A Dialogue on the Limits of Science and Transcendent Possibilities

By | March 20, 2013

Juan Bernal

I had a long dialogue with a correspondent philosopher [“Otro”] on the issues of what we can know and the limits of scientific knowledge.  It started when I [“Moi”] tried to clarify our basic assumptions:

Moi:  Let me assume that all humans are physical, biological beings with a facility for intelligent language.  I suppose that this imposes limits on the possibilities; for example, it implies that you’re not a disembodied, eternal, spiritual being.  Am I safe in making those presuppositions, or should I leave open the possibility that I’m communicating with a transcendent spirit?

Am I safe in assuming that we’re just flesh-and-blood persons?  Are we in agreement here, or do you wish to think that you might very well be much more (oh so much more!) than a physical, biological being with an over-active brain?


Otro:  I’m sorry that I did not explicitly answer your question. If you had left out the word “just,” I would be able to agree. I agree that we are flesh and blood persons etc. I do not agree that we are nothing more than that. A book by John Hick (The Fifth Dimension) spells out the alternative to that view, and I generally agree with the alternative as Hick describes it. The following quotation is from the first page of The Fifth Dimension. This might help you to understand the point of view from which I respond to your question. The book presents a more developed and nuanced understanding of what people like me and John Hick think about the idea that we’re just flesh and blood persons.

 We are finite, fallible, fragile fragments of the universe. But because we have an inbuilt need to find meaning we inhabit the universe in terms of a conception of its character – a big picture – either consciously adopted or unconsciously presupposed. In so doing, we are always, whether we realize it or not, living by faith, that is, moving in an immensely important area in which there is no certain knowledge and in which we cannot avoid the risk of being seriously mistaken.

To most of us within our highly technological western culture it has come to seem self-evident that a scientific account of anything and everything constitutes the full story, and that the supposed transcendent realities of which the religions speak must therefore be imaginary. Since at least the beginning of the twentieth century this naturalistic assumption has been an integral part of our culture, and any contrary hopes, dreams, intuitions, senses of transcendence, intimations of immortality, or mystical experiences have been overshadowed by its pervasive influence. But it is a fundamental error to think that the assumptions that our culture has instilled into us, and which we take for granted, are necessarily true. . . . The beginning of wisdom is to become aware of our own presuppositions as options that can be examined and questioned. Otherwise we are wearing mental blinkers without even being conscious of them.


Moi:  Thanks, this does give an idea of what you guys believe, but there’s nothing here that is totally new to me. However,  I will point out some ideas that John Hick and others (including you?) often express  which are erroneous.

I don’t believe that naturalistic thinkers and most scientists claim that it “self-evident that a scientific account of anything and everything constitutes the full story.”

As I noted in another email to you, the work of science and empirical inquiry are works-in-progress.  Nobody who reflects carefully on things would say that science has given the “full story.”  This is part of the effort by people like Hick to set up a Strawman argument against science and naturalism.  But even the admission that science does not give the full story does not show the viability of any philosophy (theology?) that asserts those “transcendent realities” which Hick and you so much desire.  The work of science can go on indefinitely (gaining more and more information about the universe and ourselves) without ever showing one shred of evidence for “transcendent realities.”  So this reference to the “full story” and implication of an “incomplete story” is really a red herring.

Another mistake arises with the notion of necessary truth:  that my common-sense assumption is necessarily true.  I never said that it was a necessary truth that we are physical, biological beings; I said it was a presupposition that we all take for granted.  Denying that it is a necessary truth does not you’re your case for supernatural possibilities.  If we’re in a speculative mood and want to muse about transcendental possibilities, we can engage the exercise of “examining and questioning” such presuppositions.  Nobody prohibits such an exercise.  But remember that this is all that’s going on; we’re just indulging a speculative exercise about possibilities.  It has always seemed to me that this is all what  John Hick others like him do amounts to: speculation about possibilities.

Finally, I find it rather bizarre to read the assertion that our common-sense presupposition that we’re physical, biological beings existing in a physical world is a case of having “mental blinkers,” as if you idealists had already established the viability of the transcendental realm from which you could look on the merely physical world as a limited, obscure reality.   This is just the old practice of religious transcendence parading as critical philosophy!


