The Limits of Science by Dr. Daham Ismail Alani

Posté lun 17/02/2014 - 13:15
Par admin

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, a new world has emerged, one different from the previous two hundred years in intellect and philosophy as well as essence and shape. For as the nineteenth century was an era of reason and certainty, the twentieth century brought doubt and shaked both the stability of reason and the rigor of certainty. And whereas the nineteenth century was the age of confidence, stability and victory for humanity, the twentieth century proved to be one of wars, crisis and defeat of man by man.

The Limits of Science by Dr. Daham Ismail Alani

The early characteristics of the third millennium are astounding in every way for they are difficult to interpret or predict at the present time. The traditional ideology of science that has dominated the last two hundred years was a logical sequence that stretched from observation to reason. Today, however, the links of this sequence are disconnected and random. Observation is often made without experiment, and experiments are conducted without understanding which, when made, still lacks the ability to predict, and when predictions are made, they are devoid of real understanding. Those separated links multiply in an unprecedented way perhaps because of the overlapping of sciences and technologies in general. Science has become increasingly technological, and the accumulation of knowledge has exceeded our capacity for comprehension as well as prodigiously diminished the lapse between discovery and application.

We would be mistaken to assume that history proceeds at our own pace or even at a predictable one, for the extent of progress itself defeats the expert attempts to assimilate that progress. Furthermore, an unprecedented phenomenon has emerged. Some societies are now suffering from the difficulty of assimilating technological achievements, especially in rich countries where technological gains and the investment of automation have resulted in increasingly lower manual labor averages thus generating an unsustainable unemployment. Moreover, the gains of development in medical sciences as well as the attainment of medical care have imposed upon society an aging population whose cost is all but easy to manage. In addition, the impact of some technologies on the environment and the future of its natural resources have alarmed some countries and shaken their confidence in the security of the future. The obscurity of tomorrow has become a fact conceded by everyone beginning with scientists.

Science has span in various directions. For on the one hand it seeks to explore mesoscopic   bodies at the nucleus level in some live cell matters, and to deal with them through new technologies dubbed Nanotechnology. And on the other hand, it seeks the universe and soars in a sky without limits.

The function of science is no longer an observational and descriptive one as it was in the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. For then the physicist described the atom without using it, and the chemist described particles without creating new ones and the biologist attempted to comprehend the mechanisms of life and its functions without interfering with its course. Yet present day science has bestowed man with exceptional powers that have exceeded his ambitions to achieve prosperity and improve all aspects of life and its surrounding world.

Science today has endowed man with the power to destroy mankind, were he to lose his wisdom and proper judgment, as he has in the past in Hiroshima, when Oppenheimer commented: “We have committed a sin”. It is not surprising then that the leader of the lamb Dolly’s cloning team Ian Wilmut would himself worn against carelessness in this issue and the ethical dilemmas in question:” I think now to contemplate using our present techniques with humans would be quite inhuman”.  We are not only in danger of violating the natural order of life; we are threatening our own humanity.

For some who choose to ignore, as Jean Hamburger, president of the French Academie des Sciences remarks [1], that genetic engineering will never be able to add the gene ofbehaviour or the gene of intelligence to a human’s genetic repertoire.  French thinker Charles Montesquieu in his 1748 “Spirit of the Laws” [2] said that power should be curbed by its motivations. More than 250 years later, this seems truer than ever with modern sciences.

The future of science goes hand in hand with the future of mankind. That has become a fact dictated by the vision of science controlling all aspects of life.  Today’s science is conquering new horizons, yet its future seems ambiguous, and one question remains unanswered: Will science give man happiness, or will it bring on him misery and misfortune?

  1. The mechanism of the science’s evolution:

The astonishing achievements of science since the beginning of the twentieth century have lead to many questions regarding the course and direction of science.

One of the questions most debated amongst scientists concerns the nature of the evolution of science: is it even continuous process or one subject to abrupt change and unpredictable developments?

Does the intellect of generations stir the course of science then follow its sequence?

Does science thrive towards a predictable end, or is its course endless? Is their a logic behind scientific progress and discoveries, or is the mechanism of it progress ungoverned by any law? Is science the output of accumulated knowledge, or is it the outcome of variable forces pulling in different directions?

Many scientists have dedicated their efforts in attempt to answer these questions and to identify any patterns underlying the progress of science and its course. The latest and most debated theory remains that of American scientist Thomas Kuhn which he developed in his book:” The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”[3].

Kuhn’s theory is based on the concept of paradigm that he defines as being the prevailing set of beliefs shared by scientists at a given time. According to Kuhn [3], periods of time will go by with a certain paradigm prevailing among scientists (normal or natural scientific periods). In such periods, scientists agree on basic concepts, on matters worth researching, and the means to be used in research. At the end of these “normal periods”, a sudden crisis or development will produce scientific findings that will upset or contradict the present paradigm, thus giving birth to a new scientific theory or paradigm and scientists will shift from one set of beliefs to a new one. Thus starts a new “normal scientific period” with a new prevailing paradigm.

