To What End: The Limits of Science

Charlie could remember back to when some of this had all started to germinate.  He was still in school back then.  Back in Providence.  When he was a ‘student-athlete’, whatever the heck that meant.  But in his better moments, he was an amateur philosopher.  Exploring the nature and depths of his own mind, and looking at and analyzing the scientific and analytical models that were presented before him that described reality.  There was hard science, there were the arts, and there was philosophy.  And certainly if you read something in a textbook presented by a Professor with a PHD, it must be true.  A hard fact.  Undisputed.

The sciences were a little tough for Charlie though.  He steered clear of disciplines that had lab hours or were brutally difficult to get through.  That left out most of the sciences.  He didn’t get into software engineering until much later.  Until he had to find a way to make a living that didn’t involve hitting a yellow fuzzy ball.  He did read some Einstein though, and some Stephen Hawking, just to try and get an understanding of the scientific models that underlie the physical world that we lived in.

What struck Charlie about some of these models, not that he understood them completely of course (nor did he think that he completely understood them today), was the limitations that seemed to be present in their descriptive power.  For Quantum Theory in particular, you had this embedded notion of “uncertainty”, some sort of probability distribution of outcomes that mapped the behavior of these subatomic things, a model that by design was incompatible with the tried and true notions of classical physics, that things and objects were real, had mass and velocity and “existed” beyond any act of observation or measurement, even if their “reality”, as defined by these measurable quantities really, was relative at a very basic level to the frame of reference of the observer.  The models were supposed to describe the world we lived in, at least better than any of the other theories that were out there, and yet they seemed to just beg more questions.

Quantum Mechanics even had a principle they called the uncertainty principle.  In physics?  So part of the theory is there are certain limits on what can be known?  That seemed very odd to have a principle called the uncertainty principle, which was so well defined, mathematically even (Δψp Δψq ≥ ℏ/2 if you must know) that sat right square in the middle of the hardest of sciences.

In an oft quoted passage, one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century and one of the original formulators of Quantum Mechanics, Max Born had this to say about the limits of Quantum Theory, which calls out directly the epistemological limits of science itself to some degree.


“ …To measure space coordinates and instants of time, rigid measuring rods and clocks are required. On the other hand, to measure momenta and energies, devices are necessary with movable parts to absorb the impact of the test object and to indicate the size of its momentum. Paying regard to the fact that quantum mechanics is competent for dealing with the interaction of object and apparatus, it is seen that no arrangement is possible that will fulfill both requirements simultaneously… ”[1]


So science had its limits then.  Scientists themselves recognized these limits.  And they gave the limits names.  And they named this one the “uncertainty principle” or “relativity”.  That said it all, Charlie remembered thinking.  So even hardcore theoretical physicists recognized the limits of their models and the methods that they used to arrive at and measure outcomes.  What we call science, which was based upon empirical study and verifiable evidence, what we deemed to be the boundaries of our physical world, appeared to be simply a map of the territory and smacked of some very basic underlying limitations.

And yet the Western mind, if one could generalize such a thing, was rooted in the fundamental belief of the “reality” of the physical world, believing that all experience and reality was explainable and predictable, basing its assumptions on what appeared to be Reason and Logic, built on empiricism essentially or what Pirsig called logical positivism.  So Charlie, and science itself it appeared, was presented with this philosophical problem, where the implications of this belief system, and its limits in fact, its basic assumptions about “reality”, should be well understood, and well taught.  And yet these limitations weren’t taught.  The assumptions that were built into these models that modern science directly called into question seemed to be brushed under the rug so to speak.  David Bohm’s struggle throughout the end of his career in fact reflected this struggle to have these basic assumptions, which rested at the heart and pinnacle of modern science, brought to light in some meaningful way, which in turn forced him to construct a broader theory of knowledge which incorporated physics, and the mind, and directly spoke to the basic assumptions of Western science which no longer seemed tenable.

