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Science as Salvation? | The Nation

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Science as Salvation?

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Marcelo Gleiser

Marcelo Gleiser

The Island of Knowledge
The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning.
By Marcelo Gleiser.
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In this polarized atmosphere, offers of a truce in the manner of Bronowski simply inflame mutual mistrust. The recent dust-up in The New Republic began when Pinker extended to the humanities an olive branch of sorts in the name of “consilience” with science. Wieseltier identified it as a cudgel, and in some ways he was right: Pinker began by transubstantiating eighteenth-century philosophers like Hume and Rousseau into scientists manqué, and then added insult to injury by suggesting that the humanities become more like the sciences by adopting a “progressive agenda.” Wieseltier agreed with him that the boundaries between the two cultures were porous, but demanded they be buttressed against science’s imperialistic agenda: “Unified field theories may turn scientists on, but they turn humanists off: it has taken a very long time to establish the epistemological humility, the pluralistic largeness of mind, that those borders represent, and no revolution in any science has the power to repeal it.” (To be fair, the humanities have had their share of unified theories, including Marxism, Freudianism and structuralism. The two cultures are true to human nature in craving essences and totalities; even some postmodernists have been heard to proclaim that there are absolutely no absolutes.)

If such well-intentioned partisans can’t negotiate a cease-fire, perhaps each side needs to conduct an internal audit about what it has in common with its opponent prior to future armistice talks. Philosophers and historians of science have laid the groundwork, but they tend to be humanists and thus easier for hard scientists to dismiss. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, patronized the philosophy of science as providing a “pleasing gloss” on scientific achievements, but little more: “We should not expect it to provide today’s scientists with any useful guidance about how to go about their work or about what they are likely to find.”

This situation is what makes Gleiser’s intervention in the debates so timely and interesting. He started his career in theoretical physics believing in the holy grail of his field, a final theory unifying quantum mechanics with general relativity. In his autobiographical A Tear at the Edge of Creation (2010), he confessed that he had been attracted to science initially by his own psychological need for order in an apparently meaningless universe. The death of his mother when he was 6 led him to search for sources of transcendence, from religion to fantasy fiction. He finally became a convert to the secular “magic” of physics as a teenager: “Science was a rational connection to a reality beyond our senses. There was a bridge to the mysterious, and it did not have to cross over supernatural lands. This was the greatest realization of my life.”

Gleiser has never lost his sense of wonder about existence or about the importance of science in conveying it. But his own experiences as a professional have led him to abandon the dream of attaining any final theory—in fact, he views the goal itself as a form of “intellectual vanity” and “monotheistic science.” Part of his disillusion has to do with the failure to find possible tests or empirical evidence for the extravagant claims of superstring theory, rendering it closer to metaphysics than physics. Gleiser also immersed himself in the history of science and was reminded that Western science has dreamed of discovering ultimate truth since the discipline’s inception. This faith has never been substantiated at the empirical level, situating it alongside mythic and religious yearnings to attain “oneness.” “There are faith-based myths running deep in science’s canon,” he maintains. “Scientists, even the great ones, may confuse their expectations of reality with reality itself.”

None of these heartfelt observations would surprise philosophers of science; Mary Midgley’s wonderful Science as Salvation (1992)—not included in Gleiser’s bibliography—makes the same points. But Gleiser speaks as a scientist and is thus more likely to be heard by his peers—provided he doesn’t scare them off with his anti-realist stance. He can sound positively postmodern when he defines science as “a human construction, a narrative we create to make sense of the world around us.” But if he opposes the naïve realist belief that science accesses a mind-independent reality, he doesn’t make the equally naïve claim that science is merely a social construction. It does attain verifiable knowledge of reality, its evolving instruments yielding increasingly precise data: but the resultant explanations are inevitably partial and always subject to change. There are no final answers, for new knowledge yields new mysteries to be solved. Science is a limited, interpretive practice and will only be “humanized” if it adopts the epistemological humility that Wieseltier claimed was the purview of the humanities.

These conclusions, and some of the same historical examples, reappear in Gleiser’s The Island of Knowledge. In this work, he underscores the many limits, even “insurmountable barriers,” to scientific knowledge. He likens science to an island situated within a wider sea of the unknown: “As the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance.” In thirty-two brief chapters, he provides a stimulating overview of Western science’s shifting interpretations of reality from classical Greece to the present, including informative discussions of atomism, alchemy, classical physics, quantum mechanics, quantum entanglement, the Big Bang, the multiverse, superstring theory, mathematics, information theory, computers and consciousness.

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Gleiser is a brilliant expositor of difficult concepts, and his raw enthusiasm is transporting. He is equally fervent about the uncertainties of science, having once been a believer in its unalloyed truth: “I find myself in the difficult role of being a romantic having to kill the dreams of other romantics.” However, as with many disillusioned votaries of absolutist creeds, his new stance can be as fundamentalist as the one he rejects. As he argued in his previous book—and continues to argue in this one—science’s “essential limitations” include the imprecision of its instruments and the cultural contingency of its concepts. In The Island of Knowledge, he eagerly gathers other objections to any final theory as kindling for a bonfire of the vanities. He contends that nature itself posits absolute limits to what we can know empirically, such as the initial conditions that generated the Big Bang or the existence of multiple universes implied by current theories of cosmic inflation. In addition, the quantum world is impervious to deterministic explanations. And mathematics is likely not mind-independent but rather a human invention—one whose formal structures cannot be both consistent and complete.

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These assertions may be valid—only time will tell, if that—but Gleiser’s temperamental absolutism sometimes subverts his pragmatic faith in an unfinished universe. He insists that “there are aspects of reality that are permanently beyond our reach,” and also that “we can never know for certain…. We should build solid arguments based on current scientific knowledge but keep our minds open for surprises.” He notes that some mysteries will always remain mysteries—“there is an essential difference between ‘we don’t know’ and ‘we can’t know’”—but also admits that “‘Never’ is a hard word to use in science.” He inadvertently becomes his own best example of how hard it is to practice epistemological humility even when one is committed to it. Attaining that outlook, rather than certainty, is the true noble dream.

It is this lesson, above all, that makes Gleiser’s intervention in the “two cultures” debate so valuable. As scientists, both he and Bronowski have established underlying unities: not in the forces of nature, but in the humanities and the sciences. Bronowski stressed their common reliance on imagination, which subtends “numbers and pictures, the lever and The Iliad, the shapes of atoms and the great plays and the Socratic dialogues.” Gleiser emphasizes science’s inherent limitations, which make it “more beautiful and powerful, not less.” Despite its commitment to establishing verifiable knowledge of reality, science remains an interpretive and contingent practice—indeed, a humanistic enterprise. In the “two cultures” debate, one hopes that Gleiser’s words are among the last, especially his claim that science aligns “with the rest of the human creative output—impressive, multifaceted, and imperfect as we are.”n

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