Is Science Omnicompetent?

By Mary Midgley

Is physical science—as some people say—omnicompetent? Can it (that is) answer all possible questions? If, for instance, we ask why human beings sometimes behave so appallingly – or how we know that they shouldn’t behave so appallingly; or what is the best way to deal with inner conflicts; or whether depression is a physical or a mental trouble – can we look to the physical sciences for an answer? How would we even start to hunt for it there?

This idea that science is an all-purpose oracle dealing with every kind of question is surely very odd. Yet that promise was confidently launched in the 1930s and has proved a very powerful myth. Faith in it seems (perhaps understandably) to be getting even stronger now as more traditional faiths are sidelined. Thus, the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey writes confidently in his book, Soul Searching, that the inventors of modern science meant it to provide “a sufficient explanation for everything that is or might be”, and it has indeed now managed to do this:

“Two hundred years later this programme for a self-sufficient science has succeeded beyond the dreams of its inventors … The major puzzles of existence have been pulled to pieces [by] all-conquering and consuming scientific rationality. Indeed, the basic laws that govern everything have turned out to be fewer in number and, to those who understand them, simpler and more beautiful than anyone originally guessed. So successful has it been that many scientists would now say, and even fear, that there will soon be little left for them to do.” (Emphasis mine.)

What can this mean? Talk of basic laws surely means physics; yet this seems wild. Lord Kelvin is well known to have been mistaken when he made that claim, and today’s physics – besides being incredibly complicated – is notoriously uncertain how to reconcile its views on two crucial topics: general relativity and quantum mechanics. Physicists, in fact, are not offering any all-purpose key to the universe, nor (of course) ought they to. Serious scientists know that their enquiries are endless; any answers always raise a swarm of new questions.

Neither, of course, do physicists claim to deal with the “major puzzles of existence”. In fact, the success of 17th-century physics was due wholly to its founders seeing the need to limit its scope – to separate out physical questions from others that were entangled with them. When Isaac Newton said that he felt he was only a child picking up shells on the shore of an infinite ocean, he did not mean merely that it might be a couple of hundred years before physicists managed to discover and explain everything. He meant that life as a whole is radically mysterious. The sciences deal only with a tiny fragment of it; other kinds of questions need quite different forms of answer.

Humphrey, however, is convinced that something called science has indeed in some way solved the mind-body problem, apparently by proving that “there is no need for a life-force … no need for a human soul to explain the difference between consciousness and unconsciousness”. But of course that was never the point.

Our problem here is to understand the relation between these two things – between our inner and outer life, between consciousness and its objects, between the vulnerable self and the world it has to deal with. This is not a physical problem. It is a problem about how to understand and face life as a whole. And it is not about to go away.

This article originally appeared on the Guardian.


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3 Responses to Is Science Omnicompetent?

  1. The leading Mathematical physicists as represented by Hawking and Miodinow are at loggerheads with the Theologians on the issue of origins.
    Theoretical physics have arrived at the conclusion that matter and the whole physical system of universes somehow springs forth from a void out of nothing.
    Larry King had a Jesuit priest and Deepak debating the issue with Miodinow on his show last week.
    When I was watching I realized that the physicists were basically postulating the same thing as the Bhagavat theory of prakriti springing forth from the pradhan.
    Therefore the condition of material nature immediately previous to its manifestation is called pradhana.
    I think the physicists have traced matter to it’s origin in pradhan, but find the pradhan to be “nothing”, because in reality it is not a state of energy they they can neither identify, quantify or qualify.

    The theologians have a problem with the physicists theory that matter springs forth from nothing.
    In fact, scientifically speaking it does because science cannot qualify the pradhan state of matter/energy and in a sense is “nothing” as far a empiric scientific observation is concerned.
    What the physicist has not entrance into is the knowledge that on the other side of the “nothing” there is something and that something is the reality of the spiritual world and the spiritual energy of Krishna.

    S.B. 3-26-10

    The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: The unmanifested eternal combination of the three modes is the cause of the manifest state and is called pradhana. It is called prakriti when in the manifested stage of existence.

    PURPORT
    The Lord points out material nature in its subtle stage, which is called pradhäna, and He analyzes this pradhäna. The explanation of pradhäna and prakåti is that pradhäna is the subtle, undifferentiated sum total of all material elements. Although they are undifferentiated, one can understand that the total material elements are contained therein. When the total material elements are manifested by the interaction of the three modes of material nature, the manifestation is called prakåti. Impersonalists say that Brahman is without variegatedness and without differentiation. One may say that pradhäna is the Brahman stage, but actually the Brahman stage is not pradhäna. pradhäna is distinct from Brahman because in Brahman there is no existence of the material modes of nature. One may argue that the mahat-tattva is also different from pradhäna because in the mahat-tattva there are manifestations. The actual explanation of pradhäna, however, is given here: when the cause and effect are not clearly manifested (avyakta), the reaction of the total elements does not take place, and that stage of material nature is called pradhäna. Pradhäna is not the time element because in the time element there are actions and reactions, creation and annihilation. One may say that pradhäna is the Brahman stage, but actually the Brahman stage is not pradhäna. pradhäna is distinct from Brahman because in Brahman there is no existence of the material modes of nature. One may argue that the mahat-tattva is also different from pradhäna because in the mahat-tattva there are manifestations. The actual explanation of pradhäna, however, is given here: when the cause and effect are not clearly manifested (avyakta), the reaction of the total elements does not take place, and that stage of material nature is called pradhäna. Pradhäna is not the time element because in the time element there are actions and reactions, creation and annihilation. Nor is it the jéva, or marginal potency of living entities, or designated, conditioned living entities, because the designations of the living entities are not eternal. One adjective used in this connection is nitya, which indicates eternality. Therefore the condition of material nature immediately previous to its manifestation is called pradhäna.

  2. Is physical science—as some people say—omnicompetent? Can it (that is) answer all possible questions? —— Why worry about that? Is anybody or anything out there able to do so (answer all possible questions)? If the competitor to science in this task is religion, then you get dozens if not hundreds of often mutually incompatible answers, depending on who you ask. What good is that?

    Articles like that are usually written by people who do not know enough about either science and religion. Both have their place in our life and both have their limitations. There is no need to see everything as a competition. Science seems threatening to some religious people, because it challenges the comfortable notions about the truth they accepted. If they really understood the essence of religion, they would see science for what it is: a way to understand the world around us.

  3. The way I have grown to look at it is essentially both science and religion combine to form ancient world magic, the stuff of golden age beauty. In magic there are wizards or good magicians who can combine science and/or religion to help people understand their existence and their reality and ease the inherent suffering of physical existence. On the flip side there are sorcerers who can use science and/or religion to establish control over people for their own egoistic ends.

    This is the ultimate eternal battle on this material plane between the good magicians and the sorcerers and they are competing with each other for the minds of the masses and the flow of information. In the Kali-yuga the sorcerers outnumber the wizards so the institutions of science and religion have been used mostly to divide and manipulate people and their perception of reality but slowly as more and more people become educated in the information age the the traditional manipulation of the sorcerers are slowly going out of style and a sincere quest for truth is emerging in the consciousness of mankind. Hopefully this will lead to a more constructive dialouge between the various collective adherents of science and religion and ultimately we can create the good magical world where peoples material and spiritual needs will be fulfilled instead of the sorcerers dark magic where a dark brotherhood controls the flow of information in regards to science and religion and uses these tools to divide and conquer the masses of humanity.

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