Then there was this whole religious orthodoxy thing that remained a mystery to Charlie, and yet still held tremendous influence and sway over millions and millions of people throughout the world.  Not to pick on Christians here, as the Muslims and Jews (mainly the Abrahamic religions for the most part it seemed) all had their religious orthodoxy which held their Scripture to be divine revelation and to be interpreted literally and used as a reference guide to life itself, despite the fact that it was clear that this Scripture which they held so dear was clearly interpreted, translated and compiled by authors who were definitely not the prophets in question.  It did not take too much research to find out that neither Moses, nor Jesus nor Muhammad actually wrote anything down, they were presumably too busy living and teaching and reveling in the glory of the Creator.  These Evangelicals, who regarded the word of their God, as it was translated from the original Greek or Hebrew or Arabic as the case may be, should be interpreted literally and the ‘subjective’ experience of mystics should be ignored because it doesn’t have a basis on objective scientific truth, God reveals himself only to his chosen people.  That just didn’t seem to hold water to Charlie.  That premise seemed to lack the very rational foundations that it held so dear.

His mind rolled back to his senior year in college.  He and Jenry were roommates.  They lived in some shabby old house right by the local pub they used to go to all the time – Oliver’s it was called.  The location was great, but the place was practically falling apart.  It was college though, you were supposed to live like that apparently.  And yet in this setting, there was room for abstract thought, some exploration of the ideas and concepts that were being pressed into their formative minds.  And Charlie was doing enough reading, was exposed to enough of basic principles that formed the basis of modern science, that his mind was able to see a hole in the framework.  A hole in the model as it stood.  And yet he didn’t understand why this hole wasn’t more obvious to everyone around him, or at the very least, why this hole didn’t grab as much attention as he thought it should.


Physics as it stands today rests on the conceptually framework that physical reality is measurable and quantifiable and fundamentally “real”.  And this entire framework rests on the belief in, ultimate faith in, the predictive power of advanced mathematics to represent the physical world.  This branch of knowledge, and it was important to keep in mind that this was but one branch of knowledge, takes as given that the physical world is of three dimensions, dimensions represented by Cartesian (Euclidean) space that could be mapped in a basic x, y, and z coordinate system that could be present the location of anything in physical space.  And in turn, that time was mapped over it as the fourth dimension and always moved linearly in one direction.  This model had lasted from the time of the Greeks until Einstein’s day, more than two thousand years.

But Einstein postulated, and the boundaries of the theory were proven by later scientific experiments, that time and physical space itself was not only a function of the observer, that time and space in and of themselves were “relative” in fact, that the faster you approached the speed of light, the more your notion of time and space diverged from that of an observer at rest, the more relative time and space became.  But he also proved, that in order to build a more comprehensive model of physical reality, space and time needed to be fundamentally linked as conceptual constructs, and in fact, at the cosmic scale, spacetime was elastic, it “bended”.

Quantum Mechanics in turn showed that not only did the subatomic world operate according to very different and wholly irreconcilable laws than that of “classical physics”, but that the nature of physical reality was much more complex than perhaps we could ever imagine, that the underlying physical structure of the universe, of all of the physical world in fact, behaved not only according to the principles of matter, or particles, but also according to wavelike principles as well.  Hence the wave-particle duality paradox that sits at the heart of quantum reality and remains one of its great mysteries of science.  But Quantum Theory also shows us unequivocally that the idea of “measurement”, which sits at the very core of the philosophy of Western science, has limits, and that irrespective of the conundrum between classical physics and Quantum Theory, there remain interpretative questions about Quantum Theory itself that are still unanswered and force us to incorporate philosophy, metaphysics, our definition of knowledge and reality itself, back into the discussion.

What Bohm searched for, where he branched from theoretical physics into the realm of metaphysics, left the reservation so to speak, was in his search for unified order which he was compelled to establish after concluding that the only rational explanation of Quantum Theory was a notion which he called undivided wholeness.  He did not see a purely mathematical and theoretical answer to the seemingly irreconcilable differences between classical physics and quantum reality.  His premise seemed to be not only that a mathematical model that incorporated both the principles inherent to Einstein’s General Relativity and those that underlay Quantum Theory was not only impossible, but that in order to make sense of the “reality” of the models that described the two different domains, an adventure beyond physics was inevitable.

