Jerry Coyne has already put up a critique of Russell Stannard’s HuffPo piece on the limits of science and the demand for humility, Russell Stannard being amongst those scientists who think that humility consists in injecting religious questioning into the scientific enterprise. In his article, “Science: A Call for Humility,” he raises the humility question in relation to scientific theory, not by suggesting that there is still more for science to learn — which is where real scientific humility lies — but by suggesting that we can always ask the question: Where do scientific theories come from?
After saying that Stephen Hawking has offered M-Theory as the ultimate theory of everything, Stannard explains, the ultimate question is still not answered, even if we knew what M-Theory looks like when written down; for,
even if the M-theory hypothesis is correct, does it in fact answer the question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” It would certainly account for the existence of the world. But would it not raise a fresh question: “Where did M-theory come from? What is responsible for its existence?”
To which Jerry Coyne’s answer is decisive:
M-theory (an extension of string theory) was suggested by Edward Witten in 1995. That’s where it came from. A theory is a model of nature produced by a human brain.
This is something that Stannard apparently does not understand, for he goes on with a long spiel about the inability of knowing things-in-themselves:
What has been written down is not a description of the world at all, but a description of acts of observation made on the world. All our customary scientific terms such as energy, momentum, position, speed, distance, time, etc. — they are terms specifically for the description of observations. It is a misuse of language to try and apply them to a world-in-itself divorced from the action of an observation. It is this misuse of language that leads to problems like that posed by the wave/particle paradox. Which is not to say that the world-in-itself does not exist outside the context of someone making an observation of it. Rather, as Werner Heisenberg asserted, all attempts to talk about the world-in-itself are rendered meaningless.
The problem here of wave-particle duality is a problem of description, not a problem of reality. As Victor Stenger says in his recent book, God and the Folly of Faith:
Well, duh. Do you expect an object to have a particle property when you measure a wave property and a wave property when you measure a particle property? Physical objects have both properties, and no act of human consciousness has anything to say about it. 
The point here is Russell Stannard’s simple-minded realism, or what he thinks should be the direct one-to-one correspondence between mind events (brain events) and the properties of the physical world. What we have, as Hawking and Mlodinov pointed out is what they call “model-dependent realism” (which is why I say that their opening statement of the death of philosophy is a bit premature — a point at which I would agree with Stannard, who says much the same thing), which means that we can only speak of what is “out there” by using models, that is, as Jerry Coyne says, theories produced by the human brain. That’s where M-theory comes from, despite Stannard’s rather silly idea that in developing such theories we are in some sense reading the mind of god . Of course, Stannard doesn’t say that in his HuffPo article, but that is what he is clearly angling for, but there is no reason for making the leap from the limitations of human knowledge to the plenary knowledge that Stannard apparently believes underlies our ability to know only in part.
But the main thing that Stannard is missing in all this is, first of all, that the modesty that he thinks is called for is already something that really defines science as it is practiced. In his article Stannard suggests that modesty is not something that characterises his more optimistic fellow scientists:
All we can realistically do [he writes at the end] is achieve whatever knowledge is open to us to understand. This might well fall short of the expectations of my more optimistic fellow scientists. I think a little humility is in order.
If all he has to go on here is Stephen Hawking’s claim that M-theory may provide a theory of everything, then he is being misleading, for Hawking never suggests that M-theory is the only possible theory. The difference between Hawkins and Stannard is not Stannard’s modesty and Hawking’s overweening optimism. The difference is that Hawking suggests that we have at least one theory, and may have others, that provide a satisfactory answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing that does not require the assumption of a creator. Stannard thinks that this in itself is somehow already to leap over tall buildings, instead of showing the kind of intellectual modesty that is demanded by the nature of human knowing. Stannard wants to make the jump to god at some point, and he thinks this is modesty?! Should modesty not lead one instead to say, “We just don’t know and may never know,” as Jerry Coyne points out? Instead, that is, of making an appeal to a religious resolution of the problem of the limits of our theories, or the physical limits of our testing procedures? Sure, it may take a Hadron Collider larger than the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Perhaps it requires something larger than we could conceivably build. Then our knowledge and our theoretical models will never be adequate to answer the questions that we can formulate. Does this mean that we have to make the jump to god? No, it just means that we have to acknowledge that our mental equipment is inadequate to the task, but at the same time we have to acknowledge that that equipment has already far outstretched the limits of what it evolved to do. Our mental capacities were, in the first instance, selected for survival and reproductive fitness, but this says nothing at all about their suitability for the scientific quest. That they have led us through mystery after mystery, removing the veils that were once thought, by the religious mind, to hide secrets not meant for the human mind to penetrate, is something that should be celebrated, not dismissed by such as Stannard, searching blindly for something to hang his religious prejudices upon, and to reassure his fellow believers that science is somehow unequal to the task it sets itself, and that, in the end ……, well, god! This is simply to capitulate to ignorance, not to express epistemic modesty.
