The Limitations of Science


Science and Spirituality
Because of the huge success of science and its effects on so many areas of our lives, many people have taken its tenets and outlook on the world as a basis for forming a full philosophy of life, much to the chagrin of religion and the spiritual life in general. As a partial solution to the apparent conflict, it is tempting to draw a line between them and put on one side science, dealing with the external physical world, and on the other religion and spirituality, dealing with the inner world of values, meaning and morals, and then declaring that the two areas are independent and can live together harmoniously. There is, however, an overlap, such as the truth about the existence of the soul and the afterlife, where the conflict between the two is very real. So if we are not at least open to the possible existence of the spiritual world, we may reject the whole spiritual edifice, whatever values it may contain, and go whole-heartedly into the materialist camp.

One cannot deny that the replacement of the many superstitions about how nature works by a more scientific approach, and the introduction of the scientific method (hypothesis, experiment, reproducibility, etc.), have been a great boon to our ordinary bodily lives, although at the same time introducing more complexity. It has also changed our attitude towards the hardships of life, an observation made a while ago by William James. Today one even reads that some people seriously regard old age more as an illness than a natural stage, and to talk about death itself has become a taboo subject rather than as an event which is normal, inevitable and even to be welcomed. In other words, the scientific successes against natural superstitions have affected our attitude towards the whole of life, including spirituality.

Subjectivity: Lumped together in the same superstitions package are both the no longer true attributions, such as explaining thunder and lightening as activities due to the gods, and spiritual experiences, such as visions, locutions and the like. The difference is that a few hundred years ago the latter were quite acceptable and within the fold of common beliefs, but today are now regarded as simply "seeing things that aren't there". But this is not really a fair criticism because science, by its very definition, is unable to take the subjective nature of experience into account during its normal investigations, and so is not at all equipped to make pronouncements on such subjective experiences. This omission is seen as one of science's main strengths, the ability to assert truth by eliminating subjective bias and opinion. This is fine when dealing with astronomical or physical events like billiard balls hitting each other, etc., but makes a difference when making criticisms about inner personal experiences. Unfortunately, because the subjective nature of experience has to be omitted, this is turned around and used to belittle subjective experience itself as unimportant, irrelevant, and so on. The intentional removal of personal biases (including consciousness, love) in science is valid enough, in that we usually have no control on our emotional state, and we know that these can interfere with intellectual observation. But science then extends this to say that in all cases intellectual observation is nearer to "reality" despite the fact that it has deliberately omitted an important part of the phenomenon, the observer. So the "aren't there-ness" cannot be asserted as unreal, rather it is more honest to say that it cannot be examined objectively through scientific experiment.

Mental experience: In one's personal life, a lot rides on the subjective nature of spirituality and our inner psychology. Subjectivity cannot be removed and cannot be investigated by the usual scientific method. Even if neuroscience reaches the stage where it can exactly correlate certain electrical patterns in the brain with the subjective experience of reading a book or eating a hamburger, it still cannot explain the matching subjective perceptions (the technical term is qualia), that is, how an "objective cerebral computation can become a subjective experience." This applies to all experiences, spiritual or banal. Note that at best it is correlation, not cause and effect. Although many neuroscientists are gung-ho about their science finally solving the brain-experience 'problem', correlation, even though it opens the door to manipulation of a person's experiences, is still only an observation, and does nothing to truly explain the link between a red object and my experience of redness.

Moreover, we know that if a person has not had a certain experience, for instance, a blind man has not seen colors, it is impossible to provide any kind of description that will help explain what the experience is like. It is the same problem with much of spiritual experience in that if something is ineffable, indescribable, one cannot pass it on to another person; and because such experience may be rare amongst the populace, it may get dismissed as imagination purely on statistical grounds. Descriptions of mystical experience sound odd to the ordinary mind because they are often apophatic or paradoxical, being attempts to describe subjective experiences not had by most people. In the end, you have to experience it for yourself. The only argument that carries some weight against the reality of these is simply that most people do not experience them.

