The Limits of Science

Ronald W. Dworkin at National Affairs: “In the modern world, science has become the ultimate guide for describing reality. It’s easy to see the appeal. Science has a beautiful clarity and economy; its laws are straightforward and unchanging. It reveals the workings of the world around us with such calmness and exactness, and with such an appearance of impartiality, that we feel satisfied with its answers and seek nothing more.

Newtonian mechanics represent the nearest approach to this ideal of science ever achieved. Given the masses, positions, and motions of objects, their future positions and motions can be calculated with extraordinary precision. Sir Isaac Newton’s method was a revolution. Before Newton, science was conducted in an altogether different way; investigators speculated rather than experimented. It was Newton who stripped objects of all but their most basic attributes — mass and density — and timed their fall, drawing conclusions from what he observed rather than from what he imagined. By reducing objects to a few measurable characteristics, he was able to discover the universal laws that governed the behavior of all objects.

An analogous revolution occurred in political thought around the same period. While ancient philosophers tried to define virtue, Thomas Hobbes, whose lifetime spanned Newton’s early years, took the opposite approach. Stripping people of all but their most basic (and base) attributes — selfishness and vanity — he claimed to explain mankind’s mechanics, as it were, and the structure of civilization. His rules of the social contract explained how the basic machine of society works, just as Newton’s laws of motion explained how the machine of the universe works.

The scientific revolution has now entered a second phase. It has moved beyond the hard sciences and Hobbesian philosophy and become the unifying principle of many activities in daily life. Through the relatively new disciplines of psychology, neuroscience, human science, and social science, it has inserted itself into how people think and behave at the individual level, affecting everything from interpersonal relationships to psychological health to education. The scientific revolution permeates our lives, shaping our sense of reality and truth. But sometimes it does so in ways that result in sheer absurdity. This is because of flaws within the scientific method itself — in other words, at the scientific revolution’s core. These flaws rarely show up in hard science, but they grow more obvious, and more problematic, as humanity takes the place of inanimate objects as the method’s primary target. 

To better understand what has happened, it will help to take a brief look back at the scientific revolution’s first phase….(More)”.