The Limits of Science

The late 17th and early 18th century saw the rise of the greatest physicist of all time, Sir Isaac Newton. Before Newton, people did not concern themselves with the obvious, unwavering forces of the world; no one questioned as Newton did. The philosophers concerned themselves with arguments of language. Newton questioned why things fall down instead of up, or why things move when let go without an equally opposing force at all. He questioned our eyes and the invisible minutia of existence. And then he sought the answers which would, irrefutably, define the structure of the universe. He discovered the laws of optics, the laws motion, and the universal law of gravitation.

On a whim, a friend asked Newton why the planets orbit in ellipses, instead of circles. Newton did not know. In the vein of his previous pursuits, Newton knew it was a thing he could know. The mathematical understanding of his time, however, were incapable of producing the answers to these questions which emerge after discovery. Newton spent a few months in solitude, inventing integral and differential calculus, and by the age of 26, he came back to his friend and told him each orbit is a conical slice of a gravitational cone.

As a physicist, Newton saw a hidden order and structure underlying existence. He was, also, a religious man. This belief hypocritically stifled his inductive abilities. For instance, Newton’s theories of planetary orbits were unstable. He discerned several laws of the universe, invented new forms of mathematics (of which students still struggle to learn today), and he created one of the most important scientific volumes in history. Yet, the stability of the solar system stumped Newton, and he declared it an act of God. A century later, Pierre-Simon de Laplace viewed the problem as Newton viewed his own questions in youth, and Laplace solved the riddle of the solar systems stability.

Newton could not solve his question and declared it the limit to which we can understand; because Newton could not know, no one can know. What happens when we, later, do discern the answers to these previously unsolvable questions? What begins as an assertion that the universe has limits to its capacity for deciphering becomes an ever more complex puzzle. The idea Newton purported is often called the “God of the Gaps” conclusion. God becomes an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance. Asserting this argument bars all further research into the matter, and thus closes off humanity from further discovery.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection offered a counter to the optimistic goal that humans can learn everything if we focus hard on it. From a basic understanding of natural selection, it is logical to assume that we are limited to what we can know, for we are naturally assigned a narrow window of perception. Our eyes can see less than 1% of the all light on the electromagnetic spectrum; we hear less than 1% of the acoustic spectrum; our sense of smell is functionally Neolithic compared to a dogs. If we did see everything, we wouldn’t be able to interpret it anything; our senses would be flooded.

These are the limits of our natural constitution. But, they are riddles of the mind. The human brain is remarkable. It can go far beyond the computational necessities of nomadic brains and discern things which it has never seen; we can know what we can not see, feel, hear, touch, or smell. Though we can not see the whole spectrum of light, we have constructed machines that can; though we can not peer into the dark patches of the night sky beyond the stars and see the clusters of countless galaxies, we forge telescopes that extend our natural capacities; and following, though we can’t see the trillions of cells scaffolding our skeletons, we’ve invented microscopes to magnify our vision to the minutia of biology. The limit to what we can biologically know is limited only to the extent we can continue developing technological innovations to extend our perceptions beyond the organics of flesh. So, is there a limit to science?

Edwin Abbott’s Flatland is about A Square who details life in his two-dimensional universe, Flatland. By chance, he diffuses into Lineland, a one-dimensional universe. There he encounters all sorts of strange beings with strange customs and devalues their existence. Later, A Square encounters a guide from the third-dimension. The sphere he encounters presents the geometry to A Square of three dimensions, beginning with A Square’s mathematical and physical limits of 32. 32 is a two dimensional square, the great achievement of understanding in Flatland. But, when the sphere asks the answer to 33, A Square can not answer and declares it unknowable nonsense, the work of “Enchanters and Magicians.” Thus, A Square comes close to admitting that a third dimension can exist, but it resides in a space unknowable to himself, perhaps the space of divinity and magic, perhaps beyond the boundary of science.

Perception, in Flatland, is limited to the natural capacities of the two-dimensional figures, and there’s very little technology involved in extending ones natural senses. Instead of using science to go beyond the known, the society of Flatland uses science to cement social status and customs. There, then, exists a limit to science; however, science, itself, is limited more by the society of Flatland. This distinction parallels with the “God of the Gaps” analogy as a tool to stifle knowing and questioning. At the novel’s conclusion, it becomes apparent that those “preaching the Gospel of Third Dimensions” are silenced through incarceration and death like the scientific “heretics” of the classical world. The more self-absorbed and prescribed a person is to a doctrine, the lower the dimension in which they dwell; the more incredulous one is to accepting that there is a vast ocean of ignorance beyond the comforts of the known, the more limited they’ll be in understanding.

But, there’s also a looming question in the text that becomes ever more apparent as we adapt the text to a modern scientific understanding of other dimensions: are we biologically limited to this plane of perception? Einstein solidified the existence of a fourth dimension, the dimension of spacetime. It is here, but we can not perceive it. Is our DNA limited to interactions of only three-dimensions? Can DNA acquire functions in the fourth dimension? These questions are the basis of science. We can spend centuries searching for answers and still find nothing. Is that evidence of our biological limitations? A Square perceives the third dimension only after the sphere pulled him from the second dimension. It’s a great passage because it emphasizes the true limit of science: we’ve declared our limit to knowing—we’ve planted our flag in our little world—and then something comes along and shows us we aren’t done exploring the mysteries of the universe and beyond.


-B. Keiser

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