Hallucination: Wandering into this quandary are so-called hallucinations (visions, auditions and so on). To quote Merrell-Wolff:

Since a 'hallucination' merely means private experience as opposed to social experience, it constitutes no true judgment of value. There is often a world of difference between one and another so-called hallucination. The difference between the state of consciousness of a drunkard, enjoying delirium tremens, and that of a seer like Swedenborg, is as far apart as the poles.

Here one criterion to distinguish between these two, as observed by the neurologist Oliver Sachs, is that 'ordinary' hallucinations consist of already familiar phenomena—sights, sounds—as opposed to the indescribable elements in mystical visions. Moreover, experiences such as NDEs (Near-Death-Experiences) often include a mental clarity, which is incompatible with the usual medical 'explanations' which are only hypotheses with no experimental backing and which try to attribute NDEs to the results of oxygen deprivation, sedatives (morphine), changes in brain activity, etc. However, such spiritual experiences often leave a strong impression on the experiencers, which remains after they have recovered, which is not true for those that have recovered from ordinary hallucinations—the latter are seen, when the mind is more sober, as unreal, whereas the former are often described as 'more real', and, moreover, can be life-changing.

Scientific observation: We should take a quick look at the nature of scientific observation and verification. Science is always about objective verification: person A observes phenomenon X and deduces a theory explaining the conditions that will produce X; this is published, and then person B repeats the experiment and finds additional conditions, caveats, related phenomena and so on. The science becomes 'objective' by pooling the observations of many people together and taking what they have in common as 'scientific knowledge'. To this is often added a mathematical foundation. So even though intuitive (and subjective) insights made by individuals often contribute to scientific discoveries, these can only become established as truths if they are confirmed, and reproduced, by many. In a way, it is only by ironing out the subjective elements that an area of investigation can become a true science. Reproducibility is the name of the game, and the game works well in our modern manipulation of nature.

Repeatability: One perennial problem during a scientific investigation of the supernatural, however, has always been the lack of repeatability of spiritual phenomena, its failure to re-occur when attempts are made to reproduce the same phenomenon when subjected to observation by a third party, that is, when put under scientific scrutiny in a laboratory. The reason for the failure can be primarily attributed to the presence or absence of an emotional element, present in the original experience, absent under the 'colder' experimental conditions. Also, there are often unusual circumstances and an unexpectedness surrounding the original experience: the subject did not initiate the experience, and so cannot repeat it at will. In the scientific literature such experiences, though acknowledged to probably have happened (note the 'probably'), are termed 'anecdotal', which though it may not imply a denial of the experience, is often taken to mean something that should nevertheless be written off from a scientific point of view by the very fact that it cannot be repeated. But the term is also taken to imply that the subject in some way imagined the event, and hence that it should not be taken into account as anything at all!

This lack of repeatability is common fact, and should be acknowledged by all parties and not be used as weapon to belittle spiritual experience. Often the experience has a strong effect on the subject, that is, the experience has gone deep into the person who had it, which implies that, even from a scientific viewpoint, something more than a 'delusion' has happened. The strength of these experiences is reflected in the general reluctance of the subjects to talk about them to researchers in the field, even if the latter are sympathetic, partly because of the social stigma involved in relating unusual, or supernatural, events, and partly because the experience touched them deeply and so is not something to talk about casually or with strangers. This silence contributes to the apparent rarity of such experiences.

Also, regarding how science usually treats supernatural claims and how in general it handles spiritual data—NDEs, OBEs (Out-Of-Body Experiences) and so on—I don't see the same honesty and in-depth analyses of these cases that are done when investigating ordinary scientific data. That is, the supernatural is dismissed by science without the data being investigated to the same depth that is given to 'scientific data'. Behind this is the same attitude of dismissal, based on a pre-existent world view that was itself likely derived not from serious investigation but simply inherited from society, family, accepted values and so on.

So we have:
1 - A Deliberate Limitation: Science, by definition, when making its observations, deliberately omits part of human life—the emotional observer, and things like consciousness, self-knowledge, and love—in order to understand and improve another part of human life, the external physical life. Consequently, it cannot make value judgments, such as deciding between health and pleasure, and hence it does not qualify as a full explanation for what life is about, or how it should be lived.

