Unanswered Questions in Science

creation, creator, creature, genesis

To answer the question ‘To be or not to be?’ we cannot turn to a science textbook.
—Fr. Stanley Jaki, “The Limits of a Limitless Science”

INTRODUCTION:  QUESTIONS AND MORE QUESTIONS

Someday in Heaven, Purgatory, or the other place, I hope to meet Richard Dawkins, the noted scientism evangelist and pose some questions about science.   Since each of these deserves a chapter or a book,  I’ll not do much more here than list them.  Please  look for fuller discussions of each at a later date.

WHY DOES SCIENCE WORK?

Here’s the most basic and comprehensive of these questions:  why does science work, why, in the words of Galileo, are “The laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics“?

Some scientists do realize that this is a mystery.   As the Nobel Prize winner and mathematical physicist, Eugen Wigner, commented:

…it is not at all natural that “laws of nature” exist, much less that man is able to discover them. —Eugen Wigner, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”

Indeed, the “anti-realist” school of philosophers (Nancy Cartwright, Bas van Frassen, Arthur Fine) maintain there are no “Laws of Nature.”   What we call “Laws,” these philosophers call devices “to save the phenomena”, i.e. pictures that give a concise, empirically verified description of phenomena.  Moreover, Cartwright asserts that there is a “dappled universe:”  one set of rules here, another there.

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF IT ALL?

Does evolution (including that of the universe) have a goal, a purpose?  Teilhard Chardin and Thomas Nagel say yes, arbiters of “true” science say no.  Chardin posits an “Omega Point,” the final end of evolution in which man and all creation become united with Christ.   Nagel argues that the Darwinian model for evolution fails and that science needs to be refashioned to include teleology, purpose, goals.

But teleology is a naughty word.   That an intelligence fashioned the universe to provide a setting for carbon based life (the Strong Anthropic Principle) is nonsense, according to some scientists.  Since we can’t make universes, we can’t empirically verify hypotheses about how they’re made.  Nevertheless, one can make unconventional probability arguments to justify our belief the the Universe was designed by an Intelligence, whom we can call God.

IS THERE A SOUL? WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS?

Since a soul is immaterial, scientists can’t measure it or detect its effects.  Therefore some say the question “Is there a soul?” is meaningless. And they say this even though there are other properties of a soul that one can detect, if not quantify.

Here’s a free association test:  soul—mind, consciousness, self-awareness. These are all aspects or parts of what we think of as a soul.  But (as David Chalmers puts it) consciousness is the “Hard Problem” for philosophers and neuroscientists.  Why?  Because “qualia,” those internal perceptions of things, are entirely personal—subjective, not objective.  As Thomas Nagel so aptly said, we can’t know “what it’s  like to be a bat.”   We can’t know what someone else’s perception of “red” is (see Jackson’s “The Mary Problem”).

Now there’s a connection between soul, consciousness and AI (Artificial Intelligence).  The proponents of “strong AI” claim that the brain is nothing more than a meat computer.  Therefore we will be able to program computers and robots, like those of Asimov’s famous science fiction series, that are self-aware and, forgive the blasphemy, have souls.  Since I have reproduced strong arguments against this view here and here,  I won’t repeat these in this post.

 WHENCE ENTROPY, “THE ARROW OF TIME?”*

Hey: the sugar dissolved in your coffee is spontaneously collecting into crystals..  No, that’s something you’ll never see.  What law prohibits this? The Second Law of Thermodynamics, which can not be derived from fundamental equations of physics.  All the “Murphy’s Laws”  telling you it’s natural for order to become disorder are examples of a fundamental principle, the Second Law.   And this law is an axiom, like the parallel lines theorem in Euclidean geometry.  It’s something we can’t prove from other laws, but know to be true from experience.

So, what does the  Second Law tell us?   It tells us that entropy (S) is a measure of disorder, as in the Boltzmann equation, S=klnW.  Here W is the “thermodynamic probability,”  the number of different microscopic arrangements for a system that give the same apparent macroscopic appearance. (This equation is engraved on Boltzmann’s tombstone and tattooed on my younger son’s arm.)  If a gas expands (at a constant temperature) there are many more different positions a given gas molecule can occupy, and so the quantity W increases and entropy, S, increases.   The same argument applies to liquid water evaporating to a vapor.  Note that heat is supplied to make a gas expand or water vaporize, so there’s a relation between entropy changes and heat transfer.

What else is important about entropy?  There’s a relation between entropy and information, first stated by Claude Shannon in 1948.   Now this relation is more than a formal similarity between equations defining information and entropy.   As a computer does its thing,  energy/entropy changes occur in the environment.   The Landauer Principle gives the connection:

Any logically irreversible manipulation of information, such as the erasure of a bit or the merging of two computation paths, must be accompanied by a corresponding entropy increase…[in] the information-processing apparatus or its environment.—Charles Bennett, “Notes on Landauer’s principle, Reversible Computation and Maxwell’s Demon”

Interestingly, Landauer’s Principle has been verified experimentally by a group of European scientists.

QUANTUM REALITY: VEILED OR TRANSPARENT?

The French physicist/philosopher Bernard d’Espagnat has told us that quantum mechanics reveals a veiled reality. How is this so?  To explain it fully I need more than the few paragraphs allotted to this topic, so I’ll refer the reader to my web-book, “The Quantum Catholic” for a more complete description of what quantum mechanics is all about.  But here’s what d’Espagnat had to say in his Templeton Award Address:

Strange as it may seem, when you strive at consistently explicating quantum physics along these lines –that is, taking into account the idea that the elements of reality represented by the mathematical symbols appearing in the theory really exist somewhere in space –you meet with near to insuperable difficulties.

from the beginning of quantum mechanics scientists have posited a connection between the conscious mind and the role of the observer in determining quantum mechanical outcomes in experiments. As d’Espagnat puts it in “Quantum Theory and Reality:”

The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.”

FINAL THOUGHTS

I haven’t addressed questions that science not yet answered, but might be able to in the future: for example, what is dark matter, what is dark energy, is there a theory of quantum gravity?  These are questions to which new theories or new facts may yield answers, unlikely as that might seem at present.

What I have tried to address are questions where science intersects philosophy and, if you will, theology.   Questions which, by their very nature, science can’t answer.  And this is part of my continuing crusade, to show  that science can’t every question and therefore scientism is a false religion.

NOTE

*Why do we call entropy “The Arrow of Time?”  Because the spontaneous transition for an isolated system, order →disorder, always goes from past to future with a corresponding increase in entropy. And so some predict the universe will face a heat death, temperature near absolute zero, when entropy finally reaches its maximum.

 

 

 

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11 thoughts on “Unanswered Questions in Science”

  1. I see a comment in Catholic Answers Forum that the 2nd Law can be derived from statistical mechanics, and therefore should not be one of “questions science can’t answer.”
    The 2nd Law for reversible processes can be derived from statistical mechanics. For irreversible processes (the ones that show “time’s arrow” where the principle of micrsocopic reversibility, t< --> -t)seems to be violated, not so much. special conditions are required: either an assumption of a priori “equal probabilities,” i.e. initially uncorrelated particles (wherein Boltzmann’s derivation of the 2nd Law from an H-theorem was flawed) or from the fluctuation/dissipation theorem. But this latter applies only to 1st order deviations from equilibrium. For those who would like to pursue this further (I don’t imagine there are many) read Chapter 27 (I think that’s the right one) in Roger Penrose’s magnificent text on math physics, “The Road to Reality.”

  2. I differ with Guy McClung. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem proves that mathematics is unbounded, not that mathematics has “absolute limits”.

  3. Ludwig Boltzmann suffered from deep psychological depression much of his life, most intensely in his later years. In despair, he committed suicide in 1906. I pray for him.

  4. Bob-Yes. BUT. It is fun to see the scientistic scientists squirm when confronted with the irrefutability of the theorems.

    Math is the “language of science” so, if you demonstrate, as Goedel did, limits of math which cannot be overcome, you implicitly demonstrate limits of scientific endeavor and or scientific knowledge. Scientistic scientists (again: this is NOT all scientists, only those who profess the religion of science, who bow at the altar of the lab bench to whatever, and some of whom go on to proclaim that therefore there is no god), when faced with this, fall back on their dogmas that science will eventually get to the truth and/or that’s all there is.

    Guy, Texas

  5. The predominate mode of human knowledge in this life is reason. Due to its extrinsic dependence upon animal sensation, it is severely limited. Your rhetorical setting for questioning Dawkins eliminates these limitations and introduces the fascinating topic of our mode of knowledge after death, which is intuition. Your questions regarding time and quantum mechanics arise only within the context of reason due to its dependence upon material sensation. Though irrelevant to our understanding of material reality through intuition after death, we would understand more fully why these questions arise in the context of reason within this life.
    I am impressed with Dawkins’ clarity of expression in this life. For example, he has identified purpose as solely of human origin, materially evident only in human artifacts. To attribute purpose to anything else is an invalid extrapolation (p 157, The God Delusion). For the living Dawkins, the question, ‘What is the purpose of it all?’, is a meaningless, grammatical construct. ‘All of it’ is not a human artifact. After death any argument to the contrary would be irrelevant. After death Dawkins will know intuitively that everything that exists is purposeful.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bob. Interesting perspective. At the moment I don’t agree with it, but maybe after mulling it over, I’ll understand it better.
      Added later: Given how wrong Dawkins was in his statements about evolution, in his pronouncements about faith in God and his proposed strictures on those who believe in God, I find it difficult to put any credence in anything he has to say. But I’ll look more carefully at what you’ve said. It’s logically possible for someone to be a fool and a scoundrel in 99% of what he says and to utter a pearl of wisdom in the other 1%.

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  7. Dear Retired Cranky, Excellent! A summary par excellence. Thank you.

    I tell people, draw a large circle, part of its periphery in dotted lines, and label it HUMAN KNOWLEDGE. Now draw a smaller circle also with part in dotted lines that, in part, intersects with and overlaps partially the larger circle. Label the smaller circle SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE.

    The scientistic scientists, e.g. that CS Lewis chides, deny that these two circles are diffferent, and some deny that the line is at all dotted. This is because the adherents of scientism are worshippers io the religion of scienctism and proclaim its unprovable, scientifically and logically, dogmas.

    Consider: including – I am sure you already are-mentioning how Goedel’s incompleteness theorems prove, without doubt, the absolute limits of math, and, therefore, the unsurmountable limits of scientific research and knowledge.

    Really enjoyed this article.

    Guy, Texas

    1. Thanks Guy for the undeserved praise. I had considered including Goedel’s incompleteness theorem (which I’ve discussed in previous blogs), but decided not to since it’s more philosophy/math than science.

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