The Limits to Science?


How do I come to be writing this post right now?
See the Background “Postamble” at the bottom if necessary 😉

Straight Down to Business:


The Assertion – In one Sentence –

There are limits to science in the sense that some aspects of the world are beyond science.

(Or alternative prior statements in the background below – “there is more to the real (*1) world than science, some kinds of (real / worthwhile / valuable) knowledge – truths – of the world are more than science”)

The Argument – On one Page:

For now, we’re going to avoid arguing over definitions of words and things per se – and focus on the (multiple / variable / overlapping) criteria we use to distinguish between things (*2). We can come back to definitions when we need to record what if anything we think we’ve agreed. There is no point to dialogue / discourse unless we intend to progress and agree something (*3).

That said we will start with “orthodox” science, on the understanding that however I appear to use it here, implicitly or explicitly, it is moveable during the discourse (as it is under real life evolution of science itself). For now I’m seeing the orthodoxy being about predictable, repeatably observable, objectively measurable criteria either directly in terms of the objects of that science, or indirectly with logical relations between those and the observable objects. (Remember that’s just the distinction I’m making one side of the dividing line above, science itself – as a project and processes – definitively includes plenty of other human creativity, imagination and communication resources too.)

Also I’m talking here of the whole world as the natural world (*4) – everything known or conceived of in the world is natural, even supernatural fictions and myths are created by intelligent beings in the natural world. “Supernatural” effectively therefore means non-existent in the real world, we have no interest in them in this discourse other than as creations of minds in this world.

So as discussed above there are no attempts at definitive definitions in any of the blue, yellow, brown boxes, just descriptive statements. I’m sure we can all think of examples from our own experience, but maybe let’s just think of things that might be seen as subjective / spiritual / humanistic populating the brown box. We’re really focussing on that boundary.

Either there is a boundary, a distinction between what is science and what isn’t, OR you envisage everything subjective / spiritual / humanistic being accepted as being a valid part of an updated scientific orthodoxy. There are no other options. An exclusive or.

So if you go for the first option, that there must always be a dividing line between scientific and other knowledge, then you really ought to care about  the explanatory models for both sides and the nature of the relationship between the two – how they are interact or are related / integrated in real life.

Or, I contend, if you go for the option that simply applying – expanding – the term science to all knowledge, including the subjective (crossing Solms’ “Rubicon” completely), then equally you must care about the explanatory model that makes that so. If you don’t, by expanding your scientific criteria to encompass literally the whole world, you’re effectively saying “anything goes” when it comes to scientific criteria. It devalues the special case of scientific knowledge – it effectively says nothing to call knowledge scientific.

Any other option is denial or ignorance of the issue, or a retreat into the box that suits the practical aspects of your own life, which is fine as a personal choice, but gives you no resources to debate the boundary or what lies beyond.

Do Not Pass Go.




The notes can all be (and are) elaborated elsewhere, with references acknowledged, (there is nothing new under the sun, all writing is plagiarism at some level) but for now:

*1 – #OntologicalCommitment
We’re (hopefully, by intention anyway) only talking about the real world. But some of the things that are most fundamental to any world-view are the least well defined in practice. Even in science, time, mass, force, even causation are really only settled by convention. The truths of science are generally explanatory and predictive models of behaviour involving mathematical and often metaphorical objects, even if some of the metaphors eventually reify into reality. However much creativity, imagination and mathematical logic such truths and models involve, and however practically useful they are, the explanatory model is incomplete until properly evidenced assertion of that truth or theory can be followed by:

“and, for now,
that is how I believe
the world really is,
how it really works”

That’s stating the #OntologicalCommitment (after Goldstein). (Think Einstein’s rubber sheets for gravity, say. Quite a lot of science, especially some aspects fundamental physics are pretty well established at the mathematical and predictive / useful value level, but have still never achieved ontological commitment amongst their users, let alone wider public consciousness.)

*2 – #GoodFences
Even with most complex, systematic, apparently comprehensive (but never perfect) world models with a potentially infinite number of things and properties of / relationships between these, at any number of levels of abstraction, every distinction is binary. This not that. The point is not to divide the world – to be divisive – but to be able to recognise and account for all the relationships and processes in play. Every such dividing line or criterion, is one of many that will also intersect with many other, and is subject to revision, exception and re-evaluation. They are #GoodFences (after Robert Frost and G K Chesterton) not rigid barriers to progress. Some such divisions become historically significant, archetypes, ur-types, defining things that get named / symbolised in important theories and models that stand the test of time, but they may all exist in any discourse.

*3 – #RulesOfDiscourse
Beyond scientific, logical and mathematical rules that form causal and explanatory arguments within the evolving body of knowledge, the actual processes of developing and agreeing and evolving these, involves the full gamut of inter-subjective rhetoric, and there are many more rules of constructive behaviour, albeit rules that can be broken and evolved with creativity and good-faith. (See Rules of Engagement).