2 - Cannot explain Subjectivity: Science is unable to explain the link between a red object (producing electrical signals in the brain) and my subjective experience of redness (ie. qualia). The best it can do is to make correlations between brain activity and subjective experience. This problem is often termed the "hard problem of consciousness" and may well be insoluble.

3 - The part played by Emotion: Spiritual experiences often have a strong emotional element that persists after the experience is over, in contrast to simple hallucinations which are seen to be unreal after they have passed. The inability to access or reproduce the same strong emotional element is the main reason why such experiences cannot be investigated scientifically.

4 - Rejection of Subjective Experiences: Science views spiritual experience as suspect partly for purely statistical reasons, that relatively few people report them. But many people are reluctant to report such phenomena because of social stigma, or an unwillingness to discuss deeply personal events. One estimate is that in fact up to 18% of people have such experiences. This same disregard leads to fewer in-depth investigations of spiritual phenomena.

Higher Beings: And a couple of circumstantial cases. Spiritual experience often includes descriptions of higher beings. If one tries to understand what kind of beings they might be, it is clear that if they are truly higher, then this must at least include their intelligence, so to assume that a lower intelligence could completely suss them out shows a false view of ourselves, like assuming that our pet dogs could ever fully understand us however many tricks we could teach them. A touch of humility is needed to at least allow that such beings could exist and that they may have good reason not to show themselves so easily.

Unanswered Origins: Secondly, there is an 'unanswered origin question'. Part of our makeup includes the longing for more than just physical existence. We all have at one time or another asked the question on the 'meaning of it all', what's the point, and so on. Where does this question come from? With ordinary things like food, people seek food because food exists, "sunflowers bend in the direction of light because light exists", the desires have possible fulfillments. Why would not this apply to all our desires? Why would emotional or philosophical desire be any different? Why do art, philosophy and so on exist if not to attempt to supply us with answers, since they do not seem to have any purpose apart from this? The very existence of such questions implies that there are answers.

Or a similar question:

How does religion fit into a mind that one might have thought was designed to reject the palpably not true? The common answer, that people take comfort in the thought of a benevolent shepherd, a universal plan, or an afterlife, is unsatisfying, because it only raises the question of why a mind would evolve to find comfort in beliefs it can plainly see are false. A freezing person finds no comfort in believing he is warm; a person face-to-face with a lion is not put at ease by the conviction that it is a rabbit.

Again, there is the implication that a true satisfaction does exist.

Evolution and Intelligence: In the same vein, according to evolution, our intelligence has itself evolved solely to aid our survival, reproduction etc. We can derive a couple of conclusions from this. One, what we have already suggested, that the questions on life's meaning and so on must have answers since they have been asked by one of the beings (us) who is part of the evolutionary process; there must be a logical derivation for these questions if our origins are the same as everything else on the planet. And second, our intelligence has not (according to the theory) evolved to determine the absolute laws of the universe, only what is relevant to us for survival, a much more limited arena. So a different environment would, by the theory, likely develop a different intelligence. That is, our intelligence is not absolute, consequently we cannot assert that our conclusions about the world are objectively correct, because they are derived only from this limited viewpoint. So a being from another planet would inevitably have a different intelligence and would arrive at a different understanding of how things are. Neither they nor us could justify any view as being absolutely correct.

And more (from Huston Smith):

Can something derive from nothing? Can a stream rise higher than its source? Intuitively, neither seems likely, but the scientific view requires affirmative answers to the questions whereas the traditional worldview does not. Life from non-life, sentience from insentience, intelligence from what lacks it; for science, it is more-deriving-from-less at every step.

The scientific term often used here is 'emergence', which sounds like an explanation but is simply a descriptive term and does not tell us anything about how something like life came about. We should also include in our list of more-from-less the fact that we protect ourselves, reproduce ourselves, deliberately ingest foods and process them into other chemicals—all the processes of life—none of which are observed in ordinary physics and chemistry. How did these arise?

