Does Science Have Limits?

This post is the summary of a two-part Wascana Fellowship session from late last year, when I was too busy to post.


Part One: Limitations?

While doing research for the post about “understanding the times” I stumbled across a thought-provoking two-part essay by Roger Martin titled “The Limits of the Scientific Method in Economics and the World.” I think it is very worth reading. My summary and reflections will probably not do it the justice it deserves, but I will do my best.

He begins with a memory of a dinner presentation by a prominent economist in the wake of the stock market crash of 2009. Says Martin, “I was struck by how scientific he was, spewing myriad statistics, employing technical terms by the boatload, and praising his econometric model. It was ‘very sophisticated.” His “steady as she goes” forecast prior to the crash had been very wrong, as had those of every credible economist at the time.

Martin asked him after the dinner if he had changed his model after the crash. Amazingly, he had not even thought of it. For Martin, this illustrates “a fundamental blind spot in modern science.” According to Martin, “It has ventured far afield of its natural limits and is both creating problems and inhibiting progress.

The problem begins with Aristotle, who laid out the first formal conception of cause and effect. While science has made much progress since 400 B.C., his assumptions still underlie almost everything science does today. For the most part science works exceedingly well. When it comes to understanding natural laws and using them as a basis for technological advance, nothing works better than the scientific method. The ability to reproduce experimental results is a hallmark of the scientific method, as it should be.

The reliability of predictive models of any kind is based on the assumption that the field of study lends itself to a direct cause-and-effect relationship. Is that really the case with economics? Is it the case with any of the so-called “soft sciences” such as sociology or political science?

It turns out that even Aristotle was scientist enough to establish boundary conditions for his brand of scientific inquiry. Aristotle only applied his science to “things that cannot be other than they are.” This means physical objects with their physical properties. For those things that “can be other than they are” the scientific method is wholly inappropriate. This field of inquiry generally consists of “people – of relationships, of interactions, of exchanges.”

I would put it this way: people are unpredictable. People can be reliable or unreliable, power-hungry or altruistic, manipulative or caring, in powerful positions or dependent on others – the list goes on. All permutations are possible. People can also change, which complicates things even more.

For those things that can be other than they are Aristotle recommends using “rhetoric: dialogue between parties that builds understanding that actually shapes and alters this part of the world.” Rather than applying the scientific method for things that it is I’ll-equipped for, Martin would rather see us applying novel new approaches that reflect the reality of things that can be other than they are.

In the next instalment he searches for a method that will be better suited to understanding people, relationships, and exchanges.


Part Two: A Better Way

As an alternative to using the strictly Aristotelian scientific method for the study of economics and business, Roger Martin looks to the work of Charles Sanders Pierce, a contemporary of William James and James Dewey In the early 20th Century. Sanders is generally referred to as a “pragmatist philosopher” whose work was actually admired by the much-better-known William James.

If economists were being Peircian… They would have taken all of our disparate knowledge and mingled it together creatively to ask: what on earth could be going on here? Rather than forgetting entirely that their theories were demonstrated o be totally lacking, and then going on to analyze some more and predict more based on those theories, they would have created a new hypothesis to explain what just happened. This would be what Peirce evocatively call ‘a logical leap of the mind’ and ‘an inference to the best explanation.’

All science can do in people-related fields is work with already existing historical data. In a wonderful turn of phrase, Martin puts it this way, “If you torture the data enough, it will provide an answer, if only to make the pain go away.” If the existing rule is dis-confirmed (such as in 2009), you haven’t learned much regarding the future, except that the rule is not operative.

When something new and unexpected happens what is needed is an inductive leap to a new theory that can be tested going forward (rather than backward). This resembles science at first glance, but is different in that you probably cannot prove the theory analytically with the data you now have. Instead, inquiring minds would need to discuss how to test the idea going forward.

In other words, the intent is not to establish scientific principles that can be used to predict the future. Rather, the intent is to use tools of both deductive and inductive logic to improve understanding of human nature and relationships. Innovative theories may lead to innovative ways of dealing with future problems that have not even arisen yet.

Aristotle might have argued that Peirce’s ” logical leap is a product of rhetoric: the dialogue between inquiring minds that attempts to create a future that does not now exist, rather than mindlessly crunching the numbers that do exist.”

Martin’s point is not to denigrate actual science (which works very well), but rather to rein it in to within its natural limits. He would like us to use what Peirce calls “abductive logic” (a combination of deduction and induction via discussion and observation). Nor is he arguing that abductive logic is never used in real science. Or even that novel hypotheses are never used in either natural or social science. (You need only read about Einstein’s novel notion that acceleration and gravity are equivalent to see that a great deal of science is based on inspired imagination.)


Part Three: My Reflections

I enjoyed Roger Martin’s essay because it speaks to some misgivings I have had for years about the realms in which the modern version of science is applied. My own misgivings naturally apply more to the realm of religion than economics, as noted in some of my previous posts about the theory of evolution’s grip on science as well as science’s claims about the when and the how of the origins of the universe.

I am glad that he has noticed that certain fields of endeavour do not lend themselves to scientific number-crunching. It is refreshing to see that not everything is reducible to numbers.

I suspect that the problem goes deeper than just whether scientific numerology is appropriate for some fields and not for others. Even within its own proper fields, science has often fallen prey to the kind of dogmatism that is usually attributed to religion. For instance, the real conflict between Copernicus and the church was between an Aristotelian view of the universe (a pagan scientific one that had been adopted by the church) and the Copernican mathematical view. The church had adopted as dogma the science of the day. Let it not make that mistake again!

That is not my only misgiving. Something that Martin does not mention is that relationships, interactions and exchanges intersect with not only the sociological and psychological spheres, but also the spiritual/religious sphere of life. To be clear: I doubt there will ever be a clear scientific basis for morality as Christians know it. Rationalisation of self-serving behaviour is too basic to human trait to be amenable to controlling our own behaviour by means of a code derived entirely by logic and without imposition by a higher power.

Another area I have concerns with involves the study of religion. In a conversation I had a few years ago with a University of Regina professor of Religious Studies I discovered that my Master’s classes in Religious Education would not transfer well into their program, because Religious studies is actually about “the phenomenology of religion.”

I do not believe that you can really “get” faith using scientific methodology. In my personal library I have three books about the history of Christianity in three different countries. Two of them are specifically about Evangelicalism. While it was helpful to see writers viewing Christians as posited contributors to democratic societies, it was glaringly obvious that none of the writers really understood the Christians they were portraying so positively.

They simply were not Christians themselves. They were studying a “phenomenon” from the outside. Other-worldly motivations or “spiritual gifts” such as “tongues” or “prophecy” will always seem like utter madness to the non-religious mind. It will seem especially so to the mind trained to recognize only mathematically or logically explicable phenomena.

The only “logical” explanation for faith is insanity.

That is why officially atheist nations tend to outlaw religion. Other nations will naturally prefer religions that can be controlled by the state.

The kind of faith that Jesus brought, taught and sought is not the kind that can be either controlled or explained. If you have ever wondered why Christianity is increasingly being blamed for all the ills – ancient and modern – in the world, just do the math.


About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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2 Responses to Does Science Have Limits?

  1. Thanks for this blog post regarding the limits of science; I really enjoyed it and am definitely recommending this blog to my friends and family. I’m a 15 year old with a blog on finance and economics at, and would really appreciate it if you could read and comment on some of my articles, and perhaps follow, reblog and share some of my posts on social media. Thanks again for this fantastic post.

  2. Al Hodel says:

    thank you John

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