Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Introductory Class
Thomas Davis, Willem deVries, Eberhard Möbius


Summary by Greg Hilston

How do we do Science? Are there limits? What are they?

This class, INCO 796 “Touching the Limits of Science”, is a one credit course that students elect to take. The class is lead by three faculty members:

• Dr. Eberhard Möbius, Physics department
• Dr. Tom Davis, Biology department
• Dr. Will deVries, Philosophy department 

Students taking 796 vary greatly in majors, providing a unique environment that no other class offers. The semester starts off with each professor kicking off their individual field of study, introducing what will be the basis of that field for the rest of the semester.

Classes are discussion based, with the weekly readings designated by the presenter of the week. Students are encouraged to go beyond the assigned reading and find as many articles/sources of information that interest them and bring that information to the class. Each class meeting follows this format and provides a unique opportunity to learn about a vast array of topics and be encouraged to have discussions with members of different fields. INCO 796 offers a unique experience to any student who attends.


The first class opens up with talking about what general topics will be discussed over the semester and how the class functions. We went around the room introducing ourselves, starting with the professors. Dr Möbius informed the class that the focus of this course is within the fields of physics, biology and philosophy and proposed three unicates that this class will explore, with a unicate being defined as “an entity or item of which there is only a single one of the kind”. 

Origin of universe

The idea behind these unicates is to introduce the course and by doing so we define what the class will cover and are significant due to man-kind only having one single example of each, which creates a challenge for science. The origin of the universe is a unicate as we only have access to one, our own, even if there were countless others. The origin of life falls under the definition of a unicate as mankind has only studied species of life on Earth. At this point we are unable to compare life that originated anywhere else. Finally, consciousness is also a unicate as we have only interacted with other humans with a full manner. Perhaps in the future we may communicate with other forms of consciousness. With the unicates and their definition in mind, the class transitioned to discussing the goals of science.

Goals of Science

Another method of introducing the course was to define what the goals of science are. Dr Davis brought this topic up and wrote a definition on the board.

To describe, explain, predict and control

Davis got this definition out of a physics book in the library and shared it with the intent of defining science which would help clear any fog around what science actually is.

Science is often only correlated to hard sciences such as physics and biology but I believe this definition should be extended to many other fields, philosophy being the best example. This thought would best be served through a discussion, that I did not have the pleasure of having. I personally believe another requirement of science is that the proposed facts discovered should be able to be reproduced and tested. Using the definition that Davis provided, it would be interesting to see other students' thoughts on defining science and what fields of study the class believes do not fall under any of the sciences. After loosely defining what science is, we went around the room to discuss questions may be out of science's reach.

Questions Science May Never Answer:

Before class, we were asked to come in with answers to the following questions:
-In your mind, which question(s) may Science not be able to find answers for?
-What do you think potential reasons might be for that anticipated failure to provide answers?

I grouped the questions that are most related to each other and explain why this group may never be answered by science.

Group I: Religion, spirits...

Regardless of the level of technology or knowledge, people will never be able to be sure if a divine god or spirit exists. These questions are not approachable by science because no definitive answer can be found.

Group II: Our universe

While many sciences like physics and astronomy tell us about our universe, these types of questions seem to unreached and not within the scope of calculations and formulas. If we had all of physics and astronomy figured out, we wouldn't be able to tell for sure if we could apply our knowledge to the existence of other possible universes.

Group III: Human Life

This group is the last and biggest group of the three. These questions are all pertaining to human life. When discussing questions regarding the after-life, the meaning to life and such phenomena that man-kind experiences, science will not be able to explain or figure these out because science deals with measurements and precise testing. These phenomena are difficult if not impossible to measure and classify because they are personal experiences. When thinking about the after-life specifically, science fails to conduct any work because all subjects that would experience the afterlife have obviously passed away. These topics are best explored through discussion and at best may end with all parties agreeing but resulting in nothing proven. 
Again, these groups were compiled to more easily respond to similar questions. Although the grouping laid out above are easy to understand, there exists a better, more specific and easier way to define these types of questions, which brings us to the five big themes.

Five Big Themes as Summarized by Dr. Möbius

As we went around the room, it became apparent that most of the questions asked can be housed under themes. Moebius suggested these big themes, making it easier to define what the class as a whole would like to discuss throughout the semester.
• Whether there is a supernatural being.
• Consciousness and our inner experiences.
• The meaning of life.
• What questions should science not answer? The “ought” questions seem to 
be unanswerable by science as they imply a non deterministic, personal answer. 
Ex: “What color ought I paint this wall?”
• Soul and mind. Is there an afterlife?

When looking back on the many questions students proposed and overlooking the big themes, one one prominent subject is “The Meaning of Life”.

The Meaning of Life

From Dr. Davis “The meaning to life starts with consciousness, consciousness and meaning are interconnected. A planet inhabited entirely by unconscious species, is a planet without meaning. In such a world, every species’ actions would be purely for food, shelter or reproduction without any opportunity for self awareness or meaning.”

When considering a human who is legally brain dead and therefore, to our knowledge, not conscious, have they lost all-purpose? Their heart is still beating, pumping blood and they are breathing but the person on the inside isn’t able to communicate with the outside world.

From Dr deVries “Would an entire universe devoid of consciousness have meaning?”

Davis, in response to deVries “Such a universe would only have meaning to an outside consciousness, such as a creator or divine being. In absence of an external creator the universe would have no meaning”

Greg: I’d define consciousness as “the ability to identify oneself”. In regard to the meaning to life, my personal opinion is that there is no general meaning to life. Each individual defines what his/her personal meaning of life is. That definition is sculpted by individuals’ beliefs, ideas, history and everything they’ve experienced since their birth. To try and compare your meaning of life to mine is like trying to compare our interests or idea of fun, they just aren’t comparable, as they are too personal.

Discussing the meaning of life often leads to thinking about the start of life.