Another cornerstone of scientific method is the systematic denial that true knowledge can be got at by interpreting phenomena in terms of final causes, that is to say, derived from purpose and intentional design ("teleological" reasons). The philosopher Kant comments that although there may not be a purpose behind the apparent design of the world, nevertheless our inbuilt human nature prefers to have purposeful explanations for things and finds it useful to 'explain' phenomena in teleological terms even if 'in fact' there is no intentional design behind them. This is an awkward compromise, and does not help to explain where this desire to explain, to give a 'formal cause' (as defined by Aristotle [see also the Glossary page]) for the world, actually comes from. Surely, if evolution is correct, then our intelligence has developed within the evolutionary fold, and the desire and ability to discern purpose must have derived from somewhere within nature, and should therefore reflect something within nature.

So we can add a few more items to the list:
5 - Higher Beings: We need to at least allow for the existence of higher beings, who, by their very nature, would not be fully comprehensible to us. This ties in with the need for a certain humility in viewing our intelligence as possibly not the highest in the universe.

6 - Unanswered Origins: If the theory of evolution is correct and complete, it is not clear where our desire for meaning, or our demand for purpose, or the 'obviously false' religious beliefs come from given that our ordinary desires all have their satisfactions.

7 - Limited Intellect: Science assumes that our intellect is actually capable of full understanding of the outside world. But from its own theories (of evolution) this is doubtful because our intelligence should have developed only to ensure our survival, and this only from our limited viewpoint.

8 - Life Processes: Life from non-life, sentience from insentience, intelligence from what lacks it, self-protection, reproduction: have these processes actually occurred in the way science has proposed; are they even possible without some further law or intervention as yet unspecified?

To which we can add:
9 - Physicality: Science has faith that everything that exists is observable by the five senses or their extensions (instruments), and that the physical world is all there is, also that it is 'out there', that is, outside of us and independent of us (ie. objective), and that reality is only what we perceive in common and can detect and measure. There are good philosophical grounds for at least suspecting that reality is not purely physical, and that cause and effect are an illusion. The deeper philosophy on the nature of the world and our perceptions of it are discussed here, where one of the conclusions is that the world has to be taken at least in part as in the mind, that is, as partly subjective.

10 - No Self-Proof: In no way can it be proven through the scientific method that the scientific method is the sole access to truth. It has to be taken as an axiom, a self-evident truth or, put differently, a faith similar to any other faith.

Known limitations within Science
There are other limitations that are acknowledged within science and reason and so do not directly impinge on their relationship to spirituality. They are introduced here only to show that science is not able even within its own realm to, as it were, 'solve everything'. It has inbuilt limitations, which it recognizes, but is not in a hurry to advertise to the outside world.

Induction: When it comes to establishing objective laws about how the universe works, the best we can do is come to some kind of consensus, a mutual agreement where all our subjective viewpoints are, as it were, pooled together. This is sometimes called intersubjectivity. It has something of the character of objective knowledge, but is not truly objective. The consensus is based on observation and reason; and reason includes deduction—an analytical process that derives detailed conclusions from a body of certain knowledge—and induction. The latter is what we use to predict events in the future based on past experience, such as the sun rising tomorrow. We accept the validity of induction, which is perfectly legitimate and practical and clearly works, but we need to remember that it does not give complete certainty. So we have what we might call "practical certainty", which works very well for ordinary life, but which cannot be used to give absolute truths; but it does give probabilistic truths. Even though the sun will most likely rise tomorrow morning, there is no guarantee. All scientific knowledge is provisional and not absolute, because today's law may be refuted tomorrow. As someone has put it:

The major problem with deduction (which gives true certainty) is that the general rules usually come from induction (which does not)

that is, a great deal of what we take as certain is based on the faith that tomorrow will be similar to today. We can add it to the list:

11 - Uniformity of Nature: Science has faith in the uniformity of nature. This faith may be perfectly justified, but it precedes science, it does not follow from science, and is hence also 'faith', an unprovable assumption.

The Universe and Sample Size: Because science is based on hypothesis and experiment, the material universe as a whole remains beyond science's grasp since we only have one (unique) example, which sample of one, without any counter-examples or reference points, is inadequate for any experiments or final pronouncements. The universe as a whole is a unique phenomenon and as such is intrinsically irreproducible; thus it lies outside the framework of science. So one needs to take great caution when one hears about the "multiverse" or the "many worlds" hypotheses: these are purely mathematical formulations which some physicists want to apply to our universe to avoid the glaring problem at the start of the Big Bang, but which, from a scientific point of view, are purely speculative and which require one to have "faith".

