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Yaron Tokayer

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Will humankind ever achieve an end to science history?

My bioelectricity class is half science and half history. When we bring up a new topic, we often first pause to set its historical backdrop from a political and experimental perspective. This is particularly interesting, given that in bioelectricity, experiments date back several hundred years, but are also unfolding every day (quite literally, if we consider that ion channels are proteins whose foling structures are a topic of this field -- see http://fold.it/portal/ for a link to the fold it protein folding game taking the world by storm). But when I try to consider new research, I find myself feeling viscerally skeptical of our own time's limited perspective on our own accomplishments to date.

Phillip von Jolly, Planck's professor at Munich, is pretty much solely known for falsely predicting of physics that, "in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes." Similarly, Lord Kelvin is said to have proclaimed that "there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." Both of these quotes were said at the dawn of the quantum era. I think we humans tend to assume that we are at the end of history, that all scientific and social progress has culminated to the present.

The question I would like to pose is whether or not science is at least honing in on an absolute reality--what philosophers call "scientific realism." Are we getting closer--converging--to the end of scientific discovery with each paradigm shift, or do we just recast how we understand the world in a different vocabulary? From one perspective, the miasma theory of disease, which preceded today's germ theory, was thought to be approximately accurate experimentally, just like today's germ theory is "approximately accurate" as far as it's clinical effectiveness. Is there a truth of nature behind a curtain for us to discover? If there is, are humans capable of acieving it?

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    Feb 14 2013: i don't know if it is true or not, but it is what i heard. at the end of the 19th century, people thought that physics is almost complete. every phenomenon was accounted for and explained. all but two. they had two minor problems to work on:
    1, black body thermal radiation refused to work as the models suggested
    2, the exact nature of the luminiferous aether was to be discovered

    then came einstein with the theory that light is emitted in small packs. and there went our entire knowledge of electromagnetism to give place to the new quantum theory.

    then came michelson and morley to find that there is no aether, and some really weird things are going on. and then came einstein again, to postulate that our entire knowledge of newtonian mechanics is also wrong, and thus the theory of relativity was born.

    so einstein singlehandedly turned "almost complete" to "damnit, we know nothing"
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      Feb 14 2013: Krisztián, thanks for that thoughtful response.

      That narrative is exactly what I was referring to. I think that last line sums it up well :)

      So my understanding is that you are arguing for "pessimistic meta-induction," or the belief that we will never settle on a final science of the world, based on the fact that every theory until now has been replaced. I find this pretty convinving as well. However--and this is what holds me back form fully subscribing to pessimistic meta-induction--doesn't it seem like the corrections we are making are becoming more and more fine-tuned? Newton introduced gravity and shattered the Aristotelian view. Einstein didn't debunk the idea of gravity, but rather explained it in a way that accounted for more things. Indeed, our theories are still being replaced, but don't the corrections seem to be getting more petty as time goes on?
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        Feb 14 2013: i'm not pessimistic, and exactly because of what you explain. einstein destroyed the arrogance, but did not destroy the previous knowledge.

        but i see signs of that hybris again. i don't think that our beliefs in quantum mechanics and cosmology are as well grounded as some claim.
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          Feb 16 2013: Krisztian, the point that Yaron is making (I think) is that if we admit that Einstein--along with every other science luminary in the history of humanity--dismantled the scientific understanding of the previous generation, then why should we think that the understanding that _we_ have arrived at now will fare any better in the future? This is _pessimistic_ in the sense that it suggests that we never have very good reason to think that we've arrived at anything that looks like the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
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        Feb 16 2013: Jon, i don't think that Yaron argued that the situation warrants pessimism. i think he said i sound pessimist, while i shouldn't. but i wasn't.

        and the reason why we shouldn't, and i am not, is because we still use newtonian mechanics extensively today. in fact i'm kind of sure that newtonian mechanics will be in use forever. it has not turned out to be wrong, it just turned out to be a part of the picture, not the whole picture. since the 1600's, when proper science started to take root, we can kind of sure that what we know stands. every new discovery extends our knowledge, maybe shines a new light on it, but does not rewrite it. so we can be sure that what we know is more or less the truth, and that is what we should aspire for.
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          Feb 16 2013: I wasn't suggesting that the situation warrants pessimism in a standard sense: the "pessimistic metainduction" is a particular argument in the philosophy of science (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pessimistic_induction). The claim is more-or-less what I said above: that the continued failure of science to converge on a theory that accurately describes reality (combined with the persistent optimism of each generation of scientists that such a convergence has been reached) suggests a kind of skepticism about current claims of scientific knowledge.

