Do we conclude that there is no such thing as life because it doesn’t show up in the nets of physicist?
Are there Big Questions that don’t have answers? Are some things simply beyond our capacity to understand with the finite lumps of gray matter in our heads? Are there “mysteries” in the world that simply can’t be sorted out no matter how much gray matter is applied to the problem?
I think it is a mistake to try and weave tight arguments about some of the Big Questions from the tangled threads of our experience. Topics like God, free will, morality, evil, eternal life, the ultimate origin and fate of the universe, the purpose of life, the source of the order in the natural world, and so on simply do not open up to our investigations in any satisfactory way.
To see what I mean, compare the moral prohibition against murder to the scientific prohibition against violating the conservation of energy. The latter is easily studied and is a straightforward truth about our universe. It was, presumably, true even before our universe came into existence and it will remain true after our universe is gone. The morality of murder, however, is not so easily investigated. In fact, it seems impossible to say very much about morality, beyond certain utilitarian claims that, from the perspective of our species, certain behaviors are better than others. But does our failure to speak with clarity about something suggest that we are just whistling in the dark when we think about it all?
The challenges of speaking clearly about deep mysteries, however, are not arguments against their reality. We must not insist that our imperfect knowledge nets capture all truth. Sir Arthur Eddington, the astronomer who made the celebrated eclipse observations that confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity, coined a helpful analogy in this regard.
Imagine a fisherman, he said, catching fish every day in a net with three-inch openings in the weave. Every night he sorts his fish and sells them. After several years at his job the fisherman concludes that there are no fish in the ocean shorter than three inches. His conclusion is scientific in the sense that it is based on lots of careful observations. But he has failed to note the limitations of his net. Even if the ocean was filled with half-inch fish, he would never know because his net can’t catch them.
Our knowledge quests, like the fisherman’s net, are limited. The nets used by the physicist to understand matter do not capture the nature of life; the nets used by the biologist to understand the messy complexities of life in its manifold diversity, do not capture the underlying order the physicists have discovered. None of the nets employed by science capture morality and meaning.
How do we respond to the limitations of our nets? Do we conclude that there is no such thing as life because it doesn’t show up in the nets of physicist?