On the Limits of Science by the Senses

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Science has to do with that which can be observed by the senses. It is strictly empirical. That should be uncontroversial. What is slightly more controversial (yet still fashionable in our era) is the assumption that science is capable of explaining every aspect of reality. Even if science does not give us an answer now, then history seems to have shown that it is only a matter of time before it does.

However, there are points where it seems fundamentally impossible for science to yield an answer. The start of the universe and consciousness are some issues that come to mind. Do a quick google search and you will soon realize that it is difficult to explain the origins of matter and energy without using matter and energy, and the material of the brain has given scientists no understanding of consciousness. With both of these issues, we limit ourselves to understanding through things that science can understand, yet the things which science can verify seem inescapably inadequate (for the sake of brevity, I chose not to develop those dilemmas within this piece, but spend an hour on google and you will find information readily available).

There are two possible paths at this point. We can either throw our hands up in the air and pray that some future discovery will show us where our understanding went wrong, or we can follow our sense of logic and infer that there are possible explanations which are not scientifically verifiable (cannot be proven through experience of the senses). The latter possibility may make you squirm, and it should. Abductive reasoning (inference to the best explanation) should be done with the utmost care, and only when necessity demands it. However, there is strong resistance to the idea that necessity could ever require us to move away from observation as the our exclusive source of knowledge.

This empirical hegemony is dangerous because it caries with it the tacit assumption that our senses encompass all of reality. This may seem like a common-sense assumption, but it is not nearly as trustworthy as it may seem.

Let us suppose that humans have always been completely and utterly blind (this is by no means intended to be a slight to the blind). Eyes do not exist, and neither does the portion of the brain which handles imagery.

In this state, the ability of humans to understand the world through rigorous observation (science) would be critically impeded. For example, light would still exist, but humans would never know it. Color would exist, but the concept of color would be inconceivable by humans who had never known sight. Photons would in all likelihood be undetectable to human beings. Humans might feel the heat that accompanies light, but they would never know the light itself or “how it works.” Furthermore, human beings would never fully understand how a given plant works because it runs on light as an energy source.

Humans might contrive genius ways to study the world around them scientifically (though without sight). Humans may develop a great understanding of plants, but imagine how baffled they would be when they realized that plants should not be able to live without some mysterious source of energy. There might be speculation that some plants live off of heat (because humans might notice the heat accompanying the light which keeps the plants alive). But imagine the confusion when some humans notice that some plants live in the cold. The closest these people may come to understanding the truth is by developing some obscure, theoretical concept of a thing which takes the place of what we know as light.

This is just one of the many paradoxes which would arise for blind humans attempting to do science. I’m sure that if we really set our minds to it, we could imagine many more things that humans would never know of or understand without sight or other senses. But the problems described serve our purposes in making it glaringly obvious that any scientific endeavor by this group of people will have shortcomings by nature of their senses.

I’m sure the common sense reader will be thinking by this point, “Yes, a blind race of humans would not be able to do science as well as us. But that’s a non-issue since we are not blind.” It may seem as though we humans are fine since we can see, and we can’t really imagine any senses that we don’t have. Therefore, we assume that we have them all, and the issue is avoided altogether.

But let’s return to our analogy. If a group of people had never known sight, then they would never be able to think of such a concept as light, color, or even appearance. A people with four senses would think their observational skills just as comprehensive as a people with five senses if they had never known any differently.

With this in mind, we must stop and seriously ask ourselves, “How are we certain that we are not “blind?” How do we know that there are not entire aspects of reality that we cannot perceive nor understand scientifically because our senses simply do not sense all that there is in existence? All of a sudden, the idea that we should only believe that which can be scientifically verified becomes an exception to its own rule because it rests on the assumption that our senses are adequate for fully understanding reality – potentially without limits. Yet, this assumption can not be scientifically verified since we will never prove that we are not “missing” any senses because we will never know the senses that we do not know.

Having put science, the practice of coming to know things through rigorous observation through our senses, in its proper perspective, it becomes incredibly narrow-minded to think that our senses can render all knowledge to us.

Therefore, when we come to a dilemma where logic calls for an explanation that science cannot verify, we may proceed forward (cautiously) in drawing inferences to reach the best conclusion possible. The fact that science cannot explain the entirety of reality to us does not allow us to believe in anything we want simply because we are now at liberty to believe in non-scientific things. It means that we may take what we do know, and carefully extrapolate the logical consequences so that we may reach further into the realm of the unknown where science alone cannot lead us.

So if science and reason conclude that there must be more to consciousness than that which can be scientifically verified or that science alone cannot explain the start of the universe, we may go forth into the unknown with confidence in understanding that science is naturally limited by our senses and it is perfectly reasonable that there is more out there beyond that which our senses can detect.

Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
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