The limits of science: Peter J Bussey

Particle physicist

New Statesman
Physics cannot deal with our conscious mental nature. Photo: Getty Images

When we are investigating a phy­sical system, physics tries to answer three kinds of question – composition, arrangement and behaviour. In other words, what is it made of, how are the parts put together and what laws of nature are operating? The answers provide a “physical explanation” of the system and its properties, and in this way physics achieves much insight into the world around us. In fact, there are those who claim that everything reduces to physics. But there are areas where physics cannot give answers, one such being metaphysics: questions about physics.

More importantly, physics cannot deal with our conscious mental nature and our nature as human persons. The nature of consciousness is beyond the methodology and conceptual apparatus of physics, which confines itself to objective, universal facts, whereas my conscious awareness is associated just with me. Cleverer physical theories are of no avail here – physics has a limited remit and is not set up to address what it really means to be human. Procrustean philosophies that try to cut humanity down to fit into a bed of physics are a dangerous illusion and should be shunned. They are true neither to humanity nor to physics.

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