The Universe Around Us: An Integrative View of Science & Cosmology

Chapter 8: Limits of Applicability of Science

We end with an assessment of limits of what can be achieved by the scientific method because of the limits of its domain of applicability.

The scientific viewpoint, despite its enormous successes in terms of immediate understanding and control of the physical world (and the consequent understanding of physical reality, as outlined in the preceding chapters), cannot give all the answers we want. Within its own domain, there are all the limitations discussed in Chapter 6, but that is not the present issue; here we are concerned with the limitations of that domain.

Section 8.1 Science’s Limited Domain

Firstly, science is limited to its domain of application (the measurable behaviour of physical objects) and so cannot handle features of a quite different nature, such as

- the appreciation of beauty,

- the greatness of literature,

- the joy of cooking,

- the lessons of history,

- the quality of meditation,

- the understanding of love.


These are of significance to humanity, but lie outside the scope of science (which can explore some of the associated conditions for each of these topics, but cannot in each case enter the core of the topic itself). Science is very powerful in its domain, but that domain is strictly limited. For example, there are no machines that can measure the beauty of a painting, or that can experimentally determine how evil an act is. Indeed there are no units for beauty (`two milli-Rembrants') or for good and evil (`one micro-Hitler'). The attempt to set up such experiments on a purely scientific basis would be absurd. That does not mean making judgements in these areas is absurd: on the contrary they are all important parts of human life. The point simply is that they lie outside the strictly limited domain of science itself, even though one can make interesting connections between them [website].

These areas do however in some sense depend on the concepts of emergent order and meaning in hierarchical systems. The scientific understanding of complex systems governed by physical laws (as in biology) allows for emergent structure at higher levels of the hierarchical layers of organisation, incorporating new layers of meaning at the different levels of structure (cf. Chapter 4), enabled by the existence of top-down causation as well as bottom-up causation in complex systems; but science does not explain such meaning in a serious sense. Furthermore the limits of what will be achieved in understanding such structure at a functional level are as yet undetermined. At present science cannot cope with issues such as consciousness and freewill. It is an open question if it will ever do so; it is not clear if they lie in its domain of explanation or not.

Section 8.2 The Foundations of Science

Secondly, physics does not in the end even explain physical laws. It is easy to be misled by the descriptions of physical laws given by physics, into thinking these explain their action in some deep sense; whereas they are in reality simply a form of naming and describing, of labelling what happens and characterising its effective nature [22]. This is helpful in understanding and modelling what occurs, but does not get at the essence of how the laws really work. To name some interaction "the force of gravity" helps us to predict what will happen, but does not in the end really tell us how matter is able to exert an attractive force on other matter a long way away; relabelling it "the effect of the gravitational field" does not alter this situation.

And thirdly, underlying the physical view of the world is a layer of structure, a Metaphysics (lying at a deeper level than physics), that is related to the following metaphysical issues:


* why does anything exist at all ?
     - why does matter exist?
     - why does the Universe exist?

* what underlies the nature of physical laws ?
     - why do any laws exist at all?
     - why do they seem to have a mathematical nature?
     - in what way is their compulsory operation imbedded in reality?

* what determines the nature of the specific laws that in fact govern the Universe ?
     - why do they have the specific form they do?


Physics itself cannot answer any of these questions, because there are no experiments that could lead to answers to these questions. They do not belong to the domain of the physical sciences. Nevertheless the chain of causation is incomplete if we do not attempt answers to these questions.

Section 8.3 Unavoidable Metaphysical Choices

The point is that physics can comment on what physical laws are actually in operation, but not on where they come from or why they exist. One can contemplate properties of families of physical laws, but one can only organise this investigation by proposing higher level laws (laws for laws of physics!); immediately the issue then is, so what controls these higher level laws? This is clear, if one contemplates the scientific method and the restrictions on verifiability considered previously (and ultimately grounded in the uniqueness of the Universe and so also of the laws of physics in the Universe).

Such metaphysical issues have to be decided on the basis of criteria that lie outside the domain of physics itself. It must be emphasized that these limitations on what science can achieve will be unaffected by scientific and technological progress:


  • It is because of the very nature of science that these limits exist; they will therefore remain, irrespective of scientific advances that may be made in the future. Essentially, investigations of the foundations of science are beyond the scope of science itself.

This is why Anthropic questions cannot be decided on purely scientific grounds; they inevitably end up being concerned with the fundamental issues raised here, that transcend the domain where physics (or any other physical science) by itself can give us the answer.


  • Because of the limits to what science can achieve, imposed by its limited domain of applicability, the scientific method by itself can only give an inconclusive answer to the Anthropic question.

A broader approach is required to attain a satisfactory answer. That is where philosophy comes into its own, together with assessment of a host of data that does not fall within the strictly scientific domain. That is a different topic than what is covered in these notes.