Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Psychical Research and the Outer Limits of Scientific Inquiry

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Psychical Research and the Outer Limits of Scientific Inquiry

Article excerpt

Immanuel Kant has given us a lot to think about. One thing that is relevant when we consider the frontiers of science is his idea of the limits of knowledge. One kind of limit is the line between what we know now and what we still do not know but what, with the application of rational thought, we can eventually understand which in its most systematic form is the application of science (Kant 1934). In this way, knowledge is continuously expanding, like a settlement frontier, moving forward eventually incorporating previously unknown territory into settled country. This is the way "normal science" works; a process of puzzle solving in which investigators operate within a paradigm (a common conceptual framework) by which unknown territory is continually incorporated into a secure body of knowledge, thus extending and deepening our understanding of a field of reality (Kuhn 1970).

Kant also identifies another kind of boundary, one which he calls die Grenze der menschlichen Vernuft, or the outer limits of what we can know through reason (and by extension through science). We can think about things beyond that boundary: we can imagine, conjecture, speculate, hypothesize and fantasize about them, but we can never know for sure. The prime example is the question of the existence of God. You can image God in different ways, but you can never prove that God does or does not exist.


In Kant's day the question of the existence of God was framed in theological terms, and before that astronomers and naturalists simply took the existence of deity for granted. Those early scientists were impressed by the orderliness and symmetry they found in nature, elegantly expressed in invariable mathematical equations; a regularity and invariance that they thought revealed an inherent design in the universe. Nobel laureate in physics Frank Wilczek addressed this issue in 2015 in an interview with the news magazine Der Spiegel when discussing his book A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design. In that interview Wilczek said that the only, and for him the most satisfying, speculative explanation of the orderliness of the universe is that it is the act of some "star-maker, an engineer responsible for the design of this world." The interviewer then says, "Some would call it God." Wilczek answers, "Don't forget that my heroes Galileo, Maxwell, Newton believed that with their research they could discover what God is. They were inspired by the vision that they had to study God's works. I want to discover the reality, call it what you will" (Wilczek 2015: 106).

The creation of the universe presents one instance where this question arises. Physicist Heinz Pagels puts it this way, "the nothingness 'before' the creation of the universe is the most complete void that we can imagine--no space, time or matter existed. It is the world without place, without duration or eternity, without number--it is what the mathematicians call 'the empty set'. Yet this unthinkable void converts itself into the plenum of existence, a consequence of physical laws." But "where are those laws written into the void? What 'tells' the void that it is pregnant with a possible universe?" It would seem, he says, that "even the void is subject to law, a logic that that exists prior to time and space" (Pagels 1985: 347).

Moreover, in the light of what we know about constants in the universe, and about the extreme restriction on conditions possible for life, it is a tremendous coincidence that life appeared at all. Some say that it is indeed just that, a "coincidence", the results of random processes that just happened to come together to create the right conditions for the emergence of life. Scientists, however, have been conditioned to find highly predictable order and symmetry everywhere in nature. Thus randomness on the scale necessary for the appearance of life is for many hard to believe. In that regard theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson once wrote that "As we look out into the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have come together to our benefit, it seems as if the Universe must in some sense have known that we were coming" (Kaku 1994: 258). …

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