept of it. Granted we can’t decide on what is universally beautiful, but we can agree on the truth of its existence.
Jim: The fact that there is a universal concept of beauty doesn’t verify that beauty is anything more than a physiochemical response to sensory input. Ellis…

Professor Smith: To clarify, the point Jim’s making is not so much about the relative nature of beauty (as if there is no universal beauty). He seems to be saying that there’s no way to quantitatively rank beauty (for example, there is no scale that we can put two paintings on and determine the absolute best. We could poll a lot of people, but that wouldn’t give us a real definition of universal building. When we poll people in this way, we find that subjects respond as a monkey would – we like bodies of water, open spaces, and a tree in our paintings). Aesthetic beauty is so fascinating because the reason it seems to be so important is that it doesn’t actually do anything. It has no instrumental value in that its purpose is simply to be beautiful.

Neal: The experience of the beautiful is awesome, which ties it in with religion. We find ourselves in the presence of something that is so much greater than we are.

Professor Smith: We have to distinguish between liking something and being attracted to it (like a moth to a flame). The Kantian conception of the experience of beauty is similar to an experience of God and morality and love (there is an ability to appreciate something not because it has a function for us, but instead because it has inherent value).

DJ: [Back to the idea of quantifying beauty] what comes to mind is the notion that what we find attractive in a face is its symmetry, or in relation to artwork we have the “Golden Ratio” (Fibonacci sequence).

Professor Smith: The genius is not employing principles that are “tried and true”. She is able to create a new “law” and not simply work within the domain of other laws.

DJ: Can we say that these new laws are created, or is it more appropriate to say that they are discovered? There could be a law within nature that we discover more and more with each genius. The “Golden Ratio” is an example of a natural law that we have discovered.

Professor Möbius: Science is awesome and beautiful in that it all fits together so perfectly. Our entire universe seems to work within a few basic laws and symmetries, speaking to the awesomeness of it. This seems to indicate that there is something more behind it than just a function of it. We are necessarily involved in the science that we do. Science is self-correcting in the sense that scientists know best what their creations can do, and therefore are obligated to stay involved with their discoveries/creations.

Socially Constructed View of Science

The discussion of the laws of science revealed a lack of consensus regarding what exactly was meant by “science”. Professors Möbius, deVries, and Davis began to shed light on the topic with their own understanding of the nature of science, as well as some false assumptions made by our society regarding science’s jurisdiction.

Professor deVries: I’m not convinced that treating something scientifically is a manner of quantifying it in some way. Part of the leap to that assumption is an historical fact of the way we use the word “science”. In other languages (German, for example) the term only implies intellectual rigor in study. We can have intellectually rigorous studies of things like beauty and morality, but I don’t know if we can call it science. Perhaps the boundaries that we’re imposing with calling it science are a bit artificial. Speaking strictly quantitatively when dealing with the limitations of science isn’t taking everything into account.

Professor Möbius: I agree. Science in the US and Britain is basically a connotation of natural science as opposed to humanities. Again, in Germany, there is not that distinction in the word “science”.

Professor Davis: What falls in the scope of science?

Goals of Science:

Describe…...................... m Knowledge
Explain…......................... m Knowledge
Predict…......................... m Power
Control the natural world ..m Power

The ability to take knowledge and turn it into power is the goal of science. If we can understand the order and lawfulness of nature, than we can control it. Therefore, the things that we can say fall under the scope of science are those things that are orderly and lawful.

Professor Möbius: That all falls under natural science.

Inherent (Intrinsic) vs. Instrumental (Extrinsic) Value

With a better understanding of just what it means of something to be scientific, some questions arose as to whether or not we are to value scientific insights as the highest form of human understanding. For instance, if the aesthetic experience cannot be understood scientifically – assuming that we could somehow know this - does/should that make it less valuable? More valuable? Somehow equal? Are these value judgments made only in terms of humanity? If so, is it even possible to make judgments of value objectively?

Professor Davis: Whenever we talk about things at the quantum level, we lose touch with the ability to predict individual things (atoms). This is our confession of ignorance.

Marty R.: Professor Davis’ outline of the goal of science (related to knowledge and power) allows for a simple critique. This outline falls into scientism, which is the idea that we employ this scientific reasoning in every aspect of our lives. There is a necessary distinction in science between the object and the subject. This introduces an instrumentalization of the world. For example, our current relationship with the environment has been caused by the view of the world as being something for our use. We are not looking for inherent value in our research. There are other ways of viewing the world around us. If all our reason becomes instrumental, it will fail in its attempt at an appropriate relationship with the world.

intrinsic / extrinsic

Distinction between the features of things. The intrinsic features of a thing are those which it has in and of itself; while its extrinsic features are those which it has only in its relation to something else. Thus, for example, I am intrinsically a human being, but only extrinsically a father. It might reasonably be disputed whether my being male is an intrinsic biological feature or an extrinsic cultural construction.

In epistemology, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities points out the difference between the intrinsic and the extrinsic properties of material objects, and in normative ethics, deontologists and consequentialists disagree about whether the moral value of human actions resides in their intrinsic or their extrinsic features.

(the above definition is taken from the Philosophical Dictionary at

Professor deVries: Isn’t it the case that there always has to be a background of non-instrumental goals whenever you mobilize instrumental reasoning? The association of scientific reasoning with necessarily instrumental reasoning seems to be an attempt by the humanists, in defense of themselves, to draw a falsely narrow picture of science and beat on it unjustifiably.

Professor Smith: What Marty is trying to say is that science can never give us a good reason to do anything. It can tell us how to clone a human or how to build a nuclear weapon but not whether or not we should use these tools. It cannot determine value. If our dominant method of thinking (science) can’t tell us if we should use what it is that we create, we have a serious problem. Inherent value is removed from rational thinking in Tom’s model of science.

Professor Davis: We get at least one thing out of this model - is continued existence.

Professor Smith: That doesn’t really work in the model either because we aren’t able to justify our continued existence. We use up all of the resources and we aren’t necessarily the conclusion of evolution. Simply wanting to live is not really adequate in terms of inherent value.

Neal: When we talk about aesthetics or something that “moves” us, we can’t take feeling out of the equation. Feeling is tied in with rationality. Science seems to be requiring a separation with feeling.

Jim: I wonder if this feeling about our natural surroundings that Neal is referring to is derived from the absence of the natural surroundings in the world today. From an evolutionary standpoint our species first existed in this kind of environment, and when we see remnants of that world today it creates a sense of beauty in us because of how healthy they are for human life.

DJ: What about going to the top of the Empire State building and seeing something man-made that is beautiful? Also, is beauty already there?

Steve: A lot of people enjoy learning about science because of the feeling they have when they’ve mastered a particular subject. We can’t separate science from feeling because there is an aesthetic component in the pursuit of science; our emotions are tied into what it is that we learn.

Morgan and Nicole: We should distinguish between beauty and awe (sublimity).

Professor Smith: Sublimity is in large part beyond the power of reason. What is impressive about it is that it’s beyond the powers of science.

(All quotes a paraphrased)