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What We Can Never, Ever Know: Does Science Have Limits?

Friday, September 06, 2013 - 11:52 AM

I got two books in the mail that, if they could have, would've poked, scratched and ripped each others' pages out. I don't know if Martin Gardner and Patricia Churchland ever met, but their books show that there are radically, even ferociously, different ways to think about science. Gardner died last year. He was a science writer whose monthly "Mathematical Games" column in Scientific American was wildly popular. Patricia Churchland is a philosopher who teaches at U.C. San Diego.

The issue between them is: How much can we know about the universe?

"I am a mysterian," says Gardner, in his new (posthumously published autobiography) . Mysterians, he writes, believe that some things — how life began, the nature of time, what consciousness is, whether there is free will — are so inherently complex that they will forever elude human understanding. Not only does "no philosopher or scientist living today [have] the foggiest notion" of how mind or time or consciousness work, "we believe" he wrote, "it is the height of hubris" to suppose those things will ever be understood completely.

Forever Unintelligible

Gardner allows that humans have wonderful brains, that we can invent thinking machines, microscopes and any number of intelligence-enhancers, but he says there are still limits, hard limits.

Just as "there is no way to teach calculus to a chimp, or even make it understand the square root of 2," he writes, "surely there are truths as far beyond our grasp as our grasp is beyond that of a cow." He concedes that once upon a time humans were chimp-like and over time developed brains that cracked the "square root of 2" problem — but that doesn't faze him. There are properties of our universe so profoundly complex that no sentient mind, no matter how enhanced, will ever understand them fully.

It's not clear from his book whether this is a scaling problem (that our brains are too small and the universe too, too big) or if the universe has been deeply designed to stay mysterious to its inhabitants. Either way, in his book he insists that some mysteries are permanent.

Gardner was a fine science writer, fearless, imaginative, daring. But he pushes his argument very far. Because some scientific questions are unanswerable, he says, maybe we shouldn't investigate them, that "[t]hese questions are so far above our natural human prowess that to fret about them seems as ridiculous as insisting that a dog understand general relativity."

Ignorance Is Just Ignorance

Patricia Churchland hates this notion. "Ignorance is just ignorance," she says. If you don't know something that doesn't mean you will never know it. In her new book, she writes, "There is something smugly arrogant about thinking, 'If I, with my great and wondrous brain, cannot imagine a solution to explain a phenomenon, then obviously the phenomenon cannot be explained at all. ... What I can and cannot imagine is a psychological fact about me. It is not a deep metaphysical fact about the nature of the universe.' "

For centuries, she says, authority figures have argued that we will never understand germs or earthquakes or atoms or volcanoes — that even to try was to trespass on divine territory. But we trespassed. We asked. We probed. And we learned. People who say we will never fathom the nature of consciousness are just doing what previous authorities did — they are choosing to hide from knowledge; they're cowards.

Yay, Brain

When a friend of hers, another philosophy professor, jumped out of his seat at a conference and yelled, "I hate the brain, I hate the brain!" because all this attention to brain science was taking attention away from philosophical pursuits, she smelled his fear. "Does he worry that neuro-knowledge is forbidden fruit, a Promethean fire, a Pandora's box, ... an evil genie released from a rightly sealed bottle?"

Patricia Churchland calls people like Martin Gardner "anti-enlightenment." She's proud of the human brain, its reasoning ability, its resourcefulness, and given enough time, she suspects, no question is unanswerable, there are no permanent mysteries. In the end (and the end is a long, long time away), we will know it all.

Asking, Asking, Asking

And, then a third book fell into my lap, not from a scientist, but from a poet, Stanley Kunitz. His views on this subject, casually mentioned at the end of a chapter, are my own. He wrote that he finds his life, his being here, deeply mystifying. He loses friends to diseases and doesn't know why. He loves deeply, but doesn't know how. "Can there be any possibility of completely understanding who we are and why we're here and where we're going? These are questions that can never be answered completely," Kunitz says, contradicting Patricia. But then, contradicting Martin, he takes the crucial next step, "But you have to keep on asking ..."

To me, that's the beauty of science: to know that you will never know everything, but you never stop wanting to, that when you learn something, for a second you feel crazy smart, and then stupid all over again as new questions come tumbling in. It's an urge that never dies, a game that never ends. Science is a rough trade, played, I hope, forever — and, sorry Patricia, sorry Martin, that's how I think of it, not limited, not unlimited, just an itch that always needs scratching.

