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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: 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.

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