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The Limits Of Science

The Limits Of Science

Nicholas Rescher
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    The Limits Of Science
    Book Description:

    Perfected science is but an idealization that provides a useful contrast to highlight the limited character of what we do and can attain. This lies at the core of various debates in the philosophy of science and Rescher's discussion focuses on the question: how far could science go in principle-what are the theoretical limits on science? He concentrates on what science can discover, not what it should discover. He explores in detail the existence of limits or limitations on scientific inquiry, especially those that, in principle, preclude the full realization of the aims of science, as opposed to those that relate to economic obstacles to scientific progress. Rescher also places his argument within the politics of the day, where "strident calls of ideological extremes surround us," ranging from the exaggeration that "science can do anything"-to the antiscientism that views science as a costly diversion we would be well advised to abandon. Rescher offers a middle path between these two extremes and provides an appreciation of the actual powers and limitations of science, not only to philosophers of science but also to a larger, less specialized audience.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7206-8
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

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    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Nicholas Rescher
  2. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    It is important—and more so nowadays than ever—to have a realistic appreciation of just what science can and cannot be expected to accomplish, for the strident calls of ideological extremes surround us. On one side lies the exaggerated scientism of the “science can do anything” persuasion that sees science in larger-than-life terms as an all-powerful be-all and end-all. On the other side lies the antiscientism or even irrationalism that sees science as a dangerous luxury, a costly diversion we would be well-advised to abandon altogether. And these positions are closely related: if we have high (or low) expectations,...

  3. 1 Question Dynamics and Problems of Scientific Completeness
    (pp. 5-18)

    The aim of scientific inquiry is to resolve our questions about the hows and whys of natural phenomena. Now, scientific inquiry—like inquiry in general—proceeds through a process of dialectical interaction between questions and answers. To understand the workings of this process, it is necessary to consider some fundamental issues in the theory of questions, beginning with what is perhaps the most fundamental conception of this domain, that of presupposition.

    Apresuppositionof a question is a thesis (or proposition) that is inherent in (and thus entailed by) each of its possible fully explicit answers.¹ For example, “What is...

  4. 2 Questions and Scientific Progress
    (pp. 19-28)

    Various accounts have been proposed to characterize scientific progress in terms of historical tendencies regarding question-and-answer relationships. Perhaps the most rudimentary theory of this sort is the traditionalcumulationistview that later, more advanced stages of science are characterized as such by virtue of theiranswering more questions—questions over and above those answered at earlier stages of the game:

    t<t' ⊃ [Q*(St) ⊂ Q*(St')]

    (Here Q*(St) is the set of allSt-answered questions, comprising all of thoseSt-posable questions for whichStalso provides an answer.) This expansionist view of progress has it that later, superior science answers all...

  5. 3 The Instability of Science
    (pp. 29-42)

    Scientific “knowledge” at the level of deep theory is always purported knowledge: knowledge as we see it today. In our heart of hearts, we realize that we may see it differently tomorrow—or the day after. We must stand ready to acknowledge the fragility of our scientific theorizing. All we are ever able to do in natural science is to select the optimal answer to the questions we manage to formulate within the realm of alternatives specifiable by means of the conceptual machinery of the day. And we have no reason to doubt—nay, we have every reason to believe...

  6. 4 Complexity Escalation as an Obstacle to Completing Science
    (pp. 43-65)

    We naturally adopt throughout rational inquiry—and accordingly throughout natural science—the methodological principle of rational economy to “try the simplest solutions first” and then make this do as long as it can. This means that historically the course of inquiry moves in the direction of ever increasing complexity. The developmental tendency of our intellectual enterprises—natural science among them—is generally in the direction of greater complication and sophistication.

    In a complex world, the natural dynamics of the cognitive process exhibit an inherent tropism toward increasing complexity. Herbert Spencer argued long ago that evolution is characterized by von Baer’s...

  7. 5 Against Convergentism
    (pp. 66-86)

    Even if one accepts Kant’s Principle of Question Propagation to the effect that in resolving our present scientific questions new ones always arise, the prospect nevertheless remains that themagnitude of the issuesmight grow smaller and smaller as science progresses. Later questions, it might be held, are always smaller questions, so that later science is always lesser science. Successive innovation becomes a matter of increasing refinement in detail and furnishes new materials whose inherent significance decreases continually—exactly as with the decimal elaboration of pi.

    Scientific inquiry would thus be conceived of as analogous to terrestrial exploration, whose product...

  8. 6 Question Dynamics and Problems of Scientific Completeness
    (pp. 87-93)

    The predictive domain provides some of the clearest available indications of our limitations in matters of question resolution. The conditions of human life being what they are, many of our most urgent and intriguing questions relate to the future. Nevertheless, we here encounter difficulties that are deeprooted in the nature of our epistemic situation. It is instructive to consider the grounds and implications of our incapacity in the face of predictive questions.

    Special-purpose instrumentalities for prediction regarding industrial production, earthquakes, the weather, demography, and the like are a familiar part of the present-day scene. But let us imagine the project...