Bohm saw that the only path of reconciliation as it were lay outside the domain of physics and in the realm of metaphysics, where the notion of Mind and the Intellect were an integral part of the process of experience, i.e. his holomovement concept, and were directly incorporated into the theoretical model.  He effectively concluded that any study of the nature of the physical universe led one, from a rational and empirical basis alone, to the notion of an underling implicate and explicate order structure in which various explicate orders were perceived and stood unfolded from an underlying coherent implicate order structure that was characterized by some level of undivided wholeness, a concept within which thought itself was an integral part.

The implications of an explicate and implicate order framework for reality, given Bohmian Mechanics which illustrates the possibility of non-local hidden variable theories to explain Quantum Mechanics, is that the existence of a supposed “unified field theory”, or a model of “quantum gravity” so sought after by physicists since Einstein, is highly unlikely.  To take the implications one step further, Bohm’s model of reality implies that mathematics as a model for describing reality is limited, albeit powerful for describing various explicate orders such as Newtonian mechanics, Relativity (both Special and General Theories) as well as Quantum Mechanics, is limited to explicate orders and that in order to find a holistic model for describing all of reality, and in turn all explicate orders, one must look to the concepts of consciousness and integrated wholeness and interdependence, leaning on what appeared to be very Eastern philosophical principles that were fundamental principles, axioms as it were, in Vedanta and Buddhism.

Einstein’s belief in this “Unified Field Theory”, the existence of which essentially forms the basis of his criticism of Quantum Mechanics as incomplete, seemed to not only be improbable, but perhaps even impossible given the fundamental incompatibilities of the assumptions of the different theories and models.  In other words the very idea of local realism and local determinism as a construct, core to the theories of Special and General Relativity of Einstein and of course Newtonian mechanics, seemed to be at best limited to a certain domain of experience and at worst were fundamentally flawed as assumptions of the basis of physical reality.  And this violation of the principle of local realism has been empirically proven, at least at the quantum level, not only mathematically with the introduction of Bohmian Mechanics and the notion of Quantum Potential, but also subsequently experimentally by showing the relationship and interdependence of particle properties in two independent systems that were separated by classical physical boundaries.

Charlie thought that this quest for a “unified field theory” was a bit of a fool’s errand of sorts and what we really should be focused on was a quest for a “unified knowledge theory”, making it explicit that some elements of metaphysics, theoretical constructs that could provide linking and overarching themes across all the branches of science, must be included in our models of reality in order that all of our knowledge and all of our experience could be understood and comprehended in a fully coherent and consistent conceptual framework.

But in order to come up with a “unified knowledge theory”, you had to move beyond physics and modern science, and incorporate the science of mind and the act of perception itself into the overall framework.  Mathematical models of physical reality, whatever that was, appeared to only take you so far, which is the essence of Bohm’s case for an implicate and explicate order framework for “reality”, branching away from the orthodox interpretation of Quantum Theory (Copenhagen Interpretation) which stated that Quantum Theory was not in fact a framework for reality as we know it but simply a measuring tool that told us, approximately, the behavior of “stuff” at the subatomic level.

Hence Charlie’s ultimate conclusion that this search for a “Unified Field Theory”, which drives the field of theoretical physics, as well as particle physics to a great extent today, is fundamentally misguided.  String Theory and other abstract theoretical mathematical constructs represent the search for an answer to a metaphysical question using a tool that is wholly inadequate to answer and solve the problem.  The use of mathematics to answer to the metaphysical question of how the universe works and how Quantum Theory and General Relativity can be unified to explain a “unified field theory” appeared to be a fruitless effort, akin to an attempt to use a hammer and nails to build a skyscraper.

