What are the limits to science?

I was listening to an In Our Time program on Scientific Method and was fascinated to be reminded that each area of "science" tends to develop its own version of the scientific method. At best we can try to focus on phenomena that are repeatable and try to explain them, but even here there will be areas of science such as evolutionary biology and geology that focus more on explaining evidence than conducting falsifiable experiments.

Where we have phenomena that are just too complex to be repeatable perhaps we are coming to areas where science cannot help us ?

The history of science also worryingly appears to show science to be as bound to tradition and blind to alternatives as many other areas of human activity, we can infer that science today is equally as restricted.

Finally there is no area of science where evidence is not open to interpretation. All scientific fields have varying theories to explain phenomena - I would suggest that there is no area of "science" where all scientists agree on the same theory, science is always bound in controversy.

One other point. Maybe those on the "borders" of science such as Rupert Sheldrake really are getting a raw deal and "science" is just as dogmatic about its assumptions as other philosophical schools have been when they achieve political and organisational power - see for example this encounter with Dawkins and Sheldrake.


So really, how much power should we give science when forming an overall philosophy of life ?
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It is my opinion that science itself is constantly evolving. It is constantly re-learning how to actually learn. New methods arise that permit science to measure or observe things that were unavailable before. That forces science to re-evaluate itself and throw away old methods in favor of new ones.
Obviously it is resistant to change. Science is run by humans, and human beings are naturally resiliant to change. Furthermore, almost all breakthroughs originate from young scientists, which the old ones naturally resent, due to the generation gap. Psychology (in itself also a constantly evolving science) applies to scientists, science and even the method itself.

Now, about the power we should give science to form a philosophy of life, I don't think we should give it any at all. Science exists to provide us with new knowledge and new technologies. The philosophy itself is formed by each individual and by society as a whole. That technology itself has much sway in our way of life can't be denied, but that is because of a choice to actually use it. The Amish, for example, chose a philosophy of life that totally rejects science.
Anthony RussoCommented:
Good science is done by collaboration and with many parties critiquing each other.

Pseudo-science is done by individuals or those with like agendas.

I don't see peer-reviewed publications from Rupert Sheldrake to justify his paranormal claims have been properly critiqued and validated.

A good example is the recent story of neutrinos traveling faster than light. The team that recorded this phenomenon came public with it requesting it be reviewed by others to be confirmed in case of a fault in their instruments or methods. This was later found to be the case.

This is an example of good scientific process. I found something monumental. Help me try to prove it is wrong before I say it is right. Pseudo-science fails to do this often.
purplesoupProgrammerAuthor Commented:
AnthonyRusso - agreed, a scientific community is an important aspect of science - I'm really not clear that Sheldrake has come up with experiments that others can repeat.
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I think the biggest limit to science is the one imposed by science itself. Science feeds on itself, requiring breakthroughs that develop new technology that allow for bigger breakthroughs, etc... Each of these will always develop lots of theories which are, when stated, purely theoretical, as there isn't, usually, any way to validate it with current technology. So scientists will try to create said technology to prove or disprove those theories, which in turn will generate new ones, ad infinitum.
And the scientific method has already implied in itself that, for something to be considered true, it has to be impossible to be considered false (in light of current knowledge). Anything else just isn't science. And despite the popular saying, the exception doesn't make the rule, it destroys it.
Anthony RussoCommented:
>>I'm really not clear that Sheldrake has come up with experiments that others can repeat.

That would be a red flag for me. The scientific method requires that an experiment is able to be repeated to verify it's results. Otherwise there is no true basis for evidence. It could just be anecdotal or opinion or a fluke chance.
purplesoupProgrammerAuthor Commented:
Cluskitt - why is continually making new breakthroughs a limit? I'm not following you.

I'm curious whether there is anything about science itself that sets limits to what we can know - I remember seeing a book once called "The Two Dogmas of Science" - I wonder if science really has blinkers that it can't get beyond?

The other aspect of the "outside" of science is art. Typically we distinguish between the arts and the sciences. By definition science is not art and art is not science, although doubtless there are aspects of each that benefit the other.

What is the truth in art that cannot be found through science? Is it just the difference between the subjective and the objective - it seems it should be a whole lot more than that.

And what about philosophy? Where does that fit in? If philosophy really is the science of truth, what sort of truth has it found?
What I meant is that science is limited by the need of new breakthroughs. For example, for years, science has been limited regarding Einstein's relativity theory or quantum physics because it didn't have the technology to properly test it. However, recent breakthroughs allowed such technology to be built to the point where the theories can be tested, which will, in turn, generate new theories from these new measurements.

The limits of science are, in my opinion, the observable universe. Science cannot learn what it cannot know about. There can be theories, but it won't ever reach the point of scientific fact. This, in itself, validates my previous point. You need breakthroughs that allow you to observe more and more of the universe. Not just that which is further away, but also that which is further microscopic.

The main difference between science and art is that art is concerned with creating a response or stimulus on the observer. Science is only concerned with discovering the truth. It has no aesthetic purpose of any kind. It doesn't care if people like it or react to it, whereas art is only art insofar as it can cause others to react to it.

Philosophy is, mostly, the science of the abstract. It focuses on things that can never be measured (like, for example, beauty, justice, etc). Therefore, it can never be proven, especially because it deals with concepts that don't actually exist in the first place, except as abstractions we create.
purplesoupProgrammerAuthor Commented:
Thanks Cluskitt they are interesting thoughts, what you are saying about science is the need for demonstrable evidence - so particularly in the physical sciences you need to be able to show evidence of your theory or it is just speculation. We may get to a point where we are physically just unable to perform tests to validate a theory, and hence we have reached the limit of science.

However there seem to be a large number of disciplines that seek to study the evidence and then give an accurate, objective explanation of that evidence. History, economics, geology, evolutionary biology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, even to some extent literature and cultural studies and philosophy all aim to be true to the facts and deal objectively with the evidence.

Like the physical sciences they are trying to provide explanations, and perhaps to some extent they too can produce predictions that subsequent studies may or may not validate. Is there really a clear line between the physical sciences and the other sciences? And what about mathematics? That appears to just be a formal system that fortuitously runs parallel with the observable world. Can it be proven or falsified?

This reminds me of  the argument that there is no such thing as mental illness. An illness is something that has physical, observable properties. Mental illness as commonly understood has no physical basis (although on occasion it can do). The term "illness" is just being extended to cover another area where it is at best a metaphor.

My point is, is the term "science" just a metaphor for some broadly objective, observable study based on evidence, does it really mean anything? Is it not just an attempt at interpreting at set of phenomena within a community and attempting to get the group to agree with you?

Could the term "science" just actually mean any field of study that does not include some hidden "occult" world of religion - is it defined by what it isn't rather than what it is?
Well, I can't say for sure, obviously, but I doubt there will ever be a physical thing that we can't observe. It might take a long time, but eventually we'll build something that will allow us to see it.

I don't think philosophy is considered a science, nor do I think history is either. Science does rely on observable phenomena. Preferable measurable, but not really required. Economics, geology, sociology, etc, all rely on observable facts that require interpretation.

Mathematics is a pure science. Nevertheless, it is observable. Simple math was inferred from the simple fact that you had 2 sheep, you added one and got 3. Everything moved from there. You can then start inferring other things, but always based on a rigid and observable universe. It is never random or fortuitous.

And finally, as observed before, no, science isn't just a metaphor. Science is a method for discovering things that requires you to eliminate every other possibility before you accept it. It requires your facts to adjust to reality, not the other way around. It requires that the theory is proven every single time, not just for some conditions.
> Could the term "science" just actually mean any field of study that does not include some hidden "occult" world of religion

I have never heard or read science being defined that way. Science is about observations that are repeatable in an objective experiment. A scientific theory also has to show how it can be proven wrong. In other words, a scientific theory has to be falsifiable.

If this excludes things like religion or astrology, that is simply because those fields have yet to offer observations that can be repeated by unbiased observers.
purplesoupProgrammerAuthor Commented:
Thanks for your comments.


I've heard philosophy called the science of truth - it is about what is true, or trying to understand what it means for something to be true. Why do you think it wouldn't be a science ? It is certainly interested in what can be proven or shown to be true. You admit that economics, geology, sociology, etc, all rely on observable facts that require interpretation, but doesn't philosophy also do that?

I'm not clear why you don't think history is either. Surely history relies on observable phenomena just the same as geology - you dig things up and explain them. What's not scientific about that?

Mathematics is pure science? Did we discover that one sheep plus one sheep equals two sheep by observation? Surely that is simply the application of mathematics? Didn't mathematics already defined 1+1 as being equal to 2? I don't see how you can discover that through observation and experiment. After all, if I have a square and cut off a corner, then I cut off another corner I don't end up with two corners.

I'm not really clear about the last part.

"Science is a method for discovering things that requires you to eliminate every other possibility before you accept it" -

First - is a method for discovering things? Does every science have to discover something? Could it not just explain how things we have already discovered work?

Second - every other possibility of what ? How can you discover something by eliminating a possibility ?


"Science is about observations that are repeatable in an objective experiment"

I agree some sciences have repeatable experiments, but a lot don't - geology, evolutionary biology, a lot of cosmology, sociology etc

A lot of sciences are about providing the best possible explanation of the facts.

"In other words, a scientific theory has to be falsifiable"

But is everything that is falsifiable a scientific theory?

I've heard Christians tell me if people stopped showing love and compassion to each other they would regard that as a falsification of Christianity.

If I'm writing an literature essay on a book by Dickens, and some of the statements I make are just wrong about the book I'm working on, hasn't that falsified my essay? If my essay assumes the book has a happy ending and it doesn't, isn't my interpretation wrong and hence falsified ?
Ok, this is getting big. Let's try by bits:

Anyone can call something however they want, but that doesn't make it so. Scientology has been defined as the science of religion, but it cannot (and is not) considered science. Same for philosophy. Almost no philosophic idea can be proven. They rely on abstractions and thus are detached from the physical world (for example, Descarte's hyperbolic doubt questions all of existence). It relies purely on rhetoric. It can even be opposed to actual physical evidence, especially relating to paradoxes (like the paradox of Ulysses and the turtle). Thus, a conclusion can never be reached.

I don't think history is a science because history is, basically, a collection of past data. It won't help you with the present or the future. All you can do is look at the immediate past and find patterns similar to ancient history. There is no development in history other than uncovering obscure facts and documenting current events which are, effectively, becoming history.
Geology, on the other hand, does provide theories (for example, the composition of earth, the activity of volcanoes, etc), which are able to be refuted. It involves experiments to prove the truth (which history doesn't), among other factors.

1+1=2 are basically symbols we created to define that which we observed. It's easier to write 8 than to draw 8 deer. It derives from our need to simplify and perpetuate communication. But without observation, without external inputs, you cannot infer the existence of mathematics, just as you can't infer the existence of anything.
As for the corners analogy, that is geometry, which is ruled by a different subset of mathematics (for example, 240º+180+ doesn't equal 420º but 60º). It is still true, but for different applications of reality (much like more complex areas of mathematics, like irrational numbers).

"Could it not just explain how things we have already discovered work?" - If we don't know how something works, that means we haven't discovered it yet. This is just a semantics issue. Basically, we don't know something, or something about something, and science tries to discover it.

The basic method of science is:
"I have these facts. They fit really well into this theory that I've created. But, is there ANY possibility that these facts have ANY other explanation? Is there ANY possibility that these facts are wrong to begin with? Is there any situation where this doesn't happen EVERY TIME?"
The main goal of science is to be proven wrong. Only when something happens every time the same way and with no other explanation will something be considered a scientific fact. This is why psychology and sociology, along with other "sciences of the mind", have taken such a long time to be considered science. There wasn't enough reliable data available to fulfil the scientific requirements.
So, if there is a slight possibility that something else could be causing the facts observed, until it has been fully investigated one way or another (proving or disproving), science doesn't accept it other than as a theory.

Now to address your questions to hdhondt:
All sciences have repeatable experiments. Geology and cosmology are the ones easier to repeat (though many times require outside events to happen, like supernovas occurring or volcanoes erupting). Sociology also has repeatable experiments, though they are more statistical in nature (as is most of the field).

As for your last argument, again, it's a matter of semantics:
"Falsifiability or refutability of an assertion, hypothesis or theory is the logical possibility that it can be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of a physical experiment. That something is "falsifiable" does not mean it is false; rather, that if it is false, then some observation or experiment will produce a reproducible result that is in conflict with it."
For example, "God is all knowing" isn't a falsifiable argument. There is no way to prove otherwise. Just like there is no way to prove God doesn't exist (or that he does). That's why it's called faith and isn't part of science (even though quite a few scientists are religious. One doesn't exclude the other, they just operate on different fields).
Thanks Cluskitt, for your reply to the questions addressed to me.

The experiments are not necessarily laboratory experiments. They can be predictions about what will result if a certain thing happens. For example, from our theories of quantum mechanics we can predict what will happen when a supernova explodes. We can then watch exploding supernovas to see how well they match our predictions. Theories like inflation during the big bang are a bit more problematical because we can obviously not expect to see another big bang. However, we can still predict new things we should see as a result of inflation and then look for them. If the result does not match the prediction it's back to the drawing board.

Theories like cosmic inflation are probably best called hypotheses. A theory is as good as it gets in science: it's a hypothesis that's been resoundingly confirmed by experiment and measurements. Of course, that does not mean that it may not fail future experiments. An example is Newton's theory. It's still used to compute the path of spacecraft, but we know it has fundamental flaws that were resolved by Einstein's general relativity. And we know that GR has flaws as well, as it is not compatible with quantum mechanics.

The resolution of that conflict, string theory, is even more of an hypothesis. Not least because there are extremely many "string theories". I've read numbers as large as 10^500 (that's 1 with 500 zeros). And only 1 of them would apply to our universe. Why?

Science tackles such problems by slowly beavering away at them. We keep refining the theory, and one day someone will make a breakthrough that puts us on the next level.

>I've heard Christians tell me if people stopped showing love and compassion to each other they would regard that as a falsification of Christianity.

That would be a falsifiable scientific theory, on the condition that somebody had predicted that all christians will show love and compassion. Making that statement in hindsight is as good a prediction as Nostradamus can make: people who believe in him show how he can predict all major world events that have already happened. But, they can't find a correct prediction before the fact.
purplesoupProgrammerAuthor Commented:
Thanks both of you for your contributions.

Let me see if I can paraphrase what you are saying. Science is about finding the rules of a system - we make an informed assumption about the rules of the system based on evidence, we apply those rules to make predictions to see if they turned out to be right. It is a bit like looking at a sequence of numbers and trying to come up with the rule that is generating those numbers.

Philosophy: “Almost no philosophic idea can be proven” - well, can any scientific idea be proven? Isn’t the idea rather as to whether any philosophical idea can be disproven ? There seem to be two important aspects to philosophy, the first is logic and the second is speculation. I read recently that no philosopher now tries to claim that the presence of evil contradicts the existence of God because we - being fallible and finite - could never know whether a super-intelligent being might have grounds for allowing evil to exist. That seems to me an argument from logic, if it is true. Wittgenstien similarly made the point that if the earth went round the sun it would look no different to if the sun went round the earth from the point of view of someone on earth - this seems to me similarly a valid logical point. I’m sure there are other “triumphs” in the history of philosophy that come from logic.

