How Much Does Science Know? This question refers to "science" as the
organized collective memory (both living and archival written records) of
contemporary industrialized societies, and "know" as to understand
sufficiently to make explanatory and predictive statements which are on the
whole consistantly true.
I believe that the answer could only be told when all knowable knowledge
is in, then the present store could be stated as a percentage. But, since the
whole is not known, the percentage might be 1% or 99% or more or less than
these, or somewhere in between. There is a span of beliefs which some may
feel larger or smaller amounts are known. Based on the closer one feels to
100%, than the more one tends to rely on science to obtain the last tiny
elusive fraction immanently.
I think my answer will shock some of the latter group. Physics is the
area of greatest certainty, and there my answer would be less than 40% based
on what is not known, especially not known about life. The most fundamental
question a living being can ask is what is "life" (sentience, consciousness,
self-awareness), and from a physics point of view it cannot be answered by any
combination of the "four fundamental forces". There has to be at least one
unknown force besides electromagnetism, gravity, weak & strong nuclear, so
that is 20% of the whole already.
Chemistry is a subset of physics, again one of the most reliable sciences
from a predictive point of view yet the quantum theory is deficient to predict
a single carbon form in advance; they are learned only emperically
experientially and then the theory is extended to cover them. My best guess
for all the unknowns in the best of hard sciences less than 30% is understood.
Life sciences are the least known, and this is the area of greatest
interest here for agriculture, livestock, ecological and human prosperity.
Here the answer might be well under 1%. With only a single percent known, it
is premature for present day science to hold itself out as the one best hope
for the future. A single gram of fertile topsoil is beyond the descriptive
powers of science, with estimated 10,000,000 microscopic inhabitants of some
5,000 species, over 95% of them never seen by human beings anywhere in human
history. Another gram of fertile topsoil from a different ecology will be as
complex and have mostly completely different species making up the 10,000,000
population, again 95% never before known.
The 4,000 mammals of the world have mostly been described, although all
their natural history is far from known or understood. Still new and rare
species are discovered occasionally. By comparison a single tree in the
Brazilian Amazon contained 50,000 inhabitants including 2,000 different
species of ants, mostly never before recorded by scientific observers.
Scientists cannot agree whether there are 3,000,000 species, or 300,000,000
species of living beings on the planet today. Of the less than 1,000