Kuhn further uses an event from history to demonstrate his vision of the mechanism of scientific progress. After the prevalence of Isaac Newton’s physical theories on light as particles during the second half of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century, a normal scientific period began where scientists in general agreed on this theory and rallied to study motion and gravity. That marked the prevalence of a paradigm based on Newton’s theories. Scientists then used Newton’s theory in their infinitely accurate calculations of planets orbits, thus realizing tremendous success in 1846 with predictions of the presence of planet “Neptune” in terms of its distance from the sun and its orbit, before astronomers had even discovered the very existence of Neptune.

However, towards the end of the 19th century, a new crisis emerged when scientists failed to explain the behavior of light and the phenomenon of electrical light where even Newton’s theory failed in providing valid explanation. Once more, the change in the prevailing paradigm lead to a new paradigm to answer these questions, with the work of several non main stream scientists such as Einstein whose efforts between 1905 and 1915 culminated in theories that produced a new understanding of time, matter and energy, and the transformation of each of these forms into the other, with an overall better understanding of the notion of gravity. Einstein’s theory of relativity thus became the new prevailing paradigm, with a new normal period where it became the accepted way of studying the motion of bodies and gravity. And, according to Kuhn, it is not possible to accept Einstein theory of relativity without admitting that Newton was wrong.

For according to Newton, mass is permanent and cannot be transformed to any other form, whereas it can change into energy according to Einstein. Therefore, one cannot consider these two theories as being one, for the validity of Einstein’s theory is based on refuting some of Newton’s assumptions. That is also the case of Ptolemy’s popular notion that the earth is the center of the universe and that all other heavenly bodies rotate around it at regular speeds whereas Copernicus founded modern science with his notion of earth and other planets orbiting around the sun. Kuhn considers the transition from one paradigm to another to be comparable to a religious conversion, for it is far too deep of a change to be considered a free exercise of the mind.

Kuhn also likened the development of science to the evolution of nature as described by Darwin.

  1. Evaluating Kuhn’s theory:

Kuhn’s theory “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” has produced an ongoing heated debate with various opinions pro or against. We will focus on the last notable who has discussed Kuhn's theory, Nobel laureate in physics for 1979, Steven Weinberg who says in his1998 article that the truth of scientific evolution has eluded Thomas Kuhn, for one must differentiate between what is constant and not subject to change with time, and the part prone to change in any comprehensive theory. Weinberg considers that Kuhn has failed to note this distinction. [4]

For instance, theories of physics have strong invariant elements not subject to changment exactly like the human skeleton is in the backbone of human anatomy or like finding antique clay vases would be in the world of archaeologists.

In addition this aspect of the theories usually relies on mathematical equations that are based on symbols and definitions that leave little room for error.There are also other aspects of any given theory of physics that are less rigid and more flexible and likely to change. This distinction is what Kuhn failed to make. Moreover, Weinberg [4] argues that the normal periods of science are not periods of latency and dormancy, but rather they are essential phases for scientific evolution.

  1. The limits of science:

Scientists are divided on the issue of the limits of science into two opposite groups. On the one hand, some believe that there is no limit to science and that what science is yet to achieve will not be less in essence than its greatest accomplishments so far. On the other hand, others believe that science has exhausted its potential and is close to reaching its limits.

In 1994, Steven Weinberg published his renowned book “Dream of a Final theory” [5] where he predicted that science, lead by physics, is close to adding the final touches to a complete theory that would provide a final and comprehensive explanation of the world and the birth of the universe.

Weinberg based his prediction of this great expected newborn of science which would explain the universe on his conviction that science is now close to uniting the forces of gravity with the electromagnetic forces and the nuclear forces in one comprehensive theory known as the unified theory. Perhaps Mohamed Saladin El Naschie’s research [6] comes along this line of thought, where many leading physicists anticipate he will accomplish ground breaking results that will crown his journey in science, and indeed we personally wish him the best of luck in fulfilling his destiny. Other notable attempts are due to the work of E.Witten and L.Smolin.

 Weinberg’s book of course resulted in a wide debate where some expressed their doubts and non acceptance regarding Weinberg’s vision and found it a product of a very particular Weltanschauung.

Along that line came John Maddox’s book “What Remains to Be Discovered: Mapping the Secrets of the Universe, the Origins of Life, and the Future of the Human Race” [7], where the author goes over science’s great achievements and material progress in the past and the present, and what humanity accomplished along the way. He also defines the aspirations and higher objectives that science will thrive in order to reach, as well as the anticipated challenges and occasional unexpected developments that may take mankind by surprise.

In brief, Maddox foresees that the future of science is of great importance, and no less significant than what has been achieved in both past and present.

On the other hand, and far from this theory of the endless horizons science has yet to conquer, John Horgan’s “The end of Science” published in 1996 pictures an aging science near its end that will no longer witness revolutions and great discoveries, and that will at most provide finishing details within the general frames that have been established.[8]

Horgan also cautions from scientists arrogance and their exaggerated confidence and sanctification of science. He also finds Weinberg’s theory unacceptable, as to him the final theory is but a mirage drawing scientists blinded by their arrogance.

