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The limits of science: Denis Alexander

Director, Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund's College, Cambridge

Science by definition can provide, in principle at least, complete nomological explanations for those items that lie within its domain. But most things that require explanation lie outside the competency of science, including axiological explanations, such as why the First World War happened, why rape is wrong, why I think this painting is beautiful and you don’t, and why the economy is in such a mess. Nor will science ever explain why something exists rather than nothing, because its scope is to investigate “somethings” once they exist, be they quantum fluctuations, mathematical relationships, laws of nature, or elementary particles. The ability to provide explanations regarding things that exist is not the same as explaining why anything exists rather than nothing.

There is nothing that science should not try to explain, provided that it seems reasonable to suppose that what needs explaining lies within the domain of science. Unfortunately, not all scientists have made that distinction, leading to a waste of time and public money, in addition bringing embarrassment to the scientific community. Care should also be taken in distinguishing between science and scientism, the idea that the scientific explanation is the only one that counts. In practice, complex systems require explanations at many different levels, only some of which count as scientific explanations. A scientific explanation of the workings of my brain cannot provide, in principle, an exhaustive explanation. The “I” language of personal agency is complementary to the “it” language of the neuroscientist, providing its own explanations for things based on qualia and conscious experience. It is the explanatory, non-science “I” language of our personal biographies that we care most deeply about.

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This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue

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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.