Two myths about science

Many people seem to associate science with achievements and limitless frontiers while associating religion with mysteries and limitations. Indeed, in the media we rarely hear of scientific failures. However, what is even more interesting is that science, or more precisely mathematics, not just fails for some experiments, but is able to prove it’s own limitations: some things simply cannot be achieved!

Let’s get more specific. One of the big questions in computer science is whether there are problems which a computer simply cannot solve. It turns out that not only do we know of problems for which we have no solutions, but it has been proven in 1936 by Alan Turing that in fact there is at least one problem for which no solution can ever exist! You might imagine that this is some complex task such as stock market prediction, when in fact it is the following simple problem: “Given a computer program, can another computer program tell whether the former will ever stop functioning?”

Another startling and humbling mathematical result was proven in 1931 by Kurt Godel. While state of the art mathematicians at the time were trying to come up with a logical system which enables one to express any logical statement but excludes any contradictions, Godel proved that such a system does not exist: either you have an incomplete system or you end up with contradictions.

So a science which knows no limits of its own is a myth. Another common misconception about science is that it can only reason about material objects but not about the meaning of the objects. While this might have been true in the early days of science, this is no longer true with the advancements in computer science and other sciences dealing with symbols, meaning, reference, interpretation, and truth such as linguistics and cognitive science. The way computers are able to relate conceptual objects, process data, extract information, take decisions, etc, assume an underlying ability of making sense of the elements under consideration. An astounding fact, for example, is that a significant percentage (more than 50% in certain stock markets) of all stock volumes traded around the world are traded by computers!

It is true that what has been achieved so far is severely limited in many ways and only computer programmers are able to fully interact with contemporary computers. Clearly, the scientific language of today lacks the full ability to speak about the significance of things, of life, etc. However, as history has shown us, the advancements of science seem to encroach ever more into territory which was previously strictly religious territory: four hundred years ago in the understanding of the material world around us, more recently in the understanding of understanding itself.

Put differently, it is as if science was till a century ago just a child playing around with objects, now it is becoming self aware and able to reason about itself. This fast evolving scientific area might in the future lead us to come up with a new form of science, a science which encompasses meaning. Maybe what has been achieved so far in the realm of non-material science is comparable to the alchemy which preceded Isaac Newton’s scientific method…

Acknowledgement: http://www.ageofsignificance.org/

3 thoughts on “Two myths about science

  • Reply John P Cauchi 14th February 2014 at 9:16 am

    A Most Interesting read!

    However I disagree on this:

    “This fast evolving scientific area might in the future lead us to come up with a new form of science, a science which encompasses meaning.”

    How can science, which is an assessment of observable facts, ever enter the realm of “meaning”? Meaning is not a fact in itself – it is determined by the person’s perception of what he sees around him. By this I mean that I can see an asteroid, and appreciate it or fear it, thus giving it a “meaning” in my mindset. However an asteroid is an asteroid, and has no other “meaning” but its composition, orbital speed, etc from a scientific perspective.

    ie. meaning is separate from science ina a fundamentally absolute manner – as meaning is our personal take on facts.

    Therefore I can only see one result – philosophy/religion and science can walk hand in hand and inform each other. But Science as taking over the former, or the former taking over science – that won’t happen and shouldn’t happen, as they require different mindsets and outlooks. The facts that inform science exist whether there are humans around or not. “Meaning” is totally useless to the universe – it only is useful when humans are around.

    In the past religion/philosophy attempted to “fill the gaps” of knowledge. Now it is being assigned to its proper place – that of offering “meaning” for our brief lives. Science requires philo/religion for direction. They walk hand in hand – but it’s a tango, not a walkover. For both.

  • Reply Chris Porter 14th February 2014 at 10:09 am

    Fascinating article and followed by an interesting comment by John.

    John, I agree with you, yet I have this feeling looming around my head that places your comment on similar arguments made in the 16th century against heliocentrism, placing it in the heretical domain. Nonetheless it is true that meaning is based mainly on perceptions, nonetheless there could be a case of patterns emerging from the way perceptions are formed. Those patterns are key to computational modelling. The question is, are there any patterns in perceptions? Can models be built around them? What are the predictors of perception and thus meaning?

    Having said this, meaning is a valuable gift, and demystifying it is not a bad thing, replacing it with science is another story though. Using science to help us reflect on our own reality can only provide more meaning to it. Funny isn’t it?

  • Reply Christian Colombo 15th February 2014 at 7:58 am

    Thanks for your comments John and Chris.

    Does a submarine swim? Or does a plane fly? Depending on how you answer these questions, we could agree that machines can think and make sense of their environment. (One might argue that we are simply mimicking what happens in nature, and that what we achieve is “artificial”, but this is a long philosophical debate which I will refrain from going into.)

    I agree that science used to be only about observations of the physical world but we have certainly made huge strides forward in areas of “meaning” in recent decades. Whether to keep calling the new understanding “science” might be another debate because in some sense science is transcending itself… A much better and longer text about this can be found here: http://www.eipiphiny.org/articles/smith-godapprox4.pdf (which has been my main inspiration for this article).

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