A Cosmologist On The Limits of Science

Written by Wes Walker on November 5, 2013

What can science measure and what are it’s limitations?  It can measure anything that can be tested and studied.

But to say it might have limitations is practically heresy in today’s culture. Science — or more accurately — “Scientism“, evokes a curiously religious following.

To even suggest the existence of some facts that strictly scientific inquiry cannot probe into is to invite serious debate and opposition, particularly among people who hope to one day find that elusive “theory of everything”.  Stephen Hawking for example, has claimed that “philosophy is dead…” (Which an astute reader will notice is a curiously philosophical/metaphysical statement.)

In such an environment, I expect it would take courage for a professional scientist to suggest that there are questions who’s answer will necessarily require disciplines other than science.

Enter Luke Barnes.

In his piece on the Letters to Nature blog, Barnes addressed this problem.  He went further to lay out a case for why science is unable to give an answer to the age-old philosophical question of “why there is something rather than nothing”.

I can’t cite it all but here are key excerpts from his piece.  (Note: he was responding to something another Cosmologist named Krauss had written.)  Everything that follows, except my closing sentence, are direct quotes from his blog post:

Let me clear about one thing before I start. I say all of this as a professional scientist, as a cosmologist. I am in the same field as Krauss. This is not an anti-science rant. I am commenting on my own field.

Firstly, the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” is equivalent to the question “why does anything at all exist?”

Here is my argument.
A: The state of physics at any time can be (roughly) summarised by three things.

1. A statement about what the fundamental constituents of physical reality are and what their properties are.

2. A set of mathematical equations describing how these entities change, move, interact and rearrange.

3. A compilation of experimental and observational data.

In short, the stuff, the laws and the data.

B: None of these, and no combination of these, can answer the question “why does anything at all exist?”.

C: Thus physics cannot answer the question “why does anything at all exist?”.

1 can’t do it: A statement of the basic constituents of reality, in and of itself, obviously cannot explain why such things exist, any more than the statement “the sky is blue” can explain why the sky is blue. So 1 is out.

2 can’t do it: Mathematical equations describe properties, and existence is not a property. 5 dollars plus 5 dollars equals 10 dollars, but that fact will not tell you how much money is actually in my account. The same is true for all mathematical equations, even the more sophisticated ones used by modern physics. Write down any equation you like – you will not be able to deduce from that equation that the thing it describes really exists. Mathematical equations are abstract entities, they have no causal powers. They can’t do anything, least of all jump off the blackboard and pull entities into existence. So the answer cannot be found in 2.

1 and 2 can’t do it: 1 and 2 together give a theoretical description of reality as we know it, so succumb to the same problems as 2 alone.

3 can’t do it: for the same reason that 1 can’t. The statement “I observed an electron strike a screen” cannot explain why there are electrons at all, and thus (a fortiori) cannot explain why anything exists at all.

1, 2 and 3 can’t do it: Sitting and staring at 1+2 on one hand, and 3 on the other, will tell you why we think that 1+2 really describes our universe. They account for the data, which is what science does. But once again we see no resources to attack the question of why anything at all exists. We’ve successfully described our universe. But that is all.

Thus, physics cannot answer the question “why does anything at all exist?”.

(Interested?  Go read the whole piece.)