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Understanding the Limits of Scientism

Photo credit: Braxton Apana via Unsplash.

As I have argued here earlier, in sketching the science of purpose, the complexity of life is only comprehensible by the human mind in retrospect. Through reverse engineering, modern science has done an elegant job in revealing the mechanisms of life. But that is certainly far less an accomplishment than designing the whole enterprise from scratch. In philosophical terms, we can understand the mechanics of life only a posteriori. But we do not have the ability to grasp the intentionality of the mind of the creator, which would be required in order to understand life a priori.

For these reasons, life is ultimately irreducibly complex, and the best we can do to understand life is through observation of the finished product. The unpredictably complex properties of life arise through what we call emergence.”

These observations describe the ultimate limits of our understanding, not just for now, but in principle. To see why that is, it is helpful to understand the analytic process of the scientific method, where the limitations lie.

The Science of Knowing

Every framework of knowledge has a methodological approach. In ancient Greece, all science was called physics. But before science could be conducted, there must be the science of knowing. This they called metaphysics. But it is important to keep in mind that metaphysics is required for all kinds of “knowing,” not just analytical science. That is why the term is used in all branches of knowledge, especially theological and philosophical knowledge.

The analytical method of modern science is straightforward. It is a little more than a subject measuring an object. Newton measured the velocity of an apple falling from a tree. Doctors measure vital signs and laboratory values. Engineers measure the properties of materials to build a machine. The history of human civilization has been transformed by these efforts, so that we find ourselves in the mechanistic world of modern science. 

Just fifty years ago, biologists, using this method to explicate the chemical basis of life, anticipated that the most intricate details of our existence were subject to a full explanation. But they were wrong. E. O. Wilson’s dream — of Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998) — has evaporated. Why?  

Subject Versus Object

The reason for the failure of Wilson’s project, and the failure of other materialist endeavors to remove the creator from what we know and understand, lies right here. Empirical science can only know and thus understand that which a conscious subject can observe. This is known as subject-object metaphysics, or SOM. While that may sound simple enough, some of the greatest minds in the history of Western science have written at great length about the fundamental limitation of this approach. René Descartes, a founding father of modern science, posited this dualism, which remains at the inner core of science to this day. Descartes’s dualism requires a separation between subject and observer in order for the logical framework to operate. 

The fundamental limitation of SOM is this: it turns out that the entire logical framework of subject-object metaphysics collapses when subject = object, since there is no possible separation. Sounds esoteric, you say?

Not at all. This great impasse in empirical science was reached early in the 20th century when quantum mechanics was first being developed. How do we observe an object? By bouncing light (or some other signal) off it and registering the resulting information by a measuring device or by an observer. But wait. What happens when the signal we are sending to measure the object, let’s say a photon, has to measure another photon? The outcome, to be frank, is chaos. This ultimate limitation, never to be overcome, is famously known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, named for the father of quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg.

All the Way to Vision and Consciousness

Most people don’t care much about quantum mechanics. But we all care about our conscious selves and our ability to see and understand the world. What happens when we try to apply SOM to vision or consciousness? We get exactly the same result as the quantum physicists do. Consciousness is a matter of self and subject. And when the subject applies SOM to self and consciousness, there can be no rational result. That is because the subject is the object, and the separation of subject and object, upon which the logical framework must operate, is irreparably violated. 

Many a façon de parler has been used to obscure this conundrum. For example, quantum physicists refer to the “collapse of the wave function,” as if it were a real thing — a literal “collapse”— when of course it isn’t one. When we talk about what we see and think, we speak of “images” in our brain, yet of course, there are no images in our brain. In fact, we do not have even the dimmest understanding of how memory, thought, emotion, and the sensations of color and sound emerge from our material brains and into consciousness. All attempts at applying SOM to solve these problems must, in principle, fail.

Recognizing this limitation of scientism, we have no choice but to reject it as the ultimate explanation of our place here on this planet. We must then recognize the need to return to the one and only ultimate source of knowledge, the mind of a creator.