Absolute Certainty Will Always Elude Us

There is much that science doesn't understand, many mysteries still to be resolved. In a Universe tens of billions of light years across and some ten or fifteen billion years old, this may be the case forever. We are constantly stumbling on surprises. Yet some New Age and religious writers assert that scientists believe that 'what they find is all there is'. Scientists may reject mystic revelations for which there is no evidence except somebody's say-so, but they hardly believe their knowledge of Nature to be complete.

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It's just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it's like democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses of action.

The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don't conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which best fit the facts. It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous sceptical scrutiny of everything - new ideas and established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.

One of the reasons for its success is that science has built-in, error-correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.

Every time a scientific paper presents a bit of data, it's accompanied by an error bar - a quiet but insistent reminder that no knowledge is complete or perfect. It's a calibration of how much we trust what we think we know. If the error bars are small, the accuracy of our empirical knowledge is high; if the error bars are large, then so is the uncertainty in our knowledge. Except in pure mathematics nothing is known for certain (although much is certainly false).

Moreover, scientists are usually careful to characterize the veridical status of their attempts to understand the world - ranging from conjectures and hypotheses, which are highly tentative, all the way up to laws of Nature which are repeatedly and systematically confirmed through many interrogations of how the world works. But even laws of Nature are not absolutely certain. There may be new circumstances never before examined - inside black holes, say, or within the electron, or close to the speed of light - where even our vaunted laws of Nature break down and, however valid they may be in ordinary circumstances, need correction.

Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science - by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans - teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.


Science has a built-in error-detection mechanism.

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 The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Sagan , Carl and Druyan , Ann (1997-02-25), The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Ballantine Books, Retrieved on 2011-05-04
Folksonomies: science empiricism rationalism


01 JAN 2010

 Scientific Virtues

Memes that define the virtues of science and behaviors that we should emulate.