Does science explain anything?

10 posts


All science can tell us is that a particular cause A is followed by a particular effect B. Why A should become B is an inexplicable mystery. Even if we discovered all the intermediate changes between A and B, we would be left with the series A, A1, A2, A3 ... B, and the sequence A A1 would be just as mysterious as the sequence A B. The sequence is just a fact that is. It dogmatically asserts itself into the world without explanation. Hence the entire principle of causation explains nothing. It cannot even explain particular facts, never mind the universe itself. Even if we discovered the first cause of the universe, and the entire subsequent series of causes and effects, it would leave the universe itself a complete mystery.

But while it is impossible to see why a cause should be followed by an effect, if we compare the premises in a logical syllogism with the conclusion, we can see immediately why the conclusion should follow from the premisses. The premisses are the reason of which the conclusion is the consequent. If there is any explanation of the universe, it has to be a reason, not a cause. If we discovered a first reason behind the world, as opposed to a first cause, we would have an explanation of the universe. If we can see the reason of the world, then the world follows necessarily as a logical consequent from its antecedent.

Science is concerned with the causes of the world, what properties things have, what forces govern them, how they interact with other things; and if we wish to explain the universe, this entire mode of explanation is futile.

It is, of course, conceivable that the universe does not have any explanation. But that is irrelevant to the argument. If it has any explanation, the explanation has to be a reason of which the universe is a consequent, and cannot be a cause of which the universe is the effect. And this a philosophical and religious question, not a scientific question.


Hume already covered the problem of causality centuries ago. We have no reason or grounds to be certain that cause A will be followed by effect B, but custom and habit tell us it is highly probable that certain causes will produce certain effects.

As for the rest of your post, a minority of presumptuous attention-hogs aside, I think most scientists are humble enough to concede that their field only explains the how , the mechanics and processes of natural phenomena, not the why. Of course, the former should not be dismissed as trivial.

I tend to think that life is much more random and chaotic than most people would like to admit. The human mind seems predisposed to seek patterns and impose some semblance of order in the world. This is what scientists do, in a sense. But I don't think there is any profound reason we developed the consciousness we have. It could have been a mere accident of biology.

Some people think such an outlook must necessarily lead to apathy and hedonism, but I am not sold on this argument, which I think betrays a latent rationalism. I subscribe to voluntarism, and believe that in great men the will to overcome adversity and pursue higher goals overrides the need for any transcendent explanations for human existence. It's self-justifying, and only those who feel this drive can understand it.


This sounds like a restatement of Hume's problem of induction.

In other words, you hitch yourself to rationalism right up until the point it starts to devour itself (i.e. apathy and hedonism). You excuse your inconsistency by invoking vitalism and the self-justifying power of the human will, but why not assert the will in denying the premises of rationalism, rather than merely its depressing conclusions? The answer, I suspect, is that you are a rationalist yourself, albeit of a selective variety.

If I may borrow a literary comparison, it seems as though all science can give us is a summary of existence, not any kind of analysis -- a summary which gets more and more comprehensive by the year, but never enters the realm of symbolic understanding. This is why a 'god of the gaps' is not actually needed to protect the claims of religion. Even if every 'gap' were filled, we would not come any closer to usurping the function of religion.

You're going to have to elaborate on what you mean by the "premises" of rationalism. Everyone is a "rationalist" to the extent that they construct their arguments according to certain logical conventions and require proofs for certain claims. Even people who disparage reason often do so through the use of reason. Christians are just as guilty of this, only they use faith as their substitute rather than will, instinct, passion, etc. when they arrive at the limits of reason.

But the world can be symbolically understood through art, folklore, and mythology as well. These can overlap with religion, but belief in a deity is not necessary to them. Religion does not have a monopoly on symbolism.
By 'premises of rationalism' I mean specifically the Cartesian formulation which insists upon a necessary link between reason and knowledge, which is established through methodic doubt -- i.e. the systematic testing of all claims originating in revelation, experience, or tradition in order to arrive at basic or foundational beliefs which can be asserted with certainty. As an existentialist I deny that certainty is necessary for belief, and as an Orthodox Christian, I believe an alternative to methodic doubt can be found in the hesychastic mysticism of the Eastern church, which unites revelation, experience and tradition as a means by which the believer can obtain knowledge (gnosis) without reason.

I equivocated somewhat. By 'religion' I meant specifically metaphysical cosmology, which unlike art and folklore aims at a 'first reason' of the universe, as Ix mentioned. To the extent that mythology involves cosmology, it is included here.
Most scientists are philosophically illiterate. Stephen Hawking and Lawrence M. Krauss really believe that physics can explain the universe.

I find some distinctions between "science" and "philosophy" to be a bit too vague in all of the important ways. We should rather say this:

* It is always possible to distinguish between science and philosophy, if we distinguish between an interpretation of something, and something that is directly affected by the evidence. Also for strategic reasons, we should distinguish between the more and the less certain. The attempts by George Lakoff etc. to "explain" various problems in the philosophy of mind rightly fall into "philosophy" proper.

* It is false however to speak of certain conceptions that are purely a matter of philosophy rather than "the special sciences". You say that a concept X belongs to a certain "field" that you call philosophy. But I say: that we can always generate another concept, X', which is related to or inspired by X, but which can be empirically tractible. Examples are the attempt by von Wright, etc., to clarify notions of norm and goal-directed action - these can definitely evolve into exact conceptions that are precise enough to be handled by some branch of the special sciences. Another example would be the original, nebulous notion of vis viva . The question of "foundations" in the philosophy of mathematics could be converted into less ambitious questions as to which theorems of mathematics are first-order (and this can be proved by compactness techniques).

Given the above, what (e.g.) physics does is to reduce certain laws to others. The other interest that physics has is primarily aesthetic, and that (by means of model-based reasoning) it provides an inexhaustible source of analogies and conceptions that can be used in other fields - many mathematical notions (like that of entropy, or the first significant recursive definition, of a "derivative") have their origins in physics. Of course, physics also has to be true of the world - but the point here is that there is no point to understanding the "world" if there is nothing of mathematical significance to "understand". The world is only worth understanding if symmetry exists, and what is primarily of interest (for a physicist) is how something in nature happens to conform to a mathematical "model". It leaves the question of why there should be any laws at all open. (But if there is a solution to that, it would still be pointless if the actual world itself exhibits no symmetry. The reason why the world is "interesting" is because complicated phenomena literally reduce to simple phenomena - the explanation for the simpler phenomena may be out of reach, but what is actually more "interesting" is the way that complex phenomena may be reduced to simple phenomena).

This is illustrated by the following fact: physics is by no means exhausted if the ultimate field theory is discovered. After that point - that is, even after everything is "explained" - we would just turn to complex systems and chaos. Problems in turbulence and fluid mechanics, for example, illustrate how technology runs ahead of "physics". In the early 20th century most physicists did not understand supersonic flight, since they had oversimplified hydrodynamical models (e.g., ideal fluid models) instead of actual solutions to the Navier-Stokes equations. (More details can be found in Richard von Mises, "The Theory of Flight" and the like .) So even everything is explained in terms of the fundamentals, physics just goes on forever - just like math.