TED Conversations

Yaron Tokayer

This conversation is closed.

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?


Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    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"
    • thumb
      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?
      • thumb
        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.
        • thumb
          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.
      • thumb
        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.
        • thumb
          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.
      • thumb
        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.
        • thumb
          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.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.