What we should be looking for, and what Bohm really provided us with, and in fact what Aristotle spoke to some 2500 years ago, is a Unified Knowledge Theory, within which physics, metaphysics, biology, psychology, etc. can be viewed as branches of knowledge that complement each other to provide a complete picture of the world we live in.  Where these seemingly contradictory and separate domains can peacefully coexist and collectively give us a perspective on the nature of reality as a whole as well as our place in this reality.


What Charlie thought he had fallen upon that seemed to go unnoticed in the modern era, the Age of Reason, the Age of Science, was that understanding starts and ends with language, the means with which we communicate ideas to one another and construct an understanding of, and are able to navigate through, the world around us.  And then language in its most concrete form was reflected in the written word, as expressed in various phonetic alphabets which were developed, invented, to express and codify language and encapsulate and communicate more abstract concepts into “systems” of thought that allowed us to express more complex ideas and to formulate models of reality.  Of course writing was most likely invented to communicate various forms of trade and economic transactions, but from a broader perspective it was then used to communicate knowledge itself, which in turn formed the basis as to how we look at the world around us and how we perceive our place in this reality, which at some level harkened back to those age old questions that have plagued man since the dawn of history, “who are we and from whence we came?”.

The Greek language, the ultimate forefather of all Western European languages, in many respects came to define how we look at knowledge itself in all its various forms.  As far as Charlie could gather this seemed to be Aristotle’s unique and lasting contribution to the West.  It is from his branches of knowledge, his epistêmai, that the language of modern science as a whole is derived.  And out of this ancient Greek philosophical movement, mathematics also originated as one of the cornerstones of metaphysics.  These mathematical principles, even the principle of the One, were a core part of the Greek philosophical schools as evidenced not only by Aristotle’s comprehensive discussion of these principles in his Physics and Metaphysics (even if he dismisses them as incoherent belief systems) but also more directly in the Pythagorean school which was influential throughout Greece in the pre-Socratic era.  It is from this tradition that Euclid and Ptolemy come from and it from these “scientists” that our modern reliance on mathematics as the ultimate expression of creation stems from.

But Mathematics as we have found is a limited and constrained abstract tool, even if it might perhaps be our most powerful abstract tool for modeling (physical) reality.  It was powerful yes, but clearly not powerful enough to explain the totality of behavior of particles and bodies in both the subatomic world as outlined in Quantum Mechanics and the world of massive bodies which warp spacetime as described in Einstein’s theories of Special and General Relativity.  In order to construct a fully coherent descriptive model of all existence it appeared that you needed more abstract symbols and more consistent, explicit assumptions about the grounding of existence, and the notion of perception, which encompassed the more scientific notions of observation and measurement, had to be built into the model somehow.

Mathematics, seen as the ultimate language to describe the physical world, a tenet solidified by Sir Isaac Newton and reinforced by the sheer beauty and elegance of the theories of General and Special theories of relativity as espoused by Albert Einstein, in fact constrained us from seeing the limits of this language in describing the ultimate source of all things and the process by which the universe itself was created.  Einstein himself fell into this trap in his immovable belief that Quantum Theory was in fact flawed, incomplete, failing to consider the possibility that perhaps some of the basic assumptions about the nature of physical reality needed to be at the very least relaxed if not abandoned entirely, something he was unwilling to even consider such was his conviction in the classical view of the world.

What Bohm searched for, and what ultimately led him out of physics proper and into metaphysics and philosophy, was some notion of unified order under which classical physics quantum reality could be explained.  He concluded that in order to explain the totality of even a purely physical reality, one had to formulate a theory of order that presumed some sort of hierarchical structure, where various explicate orders could manifest to explain a certain domain, and yet at the same time be incorporated into a single model of reality, his implicate order.  And he furthermore postulated that rather that it was more accurate to look at reality as a process of unfoldment rather than the existence of some hard and fast physical reality as had been assumed by classical physics over the last few hundred years.  And therefore Bohm had to leave the world of physics proper and enter the realm of metaphysics where the more abstract concepts of mind and the notion of perception itself could be, and had to be, incorporated into the model.


