STOP signs

Several decades ago, I was driving along a country road looking for a cabin owned by a friend of mine. The directions he had given me were vague at best. I came to a spot where the very rustic road vanished completely. I saw an old sign that read:


I sort of parked the car, and proceeded to walk along a well-marked foot path a couple of dozen yards to a clearing, where I could see the cabin in the distance.

I had been somewhat annoyed when I started walking, since I had a lot of gear in the car I would need to haul to the cabin, but I soon got over it, and for the week I stayed there, I came to appreciate the total silence and solitude that came with being “off road”.

When it comes to knowledge we have become used to a certain way of moving forward. We have the smooth, well-paved road of science, which many think can go everywhere we might want to visit. We travel down that road on our conveyances of rational induction, objective reproducibility, and other vehicles mass-produced by the Scientific Method Transportation Co. And we almost always get where we want to go, or at least where the road takes us.

But almost always is not always. There are a few roads in our scientific universe that also have STOP signs. Signs that say “Go no further in your vehicle.” In order to continue we need to dismount, and go on foot, or with some other kind of conveyance.

This is not a popular idea among some modern atheists – those who subscribe to a view that many theists call scientism. One definition of scientism could be the belief that such STOP signs do not exist and cannot exist, that everything we ever might want or need to know about anything can be achieved with the scientific method, and only with the scientific method.

I once had a strange conversation with a scientism-believing atheist about how we could possibly evaluate the quality of art using objective, scientific criteria. He informed me that it was easy – in order to get a good quantitative measure of the artistic value of a painting, simply find out its current market price and compare it to the average market value of other paintings. He was serious.

In fact, it isn’t only art, values, and philosophical ideas that resist scientism. Most importantly, science itself proves its falsity. Physics has told us that there are some things we cannot know: there are STOP signs we cannot pass using science. The position of an electron cannot be known at the same time as its momentum, ever, anywhere, by anyone. The Uncertainty Principle is not in place because we need to do more research; it’s the result of research and it won’t change.

Just recently another unexpected STOP sign showed up in physics. A paper in Nature called “Undecidability of the Spectral Gap” proved mathematically that it is sometimes impossible to determine the properties of the energy difference between the ground state and first excited state of a system, which is called the spectral gap. I don’t know nearly enough physics to be able to understand what this means, but I think I understand the basic conclusion of the paper: “Our result implies that there exists no algorithm to determine whether an arbitrary model is gapped or gapless…”

So we now have an undecidability issue, along with an uncertainty principle and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem in mathematics. All of this is strictly within science. None of this is unexpected – scientists have always known that there must be limits to how far they can go in understanding all aspects of reality (see my previous post about constants). Science is often unable to address ‘why’ questions, especially those associated with human emotions and purpose. I think that as we go further in biology we will come across a few STOP signs also. There are some aspects of cellular biology that are starting to look as complex as quantum mechanics.

So the question is, if and when we come to a STOP sign and can go no further in our scientific-rational-materialism vehicles, should we still try to make progress? If we don’t want to give up and say “Well, we can go no further with science, so we’ll just turn around and go home”, then how do we proceed? What kind of vehicle should we find? I don’t know the answer, but I do know there are a lot of options. We can try the bicycle of philosophy, the skateboard of psychology, or sometimes we might want to use the moped of theology. I would say whatever works is worth a try, even if it means striking out on foot, with whatever crazy, personal, brand new idea that nobody has ever thought of in our backpack. We might not get there, but the trip is worth the effort. And who knows what we will find past the STOP sign.

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8 Responses to STOP signs

  1. Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks for this Sy – would that it were more appreciated both amongst scientists and the general public, taught a kind of folk-scientism from childhood upwards.

    Your atheist friend using market value as a proxy for artistic merit is, I think, more representative of the dangers – even for non-atheists – than you would suppose from its stupidity. He was, after all, actually using “$” as a signifier for all kinds of real, important and deep human judgements about aesthetics, economics, heritage and so on: in other words, he was modelling the system by a simplified formula like: (A+E+H)=$. That might be useful in practice – if someone’s willing to pay big bucks for a painting it’s likely to be a good one, so a non-conoisseur might well make a profit by investing on the basis of “$”.

    But to pretend he understands anything more about art because he has a formula predicting it (approximately) is just rather sad. But isn’t that what science does all the time, when it abstracts reality (almost infinitely mysterious) to a mathematical treatment? Newton’s laws of gravity, for example, make the world a point-size gravitational object – useful for predicting orbits, but at the cost of understanding the world by making everything in it disappear!

    • That is a very good point Jon, and one that I plan to address here at some point. You are of course correct that our science is based on models of reality not reality itself, and all of our “laws” are laws about the models. Usually that works fine…until it doesnt.

      The ideal gas law (a basic lase of chemistry) assumes that molecules are points and dont interact at all with each other. The results of this law are “close enough” to the real results to be useful, so we can use it. I think one reason biology is so resistant to mathematical laws ( see previous post on this) is that its really hard to come up with models for how cells work. Even the idea of a species is ultimately a model, that is actually a quite nebulous concept.

      I guess this isnt suprising. Probably the famous title of Wigner’s article should be changed to “The unreasonable almost effectiveness of mathematics….”

  2. Almost Iowa says:

    “One definition of scientism could be the belief “

    It sort of says it all doesn’t it? A belief that belief is ultimately unnecessary. Hmmmm…..

    Even a painfully rational person would be forced to conclude that until we know everything, we will have to believe in things – and as long as we believe in things we might as well keep our beliefs healthy and there is a method for that, it is called religion.

    • Great comment Greg, thanks. Yup, that makes sense to me. And of course if we ever do get to know everything (which I doubt will happen) we won need religion any more, because we will be God.

  3. Aniko Albert says:

    By your scientistic correspondent’s logic, of course, we could determine the relative cultural-intellectual value of a TED talk on evolutionary psychology and the latest news about the Kardashians based on the number of views they receive. And how about comparing world views themselves? We could look at the bank account of the American Humanist Association and the LDS church, and quickly get a good quantitative measure of the value of the two belief systems, right?

    Perhaps on that revered list of fallacies that scientific rationalist atheist love to cite, Argumentum ad populum (which they would quickly recognize if someone said there are more believers than atheists in the world) should be joined by Argumentum ad mercatum. Someone should edit the Wiki… 🙂

  4. Pingback: Elegance | The Book of Works

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