Science and Its Limits

The outstanding physics theoretician Max Tegmark of MIT tells the story of how Ernest Rutherford’s 1933 prediction about atomic energy (i.e., that is was “moonshine”)—was refuted before 24 hours had passed when Szilard (the Hungarian genius) realized that a nuclear chain reaction could be set in motion getting around Rutherford’s pessimistic prediction of only a few hours before:

“In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilard told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woes, the shape of things to come…”

(Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb)

This Tegmark/Szilard “refutation” of Rutherford in our times reminds one of MIT’s AI pioneer, Prof. Marvin Minsky’s limitless and perhaps too rosy predictions for AI and human intelligence in the sixties and seventies.

A student pursuing education has to live with the paradox and puzzle that unpredicted surprises and leaps do occur in the world of science and they are astonishing. It is true at the same time, that the realm of science (i.e., “how” questions) cannot address “why” questions. The question “how was I born?” cannot replace “why was I born?”

Both of these questions have possible answers at various levels and are subject to hierarchies.

Steven Jay Gould, the late Harvard biologist, had a felicitous phrase, “separate magisteria” (i.e., separate realms or domains) to describe this gap between the pursuit of personal meaning (human quest) and the pursuit of (tentative) accuracy (scientific quest).

Essay 100: “The View From Nowhere” Problem

The phrase “view from nowhere” comes from the title of a 1986 classic philosophy book by Professor Thomas Nagel. It tries to wrestle with the paradox that the human ability to take a “detached view” (abstract theory, say) is potentially misleading since the person behind the detachment is a real person embodied and somewhere.

A theoretician like Richard Feynman (the great physicist) has a nervous system, a brain, a body and uses his hand to write equations on the blackboard. One is trained to focus on the equations since that’s the physics. The person, the physicist is a detail, a distraction, an irrelevance. However this can’t be true since the physicistRichard Feynman in this example—represents a human way of looking at things, at a time and place, no matter how heterodox or offbeat the view.

The human “style” of “being-in-the-world” comes into the equations and to the very idea of equating.

Human beings have the unique ability to view the world in a detached way: We can think about the world in terms that transcend our own experience or interest, and consider the world from a vantage point that is, in Nagel’s words, “nowhere in particular.” At the same time, each of us is a particular person in a particular place, each with his own “personal” view of the world, a view that we can recognize as just one aspect of the whole. How do we reconcile these two standpoints—intellectually, morally, and practically?

To what extent are they irreconcilable and to what extent can they be integrated? Thomas Nagel’s ambitious and lively book tackles this fundamental issue, arguing that our divided nature is the root of a whole range of philosophical problems, touching, as it does, every aspect of human life. He deals with its manifestations in such fields of philosophy as: the mind-body problem, personal identity, knowledge and skepticism, thought and reality, free will, ethics, the relation between moral and other values, the meaning of life, and death.

Excessive objectification has been a malady of recent analytic philosophy, claims Nagel, it has led to implausible forms of reductionism in the philosophy of mind and elsewhere.

The solution is not to inhibit the objectifying impulse, but to insist that it learn to live alongside the internal perspectives that cannot be either discarded or objectified. Reconciliation between the two standpoints, in the end, is not always possible.

Table of Contents for The View from Nowhere book:

I. Introduction
II. Mind
III. Mind and Body
IV. The Objective Self
V. Knowledge
VI. Thought and Reality
VII. Freedom
VIII. Value
IX. Ethics
X. Living Right and Living Well
XI. Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life