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Caleb Jones

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What are the limits of science? When does science become useless for answering our questions? When do other fields become necessary?

As I watched Sean Carroll speak in this talk, I found it amazing that the stated purpose of this talk is to find WHAT made the universe like it is, and he didn't even once think to mention a creator, even though he states quite emphatically that the universe "was not chosen randomly" and that "something made it that way." If "something made it," then that something is by definition a "creator," commonly called "God."

Even more amazing was that while he would not open up the possibility of a God, he does propose some sort of "universal chicken" that brings forth universes. It may be a metaphor, but the metaphor is telling. He thinks bringing up a Cosmic Chicken that creates universes is more appropriate in a scientific talk than mentioning a God.

The problem here is that he is having a scientific discussion about a subject that ceases to be science and becomes only speculation. Because the proper sphere of science is exhausted, his scientific talk about things that can't be seen, tested, or measured (like other universes) tends to be nonsense. It is much better to have a religious or philosophical debate at this point and only bring in science when it has something useful to add.

Now, speculation isn't bad, it just needs to be done in the right manner. Speculation in science is called "making a hypothesis," but that hypothesis must be tested if it is to remain "science." Speculation and argumentation as a field has traditionally been called "the dialectic."

I believe Sean Carroll should have dropped the field of science and jumped to the dialectic. By only sticking to science, he cheapens his points. He should move to better disciplines like religion or philosophy to address his questions and add science when it becomes relevant.

It seems like he is either afraid or unaware that science, theology, and philosophy have the ability to coexist.

So, did Sean Carroll go too far in his speculation? I think he did. Say what you think.

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  • May 30 2011: "What are the limits of science?

    The limits of science are 3, even 4: (1) The limits of perception of the observer (not questioning what is not perceived); (2) The limited intelligence behind the hypothesis (asking the wrong questions); (3) The fact that scientific experimentation destroys the subject before the results are ever obtained (keeping truth forever elusive); and (4) The arrogance of an eternal conclusion to a finite study (therefore endlessly building upon unfinished work).

    "When does science become useless for answering our questions?"

    When it removes the wonder of questioning (questioning the wonder of an egg and concluding it is just a protein sack created by a wondrous chicken, then questioning the wondrous chicken and concluding it is just a featherbag of chemicals created by wondrous DNA, then questioning the wondrous DNA and concluding it is just a blotch of dioxyribonucleic acid created by... Following this fatal logic, shall we not forever explain away the reason for the question - wonder - all the while staring God in the face?)

    "When do other fields become necessary?"

    When preparing to die (if so fortunately afforded the lengthy opportunity) and leave the limits of science.
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      May 31 2011: Hi Antonio,

      You're right. Science does have limits. But those limits are mostly brought about by our own limits; the scientific method works just as well as people let it work. Or as well as we can observe. That's why Newtons Universal Theory is still correct, within the limits of his ability to observe the world. Newtons Gravity is subsumed into Relativity, being fully in agreement up until that limit.

      The cutting edge of science is always pushing the limits, asking question about things that haven't been seen, ideas that can't yet be tested. Science questions what is not perceived all the time. Relativity did just that, with many years passing before validating observations and experiments were made.

      The limits of our mental abilities does limit how much we can know at any given time, but it is not limiting enough to prevent progress. We can consistently increase our knowledge and understanding of the natural world. We do this by understanding that at any time, any theory, any deeply held belief, can be proven wrong. Science accepts that it will never attain perfect knowledge. There is no eternal conclusion. Studies are finite; the question is eternal.

      Understanding that being wrong is ok, indeed even exciting, allows science to use mistakes and false hypothesis to come closer to the truth. An idea without data is not worth much. An idea that cannot be tested isn't worth much either. So a scientist will form a hypothesis that can be tested, and runs the test, knowing full well that they may be dead wrong about their assumptions. But by analyzing the data, by understanding what did happen during the test, the scientist can formulate a more accurate hypothesis to be tested next.

      A scientist is excited by good data, a scientist is devoted to uncovering the truth. And the scientist finds great beauty in the truth, in the world as it is. To a scientist, reality is the most wondrous thing possible.

      http://xkcd.com/877/

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