Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist specializing in cosmology, nonlinear physics, and astrobiology, has a new book out, reviewed yesterday on NPR. I have not yet read the book but it sounds interesting. The central metaphor is that of an island, which represents human knowledge. He writes, “As the island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance—the boundary between the known and the unknown.” Growing from this metaphor, Gleiser considers the problems with ultimate theories of everything as scientific questions, arguing that, “science only covers part of the island, … there are many ways of knowing that can and should feed on one another.” In the end, a large part of the argument is that “Not all questions have answers” that can be predicted, observed and measured as per scientific method. Along these lines, he notes things like, “The superstring landscape, the existence of a graviton, the essential indeterminacy of quantum processes, the origin of the universe, [and] final knowledge of the number of forces of Nature.”
Now, I have to be honest—while I have heard of superstring theory and quantum processes, my training is about as far from physics as possible. The closest I get to academic science is considering nineteenth-century British theological responses to Victorian science, all of which is largely antiquated or so well established that it hardly seems like anything other than common sense. For this reason, I’m going to take the physicist at his word when he tells me that it is impossible to “frame and measure” questions about the superstring landscape. However, I am fascinated by the comments in response to the review and what they suggest about attitudes toward science and scientists.
Hiding behind the anonymity of gavitars, (making it impossible for me to check up on their credentials, which means I am merely judging their contributions based on the comment as written), many commenters appeared deeply offended that Gleiser would suggest the inadequacy of science to answer all questions. Others were frustrated by a growing trend among scientists to disavow “scientism” and limit the possibilities of scientific research.What fascinates me here is the apparent confidence that science can and will answer everything human knowledge might ask (assuming the question is stated properly), while simultaneously challenging and dismissing the very practitioners of science who are expected to establish these answers through science.
Underlying these comments is a desire for science to be the exclusive human epistemology; ceding ground to other ways of knowing is, apparently, anathema. Why this need for science to hold, not just the primary place but the only place in human understanding? It is, I think, because of the profoundly democratic nature of science. Underlying the science popularly understood is the assumption that any person, properly trained (and funded), can carry on scientific research and arrive at knowledge of reality. It depends upon no Divine revelation, as theology does, nor do the findings of science change with time and place, as do almost all disciplines in the humanities. Unlike art, it does not find its source in Romantic genius, nor is its value in the eye of the beholder. Science is, at least in theory, for everyone.
More importantly in this understanding, science is the human study of forces, of laws of nature, of impersonal reality. As knowledge of reality generated by humans, it is a body of knowledge that is possessed by humanity (although not by each individual human…as exemplified by my ignorance of theoretical physicals). Science makes us accountable to nothing beyond ourselves, except, of course, reality.
So, why the rush among commenters to dismiss Gleiser’s thesis? Because with his thesis comes the suggestion that other bodies of knowledge might have something to offer human understanding….but these bodies of knowledge come with consequence that often displace the individual, and sometimes humanity as a whole, from the position of power that knowledge—and the ability to acquire knowledge—provide. These other ways of knowing often suggest that we do not have a complete understandingof the reason for our own lives, let alone the whole universe. These other ways of knowing might make us accountable to moralities, communities, and ultimate ends that we may not like. These other ways of knowing, if allowed the same normative truth as science, might challenge and even change our lives.