Philosophy doesn’t do any experiments, so perhaps on that ground it isn’t quite a science, but it does seem to make predictions. This seems to me to make it a sort of scientific activity. There are plenty of very interesting speculations made by philosophers that have later been borne out my more scientific studies, so just from our existing knowledge philosophers try to put together a set of rules about the world as a whole and how it operates then to speculate from that what might happen in the future. They just can’t be bothered to gather the data themselves. Speculations in the form of predictions of the philosophers can be disproven, the same as any other prediction can be disproven.

“I don't think history is a science because history is, basically, a collection of past data. It won't help you with the present or the future. “

What a contentious statement! Didn’t someone say those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it ? It really begs the question as to whether we can identify a “system” with rules that produce the phenomena of history, that in turn allow us to make predictions. It could be said of anything “it is a collection of past data, it won’t help you with the present or future” - I’m not sure you can say in advance about any system that you can or cannot use the past data to predict the future. It is really up to people to try to identify those deep rules that may or may not exist, and I guess here we are getting into complexity and chaos theory, as to whether a given system has a set of discoverable rules that are not subject to random forces that would prevent predictions.

Any history of mathematics will show you that mathematical concepts often appear in advance of the physical applications - the square root of minus 1, non-euclidean geometry, different types of infinity, in fact probably most developments in the history of mathematics happened through pure research into mathematical principles - it was often many years later that someone discovered that the area of mathematics actually applied to some aspect of the physical world.

Whether at the very beginning we got the concept of number from collective nouns or we have some innate concept of number that itself superimposed itself on the world to identify groups, the fact remains that we don’t make advances in mathematics through the physical world, if anything it is the other way around.

The basic method of science is:
"I have these facts. They fit really well into this theory that I've created. But, is there ANY possibility that these facts have ANY other explanation? Is there ANY possibility that these facts are wrong to begin with? Is there any situation where this doesn't happen EVERY TIME?"

By “these facts” I refer to some “system”, “this theory” is a set of rules for producing the “facts” or phenomena. Do the facts have some other explanation? In other words, is there some other set of rules that could have produced the facts? Is there a situation that the set of rules can’t explain? so I think we are in agreement with our definition here.

The problem is, there is never any criteria to show that I have discounted every other explanation other than my own, it is always the case that some other set of rules might be able to explain the same phenomena, the only way we could choose between the two would be for some future phenomena which would differentiate between the two sets of rules. This only of course provides a temporary solution, as some other theory (set of rules) may yet emerge to account for the new set of phenomena and the whole process of choosing between them would have to start again.

Let’s consider another example. Someone is writing a critique of a novel. They are proposing a set of explanations for the behaviour of the characters in the novel, what they are motivated by, what makes the novel work. Here we have a theory (a set of rules) that generates the phenomena (the novel). It is possible to disprove the theory, because we could come up with some event in the novel that is inconsistent with the theory. However if we have two theories both equally capable of explaining all the facts of the novel, we can’t now choose between them, because the novel isn’t a system that produces new facts.

So perhaps we are getting to a point where we can summarise.

Science requires some open system that continually produces new phenomena - sets of facts. In studying the past facts of the system, the science attempts to produce a set of rules (a theory) to explain the facts, and also to predict what new facts will appear in the future. To the extent that new facts are predicted successfully, the theory can be called (provisionally) “true”.

It may be that two theories can equally well explain the same facts. In this case both theories need to identify future facts or phenomena they can predict that would enable us to differentiate between the two sets of rules.

It may be that the system doesn’t have a simple set of rules that produce the phenomena - weather for example might not allow us to predict future events or not too far in the future.

Similarly it may be history/the future, economics, politics, psychology - more human-centred systems are too complex to come up with sets of rules, however use of statistics have shown that there are some human systems where collectively our behaviour can be predicted.
Ok, this is becoming quite big. I've had to open a second window just to keep track of your post and my reply.

"we make an informed assumption about the rules of the system based on evidence, we apply those rules to make predictions to see if they turned out to be right."
That is just a small part of it. The most important part is trying to find out different rules that might turn out to be right. If you (the scientific community) can find one, then your theory isn't valid. If you can't, then your theory is held valid until such a time as further data (probably as a consequence of scientific breakthroughs) becomes available that denies it and presents an alternative one.
Our knowledge is always incomplete. We keep having to adjust our theories, or even downright dumping them and finding new ones. However, at any point in time, you will require facts that back up your theory, and no other explanation of them.

"well, can any scientific idea be proven? "
Yes. That is the whole point of a scientific theory. If it cannot, it's not a scientific idea.

"Isn’t the idea rather as to whether any philosophical idea can be disproven ?"
No philosophical idea can be proven one way or the other. Each is based on assumptions that cannot be argued, nor are they based on any observation. They are basically abstract notions.
For example, Descartes hyperbolic doubt takes as an assumption that there is a malign entity that created all of reality just to deceive us. Nothing is real. Now, from that assumption he goes on to argue his famous "I think, therefore I am". Now, this can never be proven true unless you assume that his initial postulate is also true. And it can never be proven false because there is no way to prove an abstract as false.
Likewise, Zeno's paradox about Achiles and the turtle can be proven both true and false at the same time. Facts will show it to be false (Achiles can always easily catch the turtle), but abstract mathematics will show it to be true (there will always be a halfway point infinitely). This last one is actually solved with limits, but the point is the same.
Similarly, you can prove any religious idea you want, if you take as your base assumption that there is an almighty, all powerful god, that can do all he wants to do.
The basic difference between science and non-science is that science tries doesn't have base assumptions that can never be proven one way or the other.

"Wittgenstien similarly made the point that if the earth went round the sun it would look no different to if the sun went round the earth from the point of view of someone on earth"
Actually that isn't true. The fact that earth has a certain rotation period would make it so that the sun would look different if it went around the earth. That is the kind of statement that, if taken only has an abstract platitude, seems to be correct, but fails to take into account the reality as it is, as opposed to the reality as it seems to be, abstractly.

"Philosophy doesn’t do any experiments, so perhaps on that ground it isn’t quite a science, but it does seem to make predictions."
I am not aware of any predictions made by philosophy. It does present conclusions, but since those are based on abstract assumptions, as discussed above, they aren't really valid except, perhaps, for a very small, very limited subsystem that never really exists in reality (like Zeno's paradoxes).

"Didn’t someone say those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it ?"
Again, people can say all they want. I have seen no historians making any predictions on current civil wars in Egypt, Lybia, etc... It is always easier, in hindsight, to study the collected data and say: "See? This is exactly the same thing that happened 563 years ago. Everyone ignored it and so they repeated it". But you can't take that collected data and make more than an educated guess about the general future of the next decade, at best. That is not science (at least, until someone does discover Asimov's psycho-history, but that is another story ;)). Also, those that make those predictions aren't even historians. Most are from political science, or sociology, or other developing sciences.
History collects data that science later uses, but they never use it themselves, other than to increase the past knowledge. It is a very useful tool. It is very important. There is no denying that. But it's not a science. At least, that's what I think. I may be proven wrong.

"as to whether a given system has a set of discoverable rules that are not subject to random forces that would prevent predictions."
Well, I may be proven wrong, as I'm certainly not a scientist, just someone that happens to like and understand it a bit. Also, there's the current development of quantum physics which may introduce something new in the near future. However, it is my belief, based on the history of science, that random doesn't exist. Random is like magic, it's just something that we don't know yet. The wind used to be random, but now we can predict it's direction and speed for the next 3 days. Physical traits used to be random, but now we can identify them, albeit very primitively for now, thanks to DNA studies.
Again, I may be wrong, and this is certainly not scientific fact, but I don't think there is actually anything random in the universe. The more science discovers things, the less random things there are.
And, as a computer programmer, I can tell you that random, from a technologic standpoint, never exists.

Mathematics is a closed system. It takes no inputs and generates no outputs. We just apply it to the external world. Mathematics is a very peculiar science. Very unique, in fact. I've always liked Hilbert's quote to define it: "it is a conceptual system possessing internal necessity that can only be so and by no means otherwise".
I, myself, see it as an abstract system that arose from the physical world. We began by counting and measuring objects, and evolved it to a point where it is now beyond our ability to observe (which, in turn, leads to the necessity of creating something that will observe it, leading to further breakthroughs).

"it is always the case that some other set of rules might be able to explain the same phenomena, the only way we could choose between the two would be for some future phenomena which would differentiate between the two sets of rules"
This is the basis of science. If two different theories explain the same facts in the same way, either the facts are insufficient, or BOTH theories are incomplete. If the facts are insufficient, more facts have to be gathered until one of them is proven unequivocally true and the other false. Or both false and a new theory true.
And yes, some new facts may arise that prove the old theory, which was, until then, unequivocally true, wrong. And again, a new theory will be developed. Basically, we have a good theory and we keep changing it with a better one due to new facts. And that will keep leading us closer and closer to complete knowledge.

The novel example can't really apply to this discussion. It has a too small universe of data to generate any kind of valid theory. It's not just that it's not repeatable, or even the fact that it's hardly measurable, it's mostly the fact that it's too finite. There just isn't enough data to analyse it. Therefore, no valid theory can arise (scientifically, anyway). Being a singular closed system with no relation to reality, it can never be regarded as valid for scientific study, except where you take it as a single fact, which you can then incorporate into sociology and other sciences that try to explain human behaviour as a group rather than as an individual.

"It may be that the system doesn’t have a simple set of rules that produce the phenomena - weather for example might not allow us to predict future events or not too far in the future."
Simple rules have nothing to do with predictions. There is a famous experiment that proves this. Imagine a universe composed of infinite white squares and an object (I believe they used a bug). This world has only two rules:
1- When the bug lands on a white square it turns black. When it lands on a black square it turns white.
2- When the bug lands on a white square it will turn left. When it lands on a black square it will turn right.
So they programmed it into a computer and started the simulation. At first, the bug created a geometric pattern. And it seems, intuitively, that that should be expected. After some thousand steps, though, chaos seeps in and you can't discern any pattern. And after some time, the bug will be stuck in a closed loop, repeating a pattern of (if I remember correctly) 96 steps.
Now, these were extremely simple rules. And yet no one could have predicted it. In fact, no one knows why this happens from such a simple set of rules.
So, knowledge and prediction aren't always hand in hand.

Sociology, psychology and others aren't exact sciences. However, they do use exact sciences, namely statistics, and they use a scientific method where they try to set up experiments to prove facts one way or the other. They don't just try to guess. They don't reject data that doesn't fit. The biggest problem with these sciences isn't that they're too complex, it's just that they're still young. Therefore, there are still many things unknown. Physics was like that once, and you can't say that a galaxy is less complex than the human brain. Given enough time, psychology will become more and more accurate and reliable, especially as science finds out more and more about the brain.
purplesoupProgrammerAuthor Commented:
Thanks for your thoughts Cluskitt - I don't anticipate this to be very long.

The idea originally was to consider what the limits were to science - what are the “borders” that separate a science from a non-science, what makes something a science ?

In order to reflect on this, we tried to look at different examples - is history a science, is philosophy a science, is critiquing/reviewing a book (or a painting, or a piece of music) a science? If not, why not? What is the difference?

First off, I don’t think we are really disagreeing about creating a theory (set of rules) based on evidence (facts) and making predictions from them to validate the theory.

The section “That is just a small part of it. The most important part is trying to find out different rules that might turn out to be right...” doesn’t seem to add anything to this definition. I agree the prediction - if it is meaningful - might turn out to be wrong, and then you have a new set of facts from which to construct a new theory.

My point about provable was just repeating Popper - you can’t prove a theory, you can only postpone disproving it.

I’m not convinced having abstract ideas is why philosophy isn’t a science - science has abstract notions. Philosophy seems to be asking a lot of the right questions - it is applying reason to a subject - but usually doesn’t narrow the scope enough. Descartes - and many other philosophers - were basically trying to understand how we have knowledge of the external world. He tried to postulate an account of how the mind connects with the world, but just didn’t have the tools to get the answers.

I remember listening to Bryan Magee doing his series on the great philosophers and he liked to keep mentioning that the philosopher they were discussing was ahead of his time, that he had anticipated some later scientific discovery - the problem was of course that the philosopher wasn’t applying a rigorous method, he was really just speculating as to how things might work.

Generally philosophers seem to take our “common sense” notions and examine them rationally and often then find that they come up with paradoxes and contradictions, or just unusual conclusions. Zeno had really discovered infinite series, but couldn’t express the discovery in a formal notation. Hume has interesting insights into what constitutes a cause - just because B follows A does it mean A caused B? He also has an interesting observation about whether we can derive an ought from an is. I don’t think philosophical ideas are immune to objective evaluation - they are usually attempts to make sense of the world - to find some underlying structure or cause, like science. Philosophy also examines the logical consequence of certain beliefs to see if they are self-refuting or internally consistent. Sartre decided to split the world into “being” and “nothingness” and see if he could provide an explanatory system of the world founded on just these two concepts.

OK - musing on philosophy and science has taken longer than I thought, and I haven’t even mentioned that I don’t see what the rotation period of the earth has to do with whether the sun goes around the earth - everything is relative, you could assume the earth to be fixed and everything else moving if you wanted to, it just makes the maths more difficult.

Not clear why you think history isn’t/can’t be a science. Is there something intrinsic about history which means it doesn’t have underlying rules and laws? If so is this a limit of science, here is an objective phenomena that has the possibility that we could make predictions about it, but we can’t? Why not? Marx of course argued that dialectical materialism was the science of history, and predicted continuing crises of capitalism based on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Did he discover a law of history or don’t they exist?

On the point about nothing being random it sounds as if you are suggesting if anything was genuinely random it wouldn’t be examinable by science, but if nothing is random in theory everything could have a scientific theory created around it.

Incidentally statistics in itself doesn’t seem to me to be science. We could look at trends and make a prediction based on a trend (e.g. the number of Christians over 55 in the UK is around 60%, those in the 35-55 bracket are 45% and those below that around 30%, based on this trend we could predict Christianity to be gone in another two generations). However this isn’t science because it doesn’t have a model for why this is happening, there needs to be a set of rules to explain the facts, and then make future predictions.

Mathematics does seem exceptional - the only reason we have science is because the universe is mathematical. In general science is the application of some already developed area of mathematics, we can only develop any model because we have the mathematics for that model, by “model” or “set of rules” we are always talking about mathematics.

I’m still interested in why the novel or some other work of art isn’t subject to science - what is it about it that means you can’t build a model of it? Is it because it is too small a universe of data? Originally I was thinking that it was a closed system and so we couldn’t make predictions, but if the “data” is the sum of the responses to the work of art then there would be an unending set of facts to explain. Incidentally I don’t see a work of art - or any object of science - really has to have a “relation to reality” - whatever that means. It just needs to have a set of data/facts that continue to be generated, and so could be modelled and thus be subject to predictions.

Nice story about the bug and the squares, however surely anyone who knew the rules could have predicted it, they just needed to run a sequence in a computer program and see what happens - it sounds like a form of evolutionary programming - ESS and all that.