          I was just clarifying, not disagreeing with your point. I agree entirely that Newtonian mechanics is not best described as _wrong_ but just as _incomplete:_ Newton identified some real patterns in how the world works, but there are other stories to be told as well.
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        Feb 16 2013: Jon, i didn't know that term before, but out of pure luck, my arguments stand even for that. in my view, current science accurately represents reality, to a certain degree. and every successive theory describes reality more accurately. i don't expect fundamental changes in that regard.

        it worths to be pointed out though that while the predictions of the models are compatible, the models themselves are often completely rewritten. it is a very interesting philosophical problem, whether our models has anything to do with reality other than a mapping between elements of the model and the observable world. thus the question can be raised whether any scientific theory can be true, or it can just be useful. or to rephrase it, usefulness and truthfulness are the same or not. i myself lean toward the notion that in natural sciences, truth equals to descriptive power, and nothing more.
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          Feb 17 2013: Krisztián, I think that's a nice point you make about usefulness vs. truth. (Thanks, P Lawhead for clarifying that misunderstanding.)

          I've tried to think about it, and I can't seem to find meaning in the word "truth," other than usefulness. Meaning, I think it's pragmatic to describe theories as true to the extent that they work. Call it truth, call it heresy, or call it black magic--the only testable difference in the world will always come down to whether or not it predicts accurately. I am in agreement with you.

          I think the question of truth then become psychological--a human belief. To be sure, I think belief in truth can be important in areas other than experimental sciences, but I don't see it's place in scientific discourse.
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    Feb 17 2013: I think it is important for us to cast doubt on scientific discovery and theories that have been widely accepted. Even though there are results that may be an accurate description of nature, scientists should keep looking for different ways to explain it or adjust them to account for the effects of external stimuli on scientific phenomena. It seems impossible to fully understand nature, so I think we should at least try to model/approximate it better by continuing to look at the existing scientific claims rather than settling for what sounds most promising and giving full credence.
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      Feb 19 2013: I agree Kyung.

      It is very important that we continue to question the accepted theories and discoveries of past scientists. This is even more important as new discoveries are found and theories get older.

      Furthermore, I believe that as more technology is available, science will be able to be explained more thoroughly filling in any gaps that are currently present. I personally do not believe there is a limit to science, however we will never really know the answer to this.
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    Feb 14 2013: Hi Yaron!

    The question you pose is one that I find that many people ponder throughout their lives. It is a difficult one because I think we all know that humanity will never really achieve a full understanding of all of science. However, we still can't help but feel sometimes that we are very close. You quoted prestigious people that have stated similar thoughts. When studying science, it is simple to envision a world in which everything can make sense to us. But this just confirms our limited perception.

    I find it scary to admit that humans do not have the ability to conquer the scientific world. It will continue to amaze and inspire us in many different ways that are beyond our control.
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      Feb 14 2013: Thanks for your thoughtful response, Hadar.

      I think you bring up a good point about the scary and daunting thought of never achieving a complete knowledge of the universe. I also find it interesting that--and this has come up a few times already--this doesn't seem to discourage us. Human curiosity has proven quite resilient, even when many do not believe in an end goal. I guess it's the passional experience that keeps us going rather than the end result.

