Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Science and our restricted human understanding

Science is often presented as having the potential to unlock and understand all the mysteries of our world. There is, however, one severe problem that is not taken into account in this regard: due to our human constitution, we have restricted access to the world. As humans, we would never be able to fully encompass the world for the simple reason that both our sensibility and understanding are severely limited in its reach! This is where science meets quantum objects and dark matter. This is also where science meets religion!

Humans often have a very high regard for their own abilities. This is especially common among scientists and those who follow their lead - they often think that there is no end to the possibilities of human exploration. This perspective goes back to modernist times, when man thought of himself as a god in his own right; when man thought that there is nothing which he will not eventually subdue and understand. The problem with this view, however, is that humans just do not have the capabilities to explore and access all of that which exist. Some things in our world are forever beyond our empirical reach!

In this essay, I discuss the extent of the limitations of our human access to the world around us. I show in what sense science is forever restricted in its empirical access and understanding of our world. I use the philosophy of the well-known philosopher Immanuel Kant to explore these issues. Kant engaged with them long ago and his approach is now more relevant than ever. Especially now that science has discovered that large parts of our world are "dark" to us.

The possibility of objective knowledge

Most people do not really think about their own or our scientific access to the world; they merely accept that we have full access to the world as it exists. The problem, however, is that we always access the world through our human senses or by extension, through our instruments (we use the causal connection between our senses and instruments to extend our empirical access of the world). Once we gain empirical access in this manner, the acquired data always belongs only to those aspects of our world that can be so accessed. All empirical data belongs to those aspects of our world that are measurable by our material instruments. All things that happen(ed) or exist beyond our temporal and spatial reach can never be so accessed. This includes things which are too complex (for example, an infinity of causally related connections) or which are by their very nature forever outside empirical reach (although there might in some cases be indirect ways to establish that they do in fact exist).

What about our conceptual understanding of the world? Surely we can think about the world as it really exits? Although we might think that we can in principle understand all things, our understanding is actually also very constrained. Somehow our understanding is restricted by our senses. As long as we can present things empirically in space and time, that is, when we can visualize them in some manner, we can also figure out how they work. Our understanding works hand in hand with our human senses (even when these are extended in experiment) - things that can be empirically given in our senses or in experiment can be understood. Things that lay beyond that can be conceptualized, we can think them, we can reason about them, but before we do not have empirical access to them we cannot really understand them. This means that we are also very restricted in our understanding of the world.

Kant was very interested in these problems since they are closely related to the question of human knowledge. How is objective human knowledge possible? Since we always access the world subjectively as humans, how can we obtain objective knowledge that is universally true? The possibility of empirical data, which is always given through human sensibility, is severely restricted by our human senses - not in the sense of the crudeness of our senses which can be extended far beyond that in experiments but in its limited access of the world. Since we do not access the world as it really is (but merely as it is presented in our senses or experiments), all data given in our senses or experiment is contingent - as mere sense data, we have no guarantee that this is what the world truly is like.

Even if we think that we find some order among this data, how do we know that they constitute "laws" of the world as it really is? They may be "laws" that regulate our interaction with the world at the empirical level but how do we know that they actually describe some real truths about the world? Since we do not have unconditional access to the world due to the fact that our understanding of the world is restricted by our senses, we can obviously not know anything about the world except to the extent that it is presented in our senses (or experiments). As such all "laws" that we ascribe to nature are just human conceptions applied to nature - they are forever and always "human" concepts. They are therefore always subjective (they do not objectively apply to the world as it really is).

Kant had a remarkable insight in this regard, namely that we can conceptualize things as they may be given in our senses in space and time before they are actually given as such (Kant calls this synthetic a priori, where "synthetic" refers to "pure" human sensibility, i.e. without any real data given in the senses, and a priori means that it is prior to actual experience). In this way, humans have the possibility of real experience even before actually engaging with things. When things are given empirically in our senses (which would be a posteriori) this is actually nothing but a particularization of those general things that may be given in "pure" sensibility (intuition).