I agree with the point about things being too complex. Science seems to work when it can demarcate an area to work with. This seems to be the problem with philosophy - it doesn’t restrict itself to a set area to analyse. When we look at the movement of solid objects, or how the body works or layers of soil or plants we are drawing a circle around our subject matter. Not drawing the circle correctly seems to mess things up - we need to find the engine where the rules are located, if we start overlapping different engines we don’t get phenomena that are predictable.

I take your point that complex systems aren’t inherently impossible to study, but things take time to learn about - what do you make of chaos theory, isn’t that about areas that are too unpredictable?

Feel free to stop if you want - I think we are nearly exhausted, thanks again for your thoughts...
I don't mind these long posts. I'm actually having fun. Remember though, that this is mostly my opinion. There are some things which I have some difficulty getting across and even some of which I'm uncertain.

Now, about Popper. What he says is true, but doesn't actually contradict anything. Science will accept something as proof based only on what we know of observable reality. That's why wormholes are nothing more than a theory. We haven't observed any and they're only theoretically possible. Possibly, in the future, we will be able to say this one way or another. However, just because wormholes might explain something, doesn't mean that the current laws that don't allow wormholes are proven wrong. They are only proven wrong when wormholes are proven right.
Same for any theory. If you have a theory and you can't prove it, then it can't be used to prove any scientific fact wrong. Only when your theory becomes fact can it be used that way.

Science doesn't have any abstract notions. Everything in science can be applied to the real world unfailingly, except maybe for some branches of mathematics. But note that I'm not saying philosophy isn't important. It deals with many important issues to us as human beings, like justice, morality, beauty, etc. It's just that it isn't a science, much like debating the purpose of life with your friends over a few beers isn't science.
Saying that they were ahead of their time and that they anticipated some future discovery doesn't mean it's science. Sci-fi writers also make lots of predictions (usually informed ones for good writers, wild for the rest) and some actually become true, like Buck Rogers' laser. That doesn't make it science, no more than me saying that cars will have wings makes it a science, even if I'm actually right.

What I meant with the sun and the earth thing is that a small issue like that has a lot of impact. The whole of astronomy would have to be different, just like astrophysics, not to mention gravity itself. What he meant was that, visually, it would make no difference. But it would make a difference in lots of other aspects.

History, as I said, is mostly a collection of past facts. It doesn't deal with observable events that happen repeatedly and reliably always in the same way. And yes, I do think that is a limit to science. Events have to be observable, measurable and repeatable. Which is also why I don't think philosophy is a science. It doesn't deal with measurable events.

Yes, I believe nothing is random in the observable reality and everything can be eventually explained.

Statistics is an exact science. It's a branch of mathematics. Now, what you use those statistics for, that's a different issue. It can be scientific or not. But HOW you use them, that's scientific (also, note that many newspapers, among others, print statistics for pretty much anything, but most are actually poorly calculated).
Statistics does explain the facts. However, just not the facts you're thinking about:
"the number of Christians over 55 in the UK is around 60%". This happens because, from the set of data provided, about 6 out of 10 were christian. What you're thinking about is explaining why they are christians, but that isn't part of the scope of statistics. It isn't bothered with the origin of the data, just it's manipulation.

The novel example can't be considered science because it's static. Even if you were to measure it's events, it has no more occurrences. It has no further development. The entire system starts with the beginning of the story and ends with its ending. The novel itself has no inputs whatsoever and isn't dynamic in any way.
Likewise, no art is science, and thus far any attempt of either to infiltrate the other has resulted in utter failure. Science can't create art, nor can art create science.

Of course you could program the bug and they did. They found out what happened. But, having just two simple rules, you couldn't predict it beforehand, mathematically or otherwise. Likewise, you will eventually be able to predict weather conditions for some extended period using computers, but the requirements to run such a complicated set of rules is enormous. And if you keep on using more complex rules, you will find out that the speed with which you can predict things is slower than they're happening.

I'll address the rest tomorrow ;)
Not clear why you think history isn’t/can’t be a science.

There are many levels of science. At the very top is mathematics, where you can actually prove conclusively that something is right or wrong (by logical deductions from a set of axioms). Maths is the only "exact" science. In other sciences you can only disprove things. Instead of proving that a theory is correct, you can only say that "so far the evidence indicates that it is correct". Unlike maths, other sciences also can never prove a negative. For example, try to prove that the are no fairies in my garden. Hence we also cannot prove that god does not exist; we can only say that we have not yet found any evidence for him.

Next in line is probably physics. At the very bottom we get to social "sciences", where the rules of science are often completely ignored. In between we see chemistry, astronomy/cosmology, history, archeology, etc in roughly that order. As we go down the list less and less of the formalism of science is used, and instead more guesses and incidental evidence are involved.

History obviously uses both known facts and guesswork, and there are no firm rules of deduction. However that does not mean it's not included in the sciences, as it does use some of the rules of science, and tries to be objective about its subject.

On the other hand, art cannot be included in the sciences, as it is purely subjective. The appreciation of art depends entirely on the mindset of the viewer/reader/listener. Some artists only get appreciated years after their death. Some go in and out of fashion, but there is no universal "best" art. That does not diminish the value of art, it just means that it is in a different category.

Incidentally statistics in itself doesn't seem to me to be science.

Statistics is not a science in itself. Instead, it is part of mathematics (and hence completely rigorous), which probably also explains why so few people understand statistics. Of course the application of statistics is a horse of another colour altogether. If that involves the social sciences, science goes out the window completely, and is often replaced by nothing more than wishful thinking.
I just want to note that, regarding the chaos theory comments, chaos and random are NOT the same thing. Chaos means that we can't discern the cause of something, or the possible effects of something.
The disposition of the contents of a matchbox that fell on the floor seems to us to be chaotic, but they are by no means random. They are predetermined by a huge bunch of variables that come into effect before it happens (angle, speed, gravity, etc).

Random, on the other hand, means that there was no cause before the effect. It's the only way to get something purely random. Otherwise, if there is a cause, then it's not random, just unknown.
I haven't read through all the posts here but just wanted to come in with spontaneous reply.

Science is a way of gathering empircal knowledge according to an interpretative framework. Part of that framework is built into our physiology. The way our senses work, perception, the basic process of thought. The rest is an agreed standard that is part of our culture.

This definition is also a description of the limitations of science:

Firstly, being empircally based, that means it automatically excludes anything that is non-empirical, such as subjective experiences that cannot be shared. This includes all spiritual knowledge and experience, for example.

Secondly, the interpretative framework itself, which includes the structure of the brain, is geared to process and filter information in a particular way, such what reaches consciousness is very much an abstraction. What appears in consciousness is a reflection, but it is a special reflection made by a special "mirror." The "mirror" is not neutral. This means we cannot know what the universe is like beyond our finite way of seeing it.

Hope this helps :-)
purplesoupProgrammerAuthor Commented:
Thanks Jason210 - this reply was obviously basically in response to what Cluskitt has written but it actually ties in with your points as well. On reflection it seems to me the ethics and method of "science" can be applied in many areas - as you will see below.

It is actually quite ironic that in a world that benefits so much from science, so many people - perhaps even scientists, but in a sense more importantly journalists - lack the tools to look at things objectively. It is actually astonishing how many of our opinions come not from knowledge of the facts but from trusting an authority. It is true that I guess we don’t have time to go back to first principles for everything, and so need to trust the opinion of others to some degree, but at least we should be honest with ourselves when we do this, and try a little more often to dig deeper.

It is said that the tragedy of the internet is that while perhaps the whole of human knowledge is available in seconds, people typically just look for articles that confirm what they already believe, rather than take time to understand the opinions of those they disagree with.

There is nothing more amazing than a journey of knowledge, to start from a certain point, learn about the subject, modify your opinion based on what you have learned, study some more, adjust your opinion again and so on. After many years you are actually more knowledgeable than when you started, yet also more humble and aware of what how much you don’t know.

There is also nothing more sad than someone who simply confirms to themselves what they already believe. After many years they will have learned nothing and yet take more pride in their ignorance.

I thought I’d say a little at the start about art, since this is - for many good reasons - taken to be unscientific. As I have suggested - and this is basically something Roland Barthes pointed out - a text is never closed, it is never finished, because we the reader will always react to it in new ways. If ten people read a book, they will in a sense all read a different book - it will resonate with each of them in a different way. If I read a book I read ten years ago it will be a different book, and I will react to it differently.

So first let’s think what happens when we discuss a novel we’ve read (or a film we’ve watched etc). We could just say “I did/didn’t like it and I don’t know why” and that will be the end of the conversation. Or we could try to analyse the book, identify what we felt were its strengths and weaknesses, what the author did well, what didn’t work, what moved us, what we found boring, what did we think of the plot? Did the beginning/middle/end work?

After having this discussion with other people I’m sure we won’t have reached a firm conclusion and all agreed on everything, but we will have learned a lot about the depth and complexity (or lack of it) within the book, some people may have changed their minds, and if it is a good book it might be something we can return to and keep talking about.

So what is the point of this? Simply that here is an example of the values of the Enlightenment which permeate the world of science, although applied to the arts. Here everyone has the right to be heard, we listen to different points of view, we are attentive to the facts of the matter (in this case the book), we are (hopefully) willing to change our mind if the strength of the argument persuades us.

It seems to me that when you have this “scale” of science, from the least to the greatest, we are actually looking at a world if not of science then a world based on the values of science - evidence, tolerance, persuasion, logic, argument, willingness to listen and change our minds if the evidence demands it.

But suppose that book isn’t just a normal novel - which we may quite happily all read and discuss, but was instead a holy book, or a book published by the ruling party of a totalitarian state. Such books exist in a different socio-political and cultural climate. It may be that within our tolerant western society we could quite happily discuss such books in the same way we could discuss any others, but we are aware that in less tolerant societies the “interpretation” of such a book would not be open to question, debate and discussion, but would be imposed as dogma with the threat of punishment to anyone who did not follow the “party-line”.

Well, that is one way in which science defines itself in terms of what it is not. Science is really a part of the Enlightenment project which can encompass the arts and indeed politics. But let’s not fool ourselves in thinking that we are close to a perfect society. Power creates a distortion of the intellectual climate, like a powerful magnet distorting an electrical field. Where big business, the wealthy, the powerful, big government, vested interests, the police, even established intellectuals and intellectual power-bases see themselves threatened by knowledge, they will seek to stifle the voices that speak against them. The media is controlled by the powerful, and journalists are too compromised to challenge it.

In one sense the limits to science are political limits. Who controls the funding of science? In whose interests does the scientific establishment operate? He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Well that was really my response to the league table of the sciences. I think anything could benefit from implementing the values of scientific investigation, not everything does.

Now, a few more thoughts on philosophy.

Philosophy doesn’t seem to me to be simply defined by abstract concepts. Take Democritus’ theory of atoms. This is just the application of common sense-experience and logic. Democritus thinks “what if I break some material into smaller and smaller parts?” The idea is, can we keep making something smaller and smaller. Again, we come to the Greek problem of infinite series.

So here a philosopher is trying to use reason and experience to come to some conclusions about the nature of the world. There are elements of science here, as there are real claims about reality (there exist these small particles that cannot be made any smaller, called “atoms”), the argument about the existence of atoms is made through reason and observation, and in fact it is possible to investigate these claims if we have the right tools.

Kant points out that in order to apprehend the world we need to use our senses, but what if there were to be some part of the universe - or some part of an object - that was not accessible to our sight, touch, hearing, smell or taste? Isn’t this a real claim and one in which we appear to be engaged today with such concepts as Dark Matter ?

Heidegger on metaphysics and language - he points out that we need language in order to think, but that each language itself has some pre-defined metaphysics within it. You are bound by the language in which you are thinking, you can’t think outside of the concepts given to you by the language you use to think. Hence it may be that some languages (German? Greek?) may give a better representation of reality, may have better assumptions about what is true and real. It may be that we need to somehow re-create our language and at least be conscious that language creates the “world” we see and think about. There appear to be real claims being made here, perhaps we could create a new language in which to think more true thoughts (although this sounds a bit like newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four).

More points about what is science. I don’t think the model is purely mathematical - it is about a metaphor to describe what is happening, this is what biology seems to do - for example using the metaphor of the pump to explain how the heart works, or using the metaphor of the solar system to describe how electrons work in an atom.

The model we use in science is also about identifying all the causes or conditions necessary to generate what we are trying to explain. Newton identified a number of conditions necessary to describe motion - he wasn’t wrong in the laws he discovered, but he hadn’t produced all the conditions necessary to say when the laws would apply. It was Einstein who produced a theory which identified when Newton’s laws of motion wouldn’t apply - conditions that Newton wasn’t aware of.

If we think of the scientific model as an expansion of conditions necessary to produce certain phenomena, then we can actually go back to literary criticism again as a possible science. Could there be a type of literary “science” which identified the conditions under which we would experience a certain emotion required by the author. In other words, if we could accept that within a novel, the author had achieved a certain emotive effect - so we feel sympathy or sadness or identified in some way with a character, and we could then try to identify how it was the author achieved that effect, it might be then possible to predict that if those conditions were met in other novels, that the same effect would be achieved, and if this was not the case then we wouldn’t have identified all the conditions, and could continue to expand and refine the conditions within a story that generated types of identification with a character.

Even mathematics is concerned with what conditions have to be true for something to happen - for something to be a fact. 1+1=2 only under certain conditions, sometimes 1+1=10, we need to know all the conditions to make something necessary.

Science therefore is about necessary events.

Complexity, magic and chance - something is random because if we measure it we discover it has a probability distribution. Tossing a coin should come up heads and tails approximately the same number of times if we measure it for long enough. Once we know the probability distribution we can work with it and anticipate the aggregate of results over a period of time. This may appear to be magic.

However there is really no difference in terms of physics between cause and effect in a complex system and a simple one. If I shove a penny into another one it will move forward. That would be easy to predict because the forces are simple. If I toss a coin it isn’t easy to predict not because different forces are operating but because of the complexity of the spin, the initial conditions of the toss and the time at which the coin in caught. So if we were able to identify all the conditions we could predict the outcome.

However when we come to human behaviour we seem to pretty much always get into complexity - and it also depends on how thoughts work - when we are thinking through a problem, working out some difficult calculation, it is the thinking brain that understands the problem, not the atoms in the brain, so somehow the thoughts are driving the physical parts of the brain in order to think. It would seem genuinely impossible here to know all the initial conditions for human behaviour to be predictable, although we can map it with probability and work out group behaviour and make theories about why groups of people behave as they do.

So there are plenty of unscientific ways of thinking and understanding the world. Even in the arts there is this division between logic, reason, evidence and dialog and some powerful groups or individuals pushing their own agenda to tell you what to think. There are limits to science, but at that point we are reaching our limits to knowledge - it isn’t as if we find a limit to science but there is some other method that can take over from here. We only have evidence, reason, dialog - all the other methods are about power and control.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
All of these discussions are well reasoned and enjoyable but skirt over the main question, which is what are the limits of science. To me, the answer is, there are none BUT there should be limits to how we, at this point in time,  go forward to learn more about the universe. This is not an esoteric point; for the first time in human history we are nearing the time when we will be able to expand our knowledge by altering who and what we are and as such, science and morality are reaching their inevitable clash. Science is amoral. As long as it benefits humanity, that amorality has been hidden from view. But it can no longer hide. Questions need to be asked. For example, should we integrate the human mind with a computer to be able to better understand the universe? Should we learn how to stop aging and make people immortal? Should we learn mind control which could in theory, stop crime and war but at the cost of stripping us of free will? Should we give people gills and thus expand where we can live and work? In essence, should we end humanity as we know it just because we can? Is there such a thing as a scientific imperative to learn at all costs?
After some thought, I have to disagree with hdhondt: "There are many levels of science." If you say that some areas are more science than others, than there's nothing to say that creationism or scientology or even astrology aren't sciences as well. They're just not so much science as math. And I totally disagree with that, seeing as none of the three mentioned are science. I maintain my point of view that psychology and sociology and the rest of the social sciences just lack maturity. Even astronomy was sketchy at first. As we progress in our findings and, more importantly, keep applying the scientific method, these sciences will become more and more reliable.