Patricia Churchland's new book is called Touching a Nerve: The Self As Brain. Martin Gardner's upcoming autobiography, to be released next month is Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, The Autobiography of Martin Gardner. I found Stanley Kunitz's thoughts in Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects On A Century In The Garden.


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Comments [8]


Here's a surprise: Robert Krulwich is a sentimental romantic who is in love with the world being a mysterious place. Is there anything wrong with that? Not really. It's just that science will eventually rudely crush his views just as they seem to do (sometimes weekly) on his own radiolab show. So I value Robert Krulwich's views in much the same way one must value Simplicio's input in the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

Sep. 15 2013 10:51 PM

I have just started Churchland's book and am only about one-fifth through so it may be true that she specifically calls out Martin Gardner but somehow, given how the book is going, I doubt it. Nor do I think from what she has said so far that she believes that Everything Can Be Known and the way she's thinking does not lead me to believe that she's going to write this at some point. She's a neurophilosopher so she's arguing against those people who are freaked out by having to incorporate the knowledge coming out of neuroscience into their worldview. It does, after all, change the way we think about ourselves. She does seem to be against those who just don't like to have to consider the possibility that a lot of things that are mysterious are just merely not known at this point.

Sep. 15 2013 02:35 AM
Zigis S from Brooklyn, NY

"Am I really crazy? Its all terribly confusing."

Sep. 12 2013 08:06 PM
Paul Threatt

I am surprised that so many smart people that comprehend human development as a process did not address this question in the context of that process. Okay chimps earlier in the process could not conceive of things we now "know." Is it safe to assume we evolve into a species so advanced that it will be alien to us (homo sapien becomes homo sapien provectus)? The evolutionary evidence suggests it is.
Now "Provectus" is capable of knowledge and cognition beyond our own due to physiological development. So the question of what "we" can know becomes a question of how we define "we." Were "we" once swinging through trees and estatic that "we" learned to use straw to catch termites? Then maybe one day "we" can learn the secrets of the universe. But if "they" use straw to catch termites, then it will be the "next they" that learns the secrets of the universe and leaves "we" humans behind.

Sep. 11 2013 10:33 AM
andrew palley from Denville, NJ

Gardner violates Clarke's First Law ("When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong). Insight is unpredictable--how could anyone bet on not having it?

Sep. 10 2013 08:59 PM
Shecky R from n. carolina

First, Gardner didn't die "last year," but over 3 years ago, and I basically agree with his 'mysterian' view ... as one computer scientist put it: "If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, then we would be so simple that we couldn't" ...there are Godelian limits to human science and knowledge.

Sep. 10 2013 07:46 PM
Caleb from Oakland, CA

I believe that I am closest to Robert's relationship with science. Yet I also think that our sense of how we know things is often too limited. Science, and philosophy, rely on words and calculations in order to feel or define a sense of knowledge. And yet, an agreed upon definitive answer for most things in either field never seems to emerge, the search just continues and I can't think that a definitive answer, (something no one will challenge i.e. gravity) for things as complex as consciousness, the universe, etc will ever be determined. There are other ways of experiencing knowledge outside of words and calculations (meditation), yet since they cannot be translated to words and numbers, there's no way of measuring them or having a transferal of knowledge that is verifiable. Many people will not consider meditation a form of knowledge, yet in my own experience it is able of overcoming what cannot be said in words in numbers. A different type of knowledge exists in transcending the everyday physical, sensory-based experience, yet it's nearly impossible to debate. A brief disclaimer, I came to my relationship with meditation through thinking deeply on scientific ideas and this is why I consider my comment relevant. Thank you for the topic.

Sep. 10 2013 05:07 PM
James A from Washington DC

Though I hesitate to comment on a book I haven't read, it seems that Gardner is talking about some sort of methodological unknowability - things that cannot be known because the process to find them is too complex. Both authors seem to be dwelling exclusively in the realm of facts and simply disagree about the boundaries of human capability.

I might suggest two areas of potential ontological unknowability. The first might be, to borrow from biologist Stepen Jay Gould, the realm of meanings (he would call it a "magisterium"). Because facts cannot imply meanings and cannot dictate a best course of action, questions of meaning are not discoverable in the way that physical properties or histories are.

A second area might be facts about the way that humans interact with the world. For example, basic assumptions of the scientific process are that the world we perceive is a reliable representation of the world as it exists outside of our perception, or that events have causes, or that the same exact set of causes will produce the same event. Those assumptions are not testable by the scientific method - they are external to it.

Both areas seem to be ontologically unknowable - or at least not discoverable by scientific method.

Sep. 10 2013 05:06 PM

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