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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 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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      J D

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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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