In The Frontiers of Knowledge, AC Grayling addresses questions that science cannot answer


“He entered her house” is interchangeable with “he knew her” in the King James Bible; “Yada”, Hebrew for “to know”, also means “to have penetrating sex”. What knowledge can be violated is an exact ambiguity. What is perceived or known is not what it is, or would be, in its original state. Even our eyes and our reasoning are not neutral portals to the world; categories and theories, tools and techniques of inquiry, tend to probe, modify and distort it. As AC Grayling says, the primatologist does not observe chimpanzees, but “chimpanzees in observation”.

But the “interference problem”, as Grayling calls it, has its opposite and its corollary. We can defile what we are looking for, but also, because restricted in a specific time, space and size, we can only look at it “as through a pinhole”. In this brilliant study of the state of the art of science, history and psychology, Grayling diagnoses 12 of these problems and shows how any success in overcoming them, while expanding what we know, simultaneously reveals the extent of what remains unknown.

By the end of the 19th century, he says, physics was declared complete, with only a few minor details to complete – but then JJ Thomson discovered the electron, and even in the first decade of the next century, Einstein produced his special theory. of relativity, and Bohr and Planck invented quantum theory. A satisfactory enemy; except that, even as physics has expanded and transformed, physicists have discovered that only 5% of the matter in the universe can be represented, 95% being “unknown matter”: dark matter and dark energy.

And much of what we know in principle seems, in practice, in fact unknowable. We inevitably apprehend the world as existing independently of us, and made up of things which causally interact in space and time, and which have or do not have particular qualities at a given moment. According to quantum theory, however, subatomic particles do not have a definite character until they are measured. We might nod our heads wisely when we tell them that; understanding it, however, outrages our conceptual capacities. “How can the nature of reality depend on a measurement made of it?” How (in a strange reversal of the Meddler Problem) can observation, rather than interfering with what is being observed, be essential to what it really is?

Science is not purely empirical anyway, as Grayling reminds us. Data of all kinds are only gleaned and apprehended to fit into a theory, and whether a theory is accepted, or even sought after, depends on its elegance, simplicity and consistency, and its consistency with theories. already existing (the “criteria problem”). Even the fact that it “works” does not guarantee its veracity. Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe “worked” for maritime navigation and prediction of eclipses, but it was still wrong.

The second section of the book (History) focuses on how archaeological finds since the 19th century have dramatically expanded our pinhole view of previous millennia hitherto unknown. But, says Grayling, it’s still just a pinhole, and generalizing from the bones and artefacts discovered is all too easy – characterizing Paleolithic culture, for example, without taking into account possible materials. perishable items that have been lost.

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