Otro:  John Hick wrote,

“To most of us within our highly technological western culture it has come to seem self-evident that a scientific account of anything and everything constitutes the full story, and that the supposed transcendent realities of which the religions speak must therefore be imaginary.”

He seems to say that because we think of the scientific account of everything is complete, we infer that “the supposed transcendent realities of which the religions speak must be imaginary.”

But which is the more likely interpretation of what he is saying about the scientific account? Is he saying that we have come to think of it as full in fact, or is he saying that we have come to think of it as full in principle?


Moi:   My problem with  ”the supposed transcendent realities of which the religions speak ..”  has nothing to do with the belief that science does or does not provide a “complete story” of everything.  I don’t believe this but there no implication that follows which lends comfort to the supernaturalist.

So I find much of what you quote from John Hick to have little relevance.  As you point out it
is not even clear what is meant by the “complete story” given by science.

My skepticism concerning all claims of transcendent existence or transcendent, spiritual
aspect (essence?) of human reality arises from other considerations. It arises from the observation
that there are no objective, publicly verifiable grounds for concluding that there are such
transcendent realities.

Even if we allow, for the sake of argument, some of those claims as hypotheses, we would have a tough time selecting the candidates to select and likely find that they contradict each other. There are so
many and so varied! There are no obvious criteria (agreeable to all) for selecting good candidates.


Otro:  I’m skeptical about your explanation of your skepticism. I think there are probably a lot of things you believe in even though you lack objective, publicly verifiable grounds for them. So other than the fact that it lacks objective, publicly verifiable grounds, there must be something else about the transcendent reality claim that provokes your skepticism.

Assuming as I do that empirical information is ambiguous, one reason why many people reject explanations of empirical data that involve the notion of a transcendent reality is that such explanations are not as effective as naturalistic explanations in stimulating or leading to further progress in science. You seem to put a very high value on science and scientific progress, so maybe that has something to do with your skepticism concerning all claims of transcendent existence.


Moi:   So now you’re in the business of psycho-analysis, stating what my reasons can and cannot be for something I hold to be the case?

I stated briefly why I’m skeptical about your claims that transcendental realities should not be ruled out.  I stand by those reasons and have little to do with my recognition of the progress brought about by the sciences.  It has more to do with the fact the sciences are by far the best instrument for gaining knowledge of our world that humans have.  It also has much to do with the completely incoherent world that results when we allow that your transcendental possibilities might be real along with the thousands of alternative transcendental possibilities that others dream up.

Of course, there’s much that I believe for which I don’t have objectively, verifiable grounds (as do all people).  But these are very different from belief in a transcendental realm of transcendental beings beyond the reach of science and empirical experience.

Mostly what I hear from you is reminder of possibilities that remain after we consider the limited knowledge that the sciences provide.  I hear from you and people like the Hick the refrain that since the sciences are do not explain everything (are not the full story), the possibility remains that your preferred fantasies of the supernatural can be fact.  Again, that is just relying on rather questionable notions of possibilities to hold on to that which is dear to you.  (Allow me to do some psycho-analysis of the motives for your views.)


Otro:   May I take this as an admission that the knowledge that science provides is limited, and beyond that knowledge lie possibilities which have yet to be explored? If so, do you similarly admit that

  1. science does not at present offer a theory of reality,
  2. and may never do so, since
  3. there may be realities that are forever inaccessible to the methods of science?

Among the realities that could be forever inaccessible to science, one is human reality. The evidence I presented in my previous email about Dr. Parnia’s research on after-death experience suggests mind-body dualism. But, given the inevitable ambiguity of empirical evidence, it may be beyond the ability of science to clinch the case for or against mind-body dualism. Nevertheless, the issue has practical importance. What we believe about it makes a difference to how we live our lives. Either we do or do not live with some sort of expectation of a life after death. So people in effect make a decision about it whether consciously or unconsciously by living their lives in one way or the other. The decision they make could be described as “a preferred fantasy of the supernatural.” Your preferred fantasy of the supernatural portrays the supernatural as empty of anything real. But what right do you have to consider your fantasy better than its alternatives? Is that a conclusion you can support with presupposition-less logic?


