About Knowledge

Many years ago I reviewed a book which  prescribed all the latest sciences – in which ‘nano’ and ‘spikes’ flourish. The author insisted that “we now know over 90% of what constitutes the human brain, and within the current generation we will know everything”.

I criticized this, arguing that it assumes knowledge is always cumulative, each new piece building on some old, until the pyramid is complete. Whereas, new knowledge may well, in one sweep, jettison the existing system of knowledge, and a new enterprise begins. We are never in a position to know which way things will go. [By 2010 that author, I hope, would know better]

That morally and politically objectionable man, Donald Rumsfeld, expressed it more elegantly when he was putting a spin on the changing fortunes of the American invasion of Iraq: there are things we know we don’t know, but there are other things we don’t know we don’t know.’

I am reminded of this by the report in The Age on 6/11/10 of the work of  Sydney physicists led by Professor John Webb. They argue that “one of the fundamental constants of nature, alpha, is not a constant. Not only does it appear to be changing, it also differs depending from which direction in space you are facing.” In apparently 5-10 years time a definitive affirmation will be known, according to Professor Webb.

If correct “it means the laws of physics can vary throughout the universe, which would have a profound effect on science. —This would make the universe a much more complicated place. Scientists tend to consider simplicity is more likely than complexity. But I think that has historically been shown to be an incorrect philosophy” Professor Webb concludes.

We are foolish ever to think we are getting closer to the ?satisfactory completion of any system of knowledge. As Jacques Derrida reminds us “there is no ‘last word’ on anything.” Often we need to retrace our steps, or even start again.  And, as well, ?the more we learn the more we discover complexity and mystery not simplicity ?and order in everything.

Why is it that in so many ways we still ‘think’ mechanically, as if we were living still in the ?eighteenth century?