Science & Ambiguity

Photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the lower half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the top.
The Church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the Church. ~ Ferdinand Magellan

Those who proclaim that they positively know the truth merely reveal their ignorance. The universe is unimaginably large and our brains are infinitesimally tiny. Metaphysicians should be especially humble about drawing definitive conclusions about perplexing topics. Yet science should not be dismissed; it has given us the little knowledge we possess. To abandon it would set the human species back a thousand years. As Einstein said, “All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”

So as we swing on a pendulum between belief and doubt, between certainty and skepticism, we should not lose faith. “Dare to know,” Kant said, was the motto of the Enlightenment. With arduous scientific searching, answers will continue to be forthcoming. In the meantime, we should not despair. Let that great 20th-century scientist Richard Feynman have the last word today. 

I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go on to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t have to … I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.

Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

3 thoughts on “Science & Ambiguity

  1. I know the truth about a very few things, am unsure about many things, and don’t nearly know enough, or anything, about a darn whole lot of things.

    Thank you for your post, Dr. Messerly.

    In regard to what I think is true, these things are true enough: I have witnessed them for myself over and over through hard earned experience. Sure, this is not enough: it is anecdotal, but just because it is, it doesn’t automatically means it is completely unreliable. That I am probably not mistaken, is indicated to me by the fact that I have actually learned these ‘true enough’ things from better minds than mine.

    Can I be absolutely certain? It depends about what is being discussed of being true or not true. To me, there is such a thing as ‘true enough’ and ‘sufficiently true’. Am I absolutely certain that there’s no gods? I am certain enough. The reasons why would warrant well made arguments: these have been made before, by far more able people than me, for example by Russell and his, I think, pretty devastating argument about the flying teapot.

    I am certain enough that there’s no gods. I think that the problem is not claiming to know the truth about something, which is not impossible for many things, but to simply keep an open mind. There’s no need to deny your hard earned knowledge. You don’t know everything, but you know more than most people ever will.

    Interestingly, I have started to associate excessive humility by people who cared to learn (any subjects, not philosophy specifically), with a type of greed, i.e. looking for absolute perfection. It’s never good enough.

    Perhaps, it would be better to be able to say: ‘What I know is good enough and sufficient. Doing more than that would be extremely difficult or impossible.”.

    Sure, it is of vital importance to keep an open mind, and to be ready to change your mind when and if new information is learned, if it even exists, that would warrant to do away with what was thought before.

    Until then, I say it’s good enough :). And of course, we would have to be very specific in regard to what exactly we are speaking of. ‘Truth’ is a bit too general a concept. Why taking this as an example that fits all cases? I stick with the idea in my initial sentence.

    In the end, I think ‘truth’ is just an ideal, which is why it can never be accomplished. I stick with Seneca: ‘Set your sights lower, not higher. For the higher the sights, the more brutal will be the failure.’.

    Philosophers are restless souls. It’s their nature to aim high. But I think that good enough, is good enough :). (Actually I learned this idea from Alain De Botton, i.e. something he wrote somewhere.).

    Of course, I can only speak for myself.

    Best regards,

    PS. and of course, the ‘We aren’t sure why.” said from a scientist, is worth a million times more than: ‘I am sure of X.’, said by the (extremely, extremely common) delusional, (and dumb) people

  2. thanks for sharing your thoughts Luigi. A couple of ideas that come to mind after reading them.

    Carl Sagan said “be open minded but not so open minded that your brains fall out.” (paraphrasing)

    And William James in “The Will To Believe” criticized philosophers for being so worried about avoiding error that they remain agnostic about issues that they should feel pretty strong about. This relates to your good enough.

    And I like De Botton too. A very good thinker.

  3. ha ha, the Sagan quote is quite funny 🙂

    Thanks for your thoughts. I hope to read William James soon enough.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.