As to the limits of science themselves. For something to be able to be considered by science, it needs an unambiguous and unequivocal property, like a number or similar. It needs to be repeatable and predictable. Therefore, the limits of science are what we can apply those properties to. Which, evidently, removes from this scope everything that isn't observable and also those things which, by their very nature, aren't measurable or quantified, like justice, beauty, etc.
A short input after a crazy long day hard work preparing our exhibition stand in a big hall with international companies at a technology fair…

Is very important from what point of view you expect the answer and its interpretation: one point psychological (I believe made by Jason) or philosophical or even religious ….beside the pure scientifically one. We can notice that all may seem logical at a certain moment.

From religious point of view, particular Christian point of view, in the Bible there is a clear statement: the science will have an end. And has a meaning. But I do not want to turn the discussion into a religious or philosophical one …would be too easy.

I just ask myself sometimes: if the science will continuous evolve and its various branches develop more and more – then in the end how will be able a child that becomes adult to keep up with the quantity of information that has to assimilate in order to understand the level of the science only up to that present moment?
Will be a limit, even if we will share the info and different individuals learn different things. We hope then that we will jump into a new stage of evolution; otherwise we will be unable to go forward.
I am so tired, but the topic seems interesting, I wanted to say something else…

Before to learn in university I studied 12 years of school and I was very close to become teacher of mathematics – I liked it and my teacher recommended me to go at Mathematics University. For some personal reason I did not.
In my technical university I learned anyway more mathematics for 2-3 more years.
So, in total we may say, from zero knowledge at the age of 6, up to the age of 21-22 I learned around 15 years mathematics in schools.

In all these years, nobody, not even one professor told me that part of the mathematics that I learned have a limit.
I was astonished to find a small book of mathematics on the street (at antique store) where such idea was clear presented, but difficult for me to understand it completely.
Then I called a colleague that learned more mathematics than I, only because he studied to become teacher of mathematics and he gave me more info.

Probably part of you know about what I am speaking about: the metamathematics.
In case you do not know then you may read here some basic info:

I choose mathematics as example because is common, was a surprise for me, and is used in various branches of the science.

Then the question arrives: if that happened with a part of mathematics, why not in future with the rest of it or even with other branches of science?
nicely written violet-consomme.

Short Answer to original question.  Science is limited by:
scientific error (preconditions and method),
phenomenon which are un-observable (direct or indirectly) (agreed scientists are doing experiments to create new observational means all the time, but it is a limitation),
length of time (too long to be useful or too short to be observable),

resources to fund the method (super-colliders and space exploration are pushing these limits),
our ability to communicate effectively the results (this is a human limitation but since science serves us, this limits the usefulness of science to us)
our creativity in imagining hypotheses and things to observe.
our will to undergo rigorous experimentation and re-experimentation (touched on earlier by ... our use of past 'facts' rather than starting from first principles and doing the 20 pages of math, or reporting results to the public before they've been verified by others.)
our will to doubt everything that we think we know (Carl Jung) (again on the point that people like to fall back on 'science has proven with 100% certainty' rather than living in a slightly uncertain world where that 'one more data point' might exist that will disprove your theory with 100% certainty)
our ability to judge the usefulness of the observation, experiment, or results.  The usefulness of science is limited by this.

Further exploring 'usefulness'

We use scientific methods to find out things which may or may not be useful, but we use philosophy to think about the possible implications of these findings.

Powers that be have (in the past) limited the exposure of results because they didn't want everyone to know (Galileo.)  The powers-that-be were able to stop results, observations and experiments because of the power's self interest.  Some of this still exists in the world.

As it was pointed out, now money and lack of observable data may limit/inhibit the progress of scientific experimentation and analysis.  Some experiments are too big to do or take too much time to be useful.

Even if we can do it now ... should we do all experiments and find out as many possibilities as we can?  I can think of many unethical and really expensive experiments to do and the expense can be just as unethical as the biological experiments if it is public money ... or even if it isn't.

The question of whether we should try an experiment has been somewhat controlled by academia who decide if methods are ethical, whether the funds are available and whether the results would be possibly useful to anyone else you might share it with.

However, private citizens can do experiments and in general people around the world can if they have the tools for observation.  Whether we should ... might be determinable by a formula or heuristic, but the experiment to derive such an all encompassing formula has not been derived  yet, so we rely on our unreliable selves to determine what to do.

"Computer... is this experiment worth doing?"
Just to answer viki2000's observation: "if the science will continuous evolve and its various branches develop more and more – then in the end how will be able a child that becomes adult to keep up with the quantity of information that has to assimilate in order to understand the level of the science only up to that present moment?"

You don't have to assimilate everything. I am a computer programmer. I learned enough to create complicated software which you can then use in a computer. However, I have no idea what goes into building a computer itself. Furthermore, I don't need to know how to build a computer. I just need someone that knows how to build one and then I can work on it. Likewise, the person that knows how to build a computer doesn't have to know how to program software.
The further science evolves, the further you have to specialize. Only theoreticians have to know everything about that subject. For our professional use, we just need to know what is relevant to us. You might want to learn more, which is always advisable, but it isn't necessary.
To use a cruder example, a construction worker doesn't have to know anything about the science that goes into working with a crane. He just has to push buttons and work with levers.
Well, make sense what you say when we divide the work and knowledge.
What about when is coming a time that in order to understand a specific notion, a theory, the usage of a system....whatever...needs a preparation longer than a lifetime? I speak about that kind of future - when you may be not able to divide the work and knowledge. You just not have enough time...or capacity to assimilate/learn what the precursors have done.
That was only one point of view, very basic.

A deeper thinking (from my point of view) is when we may discover (if we will have enough time) new dimensions of the existence or new ("pessimistic") laws which will clear state/prove the limits for different science branches similar with  Godel theorems. Will be no more philosophical debates except those generated by non-believers which in fact will be people unable to understand those "theorems" - will be a kind of religion.
In fact we can see similar behavior today when we just look on internet for "perpetuum mobile" experiments, "free energy", and people that did not learn or want to learn basic physics as second law of thermodynamics...
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
Thanks, ropenner, for a definitive list of the "limits" of science. But I think the question is somewhat semantic. After all, let's say you were asking if there are limits to the speed a car can go. Most of ropenner's points could be applied but like Zeno's Paradox, can be passed right by. The real question, I think, is whether, given absolutely unlimited funds, time and brainpower, there is a limit to science, i.e., we can learn all there is to learn about time and all the possible dimensions under its domain. And this is the hub of the matter: For I think there is a limit to what we, as we exist now, can understand about these things. Note that is not a limit of science but of us, and it is this limit that will have to be bridged to get to further knowledge. And it is this limit at which I begin to feel put in the position of Gallileo's questioners; part of me feeling that changing the scientist, by genetic and cybernetic means, to learn more, is ethically and morally wrong.
Ethics and morality, in my opinion, have no bearing on science. Science is merely knowledge. What we do with it is indifferent to science. The knowledge itself isn't ruled by morals or ethics. It's our actions that are ruled by this abstract code that we developed and which is constantly changing (for example, it was morally wrong to hold hands in public not that long ago).
A knife isn't ethically or morally wrong. It's someone taking that knife and killing someone that is. So, you might wish to apply some moral code to the applications science is used in (though, oddly enough, the only polemical discoveries are the ones that are supposedly good, like stem cell research, and never the ones that are supposedly bad, like biological warfare research), but you can never apply it to science itself or the knowledge it brings.

Mostly, what we assume to be ethically and morally wrong in science is just what is new and we're not used to. We don't understand it yet and we're afraid of it. Thus, as humans always do with what they fear, they try to suppress it. For example, a heart transplant was something of a scandal at first. However, for the most part, you do them every day now without any thought about morality.

Ethics and morals evolve. They are, mostly, on the whole, just what is accepted by the majority of the population. Then there are personal codes of ethics, which might (and usually does) clash with the more broad and general understanding we have of them. Most of the time, what happens is that, as science discovers something, people are slowly swayed to it, a few at a time, until it is accepted by the majority, at which time it stops being frowned upon. You've seen this happen many times in the past and, undoubtedly, will see it many more in the future. Man, as a whole, resists change. Even if it is for the better, Mankind will fight change until most are convinced that it's either for the best, or that it's here to stay.

To see just how much morals change, just look at homosexuality and how many times in the past it's been morally wrong or morally accepted, usually depending on which religion was dominant at the time. You'll find that it keeps swinging back and forth.

As such, it can never hold any sway over science, other than in a temporary basis. Science is unstoppable. And that is because Mankind is innately curious. The day we stop being curious about what we don't know, our species will die out. At most, science can be repressed for a certain period of time, like the Catholic Church did during the Dark Ages and the Inquisition periods. But morals, or ethics, can never really apply to science. Just to the people, and people change over time.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
A knife, or the production of same, may not be ethically or morally wrong but I posit that a button created and sold which, if pressed, could destroy the universe, IS ETHICALLY AND MORALLY WRONG. It is nonsense to say ethics and morality can never hold any sway over science. Of course they can. We aren't (yet!) slaves to the imperatives of science and to pretend we are is simply to be like the two year old who wants to keep tossing chemicals into a becker to see what happens because the search for knowledge is fun. As for that old half truth that the Church repressed science, it did, but don't forget it was also the protector of same in many instances. Yes, the ignorant and the scared will often repress science but that "guilt by association" argument doesn't hold sway when we are talking about pursuing that science which would forever alter if not destroy what it means to be human.
Building a button that could destroy the universe is NOT what science does. Einstein didn't create an atom bomb. His theories weren't ethical or morally wrong. What the military then applied is knowledge to is what is morally wrong. However, you don't see many people worried about nuclear energy as much as they used to. A bit more now, since the Japan leak, but mostly they worry that our security measures aren't enough, not that we have to abandon nuclear energy altogether (some say so, but they are a minority).
No scientist would create a button that could destroy the universe. Even the CERN supper collider, if that's what you're referring to, is safer than most daily activities. The theoretical chance of ever creating a black hole was much more infinitesimal than of you dying going home because a piano fell on your head.

Also, keep in mind that ethics and moral are always relative. They are never an absolute. To the western civilization, there is no doubt whatsoever that mutilating little girl's genitals are morally wrong. We even find it highly offensive. However, in many cultures it is viewed as, not only morally right, but morally imperative. Many of the notions that we have as morally right or wrong depend on your culture and/or religion, as well as your education and pretty much all your experiences up to the present.
Just because you feel you are superior, or more civilized, or more enlightened, or more holy, doesn't mean you are morally right over those that have a different set of morals. That has always been the cause for many wars and conflicts.

It is true that religion sometimes fostered science, but only ever to the extent where it didn't interfere with faith. Anything that might, in any way, minimize the role of God would be suppressed as blasphemous. You even see it today, with Darwin's evolution still being held as blasphemous by most religions.

Just exactly does it mean to be human? Is having a prosthetic hand less human? Is having a pacemaker less human? Is having someone else's heart less human? Is curing someone's blindness less human? Is surgery to cure disease less human? Are we only human when we are left untouched by science at all? What about scientific appliances? Are we less human when we use them? Are we less human when we drive a car instead of walking? Or use a cell phone? Or watch TV? Where do you draw the line on what is human or not? More importantly, because these ideologies always come to it, where do you draw the line on when your fellow man is human or not?

No one knows exactly what it means to be human. It is more than the physical aspect, that much we all agree on. It might even be that it is only that which is more than the physical that defines us. Maybe all that matters is your brain, your intellect. Maybe it's just our soul. Again, we are dealing with something that is ever changing. To the primitive man, we wouldn't be "human". Humans live in the wild and eat from the land. We are nothing if not adaptable. And that adaptability has changed the way we think and look at the world and even how we act towards it.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
Hm, so science doesn't create destructive things. Then what does, magic? To me, the theoretical part of science would be like a gun and the engineering/practical part of science would be like the bullet. You need both to shoot and kill someone. By your logic, a gun manufacturer could excuse selling his guns to gangbangers, drug dealers and lunatics (if that isn't redundant) by saying he isn't selling them any bullets.

You are right of course that morality is always shifting but at some point human beings do have the right to ask if it has to be this way? Are you saying we can never decide THIS is what it means to be human? This is what it means to be ethical? That because some future beings will have different definitions of these things, we can't decide we don't want to evolve or create these things we MIGHT become? I am sorry but I know we might evolve into those creatures from Alien but I certainly would not fund the research that would get us there. I think of science as a river and we can decide which way we want the river to flow. If some future generations what to make different decisions, that is their right but we can't just throw up our hands, say science is inevitable, and do nothing. We can't ceed our conceptions of present morality to some future version since we ARE in the present and so our morality rules. Yes, wars have been fought over this but so what? Wars have been fought over everything.

Oh, and I love your certainty that no scientist would ever create a button to destroy the universe. Tell that to victims of the "scientists" at Dachau. Monsters can wear a white coat and certainly there are such monsters. I know that there are biological agents created by scientists, one teaspoon of which can kill a million people. What are the peaceful applications of such? Must science, theoretical and practical, be amoral?
Science creates a theory. Like I said, Einstein didn't invent the atom bomb. He invented a purely theoretical model of how the universe works. Man then decided to use it in practical terms. Some came up with good technology, others with destructive technology. But Einstein's theory in itself isn't destructive. That was just the use that was made of it.

The theory that guns don't kill people, people kill people, has been used for a long time. It's currently the pet slogan of american gun defenders. I can't say I agree with them, and for exactly the same reasons. People kill people, therefore they shouldn't have guns. But that is merely my opinion. To my moral code, it seems to be correct. To theirs, it doesn't. Right now, the majority of people in many american states are in favor of having guns (or many don't care either way to affect the outcome) and thus they can. If american moral compass shifts, maybe they can't in the future. At that time, having guns will be immoral.
However, guns themselves aren't destructive. You can use them to protect yourself from a wild animal, for example. It's a fact of life that people will use anything to every end they can think of. If you can use it, you can, and will, abuse it.

The peaceful applications of a biological agent that can kill a million people are, for example, finding a way to avoid such a thing. Also, by studying how that agent works, you can develop cures for other types of agents, like cancerous ones. It doesn't always happen this way, but that is because the first use Man can think of to new scientific advances is warfare. That is a failure of man, not science.
Science, the theoretical part, is amoral. Science, the practical part, is subject to the morals of its time. Many things are forbidden at some time, only to be accepted some years later, like medical transplants and prosthetics.

