scientific certainty

(from an interview in the current issue of Buddhadharma with biologist Rupert Sheldrake):

In 1894, Albert Michelson, later to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, declared, “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”

Whoops. Within a generation quantum theory and general relativity would bring about such an “exceedingly remote” possibility.

Today the same kinds of claims are made for a great many theories that not only haven’t been established by centuries of rigorous work – as Michelson’s physics was. They haven’t even been properly understood, delineated, and “proven” the first time around. I’m talking about the infiltration of scientific certainties into various social “scientific” domains. Wild claims about genes for such notions as “gregariousness,” “altruism,” and “criminal personality” appear every week. But it is hard to see how these kinds of concepts are anything but trans-scientific in their profoundly imprecise and contingent natures.

(Even a one-dimensionally, completely measurable trait like height has about fifty genes connected to it, together only accounting for roughly 5 percent of a given person’s actual height, according to Sheldrake.)

That is to say, to quote from the interview again: “…human meanings, values, and purposes can only be understood in the context of human societies, traditions, philosophies, religions, and experiences.”

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