So Charlie came to what he thought to be the logical conclusion that any unified knowledge theory must encompass levels of abstraction that go beyond mathematics, and yet at the same time must be constrained by language itself, which is the means through which we communicate ideas and thoughts to each other.  In other words, any unified knowledge theory, any comprehensive and coherent model of the world must incorporate the act pf perception directly into the model – this is the Mind of Anaxagoras, the Intellect of the Neo-Platonists.  But there was nothing less empirical, less scientific, than the science of the mind, i.e. psychology, right?

Interesting enough, Carl Jung postulated that you could actually “prove” the existence of what he referred to as the collective unconscious, which as its name suggests represents the existence of an undercurrent universal mental framework from which individual psyche’s draw their source, or at least the source of what he called archetypes, or universal archaic symbols and patterns, motifs and themes, that he found common in the psyches of a wide range of his patients, too common from his perspective in fact to be the result of chance or happenstance.

Jung’s method of proof as it were, was to establish the connection of the individual psyche with what he described as universal archetypal themes that firmly established the existence of some universal ground of human symbols from which the individual symbology, the psyche, must draw.  He reckoned that the individual who perceives these archetypes, themes and motifs which he saw manifest in a wide variety of his patients in his psychoanalytic work, could have no precursory knowledge of the existence of these archetypes and therefore the symbols themselves, the common mythical themes, must stem from a source that is present in some way in all human psyches and yet still is not tied to the individual conscious mind as it were.

One of the examples that Jung found in his psychoanalytic practice that he gives to illustrate the workings of this collective unconscious, and ultimately led to his “discovery”, concerns a vision that one of his patients supposedly had in his office one day.  The patient was somewhat delusional and had visions that he was a Christ like figure and one day in Jung’s office this patient claims to see a phallic, tube like structure coming down and out of the sun.  He points out the existence of this symbol/structure to Jung, believing firmly in its existence, but Jung sees nothing out of the ordinary.  Jung then proceeds to think very little of the event until many years later he reads of an archeological discovery of a text which describes a mystic ritual that involves the vision of a tube like structure emanating from the sun.  Jung surmises that his patient could have no knowledge of the description of this ancient ritual which corresponded so closely to his vision in Jung’s office years earlier (the text had not even been discovered at the time of the original vision by the patient) and therefore must be evidence of the existence of some common symbolic denominator that individuals can tap into so to speak, and at some level underlies the psyche of all human existence, i.e. the collective unconscious.


My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals.  This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.[2]


Out of his psychoanalytic work then, emerges Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, as evidenced by the existence of these universal archetypal themes, as well as his psychoanalytical healing technique which he called individuation which Jung used to guide the individual psyche to a better understanding of one’s connection to this collective, universal “unconscious” via the means of what he called active imagination, which as it turned out was heavily reliant on symbols, mandalas in particular which of course play such a strong role in the meditative practices and rituals of the Eastern philosophical traditions.

The existence of these motifs (or mythemes when looked at within the context of mythology which can be viewed as the expression of the collective unconscious of a society or civilization as a whole) across the boundaries of time and space, manifesting in the mind of man throughout the course of history spoke to the existence of a collective unconscious, from which these archetypal images or themes must emerge.  To Jung, consciousness and its counterpart the unconscious, the sum total of which made up the psyche of man, represented the every ground of reality.


When one reflects upon what consciousness really is, one is profoundly impressed by the extreme wonder of the fact that an event which takes place outside in the cosmos simultaneously produces an internal image, that it takes place, so to speak, inside as well, which is to say; becomes conscious.[3]


Now this was interesting.  You start with the concept of cultural borrowing, you search for something deeper, something more rich that connects the ancient cultures.  You look into their mythology (and theology because arguably the further back you go into ancient history the less distinguishable a society’s mythology is from its theology), cultural cosmology and mythology in general, and you end up with some parallels but nothing concrete per se, then you look at mythology as a whole, and you end up, as both Jung and Campbell had done really, in the realm of psychology, which as it turns out is kind of where you end up if you follow the end of modern physics as well.  That seemed strange.  And yet it seemed to point back to the idea that if you wanted to really understand the world, understand it even at the physical level, you had to establish a broader perspective than models that had a purely empirically driven and (physical) scientific basis.


