Wednesday, November 23, 2011


            Scientists of the late 17th century were faced with a major conundrum.  The physical world, including cannonballs and planets, was evidently representable with mathematical precision, and the epistemology emerging as standard was that all knowledge would eventually be understood with the same precision.  God remained essential, although the growing ideas of deism, the idea that God originally set the universe running but then let it alone, were becoming ever more popular.  The continuing effort at understanding the world was buoyed by the new materialism, given the success of its application to certain physical phenomena such as gravity and the visible spectrum.  The world of mountains and seas and of animals and plants, it was thought, could be cast in the same framework as planets and falling apples, as eloquently summarized by Bennet[1].
            Two facts (or, “facts”) dominated much of the thinking on these issues.  First, the accumulating fossil base indicated that many organisms that formerly existed, no longer did, and second, one of the major transformative events in world history was the flood (for which Noah built the ark).  The physical facts of fossils could not be denied, but neither could the biblical fact of the flood.  In other words, they had to deal with what we moderns would call a physical fact, within the constraints of a particular world view.  The problem was, and remains, it is only with great effort that the constraints of a particular world view are visible to those immersed in it. With the wisdom of hindsight we can easily judge negatively for the flood and positively for the fossils.  But what of our contemporary metaphorical floods and fossils?
            It is tempting to conceptualize the methods and philosophy of the scientist acting as judge and jury, unpassionately examining the “facts” and adjudicating negatively when they fail to stand up to our latest version of what constitutes adequate measurement and evidence. Pursuing such a program is naïve to be sure.  Yet acknowledging the likely truth that our contemporary vision contains “knowledge” that future generations will liken to the flood of the past provides a different kind of lens through which we can view the scientific process. Which is flood and which is fossil?
            In pursuit of an epistemology acknowledging that much of what we believe to be true today is wrong (the floods), does it not seem evident that some, perhaps most, of contemporary knowledge should be simply discarded? Unfortunately this point of view takes on an antagonistic and frequently naïve critical consciousness, seeking in every published or proposed-to-be-published result the key error that will lead to its rejection.  Yet a moment’s thought suggests that this is largely a pointless exercise. If history serves us well, most of what is published or proposed-to-be-published is wrong anyway, and picking apart the details of that wrong is not difficult and usually pointless. As Richard Levins said many years ago, the true intellectual challenge is to find the kernel of truth.  Put in the context of the present metaphor, almost all science is flood interspersed with an occasional fossil.  Our challenge is to identify the fossil, not continue pointing out the floods.

[1] The Living Rock: Natural, human and sacre histories of the earth, 1680 – 1740.  PhD dissertation, Stanford University.


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