16.22 Science can’t explain everything

Ludwig Boltzmann, Austrian physicist and philosopher

Ludwig Boltzmann was a successful nineteenth-century physicist who extended the work of James Clerk Maxwell in understanding how the movement of atoms and molecules explains many of the properties of things. He was a professor at the University of Munich and later at the University of Vienna. His greatest success was explaining the nature of entropy (see the comments on post 16.18). However, he had constant disagreements with other powerful physicists in Austria and what is now Germany because they believed that atoms and molecules were just ideas and not real particles. In the end Boltzmann killed himself because he could not live with the criticism of his work.

Boltzmann was very successful as a scientist and has several laws and a fundamental constant named after him

Other ways of thinking may lead to his life being considered as less of a success. For example, some Indian thinkers stress the importance of understanding oneself in order to live in harmony with the world. I think protestant Christians are thinking in a similar (but not identical) way when they seek a personal relationship with God. However, scientific thinking does not include this kind of search for personal enlightenment. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may realise that these are not the sort of ideas that I usually have. This is because I have learned about them mostly through conversations with my friends Avtarjeet Dhanjal and Richard Aspden. I am sure they could explain them much better than I can.

Art and music evoke a personal response that bring us in touch with our own emotions. Ethics is about personal behaviour and aesthetics about personal appreciation of beauty.

In contrast a scientist tries to view the world external to him or herself in a way that is impersonal. This is why science is so good at understanding some things. For example, if you and I do exactly the same experiment, in exactly the same way, we would expect to get almost the same results. Similarly, if we use the same scientific laws (see post 16.2) to analyse a problem, we expect to get the same result.

Engineering and medicine use the results of science to solve problems of importance to many people. When an engineer designs something, he or she tries to think of something that meets a well-defined need; he/she is not trying to express his/her own personality. A surgeon operates on an individual with a problem whose details may be unique to that person. But the surgeon is not trying to express his/her own personality by doing the operation.


Both the engineer and the surgeon have completely different aims to those of a sculptor who is expressing his/her own personal perceptions or ideas. When you read this blog, I expect you to interpret my words exactly as I intended; I think most poets would be happy for you to put your own interpretation on what they write.

Of course it is possible for an engineer to also be a sculptor, in the same way that an accountant might also play the piano. But both are doing very different things in their dual roles. Similarly, it is possible for a scientist to also have religious beliefs or to enjoy music.

So, what can science tell us about religion? I think the answer is probably – nothing! Suppose somebody believes in a miracle that was supposed to have happened two thousand years ago. We can’t do an experiment to falsify the hypothesis that this miracle occurred (see post 16.3). It happened once and in the past. Neither can we use scientific laws (see post 16.2) to demonstrate that the miracle never occurred. By definition, a miracle is outside our normal experience which is another way of saying that it doesn’t obey the laws of science (see post 16.2). I tend not to believe in miracles because I am used to things following expected patterns of behaviour – but this is a personal opinion, not the result of my being a scientist.

So science, can tell us a lot about the world external to ourselves. But it does not attempt to provide an explanation for everything because it limits itself by its own impersonality. Stephen Hawking’s book and lectures on the “The Theory of Everything” (also the title of a movie) are really only about “the history of [scientific] ideas about the universe” and “theories of physics”. So they’re not about everything – there is more to life than just thinking about science!


Related posts
16.15 Science education
16.11 Giving a scientist a job
16.3 Scientific proof


Follow-up posts

16.32 Faith in science
16.36 Good and bad
17.1 It’s obvious
17.9 Scientists believe that
17.14 Confusion
18.18 Who benefits from scientific research?




