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author: Farzad Mahootian

Does Science Know Itself?

The importance of metaphor’s role in poetry, science and religion cannot be overestimated. Metaphor transforms seeing into “seeing as” and, as Thomas Kuhn and others have demonstrated, this is precisely how students learn to be scientists: perceptual associations are adjusted and cultivated to form new habits of observation and thought. Metaphor and myth have guided perception and thought in crucial periods of scientific history as well; a well-known example is Isaac Newton’s lifelong commitment to alchemical study and experimentation.

At critical moments in history, scientists become acutely aware of the inadequacy of literal language to express new modes of conceptual apprehension and new integrations of theory and experiment. Niels Bohr pointed out that, “when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry… [we are] not so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.” This kind of thinking dawns on scientists in the throes of intellectual crisis and rapid scientific change. But, alas, it seems that no sooner does the new metaphor effect such transitions than it is quickly literalized. And as dusk approaches, dogmatic slumbers are not far behind.

If we abstract from the crush and mangle of the details involved in any given scientific discovery (or invention), we may see the history of science as a process of gradual self-consciousness: the story of science gradually coming to understand itself in the act of trying to understand the world. There were dramatic opportunities for such self-reflexivity at various points in the past century but it seems that science has shrugged these off without rising to the occasion with an attitude of sustained self-examination. More often than not we see science characterized by something like Einstein’s aspiration to “read God’s mind,” or Newton’s quest for “the absolute principles” of nature – such mythological visions have danced in the heads of scientists for centuries. It seems that materialists, idealists, atheists and theists alike take comfort in such obvious displays self-aggrandizement.

A more measured, and certainly less popular, approach is taken by the likes of Bohr. Unlike Einstein, who saw the paradoxes of quantum physics as a sign of their radical inadequacy, Bohr saw these as the feedback of physics on physics. He set about modulating this feedback through a unique philosophy of physics based on the notion of complementarity. To Einstein this was not scientific knowledge and more like a metaphysical sleight of hand that merely saved the appearances. But for Bohr, and nearly every physicist since the mid 1930s, complementarity became the official understanding of quantum physics. Bohr noted that there is a limit on scientific knowledge. We cannot know everything about a system at a given instant in time: our knowledge of one set of canonical variables precludes the very possibility of knowing the mutually exclusive, or complementary, set of variables at that same instant. Physical knowledge is limited by the experimental pursuit of physical knowledge. This situation applies beyond physics to all epistemic endeavors in which the process of knowing is constitutive of the object of knowledge. Laplace’s fantasies of scientific omniscience are thereby frustrated and absolute determinism is an absolutely lost cause.

Objectivity requires that science include itself in its description of nature. Is this practical? I think that it would require a poetical mindset that is at home in theatre, wherein players knowingly use exaggeration for the sake of clarity without losing themselves in the tale. Historically, science has not been so artful in this respect: between its brief moments of self-reflexive awareness and explicitly poetic redescription of the world, science demands dogmatic adherence. It pretends to be pure and demythologized while steeping its students in mythic thinking. The project of demythologization unwittingly carries the seeds of remythologization in its pockets as it merrily fails to achieve its impossible dream.

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