Does Science Have Limits?

by David Hutchings

Nearly 2,500 years ago, Aristotle opened his masterpiece Metaphysics with the following claim:

All human beings by nature desire to know.[1]

He then says this makes us completely different from the animals – they really don’t seem interested in discovering all that much about either themselves or the world they find themselves in.

It is a pretty reasonable point, as becomes clear when we start listing ways in which human beings have tried to know things: philosophy, theology, history, psychology, mathematics, literature, alchemy, archaeology, astronomy, agriculture, and many, many more – including, of course, physics, chemistry, and biology, the so-called hard sciences. How many of these does a porcupine, a pelican, or a porpoise pursue? None.

There was a time when these different forms of study were all mixed and muddled. Questions about god(s), earthquakes, stars, beauty, and geometry were intermingled with one another; they could all be part of the same discussion. There is something wonderful about this – each area has its own ‘truths’ of a kind, and they can speak to each other in profound ways – but it is also rather impractical. ‘Knowing’ something about beauty is quite different to ‘knowing’ something about earthquakes. Both might help you choose where to live, but not at all in the same way.

Putting Limits on Science

It was partly because of considerations like this that, from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, some thinkers (mostly Christians, in fact) began to try and separate out one particular way of knowing from the others. They decided that some questions could be drawn out from the mix and put into their very own box…

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Does Science Have Limits? – bethinking.org