“As the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance — the boundary between the known and unknown. Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination — whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyways — but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.”
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning
We’ve always tried to understand the world we live in. And yet how much can we really know? What are the limitations of Science?
In his book, The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning, Physicist Marcelo Gleiser traces the progress of science and its limits.
While science is not the only way to see and describe the world we live in, it is a response to the questions on who we are, where we are, and how we got here. “Science speaks directly to our humanity, to our quest for light, ever more light.”
Science needs to fail in order to advance. This however means we must be wrong, which runs counter to our human desire for certainty. “We are surrounded by horizons, by incompleteness,” Gleiser writes.
Rather than give up, we struggle. What makes us human is this journey to understand more about the mysteries of the world and explain them with reason.
“What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only
very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.” — Albert Einstein
“What we see of the world,” Gleiser begins, “is only a sliver of what’s out there.”
There is much that is invisible to the eye, even when we augment our sensorial perception with telescopes, microscopes, and other tools of exploration. Like our senses, every instrument has a range. Because much of Nature remains hidden from us, our view of the world is based only on the fraction of reality that we can measure and analyze. Science, as our narrative describing what we see and what we conjecture exists in the natural world, is thus necessarily limited, telling only part of the story. … We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery. This view is neither antiscientific nor defeatist. … Quite the contrary, it is the flirting with this mystery, the urge to go beyond the boundaries of the known, that feeds our creative impulse, that makes us want to know more.
While we may broadly understand the map of what we call reality, we fail to understand its terrain. Reality “is an ever-shifting mosaic of ideas,” he argues.
“All models are wrong, some are useful.” — George Box
What we know about the world is only what we can detect and measure — even if we improve our “detecting and measuring” as time goes along. And thus we make our conclusions of reality on what we can currently “see.”
Gleiser makes his point with a beautiful metaphor: The Island of Knowledge.
Consider, then, the sum total of our accumulated knowledge as constituting an island, which I call the “Island of Knowledge.” … A vast ocean surrounds the Island of Knowledge, the unexplored ocean of the unknown, hiding countless tantalizing mysteries.
The Island of Knowledge grows as we learn more about the world and ourselves. And, yet, as the island grows, so too do “the shores of our ignorance — the boundary between the known and unknown.”
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