*4 – #Naturalism
It might seem natural to a scientist, to treat the whole world as the natural world, after all science was the name given to what was previously seen as natural philosophy. In fact it is a choice – a metaphysical choice – to nail nature to the mast, at the top of our edifice. The act of placing it in that position above all, against which we will judge the world and our knowledge of it, gives it paramount / overarching significance in our world view. To emphasise that some even dare to call it #SacredNaturalism. It’s a premise so deep – the turtle on which everything else stands – that to change one’s mind at this point would be more than a Kuhnian paradigm shift, everything would need to be re-written.

(*5 – #SomethingFromNothing
Our discourse above so far avoids any concern for the remaining fundamental question of why and how-come something / anything rather than nothing exists, or what the smallest “atom” of significant difference might be, something rather than nothing. Whether it’s even a meaningful question. But depending on where the discourse goes, the question might arise, so this is just-in-case a placeholder.)

(*6 – #PostPostModernism / #PoPoMo
Again not yet come up in the discourse above, so a just-in-case placeholder. People raising concerns for the brown box above in the context of validity of wider takes on knowledge would typically be branded Post-Modernists or plain weirdos in contrast with the de-facto received-wisdom of Modernists who see the whole as a scientification project. In reality we PoPoMo’s are aiming to reconcile and integrate the two.)

(*7 – #MonismOrDualism
Another just-in-case placeholder. There are many different possible monisms and dualisms, but anyone retreating into one box, may simply be saying the world is actually fundamentally and permanently divided between this box and the vestiges of other box, and it makes no sense to consider relationships between the two.


Post Note: Continuing the original dialogue:

Dennis: My real strength is my experience of relating to and working with people of diverse cultures and mindsets.

Ian: And would you call that science?

Dennis: Absolutely not (laughs).

Ian: So in fact there is real, valuable humanistic stuff beyond science, some might call it wisdom?



Background / Postamble:

I previously covered this topic – limits to science – pretty comprehensively albeit at a high level of abstraction in a presentation I gave to ISSS in November 2022 – it’s even highlighted in the bullets on the Agenda on page 3. (Now in January 2024, I’d probably update those two bullets under “Focus Mainly About Language” to include not just the ever expanding inconclusive talk on “new” or “definitive” systems definitions and methodologies, to add increasing talk of humanistic, subjective and/or spiritual aspects of systems that fail to connect with those listening in orthodox science mode.) A problem for an IS whose scope is SS – Systems Science(s).

Then at Teesside Skeptics in the Pub (TS-SitP) in December 2022, I delivered a talk entitled “Is Scientific Skepticism Enough” using just two slides and wrote it up as an 8-page “page” here on Psybertron. I’ve since shared the same piece on Academia.Edu as a putative paper, part of formalising more of my existing writing.

In the TS-SitP context at the time, it was a response to a topical question about what it means to “be” – to identify as – a Skeptic, and apart from the identity question, my main thrust was a plea that:

in championing scientific knowledge against ideology and pseudo-science and the like, Skeptics should beware falling into scientism, being ideologically committed to science being the only true answer to anything and everything.

(eg in that still current TS-SitP context / environment, in topical language, Anti-Woke is almost as bad as Woke).

The above includes the basic assertion that there is more to the real world than science, some kinds of (real / worthwhile / valuable) knowledge of the world beyond science. That assertion never goes away, in the sense it keeps cropping up in any debate about the world and our knowledge of it. So, following one such conversation a couple of nights ago, this post is a one page reworked extract of that paper focussing on just that assertion.

(More preamble on worldviews / prior-assumptions etc implicit in the above pieces? Better if read the post and ask questions?)


Post Notes:

Taking the dialogue forward with ISSS and/or SitP?
(Past attempts noted above.)

ISSS Washington conference – maybe a paper or led-discussion workshop?

“Finding Language to join-up those with focus on the science and implementation technologies with those focussing on the humanistic (intuitive / tacit / spiritual / subjective) aspects of systems-in-action.”

Maybe seeing the International Society for Systems Sciences (ISSS) evolving to being the “International Society for Understanding Systems” (ISUS)


More on Psybertron:
This post is effectively one of a connected set of 4.

1 More than (Orthodox) Science ?

2 Humanistic Cybernetics ?

3 Synergy or Emergence ?

4 What’s in a name (Psybernetics) ?

(All my posts are connected, obviously, but these 4 specifically form a linked thread. They reflect a real-life developing dialogue, but there is a logical dialectic in the argument, so in order, do not pass go, etc. And because they were written as four stand-alone posts, there’s a fair bit of repetition in content and preamble – clearly can condense into one longer paper.)


2 thoughts on “The Limits to Science?”

  1. “in championing scientific knowledge against ideology and pseudo-science and the like, Skeptics should beware falling into scientism, being ideologically committed to science being the only true answer to anything and everything.”

    I think I can unequivocally agree with this.

  2. Fascinating to comment on a post from January this year and agree with a phrase quoted from an SitP presentation I did for SitP in December 2022.
    But every step is progress – thanks 🙂

    I’m going to miss 2nd Thursdays of both June and July – so Terry suggested I did “there’s more than science” for our August or September meeting.
    (Also suggested, given that I’m majoring on Pirsig the first half of this year I should maybe explain where his work fits the story?)
    Might be too much, but I’m game.

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