      You wrote, "I think we all know that humanity will never really achieve a full understanding of all of science." I wouldn't be so sure. What I've found so interesting and what I've learned in bringing this up to family and peers is that people tend to be very sure one way or the other.
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      Feb 16 2013: Why should we even WANT a full understanding of the universe? There are a lot of real patterns out there that are just useless as far as we're concerned. The fact that we're limited in virtue of our perceptual capacities, spatio-temporal location, and technology isn't a problem, but rather a useful limit on what we ought to attend to. I'm not even sure what a full understanding of the universe would consist in; why not just focus on understanding patterns that are useful for realizing the kinds of goals we have, both as individuals and as a species?
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        Feb 17 2013: Professor, I agree with you on a practical level. It is certainly hard to interpret "full understanding of the universe," and we are probably better off with limited abilities.

        But do you not acknowledge the innate human (and maybe most species?--they just aren't as successful?) desire to grow in understanding and dominance of the universe? This may be a meaningless aspiration and it probably does us well to overcome it, but it seems to be a shared human sentiment across generations. I think this may be what Hadar was reffering to as scary.
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      Feb 20 2013: The short answer is no, we most likely wont be able to uncover all of the scientific secrets of the world.

      To delve deeper, lets think about how the world seemed to scientists before the microscopic world was unlocked when Rober Hooke saw "little rooms" and called them cells. This opened the door to a whole new realm of science which only further opened doors to even more realms (i.e. quantum theory, microbiology, etc.). In fact, this month, scientists were able to "program" bacteria to function as simple logic gates and even remember past computations! This type of discovery could lead to an entire new world of technology! Things are yet to be discovered, and we can even begin to imagine where those discoveries will take us.

      Now, lets Zoom out. Let us assume we do conquer the science of our world... There is still so many other worlds and solar systems and galaxies that have different sets of science hereunto unknown to our planet! While this approach may seem far-fetched (and maybe outside the scope of your question), I think it's quite unlikely that young bright scientists will one day just sit in their labs, playing with their microscopes because they have nothing to do.
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    Feb 17 2013: It seems you question is equivalent to - WIll humans ever understand nature? Truly get to the bottom of it all?

    I don't think so, at least not in our current form. I consider our species to be marginally rational with limited cognitive abilities. Each of us can barely see the outlines of a small part of reality of which we are a part. Most of our mental life is spent living in crude constructs, mental models of the outer world, some models no doubt better than others, some purely fantastical We can speculate, and make stuff up, each of which we do well, but knowing is another thing entirely..
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      Feb 18 2013: Peter, thanks for your response.

      It sounds like you are stressing the importance of humility in science. (This has come up a bit--you may enjoy reading some of the conversations below. check out Ben Jarvis's, Krisztián Pintérand's, and Mark Kurtz's). I like your point of questioning what it means to "know" something. I agree. I've come to believe through this conversation that "knowledge" is not the business of science.
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        Feb 18 2013: Yaron, I wasn't trying to say that those who advocate the use of reason and the application of the scientific method need to be more humble (although some individuals do) and that science is not the path to knowledge (If reason and science don't light the path to knowledge then we are truly walking in the dark). I simply think we have cognitive limitations and may not be as aware of those limitations as we should be. I have heard and read many good scientists and don't feel they, as a group, are lacking in humility as opposed to non-scientists. In fact, I think those who seem to advocate positions of certainty about our place in the universe, where we came and were we are going, are usually the religious, a group, which, despite their prostrations to their invisible friend, truly lacks humility about the limitations of what they know and how they came to know it.

        Scientist or not, stepping back from time to time and asking ourselves what is real, what do we truly know, what seems to be correct and why, and what is simply a construction, a tool, a metaphor, to help us understand is important. In my opinion we are not good at that - we (speaking about humans broadly here) accept too much as fact.

