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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Science Not A Collection of Truths, But An Exploration of Mysteries

What does science mean? In the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson discussed information theory and the history of science under the headline, “How We Know.” In the body of his book review of The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick, Dyson, while trying to clear up some misinformation, exposed some embarrassments in science that call into question not only how we know, but what we know:

"The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.
Even physics, the most exact and most firmly established branch of science, is still full of mysteries... Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices."

Scientists get a kick out of the endless quest: “The vision of the future as an infinite playground, with an unending sequence of mysteries to be understood by an unending sequence of players exploring an unending supply of information, is a glorious vision for scientists,” he said, but not to artists, writers, and ordinary people. Dyson worried about the flood of information around us being separated from meaning. “Now we can pass a piece of human DNA through a machine and rapidly read out the genetic information,” Dyson noted, “but we cannot read out the meaning of the information. We shall not fully understand the information until we understand in detail the processes of embryonic development that the DNA orchestrated to make us what we are.”

Claude Shannon, who felt “Meaning is irrelevant” to his information theory, started a “flood of information in which we are drowning,” Dyson said. Is our fate to look out upon, as Jorge Luis Borges portrayed the universe in 1941, a “library, with an infinite array of books and shelves and mirrors,” never knowing what it all means? “It is our task as humans to bring meaning back into this wasteland,” Dyson concluded. “As finite creatures who think and feel, we can create islands of meaning in the sea of information.”

While Dyson examined the definition of information in detail in his review, he left dangling an even more important definition: the meaning of meaning. Is meaning defined by the individual artist, writer, or ordinary person? Who decides when something is meaningful? Are islands of meaning grounded on a continent of truth, or are they adrift in an infinite sea of meaningless information?


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