Answering the big questions

I am always distrustful of those who claim there are areas of reality which are not accessible to investigation and possibly understanding. Of course this may well be true, but often those who say this desire to specifically deny humanity the opportunity to rationally investigate parts of reality which they wish to reserve for religion. For example Melanie Phillips, in a recent Spectator tirade defending intelligent design attacks science  for seeking “to commander the space previously reserved for the unknowable, or religion.”

One thing I find really exciting about science is that predictions that we could never investigate or understand phenomena usually turn out to be unwarranted. For example the French philosopher Auguste Comte said 150 years ago about stars:

“We shall never be able to study, by any method, their chemical composition or their mineralogical structure … Out positive knowledge of stars is necessarily limited to their geometric and mechanical phenomena”

This, shortly before the development of spectroscopic methods which proved him wrong!

planckI am reminded of this by a recent post by Phil Plait at the Bad Astronomy blog. In Launch dates he describes the Planck mission which will be launched soon. Planck will be mapping the cosmic microwave backgound (CMB) at a much higher resolution than has previously been possible. This raises the possibility that the fine structure of the CMB may help test different theories about the actual origin of the universe. As Phil says: “We may be on the verge of determining if the origin of the universe was a singular event, or if it was due to some other mechanism.”

He goes on to say:

“We’re on the edge of “holy crap!” territory with this. We have progressed from last century’s having no clue about how the cosmos got its start, to now possibly being able to get a handle on what happened before the Big Bang.

That’s why I love science! Some people try to tell me that science will never answer the big questions we have in life. To them I say: baloney! The real problem is your questions aren’t big enough.”

This does really underline the old saying when it comes to humanity’s incredible desire to investigate and understand. When you are doing science:

Never say never.

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See also: Roger Penrose Lecture – Before the Big Bang: Is There Evidence For Something And If So, What?

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4 responses to “Answering the big questions

  1. Actually, I think that we can be fairly confident that there is no area of reality that is inaccessible to science. The reason, really, comes out of the point you quote Neil deGrasse Tyson on in your previous post. Science basically is just doing whatever it takes to understand something – the point being that scientific methods adapt to the problems they are trying to deal with. To see how this is relevant, a couple of further plausible assumptions are necessary. The first is that for anything be part of reality, we have to be able to interact with it to some degree. Otherwise, it is just hard to see how it is a part of reality, really. Also, we have to assume that if we can interact with something, we can also investigate it. Given those three claims, the conclusion that science should be able to investigate anything and everything follows.

    And in case, anyone is wondering, yes, I am very fond of the Enlightenment. Thanks for asking. 😉

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  2. Melanie Phillips.
    Now there’s a kook with a column!

    Royal Society says to CEI: Cease and desist your lies

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  3. Konrad @ May 7, 2009 at 1:37 am.

    I agree with your comment:
    “I think that we can be fairly confident that there is no area of reality that is inaccessible to science. “

    Certainly we must approach our investigations this way. Anything else would be defeatist. Although it’s possible we may confront problems because of technological limitations or even limitation in our ability to comprehend reality.

    If there is part of reality which doesn’t interact, and therefore can’t interact with us, – well I guess we couldn’t investigate it. But for all intents and purposes it just wouldn’t exist.

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  4. The point that we must approach our investigations in this way is absolutely right and goes beyond what I said. It is also the point that deGrasse Tyson made very powerfully a couple of years ago in a talk at one of the Beyond Belief meetings. He makes the point that Newton did not come to understand why the structure of the solar system is such as it is because he assumed that it had to be the uninvestigable result of God’s fiat.

    As for your final point, I think you are not putting it strongly enough. It isn’t just that a thing with which we can not interact would not exist “for all intents and purposes” but that it is hard to see in what sense it would be part of the same reality as we are. Imagine, for example, that somebody tells me that in the same room as me is a rock that does not exert any forces upon anything else in the room and upon which no part of the room exerts any force. In what sense is that statement meaningful? In what sense is that rock in this room? Quite simply, it does not make sense to talk about a part of reality that does not interact with the rest of it. Reality simply is what we can potentially interact with.

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