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Life Laughs At The Limits Of Science

A father and his two sons consulting the oracles of Apollo at Delphi in ancient Greece, circa 600 B.C.
Hulton Archive
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A father and his two sons consulting the oracles of Apollo at Delphi in ancient Greece, circa 600 B.C.

In the clash and clang of Bronze Age Acheans and Trojans that Helen's beauty unleashed, Homer's wondrous poem evokes men, women, demigods and gods caught in a weave of their own unexpected making. None, not even Zeus himself, knows what may transpire in the swirl of clashing fates, rage and warrior pride. No wonder the Greeks visited Delphi, with its ambiguous omens and pronouncements. No wonder they examined the entrails of goats to glean what the guts might portend.

Since Newton and the triumphs of physics and allied sciences, since our Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, we have come to smile indulgently, at best, at Delphi, believing that science would come to know, indeed, come to know for the ever betterment of humanity. Knowledge is, after all, power. A faith in science, even with concern about its technological consequences, has become our new secular religion. Let me call this faith, that science will know all, "scientism."

Scientism shines through in Robert McNamara's confidence in the scientific management of the Vietnam War. Scientism shines through in the belief that, science knowing, we need only apply it carefully and, in principle, know our way. Scientism shines through in our belief in top-down management "getting it right."

Let me share two stories. First, water temples in Bali have for centuries allowed Buddhist monks to allocate water to the local fields. The system evolved over more than a thousand years. With abundant confidence, the modern central government put in place a new management system. The results were a disaster.

Second, at an oasis in Morocco, where people had, for more than two-thousand years, managed water resources so that all survived, the national government initiated a top-down plan for the oasis. Again, the result was catastrophe.

What happened in these two cases? We can't be sure. But, roughly, over a thousand or more years of cultural evolution, the people learned the locally relevant intended and unintended consequences of most patterns of decisions and gradually evolved corrective actions. Accumulated wisdom works, as it does with the English common law, ever evolving, ever mindful of ancient precedents that shape the main skeleton of that Law.

"Scientism" has a faith that we know, ahead of time, all the relevant variables and can sensibly optimize with respect to a set of desired outcomes.

But this view is false and dangerous.

In many past posts I have discussed our incapacity to prestate the evolution of the biopshere. An example is my August 8, 2011 post: "The End Of A Physics Worldview: Heraclitus And The Watershed Of Life." Also, with mathematicians G. Longo and M. Montevil, I'll refer you back to "No entailing laws, but enablement in the evolution of the biosphere," on arXiv. The "catch phrase" is: Not only do we not know what will happen, we often don't even know what can happen.

But if we do not know what can happen, we cannot reason about it. Scientism fails us, and can fail disastrously.

No wonder the Greeks saw the gods, demigods and humans caught in a weave where even the gods could not know the consequences. Homer was closer to right than our scientism, overwrought and wrong.

It is more than 2,000 years too late for a return to Delphi and its ambiguous utterances. But we had best curtail our scientism, pursue real science and give up the idea that science will know "all."

Life is richer than science.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stuart Kauffman

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