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The limits of science: Carolyn Porco

Space scientist

Those of us engaged in the practice of science come to feel a certain reverence for it, engendered by its demonstrable power to dissect, clarify and explain what previously was unexplainable, and thus to improve the human condition. But one arena where it is pointless to direct legitimate scientific inquiry is the question of “why” in the physical realm. Science is not the means by which we come to understand why physical laws and circumstances are the way they are. When we ask why – assuming the question is really “why” and not “how” – we are really asking to know the motive of some responsible agent capable of reason. Take as an example a question often heard in attempting to justify the existence of God: if there is no God, why is the universe here? Scientific inquiry can’t be expected to answer such a question, not because its methodology is inherently flawed or feeble, but because the question is absurd and the reasoning underlying it is circular.

In asking that question, we are, first, guilty of anthropomorphism, ascribing human-like motivation to an observed phenomenon. But there doesn’t have to be a motive or a reason for the existence of a natural physical phenomenon, and so the question is ill-posed because its premise is faulty: it presumes there was a motive and hence a creator with attributes such as motives, but there needn’t be either. The logic is circular. Moreover, even if there were an agent who created the universe, science can’t be expected to shed light on its motive for taking such an action. Motive may be inferred only when the stimuli in the agent’s environment are open to view and the influences leading an agent to a particular action can be evaluated. But we have no such contextual information and no such insight. We can have fun speculating about why things are the way they are, but don’t look to science to provide any answers.

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