        I do think progress has been made, that we are generally stumbling in the right direction, and that we are not just fooling ourselves by creating a new vocabulary from time to time. But we are in the early days of our journey...
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      Feb 18 2013: I think Peter brings up a great point in that humans will never be able to fully "know" and understand the universe. However, I don't believe that that this is true from a humility standpoint, but rather from a scientific standpoint. The very basis of quantum mechanics is predicated on the notion that we can never know anything with absolute certainty in this universe. Therefore every particle has a probability distribution associated with it, but never an exact location or speed, to quote Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. In light of this however, at macroscopic scales, there are many things in science which we can know exactly. However, time has continued to show that the more things we discover with certainty about the world, the more we discover how much we don't know. If the universe is indeed infinite, then it makes sense that the universe is filled with infinite wisdom. This does not mean however, that man should not try to reach that ultimate knowledge of the universe - however the time and human capacity that it would take to achieve the knowledge and understanding of the universe could indeed be infinite.
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      Feb 19 2013: I agree with Peter, in suspecting that absolute knowledge is unattainable because of our limited cognitive abilities. Our experience of the world might not tell us the whole story. I have faith that we can answer all our questions, but I am doubtful that we can ask all questions. We are limited to seeing three of the spatial dimensions. Our lifespan is probably finite. We can't go backwards in time. The speed of objects is supposedly limited. The size of electronics cannot get infinitely small. Assuming that those statements are all true, then nature does have limits. We are a part of that nature and so it wouldn't surprise me if we're limited too. And yes, paradigm shifts are always possible, assuming we have the capacity to realize them.

      Scientific inquiry, as far as I know, is either about A) branching off fields already known or B) finding the links between known fields. And maybe it's possible to exhaust that map. But each of these fields of inquiry was born from an /accident/: something that was not expected but was observed. We can't force more of these accidents, and that's another one of our limitations.

      Nature is an ongoing process. We agree that there was a time before life began and before the big bang. Anywhere at anytime, some combination of coincidences might start off a new era. Science will never stop being invented by nature and we never have to be bored.
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    Feb 16 2013: John Horgan wrote about this very topic and interviewed many of the brightest minds in many of the major disciplines of science, "The End of Science."
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    Feb 14 2013: Offhand, I would say every discovery seems to bring new questions, so I doubt you'll ever reach the end of understanding.
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    Feb 14 2013: The answer is "NO" because of: "Entropy: A measure of the amount of randomness in large collections of atoms, molecules and other particles; equal to the logarithm of the number of ways the particles could be distributed without changing their macroscopic appearance".
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      Feb 16 2013: I don't understand, Edward. What does entropy have to do with this?
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        Feb 17 2013: Standing between Mankind and the Grand Unified Theory; the final revelation where every mystery is fully and accurately explained; the indentification of the Intelligent Designer as, not God, but Man himself; is the inescapable, infrangible truth that everything tends toward disarray. The problem of insufficient data will plague mankind until Time shall be no more.
  • Feb 14 2013: Not likely, unless you would allow the possibility humankind will attain omniscience.

    Why would anyone want to say we've done it all, there could never possibly be anymore? Seems like small thinking.
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      Feb 14 2013: Thanks, Mark.

      I think I'm with you on the small thinking. It brings to mind Francis Fukuyama's 1989 essay "The end of history?" in which he basically suggested that the end of the Cold War signified the end of man's sociological development and eternal acceptance of democracy. I find it very easy to be skeptical of such ambitious claims, much like William Thomson's and von Jolly's quoted above. You may want to check out the thread that Ben Jarvis started a few comments below.
  • Feb 14 2013: Hello Yaron,

    Well I do believe that nature can be fully understood through physics eventually (we're not there yet and I don't know how long it will take. But there should be some sort of limit as to how it actually works). And yes I do think that humans can describe/learn that.
    And because all other sciences are eventually physics we should be able to figure everything out that is possible to find out.

    I think that the only ways we don't get there is if humanity is erased before that time or if humanity has put moral boundries on further study. Simply because they realize that "we don't want to know" (or "ignorance is bliss" - the matrix).
  • Feb 14 2013: i think it's clear that the more we study, the more we find that there is to study, we can never accurately say "there is nothing more to discover" because we don't know what we haven't yet discovered! even the things that we know a lot about we can never be sure if there isn't more to them.
    the atom is a classic example. we keep discovering 'all' there is to know about them, then we discover that there are further divisions to the parts we know about. i wonder what a quark might consist of?
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      Feb 14 2013: That's great point, Ben. It sounds like you are saying that we have to be honest and humble about what we know and have considered.