Morals never take into account what we might become. It cares only about what we are. Usually, morals are, in fact, against change, because morality is basically what we view as right or wrong, in a larger (Humanity) or smaller (family) group. Often these collide. We view things as morally right or wrong in a national scope which we would view as opposite if applied to a family scope.
Science, the practical part, might create things that people view as immoral or unethical. They are then forbidden and they aren't forced on people until it has been decided it is morally right to do so, that is, when most people think it's right to do so. Even then, most of the time you have a choice to refuse it. There are people that refuse transplants and prosthetics because they believe it is offensive to God, or just their personal aesthetic sense of morals.

Nevertheless, science exists to provide an alternative to those that chose to use it, once it has been approved by the significant majority. Usually, there is no option to use it before that, even when someone wants to do it and might even save lives with it. Therefore, like I said initially, science is limited by morality only temporarily. Science, the theoretical part, isn't bound by morals. It isn't even affected by it. They exist in different worlds. It's only the practical part which is subject to it, and only because the people that create it and use it are subject to it.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
I compliment you on a great reply. The only place where I would disagree with you is when you say "Science, the practical part, might create things that people view as immoral or unethical. They are then forbidden and they aren't forced on people until it has been decided it is morally right to do so, that is, when most people think it's right to do so." This is exactly the same way those who most benefit from the Capitalist system talk about Capitalism, that it is amoral BUT is self-correcting and so ends up being moral. Both are wrong. Just as Capitalism isn't self-correcting, neither is science. Many things people view as immoral or unethical are not forbitten, except, possibly, in the form of social pressures. The driving force behind most practical applications of science is money. And I guarantee you that if I offered fifty billion dollars for a virus that could wipe out humanity, there would be a few scientists who'd attempt it. By your standards, the "pure" research one group of theoretical scientists did which these scientists would use to develop this virus would have no blame. The universe may not be bound by morals but theoretical research (which you seem to be defining science as) can and should be.
If we were to remove the human from the 'dance' that would be an interesting philosophical thing.  Then we as humans would not be the ones necessarily following the steps or even coming up with the experiments possibly, then anything could be observed and experimented on, and the 'truth' found.  The robot/computer/hypothetical experimenter could use the steps of science to do anything ... with some exceptions.  

NOTE:  The definitions of science and experimentation indicate to me the implied involvement of humans in science with the use of such words and phrases as 'the testing of ideas', 'the act of conducting a controlled', 'knowledge'.  I also realize that these could be phrases that anthropomorphize machines 'doing' the same things.

unobservable things.  Noted... if these become observable sometime in the future I'd be happy to remove these limits, but I tried to pick things that I don't think right now, based on the evidence of all truths, will be knowable by science, ever.

things outside the measurable universe or outside the physics of this universe, but not all such things.  Only such things whose effects cannot be indirectly measured in this universe.  As with the initial article posted in the question.  If the effects of some force: telepathy, could be measured indirectly and if that force was not a part of the physically measurable universe (which I can imagine) then it could be experimented upon.

things lost in time like how someone felt about something or how they perceived it in the past.  I cannot currently imagine how this would work but perhaps one day we'll be able to see backwards to even before the beginning of this universe, not only theoretically but in some other way.

you cannot know anything with 100% (no rounding) certainty using science.  There is always the possibility of another data point outside your dataset.

The article about Dawkins posted in the question is something I encounter with my 'scientist' friends who do not doubt, and are not curious.  They are happy to 'know' what they know and are not curious about things outside of the experiments already done.

It seems to always be in a response to the irrational unmoving beliefs of others and I think it is ironic that they think they need to take a similar approach to their rational beliefs in order to 'combat' the irrational:  similar to Richard Dawkins in the article.

It is irrational, to me, to think that anything is known with 100% (no rounding) certainty.

It occurred to me that, if you add humans back into the science equation, ultimately everything is knowable and no limits exist, but that is only because of my rational/irrational belief that we have 'free will' (in all its senses).  I believe this requires that there is something about us that is outside the physics of the universe but we as humans have access to it.

A machine doing experiments would then need access to our consciousness which I don't believe will ever be possible, since I think it is outside the physics of this universe.


I added this last piece in here because I realized that some people will already have concluded that everything could be knowable through science with no limits if there is truth to existence of a soul with us, and that soul is not bound by our universe.
Obviously, money is the driving force behind most practical science. But money is often dependent on morality. While it's moral for a government to openly spend billions to research warfare weapons, usually with the excuse of never wanting to use it but only wanting to discourage, cloning is immoral (at this time). As such, there are no government grants for this end. There are always a few places where you can find support, usually a different part of the globe where morality is different, and for some purposes you can always find some nutjobs that will try to develop something or other despite being against rules and morals. But that is, fundamentally and from a morality standpoint, no different than having drug cartels, weapon dealing mafias, etc. There will always be people that work outside the law and outside accepted morality. Whether they apply science or not is, for the purposes of our debate, irrelevant.

Morals are shifty at best. As a general rule, most of humanity say that it's immoral to kill another human being. But there are exceptions. Some say it's not immoral if it's a criminal. Some say it's not immoral if it's from another ethnicity. Some say it's not immoral if it's from a different religion. Or if they don't believe in God. Or if they do.
And even if you do agree that it's immoral to kill a human being, what about killing 1 to save 10? Or killing an old man to save a baby? Or maybe killing an ugly man so a beautiful one can live? Or a stupid man so an intelligent one can live? Or many other combinations of choices which are never good. You are forced to chose between what you consider the lesser of two evils, but they aren't always the same for all. Morals can never be absolute because they change too much depending on the scope, or even the situation to which it is applied.

I'm not saying science is just theoretical. I'm just saying that theoretical science is, in a way, the "pure" form of science. In itself, it has no application in the real world except to tell you how and why things happen. The practical part then uses it to ends which may or may not be beneficial to Mankind. It's the free choice issue that we keep running into.

Again, to use Einstein's example: He cannot be blamed for the atom bomb. He merely pointed at the universe and said: "Behold. It works this way. Mass is energy." And then Man came and built a bomb. He himself was horrified by it and thoroughly opposed it. He was no more guilty of it then was the first man who said 1+1=2. The only guilty people of it are the government, the military and the scientists involved in the project. And usually scientists will pursue a course of action which seems detrimental to mankind, in hopes that they might use it to benefit mankind. Sadly, it's a well known fact that you have a lot more money and conditions to research something if there are military applications for it. However, from many of those military researches you then developed crucial technologies to life today, like X-rays, ultrasounds, prosthetics, etc. They all developed from some military project or other (radars, robotics and more). But it is only to the practical part of science that the morality of its era and culture can be applied.

E=mc2 isn't immoral in any way. You finding out how stars are born isn't immoral in any way. You finding out what composes the core of our planet isn't immoral. Picking those and transforming them into death rays or mind control devices or other (for now, imaginary (I hope)) devices is (currently) immoral. As such, society itself sort of regulates this (though usually not well, because Man is flawed and will usually fight harder for small things that are closer to him than bigger things that are too remote). Not only because, if a society's morals, that is, what most of its people accept as right, dictate that a certain form of science is immoral, then not only will it become difficult to fund (and in some cases, may even become illegal. Just look at all the fuss with southern american states and Darwin vs creationism in public schools), it will also attract less people to investigate it. It will always attract some, but not as many as otherwise would happen. It is flawed, but not because of science, or even of morality, but because of Man himself.
You cannot really know what can or will ever be possible to be measured. Right now, you can't measure telepathy, pretty much like you can't measure beauty or honesty or even truth. But you can't ever know that maybe there's something that actually causes this and will therefore, in the future, be measurable. For example, imagine beauty is simply a case of counting the amount of neurons you have that fire simultaneously in a certain direction at a certain stimulus. Then you might be able to measure beauty for each individual. Maybe even find something that defines it for masses of men. Likewise for morality. These are abstract ideas to us, and it seems they can never be observable, but at some point, so were atoms. And black holes. And the big bang.

I agree that you can never know something to 100% certainty. There is always some doubt. Even regarding the speed of light there is space for doubt (that it's the fastest thing possible, not what speed it has). Science will accept a theory as fact when there are overwhelming odds that it's correct. Likewise, it will reject theories that aren't as probable until such a time as they are proven to be more reliable.

No true scientist ever holds anything to 100% certainty. They would only go so far as to say that, in light of what we know today, something has 100% certainty (with no rounding). If you roll a die, it will land between 1-6 (assuming a six sided die and a flat surface that prevents crooked dice). Maybe in the future we'll learn some technique that will allows us to manipulate this in a way that it will land with a 7, or a 100, or a googolplex. But, for now, we have to say that the odds are 100% that it will land between 1-6. Likewise, regarding current knowledge, it's 100% certain that we circle the sun, which in turn circles a black hole at the center of our galaxy. Maybe we'll be proven wrong in the future. In fact, given science's history, it's most likely. But for now, we're as certain of some facts as we can be.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
I think we need to define responsibility (easy, right?!) You're correct Einstein is not morally responsible for the Atomic bomb. But that certainly does does not absolve all scientists from blame. For example, you seem to be implying that just because the science is not engineering-based (a neater way to describe it than practical, which is subjective) it is a purely mental exercise and so has no moral component. Certainly, the Nazi scientists who were conducting "pure" observational research on prisoners are in a far different moral universe than cosmologists observing quarks. And if a scientist calmly observes a fire so he can determine how long it takes to consume a building it when he should be pouring water on the damn thing, he can't be said to be absolved from all blame since his motives are scientific. Yes, in the future, these things might be considered moral but that doesn't matter. We can make statements NOW that are, for us, moral absolutes. Does it matter to us that in a universe 10 to the trillion power years from now, the speed of light is four hundred thousand miles a second? No. My point is that we set our own "speeds of light" which is that you never conduct torture on prisoners to use in determining how much cold they can take and you never sell nukes to terrorists to fund a terra-forming project on Mars and you never disassemble a living human mind so you can see what would allow you to control it. The thing about saying you can't stop science is that it allows people to say you shouldn't try, not matter what they might be researching.
forgot to answer the second part of the question.

Science should be given no power.

Rationality: science does not have a way (yet) to judge whether it is serving us as we wish and since science is our tool (now) we will need to tell it how to serve us best.  Science still needs us at both ends of the experiment to come up with a useful experiment and to interpret the results in a way that is useful to us.

If, like in the Isaac A. book/movie 'i robot' we decide that it may be best to give that power, to know what is in our best interest, over to a purely rational scientific machine, then that is a choice we might actually make.   Ahhhh, no more of that difficult thinking :)  In the book/movie the people didn't really like the choices made by 'science', so perhaps 'science' doesn't know anything, but it only a method for us to know something.
For me, the difference between a scientist and a ordinary person is not very much. Both are engaged in problem solving, and both employ a process which is very similar. Another thing they both have in common is that they both want the result of their endeavours to have some practical or survival value. The result must have a use.

In this sense, science is no more than an extension and refinement of what all animals on this planet do - engage in problem solving. Humans are especailly good at this, and the result of their problem solving is the aquisition and classification of conceptual knowledge based on empirical observation. Science is just a formalised, standardised way of doing this.

Therefore, for me, the question for me could be "what are the limitations of knowledge? Sometimes, I wonder what people are talking about when the use the word "science".
When you say "science should be given no power", what do you mean? Who would be giving what to what? When you say "science" needs us, it almost implies some kind of entity! Sometimes, it seems almost like we personalise science, in a similar way to how we personlise God.
"We can make statements NOW that are, for us, moral absolutes"
This is completely wrong. There isn't a single statement you can make now and get everyone to agree it's an absolute. Your examples condemn themselves.
You never conduct torture on prisoners. However, many feel it's moral, if there's a higher good to come of it. Or if the person being tortured is immoral. If you can torture one person and save thousands of lives, is it immoral? What if you don't torture someone and condemn thousands of lives, is that moral?
You shouldn't sell nukes to terrorists to fund terra-forming on mars. Not only would some countries be ok with that, they actually do that just for money. Western and eastern countries sell weapons indiscriminately for decades and centuries to other countries, including enemy ones.
You're thinking of morality from your viewpoint only. But don't forget that, in many eastern countries, it's not immoral to stone people to death. Or, even in western civilizations, that it's not immoral to condemn someone to be executed (being stoned to death isn't really morally different than gassing them or hanging them).
Two people can never agree on morality. Whether they disagree on small things, like if it's moral to step on grass, or on big things, like abortion, there will always be differences. Nothing that is abstract can ever be an absolute.

As I said before, what we call morality varies depending on the scope and the situation. What we feel is morally correct for our home, we might not feel morally correct for our nation, or vice versa.

Science is always just a tool. Nothing more than that. You can use it to create good things or bad things, or you can even simply never use it. That is the choice of the people and it's usually bound by morality and other issues. However, science, in itself, isn't. Again, picking Einstein's example, E=mc2 isn't immoral. He just said that this is the way things work. Then someone came and said, I can use this to build a bomb that kills millions. And that is the person that is to blame, not Einstein. Likewise, someone came along and said, I can use this to create a cheap power source. And that is the person to congratulate, not Einstein.
Likewise, I can come along and say: "A knife can cut through things". Someone then comes and says, "A knife can cut through flesh and kill people". I'm not to blame for saying that the knife cuts things. It does. It's the truth. Science, is only interested in the pursuit of truth. What you do with it, now that is a whole other issue. But what you're defending is, ultimately, that truth isn't moral. We shouldn't know the truth. It can be used for bad things. And on that, I have to completely disagree. Truth is always good. The problem is that we are flawed beings and misuse it all the time.

Science has no power. Like I said, it's simply a tool. Your example from the movie (which has very little to do with the book, which is a collection of short stories) isn't really applicable because you're not talking about science having power. You're talking about organizations that use science having power. Likewise, religions have no power. It's the organizations (churches) that have it. But the religion itself, the dogma, has no more power than what people give it.
Science can never have power. How can mathematics have power? Does the Fibonacci sequence have any power? Does the gravity law have any power? Do the theory of relativity or quantum physics have power? Power is always in the hands of men, not ideas.

What you are trying to say (I think) is that people that use science shouldn't have power. I can't say I agree or disagree with that. I don't think it's applicable as a general rule, just like it can't be applied to religious people. In the past, you've had religious leaders who did good and some who didn't. Likewise for political minds. The problem is not with ideas, but with individuals using (or misusing, or abusing) those ideas.
Personally, I think the only correct application of power would have to be some sort of balance between most powers and it should be flushed frequently. Any type of system is subject to entropy, and politics isn't an exception. But I don't think power should be held exclusively by a religious body, nor by a political body, nor by a scientific body, nor by an economic body. Each is usually too focused on itself, when not in downright antagonism (again, because of the flaws of men, not the ideas themselves).

I agree that the scientist feels that the result must have a use. But it doesn't have to be what we consider as having a use. Mostly, theoretical scientists only want to find out how things work. The use they want for their theories is simply: "Look. It works this way. Use this and find out how further things work." Then other scientists come to find out practical uses for this, and those are the ones that can use that tool for various applications.
Mostly, theoretical scientists only want to find out how things work. The use they want for their theories is simply: "Look. It works this way. Use this and find out how further things work." Then other scientists come to find out practical uses for this, and those are the ones that can use that tool for various applications.

