Is there a limit to scientific knowledge?

“What we see is not nature itself, but nature presented to our method of observation”, wrote German physicist Werner Heisenberg who first realized the uncertainty inherent in quantum physics. For those who see in science a direct path to the truth of the world, this quote may be unexpected or may be even disappointing. It turns out, Heisenberg believed that our scientific theories are dependent on us as observers? Does this mean that the so-called scientific truth no more than a big illusion?

You can quickly to mind: why did the planes fly and the antibiotics are working? Why are we able to create machines that process information with such amazing efficiency? Of course, these inventions and many others based on the laws of nature that operate independently of us. In the universe there is order and science is gradually revealing.

Yes, it is indeed: in the universe there is order, and the task of science is to find his schemes and patterns, from quarks and mammals to entire galaxies, to determine their General laws. We eliminate unnecessary complexity and focus on the essence, on the basic properties of the studied system. Then create a descriptive narrative of the system’s behavior, which, in the best cases, is also easily predictable.

In the heat of research is often overlooked that the methodology of science requires interaction with the studied system. We observe their behavior, measure its properties, create mathematical or conceptual models in order to better understand it. For this we need tools that go beyond our sensitive range: to explore the smallest, the fastest, the most distant and almost unreachable as the depths of our brain, or the Earth’s core. We observe is not nature itself, but nature reflected in the data that we collect through our machines. In turn, the scientific view of the world depends on the information that we can obtain with our tools. And if we assume that our tools are limited, our view of the world will definitely be short-sighted. We can glimpse the nature of things only up to a point, and our ever-changing view of the world reflects a fundamental limitation of how we perceive reality.

Suffice it to recall what was biology before the advent of microscopes or sequencing of genes and what was astronomy before the telescope was invented, the physics of the particles before the collision of the atoms in the colliders and the advent of fast electronics. Now, as in the 17th century, the theory that we create, and our view of the world change with the change of our research tools. This trend is a hallmark of science.

Sometimes people make this statement about the limitations of scientific knowledge as defeatist. “If we can’t find the essence of things, why try?”. But this is the wrong approach. There is nothing defeatist in understanding the limitations of the scientific approach to knowledge. Science is our best methodology for creating consensus about the principles of nature. Changing only the sense of scientific triumphalism — the belief that no issue will remain beyond scientific understanding.

In science will definitely be the unknown that we fail to uncover, taking the existing laws of nature. For example, multiple universes: the assumption that our universe is just one of the many others, each with its own set of laws of nature. Other universes are beyond our causal horizon, we will never get a sign from them and send your. Any evidence of their existence are indirect: for example, a mark in the microwave background of space remaining after a collision with a neighboring universe.

Other examples of fundamentally unknowable can be described by three questions about the origin of: the Universe, life and mind. Scientific understanding of the origin of the Universe will be incomplete, because they rely on a conceptual framework: the conservation of energy, relativity, quantum physics, and others. Why the universe operates according to these laws and not others?

Similarly, if we can’t prove that there is only one of several biochemical pathways, creating the living from the nonliving, we will not be able to see exactly how life first appeared on Earth. In the case of consciousness the problem lies in the leap from the physical to the subjective — for example, from the activation of neurons in the pain or red. Perhaps some kind of rudimentary consciousness might arise in a sufficiently complex machine. But how do we know? How do we define — and not assume — that something has consciousness?

Paradoxically, it is our consciousness endows the world with meaning, even if the semantic pattern is imperfect. Can we fully understand it’s part of what you are? Like the mythical serpent that bites its own tail, we are stuck in a circle that starts and ends with our experience of life in this world. We can’t separate our description of reality from how we experience this reality. This is the playing field on which the game takes place in science, and if we play by the rules, we can see only a fraction of what lies outside this field.

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