      My grandfather likes to say: "If you don't know what you don't know, then you'll never know."
      • Feb 14 2013: that's a brilliant summation thank you!
        in my experience i've found that a lot of arguments happen because of people who don't know that they don't know or are working under the false assumption that they know. eg funding the space program vs cutting funding - "it's just a waste of money to go to mars, there's nothing there!"
      • Feb 14 2013: My Grandmother always says, "If you dont know ask, or find out".

        My Grandfather says, "there is no stupid question, only stupid people".

        Yep, my life ain't been an e-z ride.
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    Feb 14 2013: Yaron- a very interesting question.

    I like to think that there are plethora of things that are still undiscovered and will probably remain undiscovered for hundreds of years. Obviously, as we progress each year into the future, we are converging on some form of close, but our Earth is such a remarkable place, and that endpoint is distances away.

    I am no expert in quantum physics, but if Kelvin and von Jolly believe their fields is left completely discovered, there are many other scientific fields that are continuously growing and expanding. Alternative forms of energy will be constantly researched, technological advancements will always grow from year to year, theories will be accepted without ever being proven... I see no end. Therefore, I don't believe there is a curtain laid out for us to discover.
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      Feb 17 2013: Hi Joseph,
      I like the point you made about new and emerging scientific fields continuously growing. I do feel like no matter how much we learn, we simply uncover more unanswered questions. In any time period, it is hard to imagine a world of which we know so little. Even in the time of Jolly and Kelvin, it must have felt as though they had explained so much, learned so much about how the world works, what could possibly be left? Even now, it is hard to imagine what earth-shattering discovery could come next. I definitely feel that although we may be converging in some sense, it could also be thought of as diverging because each breakthrough we make simply opens a door to a thousand more potential breakthroughs.
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      Feb 19 2013: Hi Joseph and Neema!

      I completely agree with both of you. I believe that there is an ever expanding list of questions that are yet be answered, and that it grows with every new discovery made. If I were to describe what I imagine to be the "end" of scientific discovery, I would bring up two concepts: mimicry and regeneration. It is said that only truly know a subject or a concept when you can teach it to someone else. Likewise, I think the end of science will arrive when every system can be reproduced artificially or not. Being able to regenerate or build any existing system (this includes neural signals, digestive and circulatory systems, etc in organisms) means that ultimate understanding of the system.
      Even at that point, the never ended search for ultimate efficiency begins where a system can be redefined and rebuilt over and over again to achieve the highest efficiency model. There is always more work to be done!
  • Feb 20 2013: I guess my answer to your final question is it appears so. And it will almost always appear to be so, but as the interconnected interdependent technologies advance, there for a long time will be short periods of time in which we are reminded there is still much to learn.
  • Feb 20 2013: In response to your quotes, I would make this clinical assertion. I would argue objectively that von Jolly was absolutely right in his comment. Remember the field he was delving into. Classical physics as a field was certainly near the end of its usefulness. It already quantified and explained nearly every objective the field had deemed to be important. In that lens, the holes were not important. What happened with the beginning of the quantum age of physics was just as you said a paradigm shift. Each paradigm shift changes two crucial things. The goal of the age and the methodology in which attempts are made to fulfill them.

    Think of each paradigm as a lens of a microscope. In each lens, a certain level of structure can be seen. Attempts to define that structure define our knowledge of it. But eventually there comes a point in which no further data can be ascertained by that level of focus, even if there be small holes or fuzzy lines in the scope. From the viewpoint of the original objective to define the lens, the goal is essentially complete. The fuzzy lines or holes have small relative effect in the larger objective of the lens.

    But there will always be people bothered by the holes and fuzzy lines. In order to investigate those, a fundamental paradigm shift must occur, In the new lens, nothing has yet been discovered. The process repeats. Eventually however one must conclude that absolute uncertainty must at some point be the limiting factor in which out paradigm may be allowed to focus.

