The Decline of Certainty in Science
Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences,
University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
Sinking of the Titanic - A Metaphor
Three great ship disasters 1912-1915
- Empress of Ireland collided with another ship in Gulf of St.
Lawrence, 1014 lives lost May 29, 1914.
- Lusitania torpedoed by German submarine May 7, 1915; 1198 lost.
- Titanic sinks after hitting iceberg April 14-15, 1912; 1503 lost.
Of the three disasters, the first is almost forgotten, memory of
the second fading, third remains vivid. Why?
- Titanic was a symbol of the best technology had to offer.
- Titanic is a symbol of technological hubris: "God Himself could
not sink this ship."
Effects of sinking
- Shock, loss of confidence
- Confirm usefulness of radio
- Black folk song "Great Ship Titanic" sees sinking both as great
human tragedy and as Divine retribution for social inequity.
Loss of Titanic was a death-blow to an overconfident world-view.
There have been many others.
Lisbon Earthquake, November 1, 1755
- First great quake to hit Europe in 300 years
- 50,000 killed by 3 shocks, sea wave
- First scientifically-studied earthquake
- Tremendous shock to rationalistic "Newtonian" world view--impetus to rise of skeptical and pessimistic philosophers
- Blow to theological self-confident. Event hard to reconcile with
rational, just God--many victims were killed by collapsing churches.
- Early theories of Lamarck, Cuvier could be reconciled easily with
a concept of design, reconciled with fairly literal Biblical interpretation.
- Natural Selection (Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, 1859)
- Impossible to reconcile with literal interpretation of Bible.
- Widened rift between conservative and liberal Protestants.
- Questioned existence of design, seemed cruel and irrational to many.
- Tremendous abuse as model for social/moral doctrine:
- Social Darwinism.
- "Proof" of non-existence of God.
- Reactions against implications or abuses of evolution
Parallel Postulate of Euclid
Given a line and a point not on the
line, only one line can be drawn through the point parallel to
the given line.
Postulate seemed somehow "different," was focus of many attempts
Discoverers of non-Euclidean Geometry
- Saccheri, 1730's
- Bolyai, 1823
- Lobachevski, 1840's
Geometry seemed as nearly absolute as knowledge could be.
The discovery that there were many kinds of geometry, all equally
valid, was a blow to the very roots of certainty.
- Concept of "ether"
- Michelson-Morley Experiment, 1887
- Einstein - General Relativity, 1905
- Effects: required redefinition of seemingly solid concepts of distance, time and mass.
- Often used inappropriately as a model for relativism.
- Planck, 1900, black-body problem
- Einstein, 1905, photo-electric effect
- Heisenberg, 1927, indeterminacy
- Effect: showed there were some things that could not be known or
predicted even in principle. Even Einstein rebelled: "God does not play
- Sometimes misused to support the notion that nothing is really knowable.
- Heisenberg himself was a vigorous opponent of philosophical abuses of indeterminacy.
- Godel - 1930's
- Mathematical systems are not "complete." Require axioms outside
of system for some proofs.
- Always possible to make "undecidable" statements that cannot be proven true or false.
- Effects: even mathematical proofs are not absolutely attainable.
- Philosophical implications still to be understood.
A common theme in the above topics has been the abuse of
scientific ideas as models for philosophy. Scientists and non-scientists alike should be aware of "scientific proof" for
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Created 20 May 1997, Last Update 30 May 1997
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