The Limits of Human Science


In an attempt to carry on a dialogue with the scientific empiricists among us, I would humbly like to submit a few thoughts and arguments about what I perceive to be the limitations of science and the scientific method. This is not necessarily intended to be an argument in favor of religion or mysticism – only an attempt to question the degree to which some of us, paradoxically, put our absolute faith in scientific knowledge, to the exclusion of anything else. Nor is this intended to question the validity of the scientific method – it’s really about questioning some of the basic assumptions we make about science.

One of the basic steps in the scientific method is “observation”. Empirical science is entirely predicated on observation, as it is the first step in the process, followed by the steps of “analysis” and “inference”. Newton, for example, developed his laws of motion when he observed an apple falling from a tree, as the legend goes, which is an anecdotal way of pointing out that, essentially, Newton’s laws of motion reflect his rational explanation, in the language of Mathematics, of the behavior of physical objects in the observed universe – the key point being that it is a rationalization (i.e. mathematical explanation) of observations.

Einstein added a unique twist to the scientific method in that he often worked from what he called “thought experiments”. Einstein was also a major proponent of the role of the imagination in science, which was a significant departure from the scientific method preceding him – much more driven by empiricism, i.e. experiment and observation. The scientific method, as it stands today appears to follow an iterative paradigm in which we have such steps as “Think of Interesting Questions” and “Formulate Hypotheses”, etc. However, it still appears to be fundamentally predicated on the apparently all-important step of “Making Observations”.

Now here’s the thing about making observations – they are essentially subjective. Every scientific observation ever made on record has been made by a human being with five senses and with a uniquely human point of view. It might be argued that scientific instruments provide us with a more objective means of observing reality, but let’s keep in mind that every scientific instrument ever built was designed and built by human beings with five senses (or by machines designed and built by similar human beings) and intended to be read by other human beings with five senses. Thus, in design, architecture and interface, every scientific instrument ever built essentially serves and reinforces the human five-sensory perception of reality. Einstein’s approach of deploying the creative imagination lends his theoretical work a uniquely original, out-of-the-box perspective. Nevertheless, in order to be accepted as mainstream science, Einstein’s theories had to be subjected to mathematical elaboration and empirical validation (by means of scientific experiments and instruments designed by human beings with a five-sensory perspective on reality).

Following Einstein’s example, if we allow our imagination to take flight, at this stage, and conduct a small thought experiment … let’s imagine that somewhere in our vast universe there is an intelligent alien life form of some sort – a silicon-based life-form, for argument’s sake, with eleven senses, three hearts and five brains operating in parallel, like nodes in a computer server cluster. In other words, a life form as far removed from our own as we can imagine. Let’s imagine that they eat raw sand and other silicates for breakfast and that they can see a different range of electromagnetic frequencies than we human beings can (e.g. radio frequencies, UV frequencies, etc.) and hear a different range of audio frequencies than we can, much like bats, for example. Let’s even imagine that their sense of touch is not “in tune” with ours, so that they might be able to walk through walls or on water. Would the perception and experience of reality of such an alien being be remotely similar to our own? Of course not. Therefore, would their observation of nature be remotely in sync with our own? Obviously not.

If, therefore, this alien being had a profoundly different observational experience of reality than our own, and if, as we understand, observation is the integral step in the scientific method, does it not follow that any science developed by this alien intelligence would have absolutely no correlation or similarity with our own concept of science? Is it not reasonable to suppose that this alien science would be fundamentally different from what we must now term “human science” – different in ways that we cannot possibly imagine? Indeed, it may be the case that not only will an alien intelligence arrive at different physical principles than our own, based on their very different observation of reality, but, in my opinion, we cannot even be sure that the mathematical systems they develop will have any correlation with our own. We would tend to suppose that 2+2=4 is a universal fact, but can we be sure of that? Unless we happen to encounter an alien intelligence that corroborates that as a universal fact, we cannot be absolutely certain – it remains an assumption.

If we then conclude that our present understanding of “human science” is limited by our five-sensory experience of reality, and if, one day, we happened to develop a sixth sense, out of the blue, is it not possible that our new perspective of reality, afforded to us now by our six senses, might render all of existing human science as simplistic or incomplete or even, possibly, deeply flawed in some way that we now cannot fathom in our five-sensory state? In which case, how can we have any clue that what we now consider to be indisputable fact is not utterly absurd from a more enlightened point of view, even as the Renaissance theory of the bodily humors or the Medieval ideas about medicinal blood-letting are from our post-modern point of view?

Thus, if we consider any of the so-called “conspiracy theories” or “mystical ideas” out there, such as Deepak Chopra’s ideas about alternative healing or David Icke’s theory that the moon might be an artificial satellite or Masaru Emoto’s ideas on the effect of human consciousness on the crystalline structure of water – are we justified in claiming that such ideas contradict modern science? Isn’t it more accurate to state that such ideas contradict human science as we currently understand it – in its current stage of development? Does that invalidate these alternative ideas or render them inaccurate? Surely not! Unless and until we can find solid evidence definitively to demonstrate the fallacy of such ideas, we must at least concede that they are possible, however improbable we may consider them to be. And even if we do find the evidence to refute any of these ideas, how can we be certain that we are not misreading or misinterpreting the evidence or the idea?

Given all of these considerations, is it reasonable for some of us to assert that our current understanding of modern science gives us the right and ability to ridicule any ideas that may seem to be absurd from the modern scientific perspective? Or should we not, at least, try to be more open-minded and accepting of apparently unconventional ideas, considering that some of them may have the potential to be enormously beneficial to humankind?

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