    The questions then is zooming out once more and editing those holes and fuzzy lines.

    Because of the very nature of paradigms and truly that of humanity, there are relatively short periods of time in which scientific theory appears mostly vacant. The rest of the time (until a shift occurs) it must by effect appear to be nearing conclusion. I think of the macroscopic population theory of punctuated equilibrium. Many changes occur very rapidly then relative stagnancy.
  • Feb 20 2013: Yes, but at some point the new scientific historians are machines and humans have merged with them or live in another dimension to save gas and have more convenient parking. Science is evolution of synthetic alliances, which will bubble up for humans until the sun becomes something other than a friend.
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    Feb 19 2013: Hi Yaron, Thanks for your post!
    In response to: "The question I would like to pose is whether or not science is at least honing in on an absolute reality--what philosophers call 'scientific realism.'"
    Scientific realism is a philosophy that assumes objectivism. If a scientific realist were asked the question about the sound of the tree falling in the forest, they would respond that independent of us, the tree, gravitational force required to pull the tree down and the medium of atmosphere that the sound wave travels through all exist - so yes, the tree would make a sound. The problem is that objectivity can not be proven by any human observer because humans are subjective. So in the end, humans can't answer your question because we are not objective by nature.

    However, let's assume that there is a 'truth to nature.' I would not want to know that there is an end to discovery, that there exists a finite amount of stuff in the universe that I can observe. Existential despair is a loss of hope, a loss of the thing which defines someone. Although it may seem the easy solution to existentialism to discover this rock that is truth and rest our identities on it, it in fact would be such a loss to no longer have the ability to search for truth.

    In summary, I don't think humans are capable of realizing an end to discovery and I am not sure I would like to realize absolute reality even if I had the ability.
  • Feb 19 2013: As long as humans use there imagination there will never be an ending to anything.
    Phillip Von Jolly and Lord Kelvin simply forgot how to dream...
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    Feb 19 2013: Hey Yaron!

    I really like this conversation (it is a discussion that I often have with my non-scientifically inclined friends), not just because of its nature to mimic the very history it calls into question [with the excellent examples of Lord Kelvin and Phillip Von Jolly that you provided], but because I think that when it comes down to it, the answer is irrelevant. Sure, one could argue that our universe is infinitely large and that physical things in our universe are infinitely small and we really have little hope of ever reaching an end to understanding at either extreme, or that as it currently stands we have an understanding of our universe that goes above and beyond the realm of "what we need to know" about it in order to function in it [ie I've heard the argument "but why does the average human *need* to understand quantum mechanics?"]. But in reality, I think that even if the premise is correct, that there could ever be some end to scientific discovery and we could close the book on scientific history, we should never believe it to be true. We should always assume that there is more out there to be understood and we should keep exploring and experimenting.

    (Another reason I love this conversation: It gives me the chance to use my third favorite Douglas Adams quote of all time: “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” )
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    Feb 19 2013: I believe that from this point forward, science will continue to approach "scientific realism" indefinitely. This is because as humans, we seem to have reached a point where we are satisfied with the scientific knowledge we have acquired. We acknowledge that there is more to learn and develop, however, we choose to believe that we are not far off from "scientific realism". Unless an unforeseeable gaping hole is discovered in the scientific knowledge base of the our current world, I predict our scientific knowledge to approach the asymptote of "scientific realism" as t approaches infinity.
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      Feb 19 2013: Hi George,

      Your point is totally valid... but I'd like to point out that it is essentially identical to the historical statements of Kelvin and von Jolly.

      I'm a believer of the notion that history repeats itself, and I see a trend here. Countless intelligent people devote their entire lives to understanding our environment and how we interact with it, and eventually it becomes perfectly logical to assume that the major centers of the "scientific arena" have been identified. Then some benign discovery comes along and tears a gaping hole in our bubble of knowledge, sparking a race to explain this discovery. It's almost like the gold rush era in California - except there are seemingly unlimited supplies of gold.