That's still definite use. Without such a use, a theory can be wild and irrelevant.
Something being irrelevant doesn't mean it's less true. If you want to find out how something works that has no application in anything else, you are free to do so. In the end, all you can say is how that works and have no further use for it. However, you did achieve something, even if it will never be used by anyone else.
I can write a book and then burn it. The book might be a great piece of art, but it's irrelevant because it was never used. However, I did write it. It existed and was done. It's usefulness is null. But that doesn't mean it was any less than it was.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
"What we call morality varies depending on the scope and the situation. What we feel is morally correct for our home, we might not feel morally correct for our nation, or vice versa." What you are basically proposing is Moral Relativism. And obviously you can believe it but that doesn't make it true (irony intended). Just because people say 'we live on a planet of shifting sands so we shouldn't build a solid house' I can build a solid house. Yes, people have different opinions on what is moral but we can decide, as Americans for example, what OUR ABSOLUTE MORALITY is, no matter what other countries or peoples might say. And more importantly, act true to these morals. To bring the issue back to science, we can say that we won't fund or sanction research into mind control, even if there might be beneficial uses of it (like stopping murders and rapes or curing Parkinson's). We can say we won't fund or sanction research into cloning. It doesn't matter if private individuals  or other countries do it, we still have the right do decide if we do it. Science is amoral but we don't have to be amoral or immoral to use science.
That never works as an absolute. I give you an example:
It's pretty much a worldwide conviction that taking a life is immoral. As a whole, humanity holds it as immoral. However, there are ALWAYS exceptions for some situations.
You have people that are killed in self defence. Or in defence of others. These aren't viewed as immoral killings.
You have people that are executed because of crimes they have (hopefully) committed. Americans, as a whole, can't agree on whether it's moral or not to do so.

Likewise, there are always situations where it becomes morally right to do what otherwise wouldn't be moral. To use your example, suppose there is an outbreak of some virus that affects the mind. 80% of the people in America are affected by it and will die in 6 months unless mind control research is developed. You can be sure that it wouldn't take more than a couple days to allow it (and also to reveal that the government or military have been working on it all along, regardless of morality).

You can never take morality as an absolute. The most you can do is seize a moment and define it according to the morality of the time. Mostly, people will view things as moral when they need them. Again, with your example, if the percentage of murders, rapes or people with Parkinson were to climb higher, the moral ban would be lifted. People (as a group) view things as morally wrong only when if either affects them negatively, or doesn't affect them at all.

In either case, to the ends of this discussion, you yourself ended up agreeing with me:
"Science is amoral but we don't have to be amoral or immoral to use science."
That is a limitation of men, not of science. Also, not being able to research into mind control won't stop science. It will just develop other ways to achieve the same end. If one road to truth is blocked, there are many more to take.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
"It's pretty much a worldwide conviction that taking a life is immoral. As a whole, humanity holds it as immoral. However, there are ALWAYS exceptions for some situations."

The problem is you are assuming an absolute law must be a simple declarative sentence like "Thou shall not kill". In the real world, the wording of the actual absolute law would include those exceptions that are generally accepted like self defense or declared war. Just because standards change doesn't mean there can't be standards. To me "absolute" means they are inviolate until legal procedures are followed to change them. It is the same in science: You accept the speed of light is "this" until future measurements show you it is "that".

This same applies to your statement that "Not being able to research into mind control won't stop science. It will just develop other ways to achieve the same end. If one road to truth is blocked, there are many more to take." You are in essense telling the 300 Spartans, "Hey, you can't beat that army so stand aside!" The whole point is to NOT stand aside, not whether you are going to stop the flood.
I believe you aren't talking about morality but simply about law. Law is absolute and inviolate. It contemplates exceptions and various situations that may arise. Not so with morality. For example, look at abortion. All over the world different governments either consider it legal or illegal. That is absolute and inviolate. However, morally the people are divided. Some consider it moral, others immoral. The law was simply created at a time when most people considered it immoral (or, which happens more often, when most people with power consider it immoral). It won't be changed until such a time as most people consider it moral. Or vice versa for those that allow it. Same for homosexuality, right to bear arms, death penalty, etc.
The laws created are absolute. Morality is never absolute. What you probably mean is the majority. Absolute means unrestricted, unconditional. That is unachievable in any larger group.
Also, I'm not saying that you should stand aside. You can try to stamp science with morality, as has been seen plenty of times in the past. I'm just saying that it doesn't limit science, merely delays it, as has been seen plenty of times in the past.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
You are right. I am talking about law. But, to stretch an analogy perhaps to the breaking point, couldn't you say morality is to legality as pure science is to practical science? I think the only real argument we have is that of whether we should put up moral barriers to scientific research. I say we should. You say we shouldn't but imply only pragmatically since those barriers are doomed. So my questions are: 1) Do you believe, irregardless as to whether they are enforceable, that we should put up such barriers, 2) have a right to put up such barriers or 3) Because they are probably futile, such barriers should never be erected?
1) I believe that such barriers are necessary. Some areas in science are dangerous to be left unrestricted. The practical applications of it can be disastrous. Until such a time as we can control those areas better, they are better left as restricted. However, they should never be completely stopped. They should be allowed to continue with various restrictions, like, for example, no testing on humans until we are certain, or reasonably so, of the effects.

2) I have no idea if we have a right to do so. The only way to know if we had a right to do so was to know, for certain, what would happen if we didn't. Then you could compare them both and see which was right. Since we can't, we can only assume that what we do is for the best, especially knowing humans as only humans can. The problem is that many people that decide this have ulterior motives, mostly lobbies and corrupt agendas, which can needlessly hamper science. But, once again, that is a failure of Man.

3) I don't think it is futile. Putting a break on practical science is often not only necessary, but actually useful. It happens quite often that, seeing as scientists aren't allowed to do certain things, they find other ways of achieving what they wish. And I don't mean simply doing some other unlawful thing. I mean, finding an accepted way of achieving the same result. For theoretical science, this is even more so.

In the end, moral barriers should put in place because people aren't ready for something. They are like a child with a new toy. They will misuse it until they break it, or harm themselves. Once they grow (regarding that certain area or technology), they are then allowed freer access to it, because they understand better the consequences of their actions. This doesn't always happen, as we keep seeing gruesome things being used, mostly in warfare and such.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
Neat! We agree. The only place of argument left has to do with timing. I've been arguing that the genie be stopped at conception (the research); you believe it be stopped with a cork in the bottle after being formed (the construction). Yours actually is more practical but it is worrisome because letting the genie grow you never know if it is going to be too big for the cork to hold :)
I believe we are in agreement, but maybe not on the cause of concern. I'm not concerned much about mind control research, or stem cell research, or cloning. I believe there are way more things to be gained by them than not. I'm mostly concerned with destructive research (and I don't mean CERN, which is inoffensive). This is mostly generated by the military (though not exclusively), uncontrolled by anyone except themselves. Most of the time, we don't even know what they're doing. I believe that this has led to more harm than good in the past and it's not likely to change.
Something being irrelevant doesn't mean it's less true

If you can make it fit observations, then it must have some truth in it, yet I find it hard to imagine any such theory that does not have a practical use. If it does not have a pratical use, then it is little more than a fanciful inllustration.

There are lots of theories by amateur scientists that fall into this category. For example, the WSM theory of standing waves. Very intresting fringe theory but entirely useless.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
"I'm mostly concerned with destructive research"

You are right except that scientific discoveries can't be targeted precisely. This can often be a good thing (see any of dozens of accidental discoveries) but is also worrisome.  I can imagine a team researching alzheimer's (a totally worthwhile pursuit) and finding a simple harmonic combination that allows for mind control. Play these subsonic frequencies over an enemy battlefield and you can order the troops to kill themselves. Or I can imagine research into cloning that discovers the way to allow telemeres to live forever, thus ensuing both almost eternal life for those who can afford it but the death of humanity as we know it. We can't stop most "pure"research but we can put in place things that hinder the development of its practical uses.

I am an optimist on the micro level but a pessimist on the macro level. I believe the reason we've never gotten any hint of intelligent life in the universe is because you can't control research and, at some point, all races reach the point where they do discover the button (see my comment a few feet up from here!) that can be pressed to destroy their entire race. I think our only hope is to put into place things that hinder the development of certain concepts until we evolve to the point that we won't suicide. What we block is a far more important question than whether science is limitless.
"the death of humanity as we know it"
I'm not too worried about that. Hopefully, in the future, we won't be like we are now. We need to keep evolving and getting better and better, either as individuals and as a species. As I said before, a caveman would barely consider us human. Probably someone from the dark ages would consider heart transplants or other "artificial" means of healing to be inhuman. Likewise, I hope that 100 years from now we are different from what we are today.

As for the intelligent life self destructing itself, I don't see it that way. The way I see it is that the conditions that need to be set up aren't very common. Now, in a vastly massive and possibly infinite universe, that would mean that there are many intelligent races out there. However, distances are way too big. The reason we never got any hint of intelligent life is because they are simply too far away to be detected. Not only that, but if there's an intelligent race, right now, in a galaxy 10 million light years away, that means that, even if it did focus on this little corner of the universe, it would only receive information from 10 million years ago. Man wasn't even around at that time. And the reverse might also be true.

[...]I realized that some people will already have concluded that everything could be knowable through science with no limits if there is truth to existence of a soul with us, and that soul is not bound by our universe.

This is a thought provoking comment, and this is what it provoked in me:

Knowing is reflecting. The mind is some kind of reflecting mechanism, in part. A reflector must have a structure, and that structure is made of the same stuff that the rest of the universe is made of. As an analogy, think of a normal mirror -- and what we have is part of the universe reflecting another part of the universe - in other words a divsion, a duality. Reflector and reflected. In order to reflect more, it would seem that the reflector would need to develop and grow. If the reflector and reflected grow together like this it means that an intrinsic divsion remains between known and unknown, regardless of how much our empirical knowledge grows. Therefore, can everything really be known? Not by this path, it would seem, because the mechanism of knowing remains unknown!

I would be interested to hear some feedback on this thought.


I can write a book and then burn it. The book might be a great piece of art, but it's irrelevant because it was never used. However, I did write it. It existed and was done. It's usefulness is null. But that doesn't mean it was any less than it was.

Now that you brought up the subject of art, perhaps we could define science as a model or reflection of truth that has a practical utility value, and art as merely an observation or projection of a universal structure but one which is quite useless?

Sometimes, when I read about a certain theory - for example string theory - I feel the theory has more to do with art than with science! I mean, if it can't be "proved" and it has no practical value, then all it has is a structure, and that sounds like a reasonable definition of Art - for all it's numbers and formulae.
String theory, for now, is just that. A theory. It is assumed that is has a high enough probability of being true, which is why it's science. Otherwise it would be shot down and rejected and never considered again.
Science doesn't have to have a use. The main concern of science is to find out how things work. Is to look at things and know the underlying truth of its mechanisms. It doesn't really care if it will ever be used again. All it cares is to find out what makes the universe tick.
Then along comes engineering and all other practical types of science, which pick up things that theoretical science came up with and tries to find a use for it.

Art, on the other hand, is mostly about how our mind works. It isn't useless either, but, like science, it isn't concerned about being useful. Art is about causing reactions. Because art is abstract, it only affects the abstract part of ourselves, whether you call it id, ego, soul, heart, etc. We all agree that there is something more, whether we consider it natural, supernatural or extra-natural.

As for the first issue, I don't think we can ever know everything. We can know everything we know of, but there will always be a chance that there is something more that we don't even know exists. As has been pointed before, and that is my opinion on the original question, science is only limited by what we can observe and measure. If we know it's there, sooner or later we will know everything about it. But there may be something always beyond what we can observe, either macro or micro.
this is off topic but,

If the mind can turn inward and thus change the reflection to be an inward reflection then I think how people describe enlightenment or knowing all about the universe, is possible.  If the reflection remains outward, I think you are right, the mind will always produce a slightly warped and less than accurate reflection of; the truth of all that is.

If the global unconscious is the light and the truth of the universe accessing that can be imagined as 'looking backwards into your head' rather than out through your eyes.

I imagine each of us like Krishna: the child within whom you can see the entire universe.

Another similar idea out of a recent author's interview on the Colbert Report (Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer), is that creativity and innovative ideas (truth of possibilities not yet manifested) are arrived at through dreaming (unconscious) in the light of day rather than outward focus on the problem or staring at your screen.  He talks about the creations of connections.

This can be fit into your analogy as the mirror crystallizing as it grows to reflect a new truth not yet born, conceived in the unconscious mind.  Then we bring the idea into the conscious mind by reflecting outwardly and make it manifest into reality ... or is it the dream.
Give me an example of a scientific fact or theory that is not useful, so I can drop this.
If the mind can turn inward and thus change the reflection to be an inward reflection then I think how people describe enlightenment or knowing all about the universe, is possible.  If the reflection remains outward, I think you are right, the mind will always produce a slightly warped and less than accurate reflection of; the truth of all that is.

Thanks. Even then, I do not think it is possible to know ulitmately what we are, because we, as observer, can never observe the observer, and so we remain the ultimate, insoluable mystery. But your are right, this is off topic. My previous post referring only to empirical knowledge - scientific knowledge.

String theory, for now, is just that. A theory. It is assumed that is has a high enough probability of being true, which is why it's science. Otherwise it would be shot down and rejected and never considered again

I think you might find that few will agree to the idea that string theory is science. Mathematics, yes, but science no, because string theory cannot be tested. It cannot be falsified.

In a sense, one could say that string theory is just an elaborate work of mathematicial "art".
Of course it can be falsified. We just don't have ways of testing things properly yet, though we are taking steps towards it. The fact that there isn't much that we can do yet to test it is why it remains as a theory opposite to wave theory. Besides, Mathematics is the purest of sciences.

Which leads me to the part of useless science. If you take them for what they are, most of Mathematics or Physics are useless when seen just for themselves. We find ways of making them work for us, but, for itself, knowing that a black hole is a star that suffered x force with y mass along with other factors and thus collapsed on itself, it's kinda useless. Or that the derivative of X^2 is 2X. In itself, it's a useless fact. It is only useful when you take a few more and apply it in certain ways.

Now, it's true that we find a use to all our knowledge. But that doesn't mean that useless knowledge won't ever exist.
A theory that proposes a bunch of hypothetical dimensions that we have no way of observing is going to be hard to prove wrong - rather like God.

As far as I know, string theory so far has failed to produced predictions that can be tested in a laboratory.

I don't see why any more credence should be given to such a conjectural theory than to WSM theory, which is heavily descredited.
I'm not a physicist to explain why one should be taken into account over the other. I have only some general knowledge on both theories, and even then it's very limited. To my point of view, though, string theory seems to explain gravitation better than wave theory does. Which is important, as gravitation is the main problem to be overcome for a Theory of Everything. But, to me, both have a fair chance.

