3 Major Limitations of Science

Photo by Jean-Louis Zimmermann

By Josh Rueff on Oct 01, 2013

This post is a bit of a deviation from minimalism, but I thought it could be interesting.

Science has many limitations, limitations that no one wants to admit because, let’s face it, science has been a very helpful friend. There’s no denying the importance of science in the development of civilization, and how it’s improved our lives and advanced our knowledge of our universe.

But science isn’t everything. I think this is something that needs to be said in a culture that uses science as the criteria to measure all things by.

Many people believe that happiness is the purpose of life.

It was #1 on one of my favorite blogger’s (Mr. Simple’s) code of living, and I’ve placed a high value on it myself with posts like Aristotle’s Eudaimonia and Minimalism, and Depression in America and What You can Do About it.

Should happiness be the number one goal in life? I don’t have an answer to that today, but here’s a truth that most will agree with:

Happiness is important. Really important.

So what does happiness have to do with science? Let me explain.

Civilizations develop science and spirituality, and different cultures and time periods produce differing belief systems.

The ancient Mayan, Babylonian, and Chaldean civilizations claimed astrology as their core science and spiritual belief system, which resulted in branches of mathematics and astronomy that rivals our own.

Modern western civilization places their faith in the social and natural sciences – this is where happiness comes into play.

This is the first shortcoming of science – measuring emotions. Science and logic has always had a hard time measuring happiness, and probably never will.

For example, there’s a study called “The Happy Planet Index” that’s been gaining traction. Supposedly it measures the happiness of the world. Let’s look into that.

1. Science Can’t Measure Happiness (or other emotions)

The Happy Planet Index themselves have this to say:

Each of the three component measures – life expectancy, experienced well-being and Ecological Footprint – is given a traffic-light score based on thresholds for good (green), middling (amber) and bad (red) performance. 1

Here’s what the GF Magazine rooted up:

The Global HPI incorporates three separate indicators:
1. Ecological footprint (the amount of land needed to provide for all their resource requirements plus the amount of vegetated land needed to absorb all their CO2 emissions and the CO2 emissions embodied in the products they consume;)
2. Life satisfaction (health as well as “subjective well-being” components such as a sense of individual vitality, opportunities to undertake meaningful, engaging activities, inner resources that help one cope when things go wrong, close relationships with friends and family, belonging to a wider community;)
3. Life expectancy.2

So the HPI believes that happiness is a good ecological footprint, opportunities to undertake meaningful activities, inner resources, close relationships, and living a long time.

Some of those things sound pretty good.

But as important as taking care of the environment is, I don’t think that my ecological footprint or my life expectancy should define my happiness.

They’re getting closer to the mark with inner resources, meaningful relationships and meaningful activities, but how exactly do they measure that, and more importantly, how much weight does that information carry?

Even if it carries more weight than the other two measures of happiness, the overall result is diluted and inaccurate.

So there’s the value of science in the realm of happiness. I’m not saying we shouldn’t keep trying, but we’re far from the mark with studies like the Happy Planet Index.

And speaking of value…

2. Science Can’t Measure Questions About Value

There are certain things that science can’t measure, and it doesn’t claim to be able to – the main point here isn’t that science is flawed, it’s that it’s limited.

When I was a kid I used to get into arguments with my friends about how much our baseball cards were worth. We’d mock the others cards, yell persuasively and make outrageous claims, and when the trade was made we’d go brag to our other buddies about the great new card we’d traded for.

The idea of applying the scientific method to assume value would have been just as alien to us then as is it is now.

Imagine trying to develop a scientifically accurate hypothesis about the value of life. It’s impossible.

3. Science is Limited to the Natural World

This is where it gets weird for a lot of us.

A lot of people like to believe that things that can’t be measured by science don’t really exist. It’s understandable – we are human after all. We like to understand things, and when we can’t understand something, we either make up something or we ignore it.

Take the medieval belief in changelings for instance. Sometimes children and babies would act in a way the parents didn’t understand, so they made up the following belief (from The Telegraph):

In medieval Britain, parents sometimes believed that their child had been taken away by the fairy people and substituted with a changeling. There were a number of tests to find out. One was to put a shoe in a bowl of soup in front of the baby: if it laughed, showing it understood the joke, it was a fairy. Similarly, if you pretended to try to make a loaf of bread in an eggshell in front of the child and it giggled, it wasn’t human. Suspect babies would be held over a fire to drive the fairies out, or abandoned. 3

Superstitions about witches and vampires were developed as well, to explain the unexplained, and sometimes for other reasons.

What’s worse than making up crazy things? Ignoring or ridiculing things because you can’t explain them.

This is something we do constantly because our minds are trained to accept scientific logic and discard anything science can’t explain.

Science can’t explain any element of the supernatural. So what do we do? We ignore it.

It’s interesting to study ancient civilizations and realize that the supernatural was an element they studied religiously, combining their belief in the supernatural with the science of the time. I’ve never read about a pre-Darwin civilization that didn’t believe in the occurrence of the supernatural.

Is this because we’ve evolved to a level of enlightenment, or are we simply ignorant of reality?


Also, for more nonconformist vs conformist style discussion, read “Why are nonconformists more open/sociable than conformists?” by Eric from greenminimalism.