Monday, August 1, 2011

The Limits of Science


By Frank Vitale

At a recent meeting of the Illusion-of-Freewill Meetup group in Manhattan, the NewScientist Free will article of April 16th was passed around to the 8 people in attendance. That number of people, and the newly published article in New Scientist made me re-evaluate my impression that the free will debate had gone the way of Newton, into the distant past. I had lonely struggles with it in the 60s, 70s, and 80s and had stopped paying attention over 20 years ago. To my surprise and delight, I found that people are still struggling with and discussing the ancient dilemma.
The NewScientist article was interesting and informative, yet it contained within it an assumption that I want to challenge. The main focus of my article is to do that, but before I start, I want to give a brief description of the meeting, as it was lively, engaging and more interesting that I had expected.

One fellow had taken a bus from New Jersey and confessed that in the Port Authority he had gorged himself on pastries. He described himself as morbidly obese, as having Asperger’s syndrome (one of two in the group), as having thought insertions (schizoaffective disorder), OCD, as having a father who escaped Auschwitz and the fellow himself as a Mensa. He posed a question to the group. Was his gorging, which he admitted he knew was unhealthy, a product of his own free will or was his behavior determined and he had no control over it? I laughed and turned the question back on him, asking him what he thought. I was pleased when he answered that he might have been able to control himself. He gave his best honest answer, not a rationalization.

One person in the group said he knew deeply that his will was determined. I found that interesting because I feel just as deeply that I act of my own free will.

The leader of the group reasoned that if free will was an illusion, then deviants and criminals would be treated more humanely by society. The leader, the man from New Jersey and a couple of others in the group seemed to be coming at the free will perspective from an emotional perspective backed up by reasonable rational arguments.
But I, and a few others in the group approach the determinism dilemma more in terms of physical science.  And, though the article in NewScience focused on psychological experimentation, there was a fundamental scientific assumption that needs to be challenged.
The article seemed to assume that because neuroscience tells us so much about behavior, and that because neuroscience is making more and more headway every day, that eventually the brain/mind will be completely unraveled by science, that the neurological and chemical cause for every human behavior will be explained and potentially controlled, that the potential of science will be realized: human will will be demonstrated to be determined and free will an illusion. 
I am going to challenge this, but first I want you to know that I am not afraid of science, I am not jealous of science and I do not hate science. Like you, I want hard-nosed, unvarnished, unsentimental truth. I have a bachelors in physics. Discovering physics was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. I loved physics. I ate and drank it. I marveled at its power and I interpreted the world through it.
I believe, as Peter Medawar wrote, “…science is incomparably the most successful enterprise that human beings have ever engaged upon.” We are completely surrounded by the results of scientific advancement, our cars, our buildings, our computers, our phones, even our good health comes to us via science.
But soon after I discovered physics (in high school), fell in love with it, I saw something disturbing and confusing. Physics began telling me I had no free will. On the one had I knew I had free will, on the other science was telling me I didn’t.
I was locked in the determinism dilemma for 20 years. Though I had other fulfilling parts of my life, but that part, the philosophical struggle with determinism was lonely and despairing.
In the 80’s my perspective shifted slightly. I realized that while my science mind was telling me that I had no free will, there was another mind that was not as measurable and concrete as the science mind but that was just as powerful and important. It was telling me I had free will.
Erwin Schrodinger, Nobel laureate for his contributions to quantum mechanics, came to the same conclusion:
            “(i) My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature.
            (ii) Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, by which I foresee the effects, that may be fateful and all important, in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.” (What is Life?, p86)
What is important to come to terms with, what is difficult for us lovers of science, is that science has limits.  We tend to think of science as limitless, that because everything is made of molecules and because science can potentially tell us everything there is to know about molecules, that therefor science can tell us everything about the world and about existence. As another Nobel laureate in medicine and writer in the philosophy of science, Peter Mediwar, puts it, "...there is no limit upon the power of science to answer the kind of questions that science can answer." (The Limits of Science p60) 
However, in his little book, The Limits of Science, he points out that the, “propositions and observation statements of science have empirical furniture only,” (81) and that it is “logically outside the competence of science to answer questions to do with first and last things.” By this he means questions like, “How did everything begin? What are we here for? What is the point of living?” (66)
Karl Popper, the venerated philosopher of science, wrote, “It is important to realize that science does not make assertions about ultimate questions – about the riddles of existence, or about man’s task in this world. This has often been well understood. But some great scientists, and many lesser ones, have misunderstood the situation. The fact that science cannot make any pronouncement about ethical principles has been misinterpreted as indicating that there are no such principles while in fact the search for truth presupposes ethics.” Dialectica (32:342)
The human experience of free will is not “empiracle” and “is a riddle of existence,” and as such is outside the domain of science.
The mistake is often made that science tells us there is no God. This is a logical mistake that results from expecting too much from science. Science has no facility with which to see God because God is not subject to empirical observation, God is not physical or measurable. The inability of science to ‘see’ God should not be thought of as evidence that God does not exist. Science is structurally incapable of ‘seeing’ God. God is outside the domain if science.
And it is naive and, I think, intellectually dishonest, to think that everything that exists is in the domain of science. Everything about our humanness is outside the domain of science.  Our sense of self, love, faith, happiness and even our will, are not empirical and therefore outside the domain of science. Our humanness is not as concrete as the empirical world, but its existence is just as real.
Scientists and philosophers have been debating the determinism delimma for centuries and have not been able to resolve the conflict. It is time to accept the simple fact that our behavior is both free and determined. Centuries of debate have shown us that there is no other option.
I don’t mean to suggest that determinism and free will are compatable. They are contradictory. But I think we are asking the wrong question. It is not a question of wheter human actions are free or determined. The question should be, how can human actions be both free and determined?
In my enhanced eBook, The Metropolis Organism, I use words, images and video to look at cities from a scientific perspective. From this perspective humans are necessary but unremarkable organelle of a larger organism. From this perspective humans are things and do not have free will. (find out more at

But from another perspective, one which I have no better name for than the human perspective, humans do have free will. As with Schrodinger, I know this from my own direct experience.


Ron Krumpos said...

“Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices...until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between heaven and Earth...between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.

frank vitale said...

Thanks for your comment, Ron. I looked at your site. You have a lot of friends. What do you mean by "key to release"?, release from what? From the "prison of nature and society"? Is nature and society a prison?
All best,


Ron Krumpos said...

Hi Frank,

My response was a paragraph from my ebook on comparative mysticism, in a chapter called “Outside the box.” Most people, most of the time, view life through the dark glasses of their ego and individuality. When we discard the ego and abandon individuality – even temporarily – we can see the world as it really is.

Another paragraph from the same chapter:
Outer walls are the boxes of Nature and of society. Inclement weather, lack of sunlight, gravity, and/or other natural phenomena may restrain our movements. Our own natural aptitudes, practiced talents and learned skills are always lacking in some areas. Human nature is controlled mostly by society. What we believe that other people expect of us greatly influences how we feel, think and act. Considering the reactions of our family, friends, business associates, community, and/or nation determines much of what we do. Those “laws” of Nature and society govern our lives, usually more so than we wish. Mystical awareness can allow us to obey divine law here and now.