Mathematics: The function of mathematics in science is also interesting. Einstein says this:

At this point an enigma presents itself, which in all ages has agitated inquiring minds. How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality? Is human reason, then, without experience, merely by taking thought, able to fathom the properties of real things?

So to the question, Why does the physical world somehow conform to the ideas of mathematicians, there is the suspicion that it is really the imposition of our own intelligence that we put into the universe in order to understand it, not something that is intrinsic to the universe itself, ie. is not objective. We need to note that there is an enormous amount of mathematics and only a small part of it is taken by the physicists to help them produce laws and predictions.

Mathematics reveals the possible spaces; physics decides which among them corresponds to physical space.

And we have this from Eddington:

The mathematics is not there till we put it there.

That is, it is not the structure that we are looking at, rather it is the way we are looking at it:

The way we look at the universe is the way it will present itself to us. … We learn more from looking at the way we are observing the universe than from actually observing it.

So it is more a reflection of what is within us than a reflection of what is outside of us and independent of us.

Mathematical Limits: There are also limitations within mathematics itself. Gödel's incompleteness theorems state that the consistency of eg. arithmetic, or set theory, are not provable within themselves: we always have to take some propositions as true without being able to prove them:

Gödel has shown us that no matter how many axioms are added, there will always be something missing. That is, there will always be statements that are true but cannot be proved using those axioms. …The axiomatic method has not been able to establish knowledge with absolute certainty.

These theorems show the limitations in logic. All systems rely on unprovable axioms; the perception that these are true comes from our inbuilt intelligence. This has a connection to revelation in the spiritual realm (I believe this is significant, but I won't pursue it further here!).

No logical system can capture all the truths of mathematics; … no logical system for mathematics could, by its own devices, be shown to be free from inconsistency.

Moreover, not everything can be calculated. For instance, even in the area of gravitation where there have been so many advances starting with Newton in the 17th century, the seemingly simple "three-body problem"—precisely calculating the positions of three gravitationally bound bodies (such as the sun, earth and moon)—has no general solution, and in practice has to be approximated. So finding the exact length of the next lunar month, for instance, is an unsolvable problem and has to be estimated.

Chaos Theory: Although our science is based on determinism, there are deterministic processes that can cause events that cannot be predicted. This is the whole area of chaos theory—flapping butterflies influencing the development of hurricanes—and so on. The problem is that the process is highly sensitive to the initial conditions, but we are not able to measure these conditions accurately enough, or the quantity of measurements is too huge, so we are forced instead to estimate the values, which leads, for instance, to the typical "X% probability" of weather events in the forecasts.

Computational Limits: There are also many problems not solvable by computers, even if they ran orders of magnitude faster than the current offerings, and this includes the still-in-development quantum computers. They would still take too long because they are "NP"-type problems (see any computer science course for more on this!). There are other problems, such as the Halting Problem (as described by Turing), which is an undecidable problem (unsolvable by its very nature), that also limit what computers are capable of doing for us. So it is futile to put one's faith in these machines without knowing that they are able to solve only a small fraction of all the possible problems that might be formulated.

So we can add these to the list:
12 - Induction: Induction is a practical, but not logically provable process and so contains an element of faith and uncertainty.

13 - Universe is unique: Theories on the origin of the universe that posit multiple or parallel universes are invalid on the scientific grounds that they are not testable and have as a basis just the one unique case.

14 - Origin of Laws: The scientific laws, especially those with a strong mathematical basis, originate as much from within our minds as from outside in the apparently "objective" world.

15 - Mathematical Limits: There a many phenomena that cannot be, and by their nature never will be, accurately calculated, even with future advanced computers. And mathematics itself has inbuilt limitations (Gödel).

Quantum Theory: At the smallest fundamental level we do not know what each atomic particle will do, although we do know what a large ensemble of them will do (this is "statistical mechanics"). We can measure one property of a particle, say its position, but then not be able to accurately find its momentum, and vice versa. Similarly for measurements of the time an event happened, and the energy involved in the interaction. These are the result of the "uncertainty principle" developed by Heisenberg et al in the 1920s. This is a true "principle", in that it cannot be countered via new technology, but is an "inherent limitation on the knowability of the universe". As Werner Heisenberg himself put it:

The idea of an objective real world whose smallest parts exist objectively in the same sense as stones or trees exist, independently of whether or not we observe them, is impossible.

