Forget Certainty. Ask a Better Question.
You need questions, forget about the answers - Over The Rhine - "Nobody Number One"
The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Oliver Burkeman, IF13
Writing in The New Republic, one theoretical physicist wants you to know that certainty rarely delivers insight.
No great idea is developed in complete isolation, while many other truly bad ideas are immune to every attempt at reason. Carlo Rovelli, Science Is Not About Certainty:
"Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking at the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain. In fact, not only is it not certain, but it’s the lack of certainty that grounds it. Scientific ideas are credible not because they are sure but because they’re the ones that have survived all the possible past critiques, and they’re the most credible because they were put on the table for everybody’s criticism...."
"Should a scientist think about philosophy or not? It’s the fashion today to discard philosophy, to say now that we have science, we don’t need philosophy. I find this attitude naïve, for two reasons. One is historical. Just look back. Heisenberg would have never done quantum mechanics without being full of philosophy. Einstein would have never done relativity without having read all the philosophers and having a head full of philosophy. Galileo would never have done what he did without having a head full of Plato. Newton thought of himself as a philosopher and started by discussing this with Descartes and had strong philosophical ideas.
"Even Maxwell, Boltzmann—all the major steps of science in the past were done by people who were very aware of methodological, fundamental, even metaphysical questions being posed....
"There is narrow-mindedness, if I may say so, in many of my colleagues who don’t want to learn what’s being said in the philosophy of science. There is also a narrow-mindedness in a lot of areas of philosophy and the humanities, whose proponents don’t want to learn about science which is even more narrow-minded. Restricting our vision of reality today to just the core content of science or the core content of the humanities is being blind to the complexity of reality, which we can grasp from a number of points of view. The two points of view can teach each other and, I believe, enlarge each other."
Rovelli is careful to point out that science is not about uncovering the data to support hypothesis. If that were true, one might be obliged to plow through a forever data set in an effort to find the facts that would support any proposed theory. And the science would still not be certain, but for an entirely different reason. There is today a never ending stream of new information to consider, and the mind, primarily interested in a world the makes sense rather than the world as it is, can only absorb so much.
Rovelli argues, as he does in the quotes above, that science moves ahead because the experimenter, rather, thinks anew about the question being asked. What assumptions are baked into the question? What predicates, what ends does she have in mind? In order to bring clarity to the question, are there parts of it that can be safely dropped?
We are metaphorical machines, always thinking of one thing in terms of another, which is one reason the IdeaFestival puts so much effort into recruiting a wide range of presenters. Without a head full of different ideas, the methodological, fundamental and metaphysical questions, as Rovelli points out, never get asked. As it turns out, bad metaphors do not just make for lousy science. They make for a lousy party.
I hope to see you at IdeaFestival 2014!
Image of Oliver Burkeman by Amber Sigman