2 thoughts on “16.22 Science can’t explain everything

  1. It always has been interesting to discuss various conceptual and scientific issues with David Hukins during my visits to Lodeve, Southern France. During our first or second meeting, we soon realized that we both came from not only from different disciplines, but from different cultural backgrounds too. Thus our approach to the concepts, even meaning of the words is very different. I admire Prof. Hukins’ patience to give ourselves the time to develop an appreciation of each other’s points of view.
    I grew up in India, trained as an artist, and I am open to discover, learn and understand different interpretations of reality by scientists as well as saints and artists; whereas Prof. Hukins having been trained as a scientist in the western tradition, he always hold a different perspective on issues than mine.
    So, before we could take on any serious issue, we had to share our thoughts what did we understood by the certain words and concepts.
    Let’s take our understanding of the most commonly used word/concept ‘God’. Most people those have grown up in the Judeo-Christian world, whether religious or not, but still when they hear the word ‘God’ image of an old man with flowing beard immediately flashes through their mind, as depicted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel in Vatican city. With my upbringing as a Sikh from the Panjab, I grew up with idea of ‘God’ as a formless universal abstract power, also known with the word ‘Parmaatma’ literally means prime soul or power.
    “In Hinduism, Brahman (/brəhmən/; ब्रह्मन्) connotes the highest Universal Principle, the Ultimate Reality in the universe.[1][2]” and “It is the pervasive, genderless, infinite, eternal truth and bliss which does not change, yet is the cause of all changes.[1][5] Brahman as a metaphysical concept is the single binding unity behind the diversity in all that exists in the universe.[1]” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahman)
    Sikh teachings also gave me the idea that our actions are more important than the religious rituals, with an emphasis that if we do something against the fundamental human nature/values the universe (another way to refer to the universal power) shall not forgive us, as ever present gravity shall not forgive to anyone or anything that doesn’t respect its rules.
    My concept here refers to an absolute abstract force/power, ever prevailing and ever present. Gravity is a good illustration of my concept. As the force of gravity affects or rather dictates how do we live, move and behave while on this planet, for me so does this ‘Universal force’.
    This ‘Universal force’ like gravity is definitely not a person nor a deity, which needs to be pleased with our chanting of hymns in his/her praise. You spend all night singing hymns to please gravity, you will find in the morning apples still falling from the trees.
    On the other hand if you do understand the basic principles of gravity, you can build planes and other machine to fly in the air and many other gravity defying processes. Those would look like miracles to someone not understanding the basic discipline of gravity. Similarly, a small number of people has developed an understanding of the said ‘Universal Force’ and they have also learnt to use it to produce unthinkable feet, those certainly appear as miracles to outsiders. (In my next piece I shall write about real examples of such events/miracles.)
    Both the Greeks and Indians had rightly identified atom as the basic building block of matter, most of the scientific community dismissed it only a philosophical ideas thus categorized as metaphysical concept. It needed a Western trained John Dalton to identify it and to be accepted as reality by the dominant scientific community.
    Very often scientists would ask the question, can this force be tested to get repeated results. The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
    In science to get the repeated results, the test must be setup in very controlled environment possibly in a laboratory; the procedures must be followed meticulously to get near repeat results. Even then the result may not be so obvious to an outsider, as they always need to be interpreted and sometimes computed mathematically. Would you consider such result as define proof of certain reality and convince an outsider?
    Similarity, another group of people, sometimes called spiritualists, has developed their principles and practices, not in the commercial sense to conduct business but a way of their lives. These spiritualists are not interested in publically proving anything to be accepted by any scientific community nor they wait for the Noble prizes. They do not go around publishing results of their doings, nor do they feel the need to support their results mathematically, they just feel blessed and content to be connected with the all prevailing power.
    On the other hand in spite of amazing discoveries and scientific achievements, which resulted in making this world an amazing place? Everything is reachable and achievable in today’s world, but does it mean the people are happier or content with their lot.
    Now science biggest goal is to find the overarching theory of everything that would encompass all the known forces – gravity, electromagnetic, strong and weak nuclear force. May be the science is looking for this very universal force a source of everything that surrounds us, unfortunately these scientists are trained to see of recognize it which is everywhere, but still they can’t touch it with the tools they have.
    The events labeled as miracle, are equally valid events of reality, as they happen in the domain which is still remain elusive to their proving. The necessary logic and mathematics needed to confirm this finding is still missing.
    The human knowledge is still incomplete project, as it always has been, may be it would always remain so/ This is the challenge we humans need to prompt us to keep on searching.
    This may be the man’s fate that it shall always remain one step short of achieving the full knowledge of the reality that surrounds us. Thus there will always be events those would qualify as miracles.
    Avtarjeet Dhanjal


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