I aspire to one day be a scientist (specifically an astrophysicist) and I have been reading up on many novels (like those of Asimov) which look into the development of humanity. I know that our species has an obsession with progress (especially of the scientific sort), as do I. In contrast, I have been surrounded by many religious communities, and this has led me to think that science may be leading us on the wrong foot.

Some may say that our theories are derived from observations; theories involving gravitation have arisen from observations; from the simple (a pencil falling) to the relatively complex (gravitational lensing). Powers of deduction have also ruled out theories that have been viewed as untrue. Yet one could also say that observations have deluded us (one example is the geocentric model; as a species we observed the planets orbiting around us in strange, roughly circular patterns, though this effect was actually caused by the rotation of the Earth) and that reality itself could be misleading or incomprehensible.

Scientists hope to one day (and indeed, already have to some extent) create a unification theory which makes all sciences that have survived philosophical scrutiny compatible. Yet the way in which our minds operate can mislead or flummox us.

Judging by the tendency to believe evidence, the way this evidence is spread and interpreted and the manner in which science operates, are we being led to believe in a lie or are we constantly zeroing in on the truth? Or is there a stranger situation in which humanity operates inside; an ever-changing river of spawning and dying truths caused by chaos and entropy?

  • Science is about describing the world that we perceive and establishing predictive models. So far it has been pretty successful at that for our purposes. In that sense, I don't think it can be misleading. Science has no ambition to tell the Truth. – Yves Daoust Jun 25 '14 at 17:58

The universe looks very unlike what one would expect from "an ever-changing river of spawning and dying truths caused by chaos and entropy".

So, no, your fears are mostly unfounded. You can check how far off scientific theories are by seeing how well they predict various things. We've got falling bodies nailed. Superconductivity is iffy. With human consciousness we know we don't know anywhere near enough to make a model. Etc.. You can tell we're not deluded because, for instance we can build computers. What an absurdly unintuitive thing to do! And it works.

At the corners, there are niggling questions about whether a unified theory of everything is really possible, or whether Descartes' Evil Demon might be true ("are we living in a simulation?"). But the core of our experience with the universe is that it is regular and comprehensible, and it is in the nature of irregularity and incomprehensibility that you can't be fooled about it.

  • I see... You're referring to the scientific method of testing. But would a scientific unification theory be valid (being that there is a multitude of incompatible theories in existence)? – Graviton Jun 25 '14 at 7:23
  • @DeathHammer000 - The unification is judged the same way as anything else: does it explain things at least as well and simply as what we've already got? If no, it's out. If yes, then it is already valid, isn't it? Could there be such a theory? Sure, there's nothing we know of that prevents it. – Rex Kerr Jun 25 '14 at 14:26

You say that reality could be incomprehensible. This is a bad explanation in at least three ways. First, suppose it was true. You say that we were deluded by the rotation of the Earth into thinking that the geocentric model was true. So this means we have understood something about the world and so that it is partly comprehensible. But if some other part of the world is incomprehensible then your claim is false. Where the incomprehensible part interacts with the comprehensible part we won't understand what's going on, so that means we can't really understand the supposedly comprehensible part of the world.

Second, it contradicts a lot of our knowledge about physics. The laws of physics seem to imply that it is possible to build a universal computer that can simulate any finite physical system: http://www.daviddeutsch.org.uk/wp-content/ItFromQubit.pdf.

So if we can simulate any physical system why would we be unable to understand the world?

Third, we can only create knowledge by finding mistakes in our current ideas and correcting them piecemeal. You notice a problem with your current ideas, propose solutions, criticise the solutions until only one is left and then find a new problem. Experiments are useful only as criticism. Ideas can't be derived from experiment any more than from any other set of premises. Rather, the idea is that you work out how the consequences of one theory differ from those of another. Then you conjecture ideas about experimental setups that would enable you to see the relevant consequences and criticise them. Once you have a setup that works about as well as you can make it work you use it to do the test. If the results are compatible with one theory and not the others then you may have successfully refuted some false ideas. Sometimes a purported successful experimental test will be successfully criticised because a test is a conjecture about something that happened and that conjecture may be wrong, so experiments don't prove anything. Since our knowledge is bound to be riddled with flaws it is not surprising that our knowledge had flaws in the past and that is not something to be alarmed about.

Since our knowledge is riddled with problems stopping the growth of knowledge would leave us saddled with problems that would kill us. It would also involve destroying a lot of knowledge about how to live with other people since doing so involves solving problems. We would get worse off, not live in contentment or anything like that.

See "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch for more arguments relevant to these issues.

  • Yes, but in reply to your third point, what if no mistakes can be found (the flaws in certain theories cannot be exposed - even by the countless schools and methods of thought scrutiny - though they are still there)? – Graviton Jun 25 '14 at 7:26
  • There are two possible interpretations of your comments. First, "cannot" means discovering the mistake is forbidden by the laws of physics. In the absence of a specific explanation it is difficult to judge how this could be true. Second, "cannot" means people happen not to have thought of a problem. You haven't given any explanation for how this could happen. And it wouldn't happen. At any particular time we only have access to finite resources, which means there are some things we can't do and that's a problem. – alanf Jun 25 '14 at 9:08

Maybe, but there are no better alternatives.

1) We could not strive to understand world around us.

2) We could instead of observing what is around as and trying to think about it observe what we feel (and say we feel) and think about it.

3) Or we could concentrate what someone long time ago said and to make sure not to get distracted stop thinking at all.

1) leads to nowhere 2) is usefull addition to natural sciences (and we do it), but doing only it will with likely not help us when big change occurs (like large asteroid intersecting with earth) 3) is changing seeking for truth and correcting when we find out we went sideways with locking on one immutable solution with internal and external contradictions (and because of immutability without way how to resolve them)

Why we need to develop? We don't really need to, we need to retain ability to overcome adverse change in enviroment, and it's usefull to proactively increase our potential for doing so.

Why we need that? To survive (as species).

  • But why would we need to do develop more? I don't oppose it, but I feel that our human nature is driving us towards development (our curious nature has been thought to have come from certain genes in our genome). – Graviton Jun 23 '14 at 16:02
  • -reply to edit- But why would we need to survive as a species? Is it a "just is" argument, therefore one that is determined by the behaviour that we have evolved with? – Graviton Jun 25 '14 at 7:17

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