Bigsley the Oaf

The Limits of Science

Posted in Uncategorized by bigsleytheoaf on April 10, 2012

I often wonder about various limits related to human consciousness. Questions like:

– “How much” can we remember?

– How fast can we find the answer to a well-defined problem? (e.g. 1950235 + 39208)

– What are the limits of our rigor – as in, what sorts of things will we accept as true despite their being false? 

– How many objects can I visualize simultaneously? (3 spinning balls? 4?)

These limits all obviously exist, when it comes to individuals. The different “modes” of thinking corresponding to these limits – respectively mnemonic, computational, logical, imaginative – are all present in some form as categories of human behavior in group. E.g. historians remember, programmers compute, mathematicians ensure the logical consistency of (a class) of our beliefs, artists + musicians imagine. Consequently, these structures (groups of mathematicians, groups of artists, etc.) have “limits” – the horizon of activity – what is being thought about/discovered currently.

It is reasonable to believe that these disciplines developed as a consequence of mass-action with respect to their associated attributes. This is to say that first humans were able to imagine, then they developed art on an individual basis, then more and more people became artists, formed groups of artists, etc. They did not develop art and then learn to imagine.

This may seem very obvious, but the reason that I’m explicating it thoroughly is that I’d like to claim that  when it comes to “scientific thinking” (at least as it has evolved in the western world) the process occurred in the opposite direction. First a social structure of “science” was developed – then people learned how to “think scientifically.”

Let me make my definition of “science” clear. It is, for me, defined primarily as an organizational principle for society. It represents a state which society is either in, or is not. Science is the state produced when everything accepted as “true” for a society is also “verifiable.”

So, our belief that the speed of light is ~3×10^8 m/s is “true” because anyone (given sufficient resources)[1] can measure it and verify it. 

A belief that the speed of light is 2 m/s is “false” because I can (personally) perform an experiment that verifies that it is not.

So, a scientific society is one which maintains this standard of verifiability of its beliefs. [2]

So, a scientific mindset is one which those who enact science must maintain in order to maintain the standard of verifiability. It requires certain modes of thinking (logic, computation) more than others (imagination, visualization). The action of a scientific mindset is to deny ideas which cannot be verified for some reason. It does this by attempting to verify them and, if verification fails, reporting this fact.

Thus, when we talk about the limits of science, we must talk about the limits of the social structure, not of the individuals. The individuals simply create the social structure. Further, we want to talk first about the extrinsic limits – that is, the limits of science if it is faithfully enacted. Then, we’ll talk about the intrinsic limits – that is, the impossibility of faithfully enacting it.

Anyway, this whole post started because I was thinking about one particular limit of science. Namely, scientific thinking can only be applied to domains in which the controlling factors of the domain are few  and known.


In physics, for example, the controlling factors are the “laws of the universe.” We’ve always had small theories of physics – “earth, wind, water, fire” – “atom, gravity, electromagnetic force” – “quark, quantum effects” – “string, string theory?”

In math, there is one factor – the axiom. It’s strange to talk about math as a science per se, since it is deeper than science (it can be done by individuals), but for a proof to be verified by a group of people it has to be shown to be reducible to axioms.[3]

In biology, we make claims about living systems as such. The factors are things like “physical structures” (organs, organelles), “chemical processes” (osmosis, catalysis), “vectors” (viruses, bacteria, etc.) Biology actually has way too many factors, and it’s impossible to create a theory that includes all of them, so it has to be broken up into specific domains (anatomy, ecology, etc.) until we get the # of factors small enough to think about. Biology seems to be structured pretty hierarchically, so this isn’t really a problem (e.g. you can talk about the eye without talking about ecology)


Economics is a classical example of a bad science. It produces results which are too highly qualified to be of any interest. More importantly, the claims of economics are basically impossible to verify. Why? Because we do not know what the real factors of economics are. The economic system of the US is so complicated that it is literally impossible to interpret. There’s the government, countless corporations, technology, the emotional makeup of the people, etc. 

The deep fact of economics is that money is not a fundamental system. Biology doesn’t care what we think about it (yet). Physics really doesn’t. But money does. Since we control it to a large extent, we can change it, and the question of “how do we change our social rules?” is influenced by 6 billion factors, none of which we understand.


The idea for this post came from this article:

Here is an example of a “scientist” in brazil who does not understand the basic idea of science – that results must be verifiable. It may very well be true that homeopathy “works,” but in order for this to be a scientific claim we must first agree on a definition of “works” and a means by which this can be tested.

