The article titled: “Can Science explain everything? Anything?” by Steven Weinberg poses the question: Can Science explain anything at all or is it merely a statement of existing principles of the Universe?1 Alternatively, does it explain everything in the Universe through the provision of an explanation of the fundamental principles of the Universe? The article presents the dichotomy between description and explanation as applicable in the field of science.[Weinbegr, 2001]. When a scientist describes a physical principle, is he in effect also providing an explanation for the same principle? These are some of the questions the author addresses in his article as he attempts to arrive at an answer to the question he poses as to whether or not science can explain anything.
The author commences his article with a working thesis, which is based upon the assertion of a colleague that science does not explain anything, it merely describes things2. He then begins to explore what in effect constitutes an explanation and how it is different from a description. Through this investigation, he aims to discover whether the process of scientific discovery and theory formulation may be construed as an explanation or as a mere description of events. Therefore the purpose of his article is to examine whether or not the proposition that science does not really explain anything, but merely describes, is true.
A preliminary hypothesis that can be made is that the distinction between an explanation and description is stated through the element of purpose. When a scientific theory merely states what exists, it would be a description, however when the theory states the purpose of the event, it would provide an explanation. This is particularly true in the case of religion, where things are explained with reference to a divine purpose. However, science differs from religion in that it does not endeavor to explain things by relating them to a divine purpose but rather by finding the common links between events. This is especially the case in the pure sciences such as Chemistry and Physics, where the scientist is interested in the events that occur in the Universe – the physical events that occur in nature and the link between these events. Other scientific disciplines seek to discover the causes of individual events such as the extinction of dinosaurs for example, whereas the pure scientist is interested in the mechanism of the events themselves and the link between them.
This brings us to the second hypothesis postulated in the article to explain the distinction between description and explanation. According to Philip Kitchen, as stated in the article, explanation of an event is by reference to the cause of the event in question4. Applying this hypothesis to the pure science streams, how can physical principles be explained? A physical principle is one that exists independently, that transcends other principles and forms the basis for the events that occur in the Universe. Applying this to the concept of description vs. explanation, a physical principle may be explained by showing that it can be deduced from a more fundamental principle5. This has been demonstrated by the author through the use of Newton’s and Kepler’s theories. Kepler discovered his laws of planetary motion earlier than Newton’s laws of relativity and it is generally assumed that Newton’s laws derive from Kepler’s. However, the question that arises here is – which law is the fundamental principle – Newton’s or Kepler’s? Which derives from the other? Therefore, the hypothesis that a physical principle can be deduced from a more fundamental principle and thereby explained poses a problem in that a precise definition cannot be accorded to what is “fundamental”.
The third hypothesis that the author poses is that certain existent principles can be defined through deduction as existing independently – for example the principles of thermodynamics. While Chemistry is explained by quantum mechanics and the principles of electrostatic attraction, the existence of the laws of thermodynamics are accepted because they can be deduced, irrespective of whether or not they can actually be explained. This raises the hypothesis that fundamental laws and principles are just accidents. They exist simply because they can be deduced and an explanation is not needed in order to prove that they exist. This theory of accidents is based upon an anthropic explanation, which is based on the big bang theory. Big bangs create the so called constants of nature which remain constant until there is another “accident” which generates a rearrangement of these constants of nature. These constants cannot explained by science, they exist and can only be deduced, stated and correlated with other events6. However, here again, there exists the possibility that these events which may be deduced as the constant laws of nature may in fact be manifestations of fundamental physical principles7. In this case, the details pertaining to these events, such as the application of the natural laws in context, may be computed and explained –for example, the speed of objects or the angle of projection, etc. But the accident itself cannot be explained. Therefore, while science can explain things which are not accidents, there are many things which science cannot explain3.
While the original intent of this essay was to explore whether science can explain anything or nothing, by examining whether science explains or merely describes, the fundamental issue that would impact upon this thesis lies in the nature of the events and physical principles that are being examined. Therefore the thesis of this essay would have to be reworked to examine how far does science explain natural laws and physical principles? There can be no doubt that science does in fact partly explain the principles of the Universe through related phenomena and events, however such explanation is based upon what can be seen, measured and quantified. Science explains things in terms of the reality of their existence, their application in context of actual events. Science just cannot explain certain things, such as moral principles or fundamental scientific principles – they just exist and are accepted as such.
Weinberg, Steven. (2001). Can Science explain everything? Anything? The New York Times Review of Books, 2001, 48(9). Retrieved July 16, 2005 from URL: nybooks.com/articles/14263
Rosenwasser, David and Stephen, Jill. Writing analytically.
Periodic sentences: retrieved July 15, 2005 from URL: http://jade.ccccd.edu/cobb/sentences.html(periodic