Thursday, September 2, 2010

The End of Science?

"Never has so much money poured into scientific research—yet the results add up to surprisingly little," writes James Le Fanu — Science’s dead end. The author asks, "Have we finally come to the end of what science can tell us?" Later, a more provocative question followed by even more provocative speculation:
    Has science perhaps been looking in the wrong place for solutions to questions that somehow lie outside its domain—what it might be that could conjure that diversity of form of the living world from the monotonous sequence of genes, or the richness of the mind from the electrochemistry of the brain? There are two possible reasons why this might be so. The first, obvious on reflection, is that “life” is immeasurably more complex than matter: its fundamental unit—the cell—has the capacity to create every thing that has ever lived and is billions of times smaller than the smallest piece of machinery ever constructed by man. A fly is billions upon billions upon billions of times more complex than a pebble of comparable size, and possesses properties that have no parallel in the inanimate world: the capacity to transform the nutrients on which it feeds into its own tissues, to repair and reproduce itself.

    And so too the laws of biology, where the genetic instructions strung out along the double helix determine the living world must similarly be commensurately billions upon billions of times more complex than the laws of physics and chemistry that determine the properties of matter. So while it is extraordinary that cosmologists can infer the physical events in the wake of the big bang, this is trivial compared to explaining the phenomena of life. To understand the former is no indication of being able to explain the latter.

    The further reason why the recent findings of genetics and neuroscience should have proved so perplexing is the assumption that the phenomena of life and the mind are ultimately explicable in the materialist terms of respectively the workings of the genes and the brain that give rise to them. This is a reasonable supposition, for the whole scientific enterprise for the past 150 years is itself predicated on there being nothing in principle that cannot ultimately be explained in materialist terms. But it remains an assumption, and the distinctive feature of both the form and “organisation” of life (as opposed to its materiality) and the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of the mind is that they are unequivocally non-material in that they cannot be quantified, weighed or measured. And thus, strictly speaking, they fall outside the domain of the methods of science to investigate and explain.
The idea that "the genetic instructions strung out along the double helix [that] determine the living world must similarly be commensurately billions upon billions of times more complex than the laws of physics and chemistry that determine the properties of matter" holds true with what I have learned from the graduate students and researches in Life Science whom I tutor. They readily confess to being about as clueless as I am as to why this or that protein interaction should have this or that effect in an organism.

For every little thing that is learned, innumerable new questions are raised. Some students have frankly said, "We will never understand Life." There is a reason why undergraduate students of other science majors dread their required Life Science courses; Life Science simply doesn't "make sense" the way other sciences do.

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Anonymous Steven Cornett said...

Your article reminded me of an article in salvo magazine about eight questions that haunt physicists. Among them is the most important, "why is there universe at all?"

Whereever one looks, the heavens and Earth proclaim the glory of God, just as the psalmists, sages. And saints have said all along.

1:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't agree with this.

The change that happened is that science is no longer funded by the rich (de Broglie, for example, the physicist who kickstarted quantum physics funded his work out of his trust fund) but rather by the state.

Even in the sciences, government run enterprises are not about results, but building empires.

Slash all government funding of scientific research (much of which is determined by commercial interests anyway) and cures for cancer and more will be forthcoming.

2:10 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Indeed, "why is there universe at all?"

Anon, I agree with you. Get the State out of science and we might see some results.

5:23 AM  
Blogger Tiago said...

Huh, we've been hearing about the "end of Science" at least since the late 19th Century; back then, people only needed to work out a few problems concerning Entropy and it would be the end: we'd know everything there is to know about the natural world.

Also, Life Sciences are tougher than physics because they model inherently more complex processes. Even more complex than both is Meteorology...

5:38 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Meteorology does a good job explaining weather phenomena, but an inadequate job predicting them.

Life Science does a good predicting biological phenomena, but an inadequate job explaining them.

9:52 AM  

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