      I like to envision the relationship between the known and unknown as a battlefront on an infinite plane. Sure, we continue to make advances, and that's great for society, but by no means does that guarantee or even imply that we are running out of unknown territory to conquer.
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    Feb 18 2013: For every action creates an equal but opposite reaction. Every answer will spawn a new question
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    Feb 18 2013: Sub: Paradigm shift- means Search New Concepts
    Paradigm shift is related to Cosmology Studies-that involve big Questions
    Evolution of new concepts to accommodate creative Spiritual Wisdom is part of Cosmos Quest
    Science is at cross-roads as it moves away from nature and Philosophy.
    Search for Dimensional Knowledge-Base
    http://vidyardhicosmology.blogspot.in/2011/10/light-flow-interaction-plasma-vision.html
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    Feb 16 2013: I'm somewhat nervous about the idea of paradigm shifts, at least as they tend to be construed. I think a lot of people get Kuhn wrong--he ends up getting recruited to support all kinds of epistemic relativism (see, e.g., the work of Feyerabend on "epistemic anarchy"), when I think that was the last thing he had in mind. It seems to me that the most plausible position is not this kind of anything goes approach to knowledge, where we jump from incommensurable paradigm to incommensurable paradigm, but rather an _accretive_ process by which different sets of patterns are cataloged and mapped.

    That is, it seems to me that the endpoint of the insight that Kuhn had--that big breakthroughs in science often result in entirely new ways of looking at things--isn't relativism, but a kind of integrated pluralism. We can recognize that there are many different ways to look at the world around us, and that each of those ways might contribute to a more holistic understanding of the natural world _even if_ they can't be expressed in a common language. The project of cross-referencing patterns in the time-evolution of the natural world is an important one, and Kuhn's real legacy is, I think, first suggesting that this _is_ a project worth pursuing. The story of science is a story of progress through collaboration.
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      Feb 17 2013: Thanks for all of your insightful responses.

      From the little that I've read and learned formally (from you), I believe it is true that Kuhn is commonly misunderstood in that way. I tried to use the term in a parve (neutral) way, but thanks for the clarification.

      So if I'm understanding correctly, this "cross-referencing" that Kuhn calls for is acknowledging that accurate results from old theories are maintained in later ones, as they should be. And sometimes we'll even utilize an older language to describe things because it is most useful if a particular case. For example, we may use Newton's formula for gravity in a simply 2 body problem, because it is a good way to look at the problem, even if it may not be the entire picture, according to general relativity. Is this correct?

      It also sounds like Kuhn does believe then in a sort of convergence of theories. Scientific progress, according to him, seems like an iterative revision proccess, which to me implies finer and finer tunings and an eventual finished product.
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    Feb 14 2013: Yaron, could you explain what made you link this particular talk to your question? The talk is about the proliferation of false ideas about science that are used to promote a particular agenda or to justify things people want to believe are true. This is indeed, a huge issue in popular culture that interferes with POPULAR understanding about science wherever non-scientists interact. False nutrition claims and claims about what quantum science supposedly supports are prime examples.
    And here is a TED talk about people's attempts to justify what they want to believe with false representations of neuroscience: http://www.ted.com/talks/molly_crockett_beware_neuro_bunk.html

    But I understood your inquiry to be about what science will ACTUALLY be able to explain to us rather than whether popular understandings of science will come to be complete.
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    Feb 14 2013: You asked, " Is there a truth of nature behind a curtain for us to discover? If there is, are humans capable of acieving it?"

    I believe YES and YES, but that does not mean that there will be an end to science history. Quantum Mechanics has made some ASTOUNDING discoveries that force a paradigm shift on all who are well-versed in it. It is the basis for new fields of exploration (centered around study of "mind" as a power).

    There are a growing number of people who have "awakened" into a greater reality. The paradigm shift is already occurring. It's just not yet popular.

    There will always be new fields of exploration. That is pretty much at the core of what QM is suggesting.
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      Feb 14 2013: Thanks, TED Lover. You seem pretty passionate about this topic.

