One of the most significant intellectual errors educated persons make is in underestimating the fallibility of science. The very best scientific theories containing our soundest, most reliable knowledge are certain to be superseded, recategorized from “right” to “wrong”; they are, as physicist David Deutsch says, misconceptions:
I have often thought that the nature of science would be better understood if we called theories “misconceptions” from the outset, instead of only after we have discovered their successors. Thus we could say that Einstein’s Misconception of Gravity was an improvement on Newton’s Misconception, which was an improvement on Kepler’s. The neo-Darwinian Misconception of Evolution is an improvement on Darwin’s Misconception, and his on Lamarck’s… Science claims neither infallibility nor finality.
This fact comes as a surprise to many; we tend to think of science —at the point of conclusion, when it becomes knowledge— as being more or less infallible and certainly final. Science, indeed, is the sole area of human investigation whose reports we take seriously to the point of crypto-objectivism. Even people who very much deny the possibility of objective knowledge step onto airplanes and ingest medicines. And most importantly: where science contradicts what we believe or know through cultural or even personal means, we accept science and discard those truths, often wisely.
An obvious example: the philosophical problem of free will. When Newton’s misconceptions were still considered the exemplar of truth par excellence, the very model of knowledge, many philosophers felt obliged to accept a kind of determinism with radical implications. Give the initial-state of the universe, it appeared, we should be able to follow all particle trajectories through the present, account for all phenomena through purely physical means. In other words: the chain of causation from the Big Bang on left no room for your volition:
Determinism in the West is often associated with Newtonian physics, which depicts the physical matter of the universe as operating according to a set of fixed, knowable laws. The “billiard ball” hypothesis, a product of Newtonian physics, argues that once the initial conditions of the universe have been established, the rest of the history of the universe follows inevitably. If it were actually possible to have complete knowledge of physical matter and all of the laws governing that matter at any one time, then it would be theoretically possible to compute the time and place of every event that will ever occur (Laplace’s demon). In this sense, the basic particles of the universe operate in the same fashion as the rolling balls on a billiard table, moving and striking each other in predictable ways to produce predictable results.
Thus: the movement of the atoms of your body, and the emergent phenomena that such movement entails, can all be physically accounted for as part of a chain of merely physical, causal steps. You do not “decide” things; your “feelings” aren’t governing anything; there is no meaning to your sense of agency or rationality. From this essentially unavoidable philosophical position, we are logically-compelled to derive many political, moral, and cultural conclusions. For example: if free will is a phenomenological illusion, we must deprecate phenomenology in our philosophies; it is the closely-clutched delusion of a faulty animal; people, as predictable and materially reducible as commodities, can be reckoned by governments and institutions as though they are numbers. Freedom is a myth; you are the result of a process you didn’t control, and your choices aren’t choices at all but the results of laws we can discover, understand, and base our morality upon.
I should note now that (1) many people, even people far from epistemology, accept this idea, conveyed via the diffusion of science and philosophy through politics, art, and culture, that most of who you are is determined apart from your will; and (2) the development of quantum physics has not in itself upended the theory that free will is an illusion, as the sort of indeterminacy we see among particles does not provide sufficient room, as it were, for free will.
Of course, few of us can behave for even a moment as though free will is a myth; there should be no reason for personal engagement with ourselves, no justification for “trying” or “striving”; one would be, at best, a robot-like automaton incapable of self-control but capable of self-observation. One would account for one’s behaviors not with reasons but with causes; one would be profoundly divested from outcomes which one cannot affect anyway. And one would come to hold that, in its basic conception of time and will, the human consciousness was totally deluded.
As it happens, determinism is a false conception of reality. Physicists like David Deutsch and Ilya Prigogine have, in my opinion, defended free will amply on scientific grounds; and the philosopher Karl Popper described how free will is compatible in principle with a physicalist conception of the universe; he is quoted by both scientists, and Prigogine begins his book The End of Certainty, which proposes that determinism is no longer compatible with science, by alluding to Popper:
Earlier this century in The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism, Karl Popper wrote,” Common sense inclines, on the one hand, to assert that every event is caused by some preceding events, so that every event can be explained or predicted… On the other hand, … common sense attributes to mature and sane human persons… the ability to choose freely between alternative possibilities of acting.” This “dilemma of determinism,” as William James called it, is closely related to the meaning of time. Is the future given, or is it under perpetual construction?
Prigogine goes on to demonstrate that there is, in fact, an “arrow of time,” that time is not symmetrical, and that the future is very much open, very much compatible with the idea of free will. Thus: in our lifetimes we have seen science —or parts of the scientific community, with the rest to follow in tow— reclassify free will from “illusion” to “likely reality”; the question of your own role in your future, of humanity’s role in the future of civilization, has been answered differently just within the past few decades.
No more profound question can be imagined for human endeavor, yet we have an inescapable conclusion: our phenomenologically obvious sense that we choose, decide, change, perpetually construct the future was for centuries contradicted falsely by “true” science. Prigogine’s work and that of his peers —which he calls a “probabilizing revolution” because of its emphasis on understanding unstable systems and the potentialities they entail— introduces concepts that restore the commonsensical conceptions of possibility, futurity, and free will to defensibility.
If one has read the tortured thinking of twentieth-century intellectuals attempting to unify determinism and the plain facts of human experience, one knows how submissive we now are to the claims of science. As Prigogine notes, we were prepared to believe that we, “as imperfect human observers, [were] responsible for the difference between past and future through the approximations we introduce into our description of nature.” Indeed, one has the sense that the more counterintuitive the scientific claim, the eagerer we are to deny our own experience in order to demonstrate our rationality.
This is only degrees removed from ordinary orthodoxies. The point is merely that the very best scientific theories remain misconceptions, and that where science contradicts human truths of whatever form, it is rational to at least contemplate the possibility that science has not advanced enough yet to account for them; we must be pragmatic in managing our knowledge, aware of the possibility that some truths we intuit we cannot yet explain, while other intuitions we can now abandon. My personal opinion, as you can imagine, is that we take too little note of the “truths,” so to speak, found in the liberal arts, in culture.
It is vital to consider how something can be both true and not in order to understand science and its limitations, and even more the limitations of second-order sciences (like social sciences). Newton’s laws were incredible achievements of rationality, verified by all technologies and analyses for hundreds of years, before their unpredicted exposure as deeply flawed ideas applied to a limited domain which in total provide incorrect predictions and erroneous metaphorical structures for understanding the universe.
I never tire of quoting Karl Popper’s dictum:
Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.
It is hard but necessary to have this relationship with science, whose theories seem like the only possible answers and whose obsolescence we cannot envision. A rational person in the nineteenth century would have laughed at the suggestion that Newton was in error; he could not have known about the sub-atomic world or the forces and entities at play in the world of general relativity; and he especially could not have imagined how a theory that seemed utterly, universally true and whose predictive and explanatory powers were immense could still be an incomplete understanding, revealed by later progress to be completely mistaken about nearly all of its claims.
Can you imagine such a thing? It will happen to nearly everything you know. Consider what “ignorance” and “knowledge” really are for a human, what you can truly be certain of, how you should judge others given this overwhelming epistemological instability!