The essence of Kant's idea is that our concepts of understanding work hand in hand with our sensibility (senses). Kant says that our concepts are "synthesized" with our forms of sensibility. Although our understanding is restricted by our senses, as long as it does not try to move beyond the senses (experiments), it can indeed understand things as they are given in the senses. For those things that may be given in our senses (instruments), we can formulate general rules which apply to all such things that may be given in experience or experiment. In this way science becomes possible: we can formulate general scientific laws that apply to the things that we encounter every day around us or in controlled experiments. 

In the final instance, we make judgments whether the things given empirically in the senses agree with our synthetic conceptualization of them (in pure sensibility). If they agree, then we may say that these things are indeed the things that we have formed concepts about, i.e. we can establish an "objective" truth judgment. The general rules of the understanding are applied to the particulars (empirical data) given in our senses or experiment. In this way, we can obtain objective knowledge of things even though we do not have access to the world as it really is.

The order of the world that is given in experience and experiment is understood in terms of the order (laws) that we bring to that data (through our conceptualization thereof). In the progress of experience, we can proceed to engage on an ever more substantial level with the material world of matter. The empirical data so obtained is then brought under ever more sophisticated conceptual structures (theories) - if the data (particulars) is in agreement with the conceptual structures, we can say that we have obtained objective knowledge (on an ever more substantial level). But all knowledge is always restricted to our empirical observation of nature.

The limits of our understanding

When we think about the world beyond the objects as they are given in human sensibility, we have no choice but to take our world as if it is systematically ordered - even though this can never be proven. In this context, we can think what such an ordered world might look like. In Kant's thinking, there are two ways in which the world might be beyond the reach of our senses and therefore also our understanding. In the context of our human senses, the one way relates to limits of degree, i.e. that our senses or instruments are such that they are limited in the manner in which data can be given in them (limitations in time, space and magnitude). The world as it really is may have (for us) an inaccessible extension with an infinity of relations and connections which can never be empirically brought within the range of our senses (or experiments). As such some objects and their totality of interactions are beyond our sensible (experimental) access.

The other way in which the world might be beyond our sense relates to limits in kind, i.e. that our particular kind of sensibility is such that it may not be able to access certain kinds of objects which may only be accessible to another kind of intuition than our sensible one. As such there may be objects in our world that can never be given in space and time in our senses (or instruments). In fact, we know today from our scientific research that such things exist.

To account for these two ways in which the world may be beyond our senses, Kant allowed that our phenomenal world (called "empirical nature"), that is the world of our experience and experiments, be complemented with two other concepts of the world, namely "conceptual nature" (the concept of nature taken as a total system; in short: "nature") and a supersensible realm outside nature. Nature refers to our world in its totality of deterministic connections (called "mechanism") as we can only conceptualize it, i.e. as it may really be but outside the possibility of our sensible reach.

All the objects of our experience are also objects of nature; they belong to nature and as such we can empirically access them in space and time (in the context of deterministic causality). Objects of nature, however, as they "really" are when their enormous magnitudes or infinite relations are concerned cannot be brought within the limitations of our experiments. Some scientific laws relate to nature, for example, the theories of relativity and those describing stochastic behaviour. We accept these laws but they present a systematic unity that goes well beyond the phenomenal laws that we encounter in experiment. We can think these laws; we cannot bring all of nature to which they apply within the reach of our experiments.

Kant also allowed for a supersensible realm outside nature. The difference between nature and the supersensible realm outside nature is that the all objects in nature are deterministically (mechanistically) connected; objects in the supersensible realm are not so connected (I previously showed that absolute spontaneity (freedom) rules in this realm [1]). They are also outside the framework of the space-time conceptions that apply to nature. As such we can say that they belong to a different mode of existence than the one that we conceptualize as nature. Since such supersensible objects can never be brought into our experiments, they are not empirically accessible. They stand forever outside our empirical reach. We encounter such objects in the context of quantum physics. Quantum objects in the pre-measurement stage are different from those that we encounter in our experiments - quantum objects adhere to superpositions of states which "collapse" to certain reduced modes that are observable in experiment.

The only reason why we can argue that quantum objects exist even though we cannot empirically access them is that they cause certain outcomes in our world. If they did not do this (and some don't), we would not even have known about their existence. So, the question is: how extensive is the quantum realm? How many kinds of objects are there that belong to that realm? What kind of existence is that which we do not have empirical access to?