      I'm not sure I understand (and I apologize if I'm misinterpreting your comment)--which is it? Do you believe yes and yes, that we will eventiually have a comprehensive "true" science, or that there will always be new fields of exploration? In my mind, it has to be one or the other.

      Do you mean that just because our theory may be complete one day, that will not halt our curiosity to further explore our universe with that theory? This would imply that discoveries don't always have to force a revision of theory.
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        Feb 14 2013: I understand your confusion. My worldview is different from most. I believe in the many worlds theory of reality. All realities exist in their potential right now. Obviously, some are more probable than others relative to my location and trajectory.

        Using specific techniques, I use the potential energy that exists as the dissonance between what I have and what I want to propel me toward my desired location (the now-potential dimension - where what I want is manifest physically. (Most who do this say simply that they create their own reality).

        Once this, that works extremely well for me, is the proven explanation for WHAT a human is and what reality looks like (and there is already abundant evidence supporting a multiverse of some sort), then the core of science is already laid out. The only thing left will be questions (that are always answered, by the way).

        Some will ponder questions about interstellar travel. Others - how to create a perfect food source that does not involve slaughter. Still others will probe the depths of self. And others will seek to apply mind-power to controlling weather. (Etc.)

        Therefore, How reality works is a question that will have been answered. The rest is simply using that knowledge to explore the wonders of reality. That part is continual.
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          Feb 14 2013: Interesting. I've never met such a strong supporter of Everett.

          I like what you pointed out about knowledge not necessarily stopping human exploration. I've been thinking a lot about it since this conversation started (cf. my last response to you). Do discoveries always demand a revision of theory? Otherwise they don't really sound like discoveries, but rather observing things we already know to be true. I don't know. I would like to believe though, as I mentioned in my response to Bob Stiglitz, that human curiosity and drive to understand and probe the world is endless, even if we get to a point when we have a comprehensive science.

          Back to the many worlds--I think your theory makes sense to me, but I wonder if it's a useful one. What good are solutions to problems if they were solved in some other offshoot of a universe I once belonged to? The many-worlds interpretation of QM is nice, but it just doesn't satisfy a pragmatist like me.

          Thanks for your valuable input.
  • Feb 14 2013: At some point there has to be a law of diminishing returns, i.e. the energy needed to discover/re-arrange/break apart chunks of the universe becomes too much of a barrier. That barrier is pretty far away from being reached by us in the 21st century. Unless there's some miracle fudge factor inherent in reality that gives us god like powers.
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      Feb 14 2013: Thank for the comment, Bob.

      Very interesting. It sounds like you don't necessarily believe in an (attainable, at least) "scientific truth" that will end the quest to refine our science, but rather that humans will become satisfied with what we know, and won't feel the need to extend our knowledge. Meaning, we will get to a point where our science does enough for us and practically there won't be a need for more discovery--even if there are still things we don't understand! That's quite a unique view.

      I've always wanted to believe that human curiosity and our drive to understand and probe the world is endless. You seem to be saying that it will run out and we will be complacent with how well we understand things. I guess time will tell.
      • Feb 14 2013: It's not that I don't believe in attainable scientific truth, it's simply that what we think of as 'the universe' (i.e. what we have access to) may not even be a fraction of what possibly exists. Also when we say 'truth' we're talking human conceptualization of truth, real truth does not need expression in human terms. It just is. Consider all the other life forms that have to find food, they too have access to 'scientific truth' but not expressed in human ways.

        Imagine being on the outside of an onion, you're on the first layer, but there are many layers you can't access from where you are.

        We tend to associate 'scientific truth' with 'what we have access to environmentally'. We can speculate that perhaps there may be environments we can't reach from our limited space-time dimension we exist in. Now I know that sounds a bit 'mystical' and I don't mean to be, I'm just trying to say that we tend to want to believe everything encompassing the whole of existence is 'accessible' to us, this may not be the case.
  • Feb 14 2013: Of course, one could be talking about the end of man - Then who would care?