General, Research, Technology

Is there a limit to scientific knowledge?

“What we observe is not nature itself, byto ourselves, and the nature presented to our observation method, ”wrote the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, who was the first to understand the uncertainty inherent in quantum physics. For those who see in science a direct path to the truth of the world, this quote may be unexpected or even disappointing. It turns out that Heisenberg believed that our scientific theories depend on us as observers? Does this mean that the so-called scientific truth is nothing more than a big illusion?

You can quickly object: why then do planes fly and antibiotics work? Why are we capable of creating machines that process information with such amazing efficiency? Of course, such inventions and many others are based on the laws of nature, which function independently of us. There is order in the universe, and science is gradually revealing it.

Yes, this is certain: there is order in the universe, and the task of science is to find its patterns and laws, from quarks and mammals to whole galaxies, to determine them by general laws. We eliminate unnecessary difficulties and focus on the essence, on the basic properties of the system we are studying. Then we create a descriptive narrative of the behavior of the system, which, in the best cases, is also easily predictable.

In the heat of research, it is often overlooked thatThe methodology of science requires interaction with the system under study. We observe its behavior, measure its properties, create mathematical or conceptual models in order to better understand it. To do this, we need tools that go beyond our sensitive range: to study the smallest, fastest, farthest and almost unattainable, such as the bowels of our brain or core of the Earth. We observe not nature itself, but nature, reflected in the data that we collect using our machines. In turn, the scientific view of the world depends on the information that we can obtain using our tools. And assuming that our tools are limited, our view of the world will definitely be shortsighted. We can only glimpse the nature of things until a certain point, and our ever-changing view of the world reflects a fundamental limitation on how we perceive reality.

It’s enough to recall what biology was beforethe appearance of microscopes or gene sequencing, and what astronomy was like before the appearance of telescopes, particle physics before the collision of atoms in colliders and the appearance of fast electronics. Now, as in the 17th century, the theories that we create and our view of the world are changing along with a change in our research tools. This trend is a hallmark of science.

Sometimes people accept this statement aboutthe limitations of scientific knowledge as defeatist. “If we cannot get to the bottom of things, why try?” But this is the wrong approach. There is nothing defeatist in understanding the limitations of a scientific approach to knowledge. Science remains our best methodology for building consensus on the principles of nature. Only the sense of scientific triumphalism is changing - the belief that no question will remain beyond the scope of scientific understanding.

There will definitely be unknowns in science thatwe cannot reveal it by accepting the existing laws of nature. For example, the multiple universe: the assumption that our universe is only one of many others, each with its own set of laws of nature. Other universes lie beyond our cause-and-effect horizon, we will never receive a signal from them and send our own. Any evidence of their existence will be indirect: for example, a trace in the microwave background of space left after a collision with a neighboring universe.

Other examples of fundamentally unknowable canoutline three questions about the origin: the universe, life and reason. Scientific representations of the origin of the universe will be incomplete because they rely on a conceptual framework: energy conservation, relativity, quantum physics and others. Why does the universe act according to these laws, and not according to others?

Similarly, if we cannot prove thatthere is only one of several biochemical pathways that create living things from nonliving things; we won’t be able to know exactly how life appeared on Earth. In the case of consciousness, the problem is a jump from the material to the subjective - for example, from the activation of neurons to a sensation of pain or red. Perhaps some rudimentary consciousness could arise in a rather complex machine. But how do we know? How do we define — rather than assume — that something is conscious?

Paradoxically, it is our consciousnessgives the world meaning, even if this semantic picture is imperfect. Can we fully understand what we are a part of? Like a mythical snake that bites its own tail, we are stuck in a circle that begins and ends with our experience of living in this world. We cannot separate our descriptions of reality from how we experience this reality. This is a playing field on which the game of science unfolds, and if we play by the rules, we can only see a fraction of what lies outside this field.