What science can and cannot tell us

Sunday 31 October, 10.45am until 12.15pm, Lecture Theatre 1

Traditionally, priests served as the arbiters of right and wrong, advising and passing judgement on moral issues. Scientists, on the other hand, were supposed to divest themselves of their moral stance in order to observe and record the world in an objective manner. Increasingly, however, some believe that what science can tell us may not be limited to the definitions we once thought. Science is a system of inquiry with great power in observing and describing the natural world. It has had great success in discovering and explaining phenomena in vastly different areas – from the causes of disease, to the composition of the atom, and the origins of life. Science and scientists continually expand, revise and discard their explanations by carrying out experiments and observations, checking their hypotheses against empirical measurements and rejecting any which fail to describe the results satisfactorily. This process of continually questioning and re-evaluating is one of science’s great strengths and is vital for it to progress – science is always sceptical, never claiming to have found ‘The Truth’, but rather always seeking to test its conclusions. Science operates on the philosophical principle that the world is understandable by humans, and that it is a worthwhile endeavour for us to do so.

There is disagreement about where the limits of scientific enquiry lie, however. The President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, recently suggested that a full understanding of consciousness may never be obtained because ‘some aspects of reality… might elude us simply because they’re beyond human brains’. On the other hand, ‘New Atheist’ writer Sam Harris has suggested that science now allows us to answer moral questions, which were traditionally seen as the preserve of the philosopher or moralist rather than being subject to scientific experiment. Politicians and activists too, rather than argue on an ideological basis, often now point to scientific evidence as the justification and driving force behind their demands for new policies. Scientific reason is posed as the antidote to irrational, emotive argument and populist unreason.

So where do the limits of science lie? Is the world too much for our ‘monkey brains’ to comprehend fully? Can it ever explain consciousness, let alone reveal the very clockwork of the Universe? Or can science solve once and for all our moral conundrums and remove the need for political disagreements? Just what can and can’t science tell us?

Listen to session audio:


Dr Daniel Glaser
director, Science Gallery London, King's College London

Mark Henderson
head of communications, Wellcome Trust; author, The Geek Manifesto: why science matters

Tim Parks
novelist, essayist and translator; author of Teach Us to Sit Still: a sceptic’s search for health and healing and Dreams of Rivers and Seas; associate professor of English and translation, IULM University, Milan

David Perks
founder and principal, East London Science School; director, the Physics Factory

Professor Sir Simon Wessely
president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists; head of the Department of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London

Robin Walsh
graduate medical student; co-founder, Sheffield Salon

Produced by
Robin Walsh graduate medical student; co-founder, Sheffield Salon
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