Gleiser: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning

There is a new book on the intersection between science and the meaning of life: The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning by Marcelo Gleiser, the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College.

Gleiser’s main thesis is that our observations yield only an “island of knowledge.” Thus there are limits to science’s ability to answer fundamental philosophical questions. These limits to our knowledge arise both from the tools we use to explore reality and the nature of physical reality itself. What we can know is limited by the speed of light, the uncertainty principle, the incompleteness theorem, and our own intellectual limitations. Recognizing these limits does not entail abandoning science and embracing religion. We should continue our scientific investigation of the nature of the cosmos, Gleiser argues, for by coming to know the universe we come to know ourselves. 

Obviously, Gleiser is right—there are limits to scientific knowledge as the incompleteness theorem and uncertainty principle strongly suggest. As the island of our knowledge grows, so too does the ocean of uncertainty which surrounds it. Still, science gives us our best chance to understand the nature of the cosmos, and hence the most firm foundation upon which to understand the meaning of the cosmos.

Gleiser also argues that science and religion focus on the same question.

The urge to know our origins and our place in the cosmos is a defining part of our humanity. Creation myths of all ages ask questions not so different from those scientists ask today, when they ponder the quantum creation of the Universe “out of nothing,” or whether our Universe is but one among countless others, all of them exhalations of a timeless multiverse. The specifics of the questions and of the answers are, of course, entirely different, but not the motivation: to understand where we came from and what our cosmic role is, if any. To the authors of those myths, ultimate questions of origins were solely answerable through invocations of the sacred, as only the timeless could create that which exists within time. To those who do not believe that answers to such questions remain exclusively within the realm of the sacred, the challenge is to scrutinize the reach of our rational explanations of the world and examine how far they can go in making sense of reality and, by extension, of ultimate questions of origins.

Gleiser’s point here is uncontroversial—similar desires motivate creation myths and scientific cosmology. As for popularity, religious myths win hands down, but for those not attracted to religious answers, Gleiser’s suggestion is insightful. They must make epistemic judgments and reconcile themselves with whatever comfort limited knowledge provides. This may not be an easy way to live, but it is an authentic way. Surely that counts for something. Gleiser’s book makes for a thoughtful read on a timeless topic, especially when humans are in desperate need of new narratives to replace the old religious ones.

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9 thoughts on “Gleiser: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning

  1. I’ll offer a bit of quaint folk wisdom here, and, no, this was not handed down to ME by parents or grandparents. I have never heard it before which means only that:

    * There has always been a road and a middle, thereof. On either side, there are edges and or ditches. Those ‘ditches’ may in fact be chasms, and so it is better, in any case, to stay on the road than fall to nowhere.*

    This may, or may not be one point offered in the book. If not, I am certain there are others.

  2. Forgive me if I repeat a point that I have made earlier on this forum. I see a clear and simple way to differentiate science from religion. They arise from the modular nature of the human mind. Three modules in particular give rise to science and religion. The first has been called the “natural history module” and attempts to organize one’s knowledge of the natural world. The second is the “social reasoning” module, which helps us understand other people’s actions, most especially their responses to our own actions. The third is the language module, which, after a long evolution, allowed Aristotle to invent rigorous logic, which nearly 2,000 years later led to the rise of science.

    When the social reasoning module interacted with the natural history module, it produced an explanation of natural history based on the premise that the natural world is controlled by powerful invisible people: gods. The social reasoning module led to the conclusion that one could obtain favorable natural behavior (rain at the right times, no plagues of locusts, etc) by propitiating the gods. At first this was done by offering gifts: sacrifices. Later religions tied moral behavior to propitiating the gods. Hence the confident prediction that California would drop into the sea because of all the evil behavior taking place there.

    The same reasoning generates the secular version of religion: conspiracy theory, in which powerful, invisible people control society. Same concept, different actors.

    Science attempts to explain the natural world through logical analysis.

    Both mental modules attempt to explain natural behavior, but through completely different forms of cognition.

    I expand on these concepts here:

  3. I’d have to think more about this Chris. But off the top of my head it seems to be a reasonable explanation. I’ll look at your post shortly.

  4. I will advocate for the devil, just a bit. And in a couple of directions. First, do, can or will we ever know what the limits of science are? I don’t. Secondly, I recently said there has been, over the centuries, enmity between the Church and science…I believed there was sufficient evidence of that, including Galileo’s little run-in over the workings of the solar system. Another thinker challenged this, claiming the relationship between religion and science was more in the nature of siblings, to which I replied: yes, but siblings sometimes squabble. Lastly, would there be less meaning in life without science, or, would it just be different? It seems to me that when homo sapiens attained what we loosely describe as consciousness, the sense of meaning could not have been far behind—it did not magically materialize with the advent of either science, or religion. Well, I warned you.

  5. Some of us talk about modularity. Others, self specifically, mention interests, motives and preferences. My brother’s frame consists in patterns. All of this, arguments over context and meaning notwithstanding, amounts to an understanding which gets lost in terminology—or, the*word salad*, brother, friends and I have chuckled over. More than once. It is good that people and thinkers get to publish their ideas. This is better, if and when, they have new ones. Hard to come by…

  6. A colleague of mine many years ago said that if you had a single profound idea in your entire academic life you were doing better than most.

  7. One of the reasons I read this blog, regularly, is its’ singularity among the rest. I don’t have to rely upon a knowledge of STEM mechanics to grasp what is being addressed and examined. I really appreciate that, because with my limited knowledge of physics and STEM matters, there would be little gain for my brain; even less I could contribute to the arena of philosophy, for which I care most. The project I am working on now is about Time…not the time of Einstein, physics and cosmology, the time of human being, maturity, aging and death. This sense of time is older than Einstein, and independent of cosmology All things, living or inanimate, blow up, break down, fall apart or wear out.
    Quantum singularities, or, black holes matter to cosmologists, not as much to philosophers. The piece is 99% complete. Tell me, if you are interested in it.

  8. If we ask questions about cosmology and follow them up with more and more basics, we will inevitably find that the resulting science points toward religious ideas and doctrines. What began some centuries ago as philosophy, has become both religion and science and when exploring the latter in great depth we come back to religion again. This means that to a fundamental degree these subjects are almost the same. We reach a state in this enquiry that depend more on logical gathered belief than on provable fact. Rather like the parallel lines of Euclidian geometry meeting at infinity, so too do these two ways of thinking and discovering about the universe result in a point that is impossible for us to properly appreciate. These are the limits of science and religion.

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