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The Dialogs: Is there a limit to Science?

by Rich Feldenberg

In the Dialogs the Robot from Lost in Space and Speed Racer find themselves suddenly transported to a distant location to discuss a topic of philosophy of science. This has happened on many occasions. They don’t know how they come to this place or if some intelligent being is behind it. When they return to their own worlds no one else is aware that they have even been gone.
This time Speed and the Robot suddenly appear on a beach at sunset. They are on ancient earth, in the greek islands.  The sky is ablaze with deep reds and purples as the sun is sinking beneath the sea. Waves are crashing loudly on the rocky shore and a gentle breeze is blowing. There is no one else on the island, but just 30 miles south, and out of view of our heroes, a fleet of Athenians is making a crossing as they prepare for battle.

“Hello again, Speed Racer.  In principle there are no limits to science.” Says the Robot, It’s bubble encased brain blinking red and yellow lights. “It’s methodology makes it the best tool to apply in an attempt to answer any question.”

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“Good to see you again Robot.  Of course there are limits to science.” Says Speed, as he removes his white helmut and takes a step closer to the robot’s hulking metal body. “There are plenty of question it can not answer. In fact, it can’t answer the most important questions, like what is the meaning of life? What is the most ethical thing to do in a particular situation? What is love, how can you prove that you’re in love or that someone loves you? Science may be a useful tool to answer certain questions, but it completely fails in the most important areas.”

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The robots accordion style arms raise into the air, claws open as its blinking red speech unit broadcasts its deep mechanical voice. “I think that if you examine both the true definition of science, as well as, the questions that you believe science can not enlighten us on you’ll find that science does, in fact, have a great deal to say and offer to us. I would also propose that if there are certain questions that science can not answer, then there is also no reason to believe that any other method of knowledge acquisition has any hope of being any more successful.”

“You’re saying that intuition, spirituality, religion, mediation, and so on, have no value? That’s ridiculous”, said Speed. Even you can’t analyze all the available data necessary for every decision you make or every insight you have. If you tried to do that you’d never even make it out the space hatch every morning. You’d be paralyzed with indecision as you scan through all the available literature, contemplate moves and counter moves, and continually update your Basyean analysis algorithm, for even the simplest choice you had to make. I dare to say that even with the processing speed of your computer brain it would take you hours to decide if you should first conduct a soil analysis, inspect the Jupiter II perimeter for danger, or see if Dr. Smith is up to no good, when you activate your circuits each morning.”

The robot rotated its torso slightly “Negative, as usual Speed Racer, you’ve made many false assumptions, which lead you to your illogical conclusions. First, science is simply the most reliable method that you humans, or machines like myself, have to answers questions. Science is not a perfect system, but has a number of qualities that make it extremely useful and unique. It is a self correcting system so that any conclusions from a particular experiment may be updated by new data from additional experiments. It uses statistical methodology to come to conclusions that may be very different than “common sense” intuitions would predict. It’s experiments or observations can be designed to minimize the potential bias that are inherent in both the human and the machine mind.”

“But that still doesn’t mean it can answer any question.” Speed looked out onto the darkening horizon. The stars were beginning to appear in the sky and it was getting a little cooler now. “It has important limits. I might not expect a machine to understand that, but most humans realize that there are other ways of knowing. Science is limited to naturalistic investigations and explanations. If there are phenomenon outside of nature then science will always be blind to it.”

“While human intuition and meditation and prayer may result in some eventual decision making process, there is no reason to believe that any special knowledge is delivered via these methods. Take intuition as an example”, said the robot as it’s high frequency sensors were rotating near the head. It’s blinking lights now seemed quite bright as the fading sun became lost below the ancient greek sea . “It’s clear that humans have intuition about certain things. It’s likely that over the course of evolution Homo sapiens has evolved the ability to have insight into certain common situations. Intuition might give a human the feeling that there is some danger in this place, and that it would be best to leave. This could easily be an evolved trait to promote survival, and those humans that didn’t feel a sense of dread or doom in a particular situation may have been less likely to pass on their genes to subsequent generations if they were eaten by saber tooth tigers or killed by neighboring tribes because they didn’t pick up on subtle unconscious clues that their immediate environment was unsafe. Those systems built into your neural networks are nothing more than survival circuits and were never evolved to produce accurate information about the world. They only have to be correct often enough to enhance survival, but in no way need to be highly accurate, and can be prone to a high false positive rate. Even the software engineers that designed my computer brain, and other AI even more sophisticated than myself recognized the importance of building in a set of heuristics to prevent a robot from harm and damage without involvement of higher brain circuits. “

Speed took a few steps toward the water. “Look Robot, I appreciate that science has taught us about black holes in the center of galaxies, and quarks in protons and neutrons, and gives us the knowledge to build interstellar ships like the Jupiter II to travel to the stars, or to design the Mach 5 to win races, but it can’t tell us about meaning or purpose or the right way to live your life. You have to find the answer to those questions through other means.”