This quest for ultimate knowledge, and order, is as old as mankind itself and is reflected in the cosmological traditions of all of the ancient civilizations – as evidenced by the Egyptian, Sumer/Babylonian, Greek and Judeo-Christian cosmologies which all attempt to lay down the structure of the world as we know it and how and why it came into existence – leaving aside the theological dogma whose only purpose was to serve the establishment of power and authority.

In much the same way as the ancients searched for a unified theory of order (the maat of the Egyptians, the Chronos of the Greek cosmological system, etc.) Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Newton, Darwin, Kepler, Einstein, Planck and Bohm carried the torch of this quest for a unified metaphysical structure forward throughout the development of Western civilization and led ultimately to the branching of knowledge into the different sciences today, upon which our modern society rests today and relies on to guide us through life.  In fact, Charlie’s premise was that in fact modern man, in the Information Age where empirical reality was so baked into our Western minds, we had as much blind faith in science today than as orthodox religious zealots and believers had faith in their God.

In prior eras, where mankind had understood less about how things really worked, they could rely on religion, a grand creator God, as the underlying reason behind and explanation of how things worked and how things came to be.  This is the creation myth of Genesis and provides the rational explanation to the cosmologies of all the ancient peoples, in the East and the West.  But we do not have that luxury today, we have science and science has showed us things, things about the nature of reality that must be incorporated into our understanding of not only the physical world around us, but also its socio-biological foundations, as well as the integral role of mind, of consciousness, in forming the basis of how we “perceive” the world.

But none of these great thinkers, scientists, philosophers or sages that had so marked intellectual progress sin the West over the centuries had access to and were exposed to the state of knowledge as it stood today, in the Information Age where we as a species understood not only that our species as a whole was some few hundred thousand years old, and was not crafted from the clay of the earth as the mythologies of the West would have us believe, but through the process of natural selection, evolution, engineered by our own genetic structure which incorporated the role of chance into our evolution (genetic mutation).  We came to be able to speak and communicate with each other, form abstract concepts thoughts into words and syllables that could be communicated from mind to mind, to cultivate the land and domesticate animals, followed by the invention of writing and the spread of mankind throughout the world to the point where we not only truly understood how connected and integrated we all are not only as a species as whole, but also as an organism whose destiny is tied to the planet in a very real and tangible way.

Scholars and academics of today, and to all those who are curious and have the time to explore the origins of mankind and how our own belief systems have evolved since the dawn of civilization, have a much deeper and broader understanding of how our species, which is in many respects is characterized by our ability to speak, our ability to communicate with each other, and our ability to write down and develop complex and sophisticated models of thought and concepts that have led to a profound understanding of not only how the physical universe has come to be, but also of how our minds have developed and the fundamental connection between the act of experience and our perception of the physical universe.

This is the logical conclusion that must be drawn when one takes a hard look at the sciences as they stand today, fields of knowledge which are based upon empirically verified and proven facts, facts which followed point to the inevitable conclusion that there exist intellectual boundaries and limits of science itself, and that a broader perspective must be used if we want to truly understand this world we live in, as well as how our place in it has evolved and/or should evolve moving forward.  A perspective that must integrate at some level the role of consciousness itself, upon which any understanding of anything in fact, must be based.

[1] From Max Born’s Nobel Laureate speech, reference

[2] C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (London 1996) p. 43

[3] C Jung; Basel Seminar, privately printed, 1934, p. i

About snowconenyc
Author and computer scientist with expertise in scalable and secure SaaS solutions and cyber security solutions as well as the mythology and philosophy in Eurasian antiquity.

2 Responses to To What End: The Limits of Science

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