A Limiting Question

            A limiting question is a question which is relevant to the nature of being but can not be answered by science alone even though it remains integral to the scientific community. “Limit questions are ontological questions raised by the scientific enterprise as a whole but not answered by the methods of science.”[i]. Although science has made tremendous advances in describing our universe, there are still certain aspects of life that escape the boundaries of science alone. Science is able to define the universe in terms of physical matter but this mechanistic approach leaves science in a position where there are many concepts escaping its realm. Such concepts include that of a soul, life after death, and the history of creation. In relation to these aforementioned and similar concepts science needs the help of religion or even more generally mystical philosophy in order to attempt to answer these limit questions. These limiting questions are extremely relevant in bridging the gap between science and religion or science and mysticism.

            Many of the great scientists throughout history have had strong metaphysical or mystical beliefs. From Pythagoras, whose ideas of rebirth and karma were revolutionary in ancient Greece some 500 years before the birth of Christ, right through to Einstein and even more recently physicists such as David Bohm and Joel Pribram; the connection between science and mysticism can not be ignored.  Religion, however, often throws a veil over mysticism. Man has a historical tendency to use religion to serve his own means however crooked they may be. Less than three hundred years after the bible was written, it was modified by the court of Constantinople. It is widely believed that there were sections in the Bible including references to rebirth and karma but they were removed at this time.          Another example of this interference was the modifications made to the Bible in the 17th century under the supervision of King James. All major religions have had similar histories of man interfering due to his own interests.  Due to reasons such as these it is more relevant to deal with the limiting questions which bridge science and mysticism as opposed to science and religion itself although religion and mysticism are still tightly knit brethren.

            One major limiting question is that of the existence of a soul. In Christianity, the soul is referred to as the inner divinity, in Hinduism it is referred to as the Atman, in Buddhism it is known as the Buddha mind. The concept of soul is widely recognized by the major religions of the world, however, science itself has not yet found a way to prove or disprove the existence of this non-physical entity. This is not to say that the scientific community discards the view of a soul. Many of the most prominent scientists of all times have attempted to illustrate the idea of a soul and its qualities.          Cambridge physicist John Polkinghorne gives his view of soul, “My understanding of the soul is that it is the almost infinitely complex, dynamic, information-bearing pattern, carried at any instant by the matter of my inanimate body and continuously developing throughout all the constituent changes of my bodily make-up during the course of my earthly life. That psychosomatic unity is dissolved at death by the decay of my body, but I believe it is a perfectly coherent hope that the pattern that is me will be remembered by God and its instantiation will be recreated by him when he reconstitutes me in a new environment of his choosing. This will be his eschatological act of resurrection.”[ii]. This is a very intricate description of the soul displaying the obvious interconnection between soul and reincarnation. For if there is a soul surviving the physical body this implies a rebirth of some sort for this entity.

            The idea of rebirth is another limiting question accepted throughout many of the frontiers of science yet science has not yet been able to prove or disprove using its scientific method. However, science seems to be on the verge of being able to prove the idea of rebirth in a way using a combination of quantum physics and differential equations. By showing that the universe is made up of electrons and that electrons possess a wave/particle duality existence it can be shown that the entire universe possesses this property of being somewhat of a shape shifter. By using Fourier equations which are a sort of differential equations it can be shown that any image in however many dimensions can be transformed into a wave and then back to an image. These revolutionary experiments may possibly be able to fit the idea of reincarnation into the scientific method. Even if it does not quite work, the feeling is there that science is quite close. The fact that we are even close to proving this leads to the conclusion that yesterday’s limiting question is not necessarily today’s limiting question and today’s limiting question is not necessarily tomorrow’s limiting question. This is very intriguing because it shows that even the idea of a limiting question is in constant flux as is the entire universe. A classic example of this is the pre-Copernican view of the geocentric universe. At this time the question of the orbits of the planets and the solar system was a limiting question to science. They turned to religion, and at the time religion was dominated by the Catholic Church which stated that the Earth was the center of the universe. However, when Copernicus and later Galileo came along it was clear through scientific methods that the solar system was indeed heliocentric thereby turning yesterday’s limiting question into one which was answered by the methods of science and therefore was no longer a limiting question to science. It is my belief that rebirth and karma, longstanding tenets of many religious and mystical schools, will soon be proved in the same way.

            The idea of the creation of the universe is a longstanding one falling into the realm of limiting questions. Throughout history scientists have attempted to come up with theories to explain the origin of the universe. The theory that is currently the most widely accepted is that of the Big Bang.  The Big Bang is quite convincing from a physical mechanistic point of view. The idea of a Big Bang implies at first glance that the universe had a beginning, that there was in fact a time when t = 0.  However, this prominent idea can easily be challenged within the framework of the Big Bang itself. It is quite possible that the Big Bang represents a rebirth of sorts for the universe itself.  Who is to say whether our eternally expanding universe may not in fact one day collapse upon itself thereby paving the way for a new Big Bang? And what if there were infinitely many cycles like this, infinitely many Big Bangs so to speak? Various religious traditions have different views of creation.     According to the bible, God created all things through a series of verbal commands “By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.” (Psalm 33:6). According to Hinduism, the infinite God Brahma created all things simply by opening his eyes, when he closes his eyes all things cease to exist. When Brahma opens his eyes again another cycle will ensue. This type of viewpoint explains how there could be infinitely many Big Bangs or creations of sorts as opposed to time simply being a linear quantity which starts at t = 0 and finishes when t equals some finite quantity.

By taking into account these differing religious ideas science can allow itself to obtain a broader, more objective viewpoint of the nature of existence which would then allow scientists to make more liberal minded progress in defining the nature of being. This is the very essence behind the idea of a limiting question. Remember, a limiting question is a question which is relevant to the nature of being but can not be answered by science alone even though it remains integral to the scientific community. By embracing religion, science can turn yesterday’s limiting questions into today’s newfound discoveries, thereby broadening the frontiers of science and our understanding of the nature of existence as a whole.

Religion and Science, Ian G. Barbour. Harper Collins 1997, p.90.

Science and Religion From Conflict to Conversation, John F. Haught.  Paulist Press 1995, p.96.