There’s been some buzz going through the blogosphere, following an essay by Steven Pinker on “Scientism”. On the one side of the debate are those who believe scientism is a higher state of consciousness, and on the other side those who think it’s a scientifically transmitted disease with a symptomatic itch that shouldn’t be scratched publicly. And I think they all failed to address the main point: Where are the limits of science? And how do we find them?
If I read essays by philosophers and social scientists and other academics in what is vaguely considered “soft science” I often can’t but sense a certain ring of panic. The physicists are coming, is what I read, they’re planning to take over with mathematics. Then they rush to ensure themselves and everybody else that no, no, some things can’t be described by mathematics. This appeals to the public because nobody likes to be predictable and many people are afraid of math. The softies line with the masses and end up being the good guys for perpetuating cognitive illusions, while the physicists are marked delusional reductionists. Welcome to the 21st century.
Oh yes, the softies will admit, there are meanwhile many mathematical models in the social sciences, and neuroscience has already made some discussions about consciousness entirely redundant. But look, they’ll say, these can only tell you something about statistics (scary math word). Human behavior can’t be modeled mathematically. After all we’ve got free will (unproved). We understand the models about us (irrelevant). Humans are special (said the human), the brain is complex (whatever that means), and it’s got qualia (defined by being unmeasurable). And, most importantly, humans are not elementary particles. (Always good to finish an argument with a completely irrelevant statement that everybody must agree on.)
The problem with these elaborations, besides making me wonder what these people get paid for, is that we presently know of no reason why some observations, like human behavior, cannot be modeled mathematically. But neither does anybody know for sure that it is possible. What we do know however is that it certainly is not presently possible. And that’s what determines the limits of science: our present possibilities, what we can do in practice, and not unknown and quite possible unknowable principles.
It shouldn’t be relevant to my argument, because I’m telling you what matters is what we can do in practice and not what we can do in principle. But just so you don’t misread me: I don’t believe that everything can be described by mathematics (for reasons I’ve laid out here). I’m just saying that we presently don’t know of any reason why it should not possible to describe human behavior mathematically.
Personally, I think it is possible but useless in that such a model would in the best case be a copy of the real system and would not deliver predictions. It would be like trying to understand the sun by simulating it in true resolution and real time on a computer cluster. Then you can either watch the sun or your computer, but besides this you haven’t really gained anything. If you believe that we live in a matrix as study-objects, then we live here because it was not possible to find a simpler way to analyze behavior of human societies than just creating and watching them.
So much about my beliefs. But these are beliefs because we don’t know whether they’re true, and in any case these limits that might exist in principle are far beyond the limits that presently exist in practice.
And of course science has limits. It has limits because our understanding is incomplete. These limits of science aren’t fixed and they are constantly shifting as we learn more about the world that we live in. In that process, topics that were previously inaccessible to the scientific method become accessible, and that creates friction in the communities.
Imagine the world of knowledge as having a core of hard science, surrounded by a belt of soft science, that goes over into interpretations, narrative, opinions, speculations, and eventually fantasy. The hard core expands as we learn: What once was a matter of interpretation becomes measurable. What once seemed beyond computational possibility becomes computable. What once was merely a story becomes supported by evidence. Problems arise if researchers refuse to use the best scientific methods of the day in their field. Then they are simply acting unprofessionally. And when they notice they’ve missed the boat they panic.
Where are the limits of science right now? That’s the discussion that we should have. And it’s not an easy one.
Let me give you three examples of what’s presently off-limits for mathematical modeling.
One is history. You could in principle imagine that it was possible to create a model about human behavior, say, in war-times, that produces outcomes that we can observe today, for example how people expressed themselves in the literature. Then you could analyze the literature to draw conclusions about the circumstances back then. Needless to say, converting experience into writing is so difficult to model mathematically that nobody can do this, and nobody even knows if it is possible. So instead historians go and read the literature and study the paintings, and try to interpret them by taking into account as much as they know, most notably about being human, something that they can do better than any software or equation. At least for now.
The second one is personal identity. Nobody really knows what it takes for a human brain to create a sense of self-awareness and the experience of being an individual actor in possession of a body. Neuroscience has collected a lot of information on that matter, but we’re far off from being able to mathematically model these processes. Much of the literature on the subject is interpretation of data or case-studies. But wait some decades and I’m sure we’ll know much more about what enables “you” to think of “yourself”.
The third example is politics. One often hears that science can only deliver the facts, but humans still have to make the decisions because they have to take into account “morals” and “values” that are off-limits for science. This is however empty vocabulary. Values and morals are just simplifying concepts that arise in our cultures. They are in the first line words that primarily serve the purpose of communicating opinions. Morals and values change over time, people tend to interpret them individually differently, and they might regard them more or less helpful for their self-expression. But there is nothing – in principle! – that prohibits science from predicting the emergence of certain morals and values. Again though, in practice, nobody can do this.
And that’s why science cannot replace politics. Because when you express your opinion about a possible change, you are projecting yourself into the future and try to find out whether or not it would be an improvement. Or, in the Darwinian mindset, whether you’ll be more or less well adapted to your environment. For this projection you need to know some facts, and these facts science can provide – with errorbars. But what science cannot do is to project you and your experience into the future. The best way that we presently know to do this projection is to ask people to do it themselves. There are pitfalls to this, because we are not actually good at predicting what we will think in ten years from now. But presently it’s the best we can do.
The last example also tells you why it is important to know the present limits of science. Because it raises the question what we know about human decision making and whether we can use that knowledge to make better decisions.
In summary. Science has limits, but they change over time. Knowing where the present limits of science are is important because that’s where opinions and interpretations become relevant to decision making. Excuse me for publicly scratching my itches.