Dr. Nicholas Rescher’s The Limits of Science (revised edition, 1999) delves into the theory of scientific inquiry, which Rescher, a Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, originally tackled 15 years earlier. In this updated version, Rescher maintains the format of the original book, where each chapter is presented as a separate idea for discussion, which is understandable, as the original material grew out of Rescher’s lectures. One of the most important additions to the new edition is a chapter discussing how computing can help humans overcome their cognitive disabilities in understanding science. The updated edition of The Limits of Science doesn’t waver from its original intention, though: Performing a philosophical exploration of the timeless issues in the theory of scientific inquiry.
Because each chapter grew out of an individual lecture, three primary ideas are repeated throughout the book: that scientific ideas should coordinate from one to the next, rather than placing linear priorities on ideas; that progress in science requires progress in the types of scientific questions that are asked; and that the scientific progress we make cannot be measured in how much our understanding of nature increases, but in how much more control we exhibit over nature.
The proposition that science will be unable to answer all the questions of nature or formulate a fully accurate description of nature flows throughout each chapter in the book. Rescher’s argument centers on the idea that throughout scientific history, any collection of scientific knowledge has always had certain questions that are not able to be answered by it. Progress in science will still cause more questions to develop, which doesn’t necessarily mean that some questions will never be answered, though.
One especially interesting idea is Rescher’s thought that human knowledge of nature is less than perfect. No human can claim to be able to understand every aspect of nature, nor is science able to completely describe an aspect of nature, as it is slightly flawed in attempting to come up with an all-encompassing description of nature. However, we as humans can come up with a description of nature that’s just specific enough to meet our needs at the current time. Such descriptions may seem to be complete, but in reality, they’re only complete enough to match what we need to know for the present purposes.
In The Limits of Science, Rescher relies on his interpretation of scientific history to further drive home the point that today’s scientific knowledge is not complete. He points out that throughout scientific history are examples of positions taken by scientists as absolute and complete knowledge, only to be discovered later, as more knowledge was collected, that those scientific ideas were not as correct as originally thought. Therefore, today’s scientists cannot assume that their ideas and descriptions of nature being made today will survive scientific scrutiny in the future. Even though it may seem that scientists have discovered everything possible about a particular aspect of nature, history shows that such a belief doesn’t stand up to scrutiny over time. Today’s human knowledge is limited and biased by the social and intellectual world in which we exist.
Along those same lines, he says today’s scientific endeavors cannot hope to predict what future scientists will study and discover. Science will travel in all types of different directions as discoveries are made in the future. And because we today cannot know what discoveries will be made, we cannot hope to know what will be relevant to science in the future. Some of those directions that science will take in the future will cause something new to be discovered about today’s scientific assumptions about nature.
The Limits of Science adds that scientific study gains its power from its ability to be flexible and able to change, depending on the discoveries that are made. However, such flexibility can lead to instability in science too. And to bring the idea full circle, such instability works in favor of scientists, as it means they can operate without limits as they work to ask new questions and find new answers.
Throughout The Limits of Science, Rescher continually focuses on mankind’s interactions with nature, as well as the overarching quest to gain mastery over nature. While some scholars may take an exception to the idea that science can’t ever come up with a complete understanding of nature, and that science in its history has proven to be mistaken, he has certainly laid out his ideas in a clear manner, in large part thanks to the presentation of the material almost as a set of separate lectures. Regardless of whether you agree with Rescher’s determinations about science, The Limits of Science provides a host of discussion points, just as any good lecture should.