Stephen Weinberg, the University of Texas Nobel Prize winner, a gentleman
I respect highly, a non-theist, has an essay entitled "Can Science
Explain Everything? Anything?" dates May 31, 2001 which is available on
the net at
This site is the beginning of about 10 pages, each its own web page,
which make up the body of his essay.
Dr. Weinberg was challenged once by a fellow faculty member who said to
him, "Well, of course, you know science does not really explain things --
it just describes them." Dr. Weinberg, taken aback by this, penned this
essay in response.
A cat may look at a king, so the old adage goes, and so I will make a few
comments on Dr. Weinberg's essay for this list.
Because Dr. Weinberg's worldview is that of a non-theist, he falls into
an understandable, but distressing, trap on page two, where he says,
"Perhaps some of those who mean to say that science describes but does
not explain mean also to compare science unfavorably with theology, which
they IMAGINE (caps mine) to explain things by reference to some sort of
divine purpose, a task declined by science."
The fact that the word "imagine" in the above is a pejorative term
probably never occurred to Dr. Weinberg; it is pejorative for his
innocence. For Dr. Weinberg, confessedly a non-theist, can almost by
definition have no idea of "theology" in its operative sense.
Perhaps the error can be described better this way. Suppose a Ph.D.
theologian were to write these words in a similar essay:
"Perhaps some of those who mean to say that theology explains but does
not describe mean also to compare theology unfavorably with science,
which they IMAGINE (caps mine) to describe things by ignoring divine
Now the fact seems clear that both describing and explaining are parts of
both science and theology, albeit with different referents and different
rules of engagement with the issues. But Weinberg says, on page three,
that "It is not the job of philosophers ... to dictate meanings of words
different from the meanings in general use." Of course, this is done all
the time, by everyone, not only philosophers. What happens next is that
Weinberg begins arguing about word meanings, rather than issues of
substance. Or so it seems to me.
Don't get me wrong, this is a good essay and worth reading, perhaps even
keeping (I shall do so). I gained a new insight into the task of science
on page 4 when Weinberg wrote, "... physicists are interested in the
explanation of regularities, of physical principles, rather than of
individual events." I KNEW THAT! But I had never articulated it to
myself. It was an "aha" recognition of a part of science which is so
fundamental I had assimilated it without thinking.
Weinberg says later that "... we explain a physical principle when we
show that it can be deduced from a more fundamental physical principle."
The balance of his essay enlarges on this claim, with a focus on the
three words "fundamental," "deduced," and "principle." It is darn good
I find it interesting that Weinberg uses the words "we believe" in an
explanation of quantum chromodynamics (about page 5) and then makes the
bold (IMHO) assertion that "we already understand the strong nuclear
force well enough to KNOW (caps mine) that no new laws of nature will be
needed in this calculation." He sounds here like the 1890 US Patent
Office manager of lore.
Weinberg's discussion of the differences between "principles" and
"accidents," about page 9, is excellent, although he again says "... we
know..." in a place where, perhaps, a milder term would have been more
appropriate. He does use a softer touch, a page or so later, when he
observes that "But we have to keep in mind the possibility that what we
now call the laws of nature and the constants of nature are accidental
features of the big bang ... ." Yet two pages later he slips back into
the "senior scientist" role when he says "Only when we have this final
theory will we KNOW FOR SURE (caps mine) what is a principle and what an
accident, ... ." I have to wonder what Clarke thinks of such wording.
In the ninth section (about page 18 or so), Weinberg returns to his
primary question, whether science can explain everything. Here the prior
developed concept of accident plays a key role, and I found it very
convincing. Weinberg wrote: "Physicists try to explain just those things
that are not dependent on accidents, but in the real world most of what
we try to understand does depend on accidents."
After arguing that science can never explain any moral principle (most of
us here would agree), he softens the thrust of the essay by writing,
"There are also limitations on the certainty of our explanations. I don't
think we'll ever be certain about any of them. ... You give up worrying
about certainty when you make that turn in your career that makes you a
physicist rather than a mathematician."
Again -- read Weinberg's essay. This cat has looked at a king; Weinberg
is a king for all my pebble throws.
John Burgeson (Burgy)
(science/theology, quantum mechanics, baseball, ethics,
humor, cars, God's intervention into natural causation, etc.)
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