“In many situations there may be insufficient data to draw firm conclusions”, said the robot, “and in all cases science is clear that it’s conclusions are non absolute but simply the closest approximation to truth that we can come to at the time. Asking, “what is the meaning of life”, may be an empty and futile question, since it is quite reasonable to conclude that there is no objective meaning – that the question itself is meaningless. And in this way one does reach the limit of science, in the sense that science can not answer a question that has no answer. Many philosophers would conclude that we have to create our own purpose for our life, and that this self-created purpose can be very fulfilling and give our temporary existence a great deal of meaning.”

“What about things that we know are real but can’t be studied in a lab like love?” Speed put his hand over his heart. “How can science prove that Trixie loves me? I don’t need to be put in an fMRI scanner to know. I know that she does but there is no test that can show something so important and invisible as love.”

“Love is a human emotion”, the robot said. “There is sufficient evidence to conclude that it is also present to some extent in other complex animals, especially higher mammals. While I don’t have that emotion built into my AI circuitry, there is clear scientific evidence that love does exist as a property of the central nervous system of certain animals, like humans. There is no evidence, however, that love exists outside of these systems. In other words, there is no proof that love is a force in space or would exist if there were no life or intelligent beings in the universe. Emotions, like love can be studied in the lab. Their effects on human behavior can be observed, measured, classified, and understood, in terms of underlying mechanisms. Based on that understanding, predictions can be made as to effects on future behavior or activities of those afflicted by such emotions. You can’t “know” that Trixie loves you, but you can have a high degree of confidence that she does based on experience and observation. An independent observer, such as myself, might come to a similar conclusion based on a careful inspection of facial expression, body language, speech patterns, and so on. The level of confidence might be improved further if I did indeed scan Trixie’s brain to examine blood flow patterns and oxygen consumption in specific parts of the brain while she was looking, thinking about, and interacting with you.”

Speed circled around the robot as the robot rotated its body without moving its legs. “Well, lets say that for the sake of argument “, continued Speed, “there are ghosts. You know, some kind of spirit with an intelligence of some kind that can haunt a house or drive an invisible ghost race car. Science could never find that because it is only designed to look for natural causes, and the scientists themselves would never believe in ghosts so wouldn’t design an experiment to test for it. You have to admit that is true.”

The robot answered. “Speed Racer, if there is another type of reality that exists, that has some form of interaction with the natural world then that is a scientific claim. Whether that claim involves ghosts, spirits, ESP, angels, miracles, or so on. If it affects this world it can be studied in some way by the scientific method. While extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, to quote Carl Sagan, scientists follow the data. If there was sufficient and reproducible effects that could best be explained by ghosts, then that hypothesis would have to be seriously considered. So far, that type of evidence has never been reliably demonstrated which leads scientists to conclude that any supernatural phenomenon seems highly unlikely. It can never be fully ruled out since additional evidence might surface at anytime and in science one is always open to new evidence.”

“So you are saying that science has no limits?” Speed said, squinting into the robots bubble head.

“Not necessarily”, replied the robot. “There may be physical limits that science will never be able to penetrate. If quantum uncertainty is built into the very fabric of space-time we will never have a full understanding of the quantum state of an object. In other words we can’t know both an electron’s position and momentum with full certainty. We may never be able to probe matter at the smallest Planck scales since that may take more energy than is available in the entire observable universe. It is also possible that our minds might have a certain limit in which we simply can not understand anymore beyond a particular point. Some of those limits could also be imposed by physical limits so that even the best designed computer brain might never be made intelligent enough to grasp the most fundamental truths of the universe. Your pet chimp Chim Chim can never be taught to understand calculus because it’s brain is just too simple, but there may be no plausible brain that could fully comprehend all aspects of nature.”

Speed looked down at his feet. “Even I had trouble with calculus. Trixie had to tutor me through it. I see what you’re saying Robot. I’ll consider your points. I feel like we’re being pulled back to our worlds again. I’m in the middle of a big race and the Car Acrobatic Team was trying to finish me off. I’m sure I’ll see you again.”

“Good luck in your race Speed Racer”, said the machine. “I was in the middle of searching for Penny Robinson who is lost on the planet we are stranded on. I must help find her. Until we meet next time, Speed Racer.”

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