If Stannard wants to do epistemology, then he should do it thoughtfully and with some rigour, not dash off a piece of pabulum for the Huffinton Post. This piece of religio-scientific trivia appears in the Huffington Post section devoted to science, not religion. It is a knock-off of his book The End of Discovery: Are We Approaching the Boundaries of the Knowable? But it doesn’t really achieve anything. It hasn’t shown that Stannard’s fellow scientists have not expressed appropriate modesty, for they have, and they continue to do so. The whole project of science is an extended exercise in epistemic modesty, for it always allows for the possibility of error. As Jerry Coyne points out, science continually acknowledges things that it does not, and perhaps can never know, and yet it goes on, as he says, finding out stuff. “Yet,” he says, ”there will always be unanswered questions and, as string theory shows, answers that we might not be able to verify.” And nothing justifies claims to other ways of knowing about the things to which science addresses itself. There never comes a point where we can say that this is where god comes in as an explanatory principle, for the introduction of such a principle would be neither suitably modest, nor would it be explanatory. It would simply be a denial that we can know, and the only way to reach that point is simply to carry on the scientific quest to that end, and then to say, “We don’t know.” Scientific humility must always end with that question, if, indeed, it does reach the end of the knowable. Jumping over the traces at this point is not modesty, but arrogance, and a pretence that the end of the knowable can be surmounted by knowledge of a different kind. But if it is not knowable, it really is not knowable, after all, and calling it religion won’t resolve the contradiction.
As Stannard himself says in his HuffPo article:
It is something that evolved in response to the need of our ancestors to find food, shelter, and avoid predators. It enabled them to survive to the point where they could mate and pass on their genes. The brain was part of their survival kit. Why therefore should anyone think that such an imperfect instrument should be capable of mastering all knowledge regardless of whether it has any relevance to survival?
Some of which is well said. But where does anyone suggest that the human mind is “capable of mastering all knowledge?” And what, indeed, does that mean? Certainly the mind can master all knowledge, insofar as it can master those things which it can know — that is, the knowable – many of which are yet to be discovered. If Stannard is suggesting that what exists independently of the mind is knowledge, as he seems to, then he is presupposing a universal knower of some kind. However, by suggesting that there are limits to the knowable, that is, of things that the mind is capable of knowing, he is suggesting precisely the opposite of this. (Somewhere along the way he simply forgets that he has more or less accepted Hawking and Mlodinov’s “model-dependent realism.”) My conclusion is that he is confused about what he means by knowledge and the knowable, and what would constitute humility in the face of it, and I suspect that the confusion is due to his religious beliefs, and how the concept of god somehow posits a dimension beyond anything accessible to the human mind and its limits. This confusion, I suspect, is what lies at the heart of the accommodationism of science and religion. It wants to claim a dimension of knowledge that lies beyond the humanly knowable, but it has not provided a basis in its theory of knowledge for this dimension. The result is that someone like Stannard can speak of both the limits of the knowable, and yet include what lies beyond that limit in the knowable, as in fact being a part of knowledge, and it is that fatal ambiguity that permits him to think of science and religion as somehow occupying the same realm. What he does not recognise is the implicit contradiction that lies at the heart of his thinking about the relation of science and religion.