Even if we do not try to answer these questions we have to admit the following: we are severely constrained in our understanding of the world! We have no hope that we will ever gain access to this mode of existence because of the restricted nature of our kind of sensibility. Although we can think beyond that, and formulate various mathematical conceptions that apply to that kind of existence to the extent that we may encounter outcomes produced by such objects, we would never be able to empirically access them and understand them. We can say: A part of our world is beyond empirical reach. This is also the part where "dark" matter and "dark" energy resides.

Once we are confronted with the limits of our understanding, we are forced to acknowledge that the world involves more than we had ever thought possible. This does not mean that all sorts of crazy ideas about the world should now be allowed in serious debate. It does mean, however, that our conceptualization and metaphysical constructs of the world should accommodate this aspect of our world in a sensible manner. All metaphysical conceptualizations which are still stuck in the old paradigm where only the mechanistic world is allowed, are not relevant to current debate. They do not realistically capture the world of our experience and experiments [1].


We can even say that in physics we have now moved from the pure empirical study of nature (which is obviously not "pure" since we always bring empirical data under concepts) to metaphysical interpretations which can never be shown to be true or not (in the Kantian sense). As such there are, for example, various possible ways to interpret the world through the lens of quantum physics. We just do not know - and can never know - what the quantum world really is like. We can form metaphysical constructs based on mathematical theories and the available data but we can never gain knowledge of that world to the extent that it is beyond our experimental reach. At most, we can present good reasons why we think that the world is such or such.

In some sense physics has therefore entered the domain of metaphysics which was in the modern age looked down upon as not truly "scientific". In this world of metaphysics, we also find the various ways in which we can think that the world really is in accordance with our religious conceptions. The fact that we are so restricted in our empirical access of the world shows why one would never be able to prove or disprove the existence of God (As Kant has shown, all the proofs for God's existence moves from conceptual constructs to assume existence). We can merely present metaphysical constructs that capture our religious understanding of the world in a rational manner. That is, we can present good reasons why we think that the world is such or such - using a wider spectrum of data and arguments than in the metaphysics of any particular branch of science (i.e. from all aspects of our life experience). I plan to argue in another essay that Kant's metaphysics is not only a reworking of the Christian worldview but is also one of the best ways to understand the world of science.

So, due to our restricted human senses and understanding, it has now so happened that both science and religion are engaged in the very same metaphysical game with the difference that serious science keeps away from the more substantial questions regarding our human existence (That would be to move too far beyond the basic data available in experiments). All of us are nonetheless interested in those questions. As such the idea that "religion" is concerned with things which cannot be proven and is therefore not to be taken seriously is just not right; even science is concerned with things which lie beyond empirical access. Anybody who is open-minded should in this context, at the very least, seriously and carefully consider the metaphysics of religion.


In this essay, I focus on the limits of our human understanding. Gone are the days when scientists could think that it is just a matter of time before everything is understood. Although some - even prominent scientists - may still keep that hope alive, the reality is that philosophers of science are long past that way of thinking. Our world is just too complex - there are parts of our world that are beyond the reach of our sensible intuition (our five senses) and would require a totally different kind of intuition than the one that we use in our experimental exploration of the world.

Although some aspects of our world are empirically inaccessible, this does not mean that we cannot think about that. We can, from the context of our broader human experience, which involve human consciousness and other aspects of our existence, construct a systematic metaphysics which accommodate all our life experience. Kant presented such a metaphysics - and I hope to explore it in more detail in future. Suddenly things that modern man thought impossible, like the existence of Kant's supersensible realm, has again become part of our thinking - even scientific thinking - about the world, where it is now taken as applying to the quantum realm [1].

The question is: What about the other things that Kant also argued for in that context, for example, the existence of the human soul? Since he was right in allowing for a supersensible realm which was rejected by about all philosophers and scientists until quite recently, he might be right in other regards too. We should be humble and open to considering such possibilities. Our restricted sensibility and understanding force us to accept that we may have good reasons to believe things even though we know that we can never bring them within experimental reach to understand them. The existence of the soul might be something like this. Another may be the belief in God [2].

[2] I plan to discuss these things later in this series about Kant and quantum physics.

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref.

On the theme of Science, Philosophy and God read also:
Part 3: Science and metaphysics: in search of Russell's teapot
            Presenting a new argument for the existence of God