Bryan Appleyard takes the same position on the matter in his book:” Understanding the Present: Science and the soul of Modern Man” [9] where he goes over the unrealistic presumptions of scientists, criticizes their arrogance and demands containment of scientific research in order to redirect it, only this time to be based on principles of ethics and integrity devoid of arrogance. That is also the opinion of Edward Tenner in his book:  “Why things bite back” [10]. In his book, Tenner severely blames scientists for the negative, inhuman, and harmful impact of science on the future of life on Earth, as well as the terrible consequences that came as a result of the greatest achievements, for instance nuclear and biological arms

And in 1998, John Barrow published his book “Impossibility: The limits of Science and the Science of limits” [11], where he describes the maturity of science as being closer to old age, and that consequently it is time for science to seek its end since it has become useless.

An increasing number of pessimist thinkers that cannot all be listed here continue to warn of the doomed end of science, and that explains the growing voices that are calling for a framework of universal principles and ethics to curb the evolution of science, one that all nations and cultures can agree upon, especially in biological sciences where attempts are occasionally made to alter creation and to clone creatures.

  1. The limits of science from an Islamic point of view:

It might be of at least a philosophical interest to readers of a scientific journal such as C,S&F to venture in to recalling what the Koran,which is a moral codex for over,one and half billion people says of knowledge "it is only a little that is communicated to you, (O Men!)". The Konan repeatedly invites man to reflect and observe this universe as well as God’s creation in almost 570 verses. Moreover, he informs us that we have touched but the tip of the iceberg in science, which indicates that the limits of science are not palpable as Horgan and Barrow or their supporters argue, and that there is a vast world of knowledge yet unexplored. However, the achievements of the human mind in the fields of science are limited by what is meant for us to be able to recognize the presence of The Originator of Creation:”Soon will We show them Our Signs in the (furthest) regions (of the earth), and in their own souls, until it becomes manifest to them that thy Lord doth witness all things?”.

It is thus clear for us that science for Muslim scientists consolidates faith; especially that Islam makes it a duty for every Muslim to seek knowledge as is mentioned in the Hadith and many verses from the Koran. And Muslims, along with their nations, stand far from the circle that went from a faith that condemns science to a science that condemns faith.  The writer feel that the above remarks are extremely important in view of current world event and are meant to encourage scientific debate on fundamental issues.

Science combined with faith helps scientists to distinguish through their moral culture and intellect between beneficial science, and harmful application of science and the author would like to recall many several statement by Einstein, Heisenberg, and Oppenheimer to mention only a few.

In Goethe’s Faust as well as many religious beliefs the Koran relates a particular instance where Satan challenges Man to resist his temptation: “I will mislead them, and I will create in them false desires. Isn’t there in the many attempts and biological experiments in genetic engineering clear references to the meaning insinuated in this verse? Perhaps it is all but a continuous circle that has lead us from basic necessities guided science, through periods of unimagined luxury and possibilities as well as appalling poverty and destruction, to a point that will lead us back to the very beginning, the birth of science that came when man first looked at the heavens, and questioned for the first time his origin, his presence and his destiny.

  1. Conclusion:

The debate over science will constantly be fueled by both fervent believers in the extraordinary path that still lies ahead of it, as well as the more skeptical ones who believe to have detected the signs of its nearing end. In truth, it is our future as a living species that we are trying to predict as we ponder over the evolution of science. It is our personal belief that as long as man is, and man thinks, science has not yet fulfilled its destiny. A much wiser man once said: “I think, therefore I am “ this man is no less than Rene Descartes [12]. As long as we are here to question the nature of things, there will still be room for science to grow, and the endless questions we have to yet answer promise an endless horizon for science to conquer. But like a mature living being, it cannot afford to act without reason and care. More than ever, we need to exercise caution as we steer the course and applications of science…so that it may help us to better understand the world we live in, and ideally, to make it perhaps even better for all of us.



[1] Hamburger, Jean. L’avenir de la science, Paris: Dunod, 1991.

[2] Montesquieu, Charles. L’Esprit des Lois, 1758.

[3] Kuhn, Thomas S., the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

[4] Weinberg, Steven. The New York Review of Books, October 1998.

[5] Weinberg, Steven. The Dream of a Final Theory, Vantage Books, 1994.

[6] Elnaschie, M.S. A Preview of E_Infinity Theory the Mass Spectrum of high energy particle physics, 2004.

[7] Maddox, John.What Remains to Be Discovered: Mapping the Secrets of the Universe, the Origins of Life, and the Future of the Human Race. Free Press, 1998.

[8] Horgan, John. The End of Science. Helix Books, 1996.

[9] Appleyard, Bryan.Understanding the Present: Science and the soul of Modern Man. Anchor Book: 1994.

[10] Tenner, Edward.Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. New York, Vintage Books: 1996.

[11] Barrow, John D. Impossibility: The limits of Science and the Science of limits. Oxford University Books: 1998.

[12] Descartes, René.Letter dated March or April 1648 addressed to Silhon.


Dr Alani is senior advisor to the President of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.




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