The fallacy of unlimited scientific understanding

I have often encountered scientists, students of science and mathematics, and science enthusiasts who think (or hope) that scientific exploration and mindset will lead to unlimited knowledge for the questions we ask. If not today, then after n years, but we will find an answer to many of our questions. Even though questions lead to more questions, we are only exploring deeper and farther, and eventually we will reach an understanding of the universe, of ourselves, and our individual and collective behavior. I will tell you why I think that’s a problematic approach towards doing science.

A Reductionist view sometimes yield incomprehensible depth

The most appealing part of building a mathematical model is its elegance and simplicity. We streamline data and hypotheses into a few symbols that represent past, present and future states of a system. We break down observations into smaller pieces, assign variables to represent each piece, and describe the relationships between each piece using different tools that mathematicians have developed. Working on describing a system mathematically gives me immense joy, reduced sleep and a lot of excitements in every line written down on a notebook. Writing every piece of numerical or machine learning code is a blessing.

All that’s good. However, tackling a problem by dividing it branches out many children in the tree. In some cases, we make connections between these children nodes, but sometimes we can’t. Not all the scientific community is working in a balanced way. Human choices and wishes factor in. If deep learning neural networks seemed successful in tracking faces, many will start running behind the concept to utilize its applications in other things, leaving other children nodes unattended. Graphene got some people Nobel prize, and the next decade of papers in condensed matter physics will be filled with work related to Graphene.

More dangerous than that is our human capability to understand data. Good data is expensive. We carefully set up questions to ask, and we build tools to test these questions. The data that comes out is carefully catered to our five sense organs. There could be many data lost during this projection. There could be data that we cannot build sensors to capture because we do not know what would the nature of these data be to begin with.

Computation is not comprehension

The data that we capture, and given the volume of the data we produce nowadays, is in many cases incomprehensible. Many people argue that we can compute — run algorithms and crunch numbers using supercomputers. Let me suggest that computation does not necessarily mean comprehension. Even if we manage to crunch numbers in the most elegant supercomputers of distant future, the results do not necessarily help us, we may not comprehend what it means, with our current cognitive abilities. It may take a more evolved ultra-human to ask smarter questions and answer them, but they might as well face similar troubles in their scale.

Human and social factors

Lastly, but not the least, science is done by social animals who want recognition and satisfaction from their work. Plagiarism pops up. Politics to publish in prestigious journals. Journalists misinterpreting conclusions and scaring/demotivating people. Or motivating people about the wrong things. All sorts of things happen that hinder the progress of asking questions that matter.

Why we still do science

I don’t know about others, but it provides me comfort and peace, just what faith provides to many. Humans are curious, and we want to explain the things around us. It is a miracle that our world is comprehensible and describable (as told by Einstein). I personally believe that we should find peace in that miracle, while accepting the fact that a lot of the knowledge around us are too complex to describe and make connections.

No, religion is still not an answer to big questions

It’s easy to point to an entity who has answers to all these questions. However, I think religion should not be favored by default though. There are questions that cannot be answered by science, and cannot be captured by the naïveté of miracles that religion promises. Religion has its place for a different level of comfort, but is not a substitute for scientific exploration.

One thought on “The fallacy of unlimited scientific understanding

  1. What a clear expression of how our own sentient and physical abilities limit our capacity to comprehend available data. Surely it’s possible data we cannot comprehend present noise in the data we have a hope to comprehend. Yet try, we must.

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