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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Science and the ultimate unknowability of nature

In "Searching for the Truth About Nature", Eric Ormsby reviews The Intelligibility of Nature: How Science Makes Sense of the World by Cornell historian of science Peter Dear, and asks some key questions:
Scientists were once happy to be known as natural philosophers. The title implied not merely that they studied nature but that they thought about it in such a way as to discern its hidden laws. They weren’t concerned only with the how of things but with the why. The beautiful line of Virgil, Happy is he who can recognize the causes of things, epitomized the endeavor. Causation in all its forms, from the collisions of solid bodies on earth to the remote arrangements of the First Cause beyond the empyrean, underlay natural laws. Goethe’s Faust, the mythic prototype of the philosopher-scientist, was driven to despair, as well as near-damnation, by his passion to know what holds the world together in its deepest core. But Faust represents the end of an ancient tradition; for all his knowledge, he’s tormented by the world’s ultimate unknowability. And that bafflement scorches his heart.

Is nature finally unintelligible? Even more disturbing, is nature intelligible in itself but beyond the power of humans to comprehend?

Well, yes. For example, there are some aspects of nature that my cat will always know better than I do. No doubt it is wise for me to be content with that. After all, the alternative would be to spend sixteen years with my face about five inches from the floor ... as he has done.

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