The quantum realm has come up with more weird and wonderful phenomena. These include entanglement and non-locality, where the connection between particles, separated by as large a distance as you like, is such that a measurement on one of the pair is immediately reflected in the other, an apparently instantaneous transfer of information faster than the speed of light. This blows a hole in "reductionism", a fundamental supposition in science, which itself assumes that the whole is the sum of its parts, whereas entanglement shows that there are no closed systems, so it is more correct to say that "the whole is more than just the sum of its parts."

Or there are the particle experiments where the electrons change their behavior before encountering the physical changes in the experiments, what one might term "prophecy"! It would be tempting to rope these observations into the argument favoring the existence of the spiritual world, as many have done, but I don't think this is worth pursuing because all the quantum observations are indirect, highly mathematical, and not something experienced at our ordinary physical level. For instance, the so-called "collapse of the wave function", used to calculate what happens when one observes a particle, uses mathematics that requires complex numbers (the ones that use the square root of -1, aka "imaginary numbers") in its calculations. This already adds some doubt as to whether one is dealing with outside "reality" or just the mind's attempt to understand what is going on. It looks like our ideas of reality are incorrect at the fundamental level, and that our minds are too limited to encompass the various dichotomies that this science has turned up (for instance how matter is made up "at the same time" of both a wave and a particle).

The central idea of relativity theory is that properties of the physical universe depend on how they are measured. There are no absolute measurements. Properties of an object really are different depending on how they are viewed. There are no absolutes.

One thing that also goes out the window is simultaneity: an event is different for each subject, there are no simultaneous events, so one cannot use the usual scientific method of multiple subjective observations to arrive at a "true" objective description. But this in turn leads to a

problem with causality. If you cannot determine what came first, then you will not be able to determine what caused what. How are we to understand the laws of the universe when our very notion of causality is problematic?

Origin of the Universe: Although the "Big Bang theory" provides the most convincing picture of the origins and development of our universe, it is incomplete in many ways, requiring, for instance, that it started in a highly ordered state (low entropy), the probability of which, in math-speak, is "vanishingly small", or, translated into day-to-day speak, is zero, but if stated in that way the whole theory would have to be dumped. (The same "vanishingly small" probability has been applied to the origins of life, but here we are!) If nothing else, it shows that the "Big Bang theory" must be incomplete. "If the Universe is infinitely dense, infinitely hot and so on, then something has gone badly wrong with the theory," since infinite-anything is not allowable from a scientific point of view.

Continuous or Discrete? Zeno's paradoxes are also relevant here, and are solved only if one takes space and time as discrete quantities—little jumps. But the mathematics (calculus) that we use to solve problems involving movement all depend on both space and time being continuous. So in some way space and time are both continuous and discontinuous depending on how you look at them: continuous when you need to calculate them, and discontinuous in order to get Achilles to beat the poor old tortoise. Similarly, gravity and hence relativity theory need both space and time to be continuous, while for quantum theory space and time need to be discrete. For the most part, since the theories apply on quite different scales, the conflict does not bother us. Moreover, it should be stressed, both theories work very well in their own fields. But the choice to use one or the other (continuous or discrete) as is convenient supports Kant's idea of the two coming from inside our minds rather than being intrinsic to the physical world. As he puts it, "Percepts without concepts are blind." Scientific understanding is a combination of information from "outside" (that is, experience), and something in human nature itself which makes sense of these perceptions.

More for the list:
16 - Quantum Weirdness: Entangled particles with instantaneous and unexplained connection, electrons that defy the order of time, the inability to make complete exact measurements, the need to describe "real" events using unreal numbers, all these and more subvert our reductionist and causal views on how the universe should operate.

17 - Loss of Simultaneity: There are no absolute measurements, no simultaneous events, so causality and reality are again threatened.

18 - Origin of the Universe: The probability of obtaining the beginning state of the universe is, according to the "Big Bang theory", "vanishingly small", a number which, when applied to other phenomena, is described as impossible, but which we are obliged to accept because here we are.