But now we’re hitting up against the intrinsic limits of science. Namely, science is a social structure – it can only allow beliefs to be believed which all people can verify. The issue here is that we have to define “all people” and, in doing so, we exclude some people – the insane, the homeless, the “quacks.” The reason that science and religion have battled for so long is that science’s standard of social “proof” is different from religion’s. In religion, the belief of the individual is sometimes acceptable as truth. E.g. if someone has a divine revelation, that might be acceptable as truth to a lot of people. [4]

The issue (in my mind) is that individuals contain truths that are not verifiable, but are nonetheless true. In this sense, atheism may indeed be a disease [5].

The fact is that these crazy homeopaths might be right. Or rather, perhaps they are right about 0.01% of what they believe. The issue is that they don’t know how to quantify their beliefs – they don’t know how to phrase them in a coherent way – they have not systematized them.

We must always remember, in humility, that people thought Einstein was crazy, people thought Tesla was crazy, people thought (and still think!) Grothendieck was crazy. What’s more, they thought that they were unscientific. What’s MORE, they thought that they (the community) were NOT crazy.

We, in our modern hubris, believe that we understand the standards of truth. But we will never hold those reins, and we must be ceaselessly wary lest we come to believe that we do. [6]

[1] And let’s not get into this clusterfuck. Basically, I don’t think science exists anymore since the requirements for resources required to verify academic results are just too large. E.g. how would you (you personally) verify the existence of neutrinos? I suppose you could build your own neutrino detector, costing you tens of millions of dollars… But isn’t it so much easier just to accept the results? (Ha!)

[2] A philosophical society is simply one that accepts the existence of mind. Philosophy pre-dates science because it is required by science. After all, how can we think about the relationships between our beliefs if we don’t share the idea of belief?

[3] The reason that mathematics is deeper than science is that an individual can do it, and there is no universal standard for it. The axioms of ZFC set theory are accepted by a number of mathematicians, but not all. There are plenty of competing theories. 

To go one step further down the rabbit hole, philosophy is a deeper form than mathematics because it is obviously required by mathematics – how can we compare axiom sets other than by philosophical arguments? Mathematics is fundamentally a discussion about how individual thoughts are related within the individual (if A is true and A -> B then B is true) – Philosophy is fundamentally a discussion about thoughts as such within the individual – it allows the individual to decompose his/her own thoughts independently.

[4] Interesting, just as humanity has learned to “game” religion (and so has lost its spirituality) it has learned to “game” science (and so has lost its connection to objective truth). Just look at the sorry shambles that scientific disciplines lie in today – they still do their job, but the life and fire have gone out of them. Can you name 3 important scientists from the past 20 years and outline their contributions?

How does society “game” religion? Religion says that truth comes from god, gods, or some other divine source. Some of this truth exists among the people (common truth), whereas the other part of this truth comes from individuals whose speciality is in gathering it (revelations, theology, etc.) You game religion by claiming that you are one of these individuals, but handing out false information.

How does society “game” science? Similar idea. Since science’s results are not really universally verifiable (they are expensive to verify in terms of resources) you create a class of people who is the “verifiers” and now (since it’s not everyone) you control the source of knowledge. Knowledge = Power and the rest follows.

[5] Atheism may be interpreted as a disease in the following way: 

1. Society attains “science” as its standard for belief and abolishes religion (religion takes resources and does not contribute verifiable knowledge.

2. Some within society who lack knowledge of the divine (if such a thing exists) claim that religion is wrong – they use science as their standard. Since the metaphysical claims of religion are its backbone (e.g. the existence of god), and since these claims cannot be verified, it follows that religion is invalid. 

3. Other members of society are now forced to reject their religion if they hope to think in a way consistent with “science.”

4. Atheists protect themselves by saying “I don’t really care what you believe – but don’t tell me what to believe” which, if you think about it, would prevent them from telling you about their beliefs.

– As an aside – I don’t believe in God, god, YWHW, etc. However, I am not an atheist as I have a sense of the divine. I see it in my cat, I feel it in music, etc. There is something there besides the quantifiable world.

[6] Incidentally, I believe that morality falls above science. Thus, a should can imply an “is” but an “is” cannot imply a should. Right morality is needed for right science, of course (but this is a philosophical question).


One Response

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  1. yang said, on June 25, 2012 at 3:33 am

    thank you so much for reaching out to me when i was so so down, i still want to reply to your email

    i pray you will open your heart to God, god, YWHW, etc,

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