Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Limits of Our Scientific Knowledge

True wisdom is knowing what you don't know.
As I pointed out in my birthday blog, we have come a long way baby in the last 50 years. Our understanding of the Universe today is far ahead of our mid-20th century ideas.

However, there are limits. And, moreover, there will always be limits. The idea of limitations is hard to accept. But oddly, once we accept these limits we may be able to see much farther.

Let me explain: 

Some ideas about limits are already part of science such as Heisenberg's "Uncertainty Principle" that asserts we can know the position of a particle or its momentum, but not both at the same time. 
...the uncertainty principle is any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle...can be known simultaneously.
And this just scratches the surface. Today with our advanced understanding of the Universe -- the Big Bang and all that -- we now realize how little we know. Our current understanding is based on astronomy in the visible light spectrum -- i.e., ordinary matter, meaning things like us, the Earth, the Solar System and the galaxies -- which makes up only 4% of the Universe. Most of the Universe, that is 96%, is not visible or easily measurable and quite mysterious, such as dark matter and dark energy. Today astronomers have no idea what these are.

So limits are a part of science. But there is still more.
Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down to any natural or 'given' base; and when we cease our attempts to drive our piles into a deeper layer, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that they are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being.
Karl Raimund Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery
I believe that all our ideas, mathematical formulas and even our perceptions are limited and limited by our humanity. Everything we understand and all our knowledge  is based on concepts thought up by humans.  For example, humans invented the notions of gravity, acceleration and space-time. And while these ideas are useful, they may only be scratching the surface of *REALITY*.

Could Even Our Perceptions Be Limited?

In a famous example, the Ames trapezoid when rotated continuously in a circle is seen as a rectangle that oscillates back and forth by Westerners, but not by those in other cultures. It appears that Westerners are so used to seeing a trapezoid as a perspective drawing of a rectangle, they cannot see a real trapezoid when it is presented to them. I challenge you to see the following YouTube video as a rotating trapezoid.

It is as though our human understanding is and will always be surrounded by a thin film. Or to use another metaphor, human investigators will always be wearing gloves. We can grasp many objects with these gloves and see many marvelous things  through this film. but we will never be able to hold these things in our bare hands or see them directly without the film being in the way.  

Gravity is a good example: We know how gravity operates, but we do not know what it is -- yet it holds the entire Universe together and without it there would be no Earth or Solar System or Universe. Newton was able to describe this force precisely so  that we can now predict the tides and send rockets to the moon. Einstein was able to add significantly to these ideas with the concept of space-time. Yet we still have no idea of the fundamental nature of gravity. See the USA NASA article about gravity.

How does all of this relate to time, which is the subject of this blog? As I have said, we are surrounded by time, submerged in time -- there is nothing that exists independent or apart from time. 

When Newton had his great revelation about gravity -- when he watched an apple fall and then looked at the moon orbiting the Earth -- he was able to move his imaginary perspective out into space and see that these two seemingly different forces were the same -- both were a result of gravity. 

Yet when considering time, we cannot move our point of view out beyond time -- time is always there.

Anthropologists know that each person's culture will always be part of their point of view. There is no getting around this -- even trained scientists may not realize their own cultural bias. Yet this awareness -- that when a culture is studied the observations by an outside anthropologist may be biased -- results in better data and better ideas.

While Einstein was able to see further than any other scientist of his time, he was also keenly aware of his limitations.
Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them. 
Albert Einstein
If we want to understand time, then we must realize we are bounded by time from the moment we are born to the moment we die. Many if not most of our human ideas about time come from our human experience.

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