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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 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.

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