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Science's Modest Ambition

Although we are rightly impressed by the many things that science can account for satisfactorily, we should also recognize that this great success has been purchased by a degree of modesty of ambition. Science limits itself to considering only certain kinds of experience. Broadly speaking, its concern is with the impersonal dimension of reality. Galileo had the brilliant idea, followed so strictly by successive generations of physicists, of confining attention to the primary quantities of matter and motion, and to set aside what he called the secondary characteristics of human perception, such as color. This neglect of what the philosophers call qualia (that is to say, feelings such as seeing red or judging someone to be trustworthy) was an immensely successful technique of investigation. It would, however, be a very bad mistake to equate Galileo’s methodological strategy with an act of ontological judgment - that is to say, a verdict on the nature of reality. Such a confusion would, in my view, result in a woefully inadequate metaphysics. Physics may tell us that music is vibrations in the air, and neurophysiology may describe the consequent patterns of neuron excitation that result from those airwaves impinging on the eardrum, but to suppose that this discourse is adequate to the phenomenon of music would be totally misleading. The mystery and reality of music slips through the wide meshes of the scientific net.

Metaphysics cannot tolerate such an impoverished scientism, for its grand aim is truly to be a Theory of Everything, obtained, not by Procrustean truncation of experience until it has been reduced to a scale so limited that it can be condensed into a formula that can be written on a T-shirt, but by taking absolutely seriously the many-layered richness of the reality in which we live. It will not grant an automatic priority of the objective over the subjective, of the impersonal over the personal, of the repeatable over the unique.

Interestingly enough, some of these wider issues that a true metaphysics must consider relate to questions that arise from our experience as scientists, but which go beyond the merely scientific. They center round two great metaquestions: Why is science possible at all? Why is the universe so special?

Contributed by: Sir John Polkinghorne

Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
Understanding the Universe

Science's Modest Ambition

Why is Science Possible?
Why is the Universe so Special?
Other Considerations
The Problem of Evil
Purpose and the Cosmic Conclusion


 John Polkinghorne

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