If the scientific community has been rejecting wave theory, I'd say it's because there have been some sort of evidence which isn't explained by it, or contradicts it. At this time, I doubt if they would reject it just because. They have reasons for it, even if we don't know or understand them.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
There are certainly a lot of intelligent people in this group! But I do not understand why so many of you talk of something being useless. That is a totally useless word in this context. And that is why so much of the discussion above seems silly. Knowing mathematics is useless on an English test. Knowing the color of money is useless on a physics test. And both are useless if you need a ride to the dentist. Defining terms seems to be a lost art, probably because by the time you define your terms with lawyerly precision, the reader will have forgotten the point you are trying to make. For example:

"Which leads me to the part of useless science. If you take them for what they are, most of Mathematics or Physics are useless when seen just for themselves." Er, no. Both of them are useful for keeping the mind sharp. Both can be useful to help some people relax and I have a physics lecture CD that is very useful in helping me sleep! And in a strange way, both are useful as art to be appreciated, if you define art as the beauty of precision in conveying a concept, idea or theory. Yes, some things are more useful than others and some are less useful but there is an arrogance in saying anything is completely useless.

Now one last point:

"Hopefully, in the future, we won't be like we are now." Since we are talking semantics, I have no clue what this sentence means. What is so wrong with who we are now? Why should we hope not to be so? Will we change? Yes. Will these changes be better? Who knows? But I do know that if the "powers that be" think we need to be "better", they will do things like the Alliance did in Serenity and infect us with the Pax or the future endured by Harrison Bergeron.
I will just address this: "What is so wrong with who we are now?"
Something is wrong. We are not perfect. Therefore, I sincerely hope we keep moving towards perfection. What you are saying is that in moving towards something better we can take a false step and actually move towards something worst. That is always a chance, as is always a chance that something or other will go wrong and our atomic bombs will explode at once, or all our biological weapons will be released and we all die.
I was simply referring to the fact that our species should continue to evolve. Currently, that evolution can be seen by the fact that we transplant organs with other live ones, or mechanical ones. We can even create new ones. To me, that is progress.

If science discovered tomorrow the secret to eternal life, I don't think that would be a bad thing. We would simply learn how to live with that. Lots of things would change, that is certain. Some changes would be worst, some would be bad. It depends on many factors which I cannot foresee. But I am against stagnation. Any species that doesn't evolve one way or the other will be extinct. As such, I sincerely hope that we keep changing. If we stay alive, then it's a good thing.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
Why does not being perfect mean something is wrong? I don't know if there is a God but it seems to be if there is one, his greatest gift/curse to us is free will. And until the "powers that be" take that away from us, some of us will choose to do wrong/evil/the opposite of what is considered normal. And where is it written that we continue to evolve? That not changing is somehow stagnation? The Mona Lisa, for all its flaws, has stayed unchanged all these years and I don't want it to change and I don't call its not changing a bad thing. If you mean change is inevitable I will agree. But I won't agree that not changing is a bad thing. Yes, the dinosaurs died out but it took millions of years and perhaps an asteroid to make it so. I would be glad if we humans, flaws and all, could stay "unevolved" that long!

As for eternal life, I think, for the species, it would be a catastrophe. There could be no meaning to it; all of the things that make living precious would go away. We couldn't have kids or there would be billions of trillions of us in short order. And the resource management necessary for these masses would almost certainly lead to totalitarianism. And talk about stagnation! Growth in all things is dependent on death so without death, there could be no life. The creatures we'd become would welcome the heat death of the universe.
Your Mona Lisa example isn't at all appropriate. A painting doesn't have to evolve. A much more accurate example would be art stopping to evolve after the Mona Lisa. From then on, every single artist in the world would create just Mona Lisas. The example you gave would be if humans stopped evolving and from then on everyone was Ghandi (or whomever you want). For that analogy to work, paintings have to be individuals, art the species.

Also, the dinosaurs lived over 100 million years, but they evolved. Just because the first dinosaur was in the same group as the last one, doesn't mean they never changed. In fact, many dinosaurs became extinct long before the mass extinction of dinosaurs. Some species don't evolve in time, or just the right way, and other predators or external factors wipe them out.

Right now we have no predators, other than microbial. However, we have a lot of those. We need to keep evolving in order to be able to deal with them, either biologically or simply medically.

I don't know if eternal life would be a catastrophe as a species. Maybe it would be our salvation. Right now, the planet is overcrowded. If we achieved eternal life, maybe that would be the drive to move to other planets and stars. Maybe, if we had eternal life, we wouldn't mind taking a few hundred years to get to the next good planet to colonize. Who knows? I certainly have no idea what would happen if we did. No one can know. It's too big a shock to predict what we would do as a species.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
Hm, I think you misunderstand my point. I didn't say human beings shouldn't change, I simply said that we don't HAVE TO CHANGE BECAUSE THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE WAY WE ARE NOW. A hope is a desire for something better. And honestly, to me, perfection is NOT better even if you could define what "perfect" means. The problem with saying we HAVE to change is the inevitable conclusion that, if we ever reach perfection, we have to evolve away from it or stagnate, a logical fallacy. And fighting future viruses/bateria means we'd need more knowledge but that is not the same as physically evolving as a species. After all, to me, the pursuit of knowledge; of ourselves, others and the universe, is what makes life worth living.

It occurs to me we might be arguing semantics. When I say EVOLVING I mean physically as how the dinosaurs became birds. I don't mean acquiring more knowledge or more products derived from that knowledge. What do you mean by evolving?

And yes, my opinion that almost eternal life would destroy us is an axiom with no possible proof we will live to see. I base it on my common sense and what I believe a human being is.
I'm not saying there is wrong with the way we are now. Though there is, if only because of all the disease we still haven't conquered.

Evolution doesn't have to happen in a physical way. It just means that we become more adapted to our environment. If that means that we use some external means to wipe out something that is detrimental to us, than that is evolution. If that means that we learn to do things differently, that is also evolution.

The fact is, the universe keeps evolving. It keeps changing. Everything around us is in constant change. If we, as a species, don't change, we can't adapt to the changes around us. Thus, we will inevitably die.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
Ah, and there is the crux of the matter.

"If we, as a species, don't change, we can't adapt to the changes around us. Thus, we will inevitably die."

My contention is that if we change too much to adapt to the universe around us, we also die. If a gentle bird species evolves fangs and talons to fight its predators, that gentle bird species has died just as much as if the predators had extincted it (is that a word??) So too, if humanity changes too much in adapting to the universe, than humanity dies. That is the real danger of unlimited scientific study, that it will bring about our extinction, whether our genes live on in some future alien creature. Yes it might be inevitable but then like Jefferson Smith I say "You fight harder for the lost causes than for any others."
Of course. Evolution doesn't always mean getting better. There is a famous example of two islands with wild cats. On one, the cats evolve into much better hunters. As a result, their prey becomes extinct. On the other island, the wild cats are just good enough hunters to preserve the balance and thus ensure their survival.
People usually assume that evolution is the survival of the strongest, but it's only survival of the most adapted to its environment. That might actually mean going back (for example, it might be advantageous to go back to walking on fours).

I don't know if science can push things too far or not. Again, as I stated before, I see science only as tools. The problem lies with people and the fact that a certain mindset is drawn to certain positions where they can do harm (just like the opposite also happens). Just because criminals can use their guns to kill, should we ban them? Or should we keep them to get food, to protect from wild beasts, etc? It's a delicate balance that we live in, constantly, because of the different ways people behave.

However, ultimately, that is not a limit to science. Just a limit to science today. However, the question was asked in the spirit of infinity. If we continue learning more and more, through the years, centuries, millenniums, will we ever reach a point where science just can't learn anything else? Like I said before, I believe the only ultimate limit will be what is observable/measurable. Anything outside the observable/measurable universe just can't be studied by science.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
"In the spirit of infinity" is a wonderful term because it becomes fanciful. For example, if you have a guy with two girlfriends but keep cloning all of them so that you have an infinite number of guys, at any point will you have the same number of girls and guys? If there are a hundred things you can learn about any human being and an infinite number of human beings, is there a limit to what you can know about human beings? I think the real question being asked is whether there is a limit to the number of scientific rules or principles in all creation. And here I think the answer is interesting because it is time dependent. By this I mean if the universe is finite than the rules and principles that govern it are finite but by the time you even approach "knowing it all", there would have been a big crunch and big bang and you would be starting over with a whole new set of rules and principles. And if there is a limit to how many big crunches/big bangs that can occur, than the number of rules/principles would be finite but by the time we reach that limit there would have been a bubble nucleation and a whole new round of big bangs/big crunches would begin. So ultimately, the answer is, as long as events occur in time than all that is knowable is infinite.
You can keep creating humans as long as you want. You don't need to study them all. If you can learn 100 things from a human, you can't learn infinite things from infinite humans. Things overlap and are finite. A finite system can only be infinite in fractals. Eventually, you'll reach a point where you can't learn anything else new from further humans.

Remember that science requires facts that are observable, measurable (or countable) and repeatable. If you start cloning humans that are unique in every way, they aren't subject to science. Although it would be impossible to create anything that is completely unique. If you think about it, there isn't a single thing that any human has that is completely unique and no other has it.

The big bang/big crunch is just one theory. Another theory is that there was a big bang and there won't be another. Just the gradual death of the universe until nothing is left. It is dependent on many factors which are still being studied, namely entropy, dark matter, etc.
" So ultimately, the answer is, as long as events occur in time than all that is knowable is infinite" - This is pretty much what I said, but in other words. For things to occur, we have to observe them. It's no use for things to occur if we don't know they do. So, whether time and the universe is infinite or not, whether we live forever (as a race), science will always be limited by what it can observe. Both macro cosmically and micro cosmically.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
Yes, I think we've answered the question so this is just tying up loose ends. For example, I'd say you are wrong when you say "If you can learn 100 things from a human, you can't learn infinite things from infinite humans. Things overlap and are finite." Since, in theory, any human being could have unique mutations, until you study all human beings you can't know that you know everything about them. And since every human being exists in a specific location in space which could affect your measurements about them, again, until you study all of them at the locations where they exist, you can't know until you study all of them that you know everything about them. As for "For things to occur, we have to observe them." that makes no sense. Billions of things occur every day that we (being specific scientists in specific places) don't observe. But they still occur. Nature doesn't care whether we observe them or not but we certainly assume they occur or we wouldn't go looking for them.

Anyway, thanks for the stimulating comments. It is nice to exercise the old brain cells now and then!
You are taking it too literally. I didn't mean that things didn't occur when we didn't observe them (though that is pretty much one of the quantum postulates). I just meant that, as far as we're concerned and as far as science is concerned, they didn't.

And, as I said, unique things (meaning, that happen only once and can't be repeated) are of no interest to science. True, if you have infinite human beings, you will never find everything about them with 100% certainty. But that is because you can't observe infinity. You can only observe a finite number of things, no matter how large a number it is.
Eddie_AEffect -
"But I do not understand why so many of you talk of something being useless. That is a totally useless word in this context. And that is why so much of the discussion above seems silly. Knowing mathematics is useless on an English test. Knowing the color of money is useless on a physics test. And both are useless if you need a ride to the dentist.."

It is not silly, but perhaps one ought to qualify utility or usefulness as being a prerequisite for good science, rather than just science itself? I don't know.

Usefulness, in the context of the philosophy of science, has a very specific meaning. It means that a theory must have a practical application. In order to have such a result, the theory must have experimental evidence to support it. This experimental evidence is the first sign of its practical nature. Also, the theory must predict something in a way that is useful to us. Only, then does it becomes a useful, scientific theory.

For example, take a pretty useless theory. Suppose a geologist makes the statement "There will be an major earthquake." That is a prediction of an empircal event.. To make such a statement, all you need to know is that major earthquakes happen regularly. It's therefore reasonable, statistically, to predict another one. The theory that earthquakes happen because they have always happened is a pretty useless theory.

However, if we say "There will be a major earthquake in Los Angeles", then we are approaching something that is useful. If we say, there will be a major earthquake in Los Angeles, but not in Alice Springs, Austraila, then that is also even more helpful. The theory of plate tectonics, and where these plates are, and what kind of boundaries these plates have, is very useful when it comes to predicting earthquakes. It allows us, for example, to determine a geologically stable location.

Another example, if we say, there will be a major earthquake in Los Angeles in 2020, now we have a very useful theory, because we know when and where it will take place. Preparations can be made for such an earthquake. There is no theory yet, that can make such predictions, but just imagine how useful that would be if there were one. Or if we could predict the day this would happen. That would be a very useful theory, and it must be based on very good science for it to work.

Now I will present another prediction:

That was my prediction, and now here's the theory behind it. "An electron is one dimensional vibrating string that is embedded within 11 dimensional space." Also, where is the experimental evidence for this theory?

Now here's a work of art:
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
Thanks, Jason210. I didn't understand the context of the word. It is like a non-statistician saying something is significant. His meaning is different from the statisticians. But there is an implication in that I am not sure about. If what you are saying is correct, than doesn't that mean any scientific research is "useless" until the practical application is found? Which would mean, in essence, that saying a theory is useless would itself be a theory?!
purplesoupProgrammerAuthor Commented:
What do we mean by a limit to science? Are there limits to what science can do? This of course prompted the question of what do we mean by science, and the fact that different disciplines have different methods - I suggested that at bottom science is a definition of truth based on open discussion and collaboration using reason and evidence, and that very broad definition can be used to cover a wide range of disciplines.

I believe there are six types of question anyone can ask: What, Why, Who, Where, How and When (are there any others? if not why not?).

When we deal with truth, sometimes we are asking factual questions which appear to be what, who, where and when (is “who” just a special type of “what”?). These are important things to know. But beyond that, we ask the how - which seems to really be the key science question - we have something complex that we wish to explain. We can also ask why which is a motivation question and only arguably only applies to people and animals with desires (it can be applied to other areas but I suggest only as a metaphor - like The Selfish Gene).

So a limit to science might be: are there any “how” questions that science can’t answer? If so, are there other ways of answering the question?

Different subjects will be able to provide more narrow definitions of what science means for them - for example the idea of a repeatable experiment is often important, or being able to make a statement that is disprovable or verifiable may be appropriate, often mathematical models are used, but these really all depend on how appropriate these methods are to the subject being studied.

The idea of what is an appropriate subject for a scientific discipline is also important - would this subject be able to support repeatable experiments for example? Perhaps more broadly a subject needs a set of phenomena which we want to explain, and therefore some suggested model supported by reason and evidence of how the phenomena happen.

Could we for example taken an evidence-based approach to morality - what is the role of reason when considering morality? I don’t see that morality can’t be subject to rational analysis - even it is were to set out a map of different moralities.

Ah - here is another question: should? What would be a scientific-based approach to answering “should” questions?

And I’ve just noticed that “what” is more than a simple fact-question, given my previous question - “what” can perhaps be asked about the model underlying the subject we wish to study. Perhaps “what” questions can be rephrased as “how” questions? How can “should” questions be answered with science?
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
There is a lot of stuff in your post: Probably could write a book! but a few comments.

To me, asking what are the limits of science is like asking what are the limits to the universe. In both cases, the answer is time-dependent. If you asked what are the limits of the universe 1 billionth of a second after the big bang, you'd have a far different answer than if you asked it now. Science is the same way. As we learn more, the "universe" of science expands just like space expands. It was "useless" to know the theory of lift until we could develop engines to fly. It seems useless to know that there is a planet that can support human life 1000 light years from here but if we discover an FTL drive, it won't be.

