MAGINE ENTERING A MASSIVE LIBRARY, WALLS BUILT OF HARDBACKS and softcovers. You stand, awed: all that accumulated knowledge towers over and around you.
Suppose, though, all the books were on Shakespeare’s plays. Or on Marxism and the inevitable triumph of communism. Or on UFO kidnappings. What if the walls were covered by books on near-death experiences, in which people who clinically “died” returned with fantastic accounts of meeting deity and dead relatives.
How much awe would you feel then?
Maybe all those volumes were scholarly—deep tomes filled with page after page of references. (Wow, references!) References to what, though, other than other humans, whose writings reference other humans, whose writings reference humans . . . and on and on. Knowledge comes with a kind of circularity, doesn’t it? As more books are written, the circle gets wider, but it still goes round and round.
Suppose, though, all those books were science books. We’re not talking, then, about feminist critiques of Rainer W. Fassbinder filmography; we’re talking, instead, of quarks, chemicals, and continental shelves—reality as we meet it, and not as filmmakers or playwrights create it. Doesn’t that break us out of the circle?
Not really. Science is, inevitably and necessarily, a human endeavor—shackled, weighed down, and distorted by the shackles, weights, and distortions that qualify knowledge. The myth persists that science stands at some Archimedean point, “a view from nowhere,” and thus delivers an objective reflection of what’s really real.
Yet science is a historical enterprise; it unfolds in time and history, and as such is impacted by what was and what’s now. Scientific concepts, theories, and assumptions are inextricably bound up with culture, history, and language because scientists themselves are; and whatever they experience, or think they experience, comes filtered through all that filters human knowledge.
Arthur Eddington told about a scientist who, having created a 2-inch fish net in order to scour the bottom of the sea, declared that his research proved that no fish less than two inches long lived at the bottom of the sea. Which leads to the questions: What books did the scientist read, and how did those books impact (1) the kind of device he created, (2) the things he looked for with that device, and (3) the conclusions he drew from what he experienced with that device? Had he read different books, he might have had a different device (a 3-inch mesh net?), looked for different things, and drawn different conclusions about what exists at the bottom of the sea.
What assumptions drive any scientific endeavor? What books (if any) are those assumptions based on? What did those books presuppose, and why? Because assumptions constantly change (how many that began the twentieth century survived to the twenty-first?), what conclusions about the same data change along with them?
Unlike radical postmodernist and social-construction-of-knowledge theorists, I believe that scientific knowledge is different, even qualitatively, from other kinds. It does tap into something that’s there to meet us, as opposed to something we’ve created (hence the difference between, say, geology and literary criticism). The problem is that because assumptions change, what scientists think they meet out there changes along with them. Scientific realities of even a generation or two ago aren’t the same as today. No doubt, too, if time should last, some present ex cathedra scientific certainties will be mocked as myth.
There’s a real world out there, one that we meet as opposed to create, and science is a particularly fruitful way of encountering, experiencing, and interpreting that world. But what science reveals remains uncertain, contingent, and particular, as opposed to necessary, universal, and certain, because human knowledge remains that way. No matter how large the library, how many impressive volumes fill the shelves, or how large the circle gets, it still of necessity goes round and round.