19 - Space and Time: The nature of space and time cannot be decided on; in some cases they have to be taken as continuous, in others broken into tiny pieces.

So our ideas of how the universe works are frayed at the edges. Relativity and quantum theory apply at the borders of our experience; and though they should technically also apply to our ordinary scale, they are not relevant or observable using ordinary human methods. They seem to be true properties of the universe, but not properties of everyday life. What does this mean? Perhaps it is something to do with how our intelligence evolved—restricted only to the scale of ordinary life—so our intelligence only applies to ordinary life and starts to go astray at other scales.

Also, the method of induction is practical but not logically watertight, cannot be logically justified. And mathematics works wonderfully, but also cannot logically prove itself valid. Quoting Karl Popper:

All scientific knowledge is provisional and not absolute.

It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out what nature is. Rather, physics concerns itself with what we can say about nature.

The way we look at the universe is the way it will present itself to us.

And another:
There is a naïve belief that the world is objective and external to the observer. This naïve belief says that we can learn about this external world without changing it. The belief needs to be updated. The truth is that our view of the external world depends on how it is observed. The results of our experiments depend on what types of experiments are employed. The answers to our questions depend on what questions are asked and how the questions are posed. This places the conscious mind of the observer in a more central position in the study of the universe. Scientists are not outside the universe looking in. Rather, they are part of the universe and are trying to make sense of it. They are part of the phenomena they are studying. It is hard to separate the experimenter from the experiment. That is, the universe is the ultimate self-referential system: the universe uses scientists to study itself.

To extend this one might say that the scientific laws are inside us, in the mind, though we apply them to the out-there, the physical world.

Theory Problems:
Let us say there are two different theories that explain a certain phenomenon. How are we to tell which is the correct theory? This is the case when there are two different-shaped pegs that fit into the same hole. Which one belongs there? Obviously if there is any experiment or observation that falsifies one theory then it is to be discarded. Does that mean the other one is true? Perhaps there are other theories besides these two theories. Before any are falsified, what are we to do? This is a limitation to our ability to know the laws of nature. It is a limitation to reason.

We have one working theory, but why should there be just one? Also, if we argue that there should be just the one, and that we must choose it using "Occam's razor" ('from a choice of theories choose the simplest'), there is no logical justification behind this, just a hunch or an appeal to the beauty of the scheme.

So we need to add:
20 - Limits of Theories: Physics concerns itself with what we can say about nature and is not intended to find out what nature is. We can quote David Hume here:

What peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call thought, that we must thus make it the model of the whole universe?" Even a good theory cannot be proved to be the only one applicable.

21 - Outside and Inside: We cannot avoid concluding that part of what we attribute to existing outside of us, in the 'objective physical world', actually comes from inside our minds in the form of our ability to reason and impose form on our outside experiences simply in order to understand them at all; and because of this we are not honestly able to make absolute pronouncements about how the world is in itself outside of our minds.

Back to Science and Spirituality
An important omission: Before coming to some kind of conclusion about all of this, there is something that spirituality needs to acknowledge, which is that even though it takes the mind (or soul, spirit) as being separate from the body, nevertheless many of the mind's attributes are closely associated with properties of a physical brain such that it looks like it depends on, even derives from, the body (this is the usual scientific description). There may well be a separation between spirit and body, but they are so entwined that ordinary observation (ie. science) is not capable of making the distinction. One could say that this is central to the science/religion dichotomy; to science, everything seems like it is just one substance.
Common Tools: The question then is, what further tools could we use to discern the truth? Since science sees no separation, it concludes that there are none because it needs none. But spirituality says that there are other tools that could be used if we were willing to try them out. At first it is clear that both sides already share some of the tools, for instance: observation (either outward or inward), which requires attention, unbiased appraisal of what is seen, that is, a certain honesty, and a rigor in assigning what has been observed to its correct category, with the avoidance of any illusions, for instance external optical illusions, or internal conclusions based on associative thinking.
Additional Tools: Spirituality has more in the toolbox because it is looking not only at the outside world and how it works, but even more at the inside psychology and the observer and how he works (see). For instance it advocates an internal stillness, self-remembering, and an awareness of who one is. And there are more techniques, such as meditation and contemplation, and a different framework describing Man and where he fits into the Cosmos. Without going further into these one can say that with the use of these and the acquisition of self-knowledge, spirituality tells us that one can reach the observation, and certainty, that there really is something separate from the body. This has obvious implications (as you would expect) on survival after death and other claims of this kind. Results from these investigations are certainly subjective to start with, but there are also true objective results. These, and more, form the substance of the extracts from the authors presented on this website.