Moi:   You ask whether I admit that “the knowledge that science provides is limited, and that beyond that knowledge lie possibilities which have yet to be explored?”   Of course, I said as much.  My quarrel with you concerns that inference that you draw from this notion of an incomplete science.

Let me use the analogy of human high jumping.  Although the height that human high jumpers have achieved has risen dramatically in recent decades (now over 8 feet), there is a limit (a physical limit to how high a human can jump).  So possibilities of yet higher jumps remain.  But the book is not wide open on these possibilities, as long as we’re talking about human physiology.  You won’t see anyone ever high jumping 50 feet!  But maybe someone will someday achieve a jump of 9-10 feet.  The same thinking applies to the limits and possibilities of scientific knowledge.  Yes, scientific knowledge is not a completed story.  Yes, more remains to be told (discovered).  But what remains, when it is disclosed, will come under the category of nature as we now know it.  There is no reason for claiming that among those possibilities not yet disclosed are supernatural realities (the sort you yearn for).  That would be like claiming that because human high jumpers are still setting new records, one will eventually jump over a 100 foot barrier unaided!

You also ask whether I admit that

  1. science does not at present offer a theory of reality,
  2. and may never do so, since
  3. there may be realities that are forever inaccessible to the methods of science?

The sciences are not in the business of advancing “a theory of reality.”   Even the scientific theorist is concerned only with proposing specific theories of some aspect of nature (e.g. theories in physics, chemistry, biology, paleoanthropology) and having those theories tested by practicing scientists, who devise experiments to test the theory.  If anyone is in the business of presenting “a theory of reality,” it is the philosopher, or someone taking on that function of philosophy.  But some of those philosophers can offer a theory of reality based on the work and knowledge gotten by the sciences.  I don’t see any reason for supposing that a theory of reality based on scientific knowledge can never happen, since it happens already.

Your third item (“realities forever inaccessible to the methods of science”) just asks for a bit of speculation.  Who knows?  Who cares?  This question may be of interest to someone inclined to imagine a transcendental perspective on reality (a god’s eye view). But for the humanist perspective, which science represents, this question is limited interest.  An affirmative answer (“Yes, Lyle, there such entities forever inaccessible …”) does not have the cash value you imagine it to have.

With regard to your final paragraph, I don’t even know what it means to say that “science clinches the case for or against mind-body dualism.”  Are asking for a deductive proof?   Science has built a very strong case (and continues to do so) against that dualism.  Despite the dualist grasping for straws (a desperate search for anything that might save dualism), there isn’t any established scientific basis for positing a spiritual-mental entity that operates alongside (independently of) the human organism.

Of course the issue has practical importance for many people, in and outside of religious faith, who believe in such non-corporeal existence.  But the fact that people base their lives on that belief and religions carry on their business in terms of that belief does nothing to show that the belief is scientifically (or even rationally) viable.

I don’t think that my flat-footed belief that humans are evolved biological creatures, animals with a large brain, is a “preferred fantasy,” unless you dismiss (as well you might) all the biological-genetic sciences as “preferred fantasies.”

You see as my preferred fantasy of “the supernatural portrays the supernatural as empty of anything real.”  You’re making too hasty a jump here by assuming we can even talk intelligently and coherent of a supernatural realm that may or may not contain real entities.  As usual, you help yourself to the reality of fantastic realm (“SUPERNATURAL REALM”!) and then challenge your interlocutor to prove there’s nothing in it. (?!)   This sounds like one of those ineffectual games which traditional students of metaphysical philosophy love.

With regard to your last question:  What in the world is ” pre-suppositionless” logic unless it is just logic as a formal system?  I could outline the “logic” by which I reach my conclusions, but they surely involve some presuppositions (I have been referring to one of them in this long discussion).  All human arguments do, including those which you concoct based on presuppositions regarding highly questionable (even fantastic) possibilities.


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