“..in reality, scientific theories are not ‘derived’ from anything. They are guesses—bold conjectures.”
—David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity
In his provocative and stimulating tome The Beginning of Infinity, the British astrophysicist David Deutsch describes the role of science as one not so much as describing reality as explaining it. It does this, he asserts, through conjectures which then may be tested by experiment. But this leaves substantial problems in today’s complex and technical world, as there are many conjectures about reality which we cannot test, or at least, cannot test yet. The existence of exo-planets—planetary systems around stars other than our sun—was only a conjecture until the technology existed to actually detect such bodies. Many mathematical conjectures were not provable for centuries until the advent of sufficient computing power to do so. Many other scientific ideas—from simple speculations to profound interpretations—cannot be tested with today’s technologies; in some cases, we cannot even imagine how ever to test them. The “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics is one of these. This is a subject I will deal with specifically in a later post. But the point is: my concern here is with ideas we cannot yet, or maybe never can prove.
Why bother? One of the most interesting books I have ever read is the 2005 volume What We Believe but Cannot Prove. Published by edge.org,one reviewer expressed its content quite succinctly:
John Brockman, writer, publisher and events manager for the science elite, has asked a hundred researchers the question, What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it? The answers are posted at his e-magazine Edge (www.edge.org), and they exert an unquestionable morbid fascination—those are the very ideas that scientists cannot confess in their technical papers. –JAVIER SAMPEDRO, Madrid, EL PAIS, February 20, 2005
We all need a worldview. And while some scientists and philosophers may simply say, “that’s just the way it is, no explanation is needed,” I cannot live with that. My worldview is based on science, but it needs explanations.
I do not pretend to have any answers. I don’t even have the viewpoint of a trained scientist. My viewpoint is the journalistic approach of a layman generalist with a passion for science. These are, in effect, my own interpretations of what I have read and learned about the present state of human knowledge of physical reality. In some cases, I may be simply re-stating in my own terms, with my own views of the implications, ideas that may have been put forth or at least hinted at by others. Most of these subjects will involve issues we can’t really test now—maybe never. I for one need a way of viewing reality that is based on science, but goes beyond what we can absolutely test. I require explanations, but untestable explanations must seem at least scientifically feasible. I cannot brook the mystical or supernatural—and yes, in some respects, the religious. I am a non-theistic existentialist, and this is how I build my world view based on science.
So these are my conjectures. They are indeed bold guesses. They are not intended to be absolute assertions of reality—anything but. They are my suggestions of things that might be true, that I imagine could be true, but that in many cases may not even be provable one way or the other. What I am doing is asking: what are the implications of this viewpoint? These are—essentially—what ifs.
UP NEXT: #1 The Conjecture of Infinity
Text in this post ©2012 Mark Sackler