Types of Truth: The reason for outlining some of the basic limitations of science is only to show that science cannot be used as a basis for a complete philosophy of life, or a complete compendium of truth, or to give explanations for all phenomena. It has its place, but is not the entire place. If one allows that art etc. are valid aspects to human life, then one needs to accept that they also contain truths about life just as one accepts truths from science. The former truths are formulated differently, have a different standard for acceptance (what is beautiful, ugly and so on), and they have an inherent subjective element: they will always be subjective, but this does not detract from their validity. I think we get mixed up between the scientific type of truth, which has a certain rigor and reproducibility, with the more subjective truth from art etc., which is more fluid. Yet, importantly, both are valid and necessary. It is rather like the unprovability of mathematical axioms: they are true, but cannot be proved. Similarly, the subjective truths are true but cannot be proved objectively. Both types of truths converge in that at bottom both are closer to simple observation, expressed either as physical truth (as axioms in science), or as acknowledgements of beauty and moral truth (in the arts, morals).

Scientism looks open-ended and able to cover everything, but we see that even theoretically it cannot, for even within itself there are iron-bound limits. It simply cannot explain everything. Most importantly, it cannot give us a meaning to life in the deepest sense. Despite all the praise for nature and the awe produced by the astronomical view of the universe, or the wonders of the earth and so on as related by Dawkins and many others, at root the emphasis on these descriptions, true as they are, is just a cover-up for the deeper fear, the stark reality of individual mortality: I would say this is what we really want addressed by science (or spirituality), and which, especially in older people, we cannot honestly accept without some degree of despair—what is the point of my life if, in the end, only science is true and all comes to naught. This despair leads to suicides, as I have personally witnessed. This is what scientism preaches, and what all spirituality denies.

So we must add:
22 - Meaning of Life: Science is unable to give us a meaning to life that satisfies the whole person, that includes values, morals, beauty, or a meaning to mortality.

Reason and logic tell us what is and in some cases they can tell us what they will be. These tools can be used to help us get what we want. But they do not tell us what to want or what ought to be. Only will and desire tell us that. Unless love, desire, music, and art also exist, our world has no meaning.

Part of the psychology behind both scientism and spirituality is the desire for certainty. Because we all want the latter one may be persuaded by the success of science into believing that it will supply it. But we see that it can never do this because it will always be incomplete and uncertain. Meanwhile, within spirituality I have the strong impression, even a perception, that there is another reality of a different kind, which can supply a more complete understanding of both the outer and inner worlds, without the limits intrinsic to ordinary science. Some of the means to get there (like strict unbiased observation) have already been mentioned. To these we can add: using both head and heart in investigating the world, holding to one's subjective experience and verifications (the equivalent of facts in the scientific world), sticking to these facts even though they grate against current beliefs and prejudices, and dropping our own outdated but cherished beliefs based on wishful or other faulty thinking or desire. In short, the recipe from spirituality is to use the whole person, not the truncated person required by the scientific method.

And a final leap, which we get only from spirituality: In the final view of the universe, the subjective and objective views have to converge, else something about the world will necessarily be omitted or at least doubted; and in order to get there it means going beyond the intellect (see).


Informed by, mulled over, adapted and lifted from at least the following:
"Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object" by Franklin Merrell-Wolff
"Opening Heavens Door" by Patricia Pearson
"Why Religion Matters" by Huston Smith
"Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?" ed. Paul Kurtz
"The Large, the Small and the Human Mind" by Roger Penrose
"Outer Limits of Reason" by Noson Yanofsky
"Lawless Universe" by Joe Rosen
"Problems of Philosophy" by Bertrand Russell


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