As far as saying there could be reason in explaining morality, who's reason? Certainly Thomas Aquinas and a variety of Eastern mystics did but the problem with doing so it that you're definition of a successful "proof" would be so filled with axioms and so dependent on specific definitions that it would be next to impossible to put into play in the real world. And you would be risking a created totalitarian state to put it into practice.
purplesoupProgrammerAuthor Commented:
To your first point, it sounds as if you are equating science with physics - I'm looking it is as a method of obtaining truth, whatever the subject under investigation.

Regarding morality - can we talk about morality? Can it be discussed? Can you provide evidence to support your moral position? Can you use reason and logic to support your moral position? If all of these are the case then it at least appears as if it could be subject to some sort of scientific investigation - if only to define the extent to which reason and evidence can be used within morality.

Morality may well be an interesting case regarding the limits of science - it sounds as if we can discuss morality using reason and evidence, but there may be other grounds beyond this. If so it would be good to define what they are.

I don't see applying science (i.e. the use of reason and evidence in morality) as creating a totalitarian state - in fact a totalitarian state uses power to shut down all conversations, not just religion, but the arts and science also.
Some limits of (present and future) science may be:
-      the axioms on which we build that science
-      the implication of unpredictability from quantum mechanics in our entire world
-      the resources: intellectual and material
-      the time – which will end in singularity
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
"To your first point, it sounds as if you are equating science with physics - I'm looking it is as a method of obtaining truth, whatever the subject under investigation."

No, I am just using an analogy  to show that the limits of the universe can be compared to the limits of science. I NEVER equate anything with physics since I understand so little of it!

As for the totalitarian, what I meant was that if you were to posit a morality that says that all citizens have to do this and do that to follow this morality, you might end up with a totalitarian police state to enforce these rules "for the greater good." It is why I get nervous when people want to apply logic or science to morality; their logic and their science might end up throwing the rest of us in jail.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
Well viki2000, I agree with all of your points except the last one, that time might be a limit. I only disagree because it is always best to disagree with that which you don't understand! Just as Hawking said that time may have started with the big bang, which seems nonsensical to a layman like me, so to does saying time will end in a singularity seem nonsensical. Logic dictates that there had to be time for the x to happen which caused the big bang, and logic says time will always be there, though only technically if there is such a thing as the heat death of the universe, in which case 10 to the millionth power years would past with no changes, BUT time would still past. My own opinion, shared I am sure by no scientists, is that given an infinity of time, those random particles that pop up out of nowhere would form matter and start the universe again.
In a singularity the laws of the physics known now will disappear.
The time as we know it male no sense as notion.
“The time as we know it will make no sense as notion.”
You just mentioned Hawking. In his book “A Brief History of Time” he describes very interesting for non-scientists the notion of time in various ways:
- There is a biological time – we perceive when we look at our bodies – the ageing. There is also the time from physics – what we measure using clocks – no matter what type of clocks.
- But I think he describes it as “The psychological arrow of time. This is the direction in which we feel time passes, the direction in which we remember the past but not the future.”
- Then he says “the cosmological arrow of time. This is the direction of time in which the universe is expanding rather than contracting.”
- Then “he thermodynamic arrow of time, the direction of time in which disorder or entropy increases”
If we speak about the time before Bing-bang then the only good equivalent notion for a reference named “time” is “eternity”.
When you refer at “time” what kind of time do you consider?
Perhaps is just “mental time” used in our minds when we try to order events in a relation cause-effect. That is “static” notion in which “time” seems to be independent of the space. That is not the reality. Just remember of  the “twin paradox”.
Another limit of the science is given by our imagination and why not - our beliefs.
But there is an implication in that I am not sure about. If what you are saying is correct, than doesn't that mean any scientific research is "useless" until the practical application is found? Which would mean, in essence, that saying a theory is useless would itself be a theory?!
Perhaps we could say that that usefulness is the measure of truth within a context. When we talk about truth, what truth are we looking for, and what are we measuring truth against? Is truth relative, or absolute? I think it is relative, because it seems to me that you always measure truth against something else.

Imagine 2000 years ago a tribe in the Amazon rainforest hacked their way through the forest until they came to a river where they could find drinking water. They made a path, and the path led to the river. That's truth. But what if the path was a winding, meandering path, that double-backed on itself? In that case, it could be replaced with a more efficient? How is that path more true? What do we mean by truth?

There can be many paths, all of which are "true" in the sense that they lead to the river, but all of which are somewhat different. Some may be more efficient than others, and thus more useful if you want to get to the river quickly. Use in this sense has a link to survivability. Some paths may take you to a different part of the river, where you can find a certain kinds of fish, but if you have no means to fish, and you just want drinking water, then the longer path to fishing area is of no use to you - and may even be detrimental to your survivability. For fisherman, it is of the utmost importance.

Similarly, Einstein's theory of special relativity is not much use to me if I want to work out how long it will take me to drive to work; Newton is not much use to a scientist studying the lifespan of particles moving close to the speed of light.

It's my contention that, truth is relative, and scientific knowledge must have some kind of practical, predictory use in order for it to be deemed sceintific knowledgem and this is a limit to science - or rather a criterion of demarcation.
If truth is relative, then can there be such a thing as a complete theory?

It seems to me that incompleteness is an intrinsic aspect of the theory (or fact for that matter), useful or not. The reason being, that the boundary of observation is constantly expanding in time and space, as it has always done. Thus, the more we look, the more there is to see, and the more there is to see, the more there is to explain.

I believe this because the mind is growing, and while ever the mind is growing, so is the observable universe. If the mind was static, then I believe it could be possible to develop a theory that would be complete in the sense that the theory would represent the ultimate limitation of the mind's abilty to theorise.

It comes back to what I said in my first post here, that our knowledge is limited and modified by the interpretative framework which we use to osberve the universe with.
Your point isn't entirely valid. I mean, it's valid if you believe in a theory of infinite expansion. However, even for those that believe that the universe will keep on expanding, it wouldn't be valid anyway.
That theory holds that everything will die out eventually, so the universe to which you can apply knowledge to will, eventually, be finite.
On the other hand, if you believe in an infinite series of big bang/big crunch, then there will come a time when the universe has contracted so much that it will be finite and knowable.

I find it most likely that the truth (the complete "absolute" truth) will be neither, but something entirely different which we can't even begin to imagine or grasp at this point (much like we weren't able to regarding previous models until we were ready for them). We can't imagine anything that's outside our experience. We can only extrapolate from our knowledge. The more knowledge we have, the more we can extrapolate and imagine.

I don't know if there is any definite, ultimate and absolute limit to science. But I do know that the only way we'll ever find it is by continuously expanding our knowledge. In a way, you can say that the ultimate limit to science is knowledge, or science itself.
Don't forget that we are part of this, so if something happens to the universe, like dying out, then so will it happen to us -- the instrument that is observing it. I don't have any reason to believe  the universe will die out - that's just a human perspective on the universe. Also, think this way - if a universe can "die out", then why shouldn't one be able to come into being? Where did this universe come from? Can't another one spring up it's place? It seems just as logical to say that if it happened once, it can happen again. Also, it seems to be a sound obersevation and logical statement to say that anything that has an end has a beginning, and vice versa; while anything that exists either had a beginning and an end, or always existed.

Similarly if it gets crunched before exploding again,  then we ago along with that - dead, and vapourised along with all our knowledge long before those final moments. That's just another type of ending.

For me, it doesn't matter which of those two models apply because in each case it represents the end of everything.

Sorry to sound all negative, but I don't see a reason why a smaller, contracted universe should be finite and knowable, compared to the one we have today. It's a bit like saying that when studying life, a seed is easier to understand than a tree. The tree is contained within the seed. These are just different manifestations of the same thing. There is a basic "uneveness" in the universe and that will be there whether the universe is large or small. It was present moments after the big bang - it has always been present, and it permeates everything. It just manifests differently.

It seems that science is a way of applying a special reference frame to part of the universe and measuring it against that frame. What we see depends a lot on the frame. Perhaps a search for the Holy Grail of science is what drives many, like Hawking, but like the Holy Grail, I do not think this search will provide us with an ultimate answer or theory. Knowledge will continue to grow as a consequence of this quest, and as we build up layer upon layer of abstraction we'll see the most amazing technologies along that journey that will be put to practical use.

For me, the driving factor behind the search for an ultimate or unified theory is a manifestation of life's tendency towards unity. From the very first cells, growth has been about unity, things coming together to form a greater whole. Indeed the driving factor in this problem is a spiritual one - we are uncosnciously trying to know the Self, the very mechanism that is reflecting the universe - the mechanism of consciousness.
Ok, to take it to an extreme example, imagine some untold billions of trillion of lotofillions in the future, all that remains of the universe (in the case of a universe dying out) is a single small star, with a single planet where we live. Nothing else exists. We have a finite and knowable universe. In fact, by that time, it's most likely that we know everything that exists in the universe, especially because we've been studying it for so long.
Likewise, if we live in eternal cycles of big bang/big crunch, there will come a point when the universe will have contracted so much that there's a finite area to study.

The idea of a universe that "popped" into existence, expanded and died out into "oblivion" is no more strange than a universe that always existed and always will. There is no reason why there should be more universes popping into existence after this one dies, just like there's no reason not to. Each theory is as valid as the other, especially as there's no data that can prove either theory one way or the other.

I don't know if there's an ultimate theory (or group of theories) of everything. It seems that there must be one, intuitively, however it doesn't have to happen. Gravitation, right now, is the thing that most eludes our explanation. There are many theories and conjectures, but no one really knows what it is or why it happens.
To me, that seems to indicate that there's more that we don't know. Maybe another dimension, maybe some other factor in this strange universe. I have no idea. But there's something we don't know about yet, and that would explain gravitation. It would probably leave something else unexplained, as we would then require more knowledge. And so on, ad aeternum. I have no idea and it's as good a theory as any other.

Science is, obviously, about knowing ourselves and our place in the universe. But, more than that, it's also about improving ourselves, even if only so we can know more about ourselves. They don't always get it right, mostly due to human nature, but that is the intention behind practical science: to do something better than was done before.
Likewise, theoretical science has a similar goal: to know more than was known before.
To take it to an extreme example, imagine some untold billions of trillion of lotofillions in the future, all that remains of the universe (in the case of a universe dying out) is a single small star, with a single planet where we live. Nothing else exists. We have a finite and knowable universe

But is knowable? Depends what you are looking for. Your frame of reference seems to be fixed scale and quantity. While your universe may be simpler in terms of Newtonian phsyics, there may still remain the same problem of science. There may still be the unexplored dimensions of subatomics, and gravity may still be not understood. What about the string theory - does the smaller universe help us to test that? Perhaps the mystery of the electron remains. I can't think of a way the smaller universe will help us intrinsically to answer fundamental questions of physics and science. What is energy? Is there dark matter and dark energy present? All the unanswered questions of today are not going to be made answerable by having a smaller, more limited universe. In fact, it may be even more difficult to study, since there is now less information, and thus less clues and evidence to observe and derive theories from. Gone are the black holes, nebulae, gammy rays, and a whole host of other things.
That was just an example, based on an easily imaginable possibility. You can even take it to a further extreme where the world is composed of a single atom, other than ourselves. The point is, both theories provide us with a possibility of having a finite, knowable universe at some point.

This doesn't mean we'll know everything that ever was, is and will be. Just that we can, at some point in time/space/whatever, know everything that is, and possibly also that will be.
I don't think we can ever know for certain what was. Even extrapolating backwards isn't a guarantee.
Well, that imagined possibility is still knowable only insomuch as we are able to observe it. if we cannot look beyond bosons and quarks, then even a single atom is a mystery and may contain myriads or infinite universes within it it ;-)

It is known that quarks and antiquarks mysteriously appear and annihilate themselves, but it is not known how or why.
The science meets science fiction and the reality beats the imagination.
The science meets also the philosophy and religion and tries to push the border in its favor, but is limited by its definition and means of verifying the truths of reality - observations which will be hard to be defined.
For example the ancient Indian thinking over the world is very complex.
In the end everything is reduced to what Jewish people have described in their Holy Book “I am that I am”.
That is the ultimate truth and knowledge – which cannot be proved, but only experimented, because is beyond our material world, the pure consciousness – not proved scientifically so far.
Just read here some interesting ideas about reality in the old Indian thinking and the end of the world(s) – so also the end of science.
Ed MatsuokaPartner/Senior IT SpecialistCommented:
One question that isn't answered in any of these comments is what does it mean to ask if we can know all there is to know about science or the universe? If an infinite number of human beings exist and these human beings know all that there is to know about science and the universe, of what utility is this? I think what the basic question being asked is, is there a single theory that a single person can know which explains, in capsule form, science or the universe in general. I would say that the unified field theory is this holy grail. But of course every scientific discipline has its own holy grail. To use a silly but cogent analogy, the unified field theory would be the one ring to bind them all. But there would be other rings for cosmology, biology, etc.

BTW, viki2000, I read that predictions article and it was enlightening and scary but it did leave me with the question of why science would have to end as long as there were a being? As long as that being could think, it would be able to posit theories as to why things happened the way they happened and isn't that history a form of science?
My understanding over that article is: the Being mentioned there is God.
The question asked here is from human being point of view, our continuous struggle to know more and more.
We will never know the mind of God, his plans and eternal laws beyond time, space and our finite minds – at least this is how is described.
God has all the information/theories in His plane of existence. Creation is just manifestation of something known.
That plane of existence is called Akasha. We as beings never invent or create something. It is nothing new – as ideas, info. It is already in that information plan. We just have access to that plane under certain circumstances. On our level of existence may be new, but not in initial matrix of manifestation at the mental plane of creation already done by God.

Related with such direction of discussion I would like to mention here another aspect regarding the limit of science.

If we consider that the human being is created by God and this time we take the Bible as reference then in

Ecclesiastes 3:11 (English Standard Version)
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”

People all over the world think at immortality.
And since the man broke the initial connection with God – eternal source of knowledge, the man is trying in all kind of ways to fill a need inside him.
It is an emptiness which cannot be filled unless the initial bridge/connection with God is remade.
From here the word “religion” in “religare” meaning re-make the connection – this is what people try with different religions.
Through religion people want also the access to ultimate truth, the ultimate source of knowledge.
If you just look at the people around or during history, they want things all the time to satisfy them in one way or another.
After they obtain that satisfaction then they go on another… and so on. The same is with science.
In fact, without realizing, they search something valuable, like water when you are thirsty, but one if you drink to be satisfied forever.
Everything else what they find/accomplish is just a temporary satisfaction. And this will aply to any scientific knowledge defined in the words of our time – even unified theory of forces from physics.
It is only one thing which if they find then they will not search anymore, because will fill them, their entire being.
It is the ultimate truth, it is God.
Then they stop and understand all things because then the scale of values is different. Everything else becomes less important as magnitude.
There is no more searching and no more science.
The creation meets/reconnect to Creator – aware of connection.

We as beings are very complex. When we say here science we refer generally to something that we can analyze with our minds.
Let’s not forget about feelings, emotions. They are very important. Among them there is one difficult to describe scientifically: that is love. We may have a variety of understandings but in different languages there are different/many words for it.
When our being is filled with love – the one that you feel in your chest accompanied and surrounded by peace – then the mind stop and have rest.
Then there is no more search for “to know” something. There is no need for science anymore.

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purplesoupProgrammerAuthor Commented:
I'm getting asked my EE to do something with this question, so I'll award some points, but please carry on the discussion.
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