Posts Tagged ‘Limits of knowledge’

The Limits of Knowledge, Part IV: Too Clever for Its Own Good

(Last in a series; see Part I, Part II, and Part III)

“Clever Hans” was a mathematician who lived a century ago. He was also a horse, a genius horse who could add, subtract, multiply, and even calculate dates, giving the answer by tapping his hoof.

But it was discovered in 1907 that Clever Hans was in fact no better at arithmetic than any other horse.  Has was just reading subtle, unconscious cues from his owner,  tapping until he reached the expected answer.


Is science real? Is it objective knowledge of a world independent of us? Or is it just a cultural invention, an arbitrary game, something we project onto the world, with scientists tapping out results until, like Clever Hans, we get the result we unconsciously want?

Some postmodernists think the latter is true, and point to experiments swayed by unexamined assumptions, including the “Clever Hans” effect in animal intelligence experiments.   They then conclude that all science is equally rigged.

The critiques have some validity, but the examples are heavily weighted towards the sociological and anthropological sciences; that is, we easily fool ourselves concerning issues that touch upon us as humans.

But on the other end of the spectrum the story is different.  Out among the cold reaches of the galaxies and nestled in the hearts of atoms, we have found disturbing truths so contrary to human experience that they can’t be the result of some Very Clever Hans, trying to please our subconscious prejudices. Read the rest of this entry »

The Limits of Knowledge, Part III: Big Surprises in Little Packages

(Part of a continuing series: part I and part II)

I love tales of serendipitous scientific discovery. A spot of mold in a Petri dish leads to penicillin, a spill on the stovetop becomes vulcanized rubber. The true hero is penetrating curiosity: instead of dumping a ruined experiment in the trash, the keen-eyed scientist frowns and wonders: what does this mean?

Most stories of serendipity occur among test tubes and Bunsen burners, but today computers allow numerical experiments and computational “accidents.” And one of the most paradigm-shattering accidents of the twentieth century involved neither dawdling clocks moving at the speed of light, nor slippery electrons dancing around an atom, but humble calculations of the weather.

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The Limits of Knowledge, Part II: Precise Uncertainty

(Second in a series on the limits of knowledge; see the first post here.)

Of all branches of modern science, quantum mechanics is most seen as magic–either a nihilistic, quasi-Voldemortesque dark magic that needs to be overthrown, or else a wonderful wand that can be waved to justify anything, and I mean anything.

To be sure, Einstein’s relativity disquiets many people.  Without trustworthy, absolute clocks, who can boast about trains running on time?

But quantum mechanics is an order of magnitude stranger. The quantum world is fundamentally uncertain and fuzzy, with slippery wavefunctions leaping from one state to another. Even Einstein himself, who helped to father the field, hated it.

As I’ve written in an earlier post, many SF authors choose either to rebel and literally write quantum mechanics out of the equation, or to use quantum mechanics as a convenient justification for neato pseudo-scientific wish-fulfillment.

All of this is because of fundamental misunderstandings about quantum mechanics. Read the rest of this entry »

The Limits of Knowledge, Part I: Point of View

Science will not do your homework for you.

Some questions can be answered by science:  “What happens when I add an acid to a base?” and “What happens if I stick this fork into a wall socket.” Others, such as “Does God exist, and if so, why is He not running the Universe to my liking?” and “What is good? What is evil? Does this make me look fat?” can not.

In the ancient world, a business card reading “philosopher” gave one license to inquire into everything, and I mean everything. Aristotle (the Philosopher) wrote on topics ranging from ethics to politics to zoology to cosmology. For any question he had an answer.

But job descriptions change. Part of the evolution of natural philosophy, under nascent scientists such as Francis Bacon and Galileo, was to drop some questions, for example teleology (“for what purpose”), and  focus solely on reproducible, material observations.

Science is about limitations, but limitation is the source of the power of science. Indeed, the history of the physical and mathematical sciences in the twentieth century includes not only discovering the vastness of the cosmos and the infinitesimal secrets of the atom, but also making shocking discoveries what we cannot know.

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