  9. 7 The Unpredictability of Future Science
    (pp. 94-110)

    As the preceding discussion has shown, any predictive resource is bound to encounter serious difficulties when employed reflexively in being asked to make predictions about its own performance. Self-prediction is a profoundly problematic issue.

    This is nowhere more decidedly the case than with respect to natural science. The prospect for making scientifically responsible predictions about the future of science itself is deeply problematic. The splendid dictum that “the past is a different country—they do things differently there” has much to be said for it. We cannot fully comprehend the past in terms of the conceptions and presumptions of the...

  10. 8 Against Insolubilia
    (pp. 111-127)

    Consider the weak limitation on the question-resolving capacity of our scientific knowledge that is characterized by the following thesis:

    There arealways, at every temporal stage,¹ questions to which no answer is in hand, questions for whose resolution current science is inadequate, although they may well be answered at some later stage.²

    This thesis has it that there willalwaysbe questions that the science of the day raises but does not resolve. It envisions a permanence of cognitive limitation, maintaining that our knowledge is never at any stage completed, because certain then-intractable (that is, posable but as yet unanswerable)...

  11. 9 The Price of an Ultimate Theory
    (pp. 128-144)

    How does nature work at its most fundamental level? What is the key to understanding the modus operandi of the physical universe? This is one of the biggest questions of them all. Some science theoreticians are prepared to think big. The dream of an ultimate theory that explains it all has enchanted philosophers and scientists throughout the centuries. In the form of a grand, all-encompassing, unified “theory of everything” it continues to beguile physicists in our own day, even long after professional philosophers have given up on it.

    A glint in the eyes of many physicists nowadays is the vista...

  12. 10 The Theoretical Unrealizability of Perfected Science
    (pp. 145-165)

    How far can the scientific enterprise advance toward a definitive understanding of reality? Might science attain a point of recognizable completion? Is the achievement of perfected science a genuine possibility, even in theory when all of the “merely practical” obstacles are put aside as somehow incidental?

    What wouldperfected sciencebe like? What sort of standards would it have to meet? Clearly, it would have to complete in full the discharge of natural science’s mandate or mission. Now, the goal structure of scientific inquiry covers a good deal of ground. It is diversified and complex, spreading across both the cognitive/theoretical...

  13. 11 The Practical Infeasibility of Perfecting Science
    (pp. 166-176)

    A theoretical prospect of unending scientific progress lies before us, but its practical realization is something else again. One of the most striking and important facts about scientific research is that the ongoing resolution of significant new questions faces increasingly high demands for the generation and cognitive exploitation of data. Although the veins of gold run on, they become increasingly hard to mine.

    This matter of the practical impediments to scientific progress that make themselves felt through economic pressures is generally neglected. Although our prime concern here is with theoretical rather than practical limits to science, we cannot wholly ignore...

  14. 12 Can Computers Overcome Our Limitations?
    (pp. 177-196)

    In view of the difficulties and limitations that beset our human efforts at answering our questions in a complex world, it becomes tempting to contemplate the possibility that computers might enable us to eliminate our cognitive disabilities and to overcome those epistemic frailties of ours. And so we may wonder: are computers cognitively omnipotent? If a problem is to qualify as soluble at all, will computers always be able to solve it for us?

    Of course, computers cannot bear human offspring, enter into contractual agreements, or exhibit heroism. But such processes addresspracticalproblems relating to the management of the...

  15. 13 Extraterrestrial Science (Could Aliens Overcome Our Limitations?)
    (pp. 197-222)

    The preceding chapters have argued that natural science—ourscience as we humans cultivate it here on earth—is limited and imperfect and is bound to remain so. It thus becomes tempting to wonder whether an astronomically remote civilization might be scientifically more advanced than we are. Is it not plausible to suppose that an alien civilization might overcome the limitations of our science and manage to surpass us in the furtherance of this enterprise?

    On first thought, the question seems very clear-cut, for, as one recent discussion put it: “any serious speculations concerning the capabilities of intelligent biological life...

  16. 14 The Limits of Quantification in Human Affairs
    (pp. 223-240)

    Ever since the days of Britain’s Factory Act inspectors of the last century, people have endeavored to base social planning on scientific principles. They have insisted that quantification is the name of the game here, but behind the facade of exactness and precision there lurk some big problems. As they see it, that which we cannot measure is thereby something we cannot adequately grasp at all.

    Notwithstanding an extensive literature on the subject, the existing state of the art is such that our understanding of exactly what measurement is all about still leaves much to be desired.¹ The present discussion...

  17. 15 The Limited Province of Natural Science
    (pp. 241-252)

    In former times, philosophers rightly objected to a naively anthropomorphized view of nature; nowadays they frequently object to an overly naturalized view of man—an exaggerated assimilation of the activities of man and of human society to processes of the developmentally prehuman domain. They often lament that the rationality of technical means and ends—the vaunted valueneutralityof science—“liberates” us from human values and concerns in a way that sometimes threatens to dehumanize us by blunting our understanding and appreciation of characteristically human phenomena. To attack anthropomorphism is all well and good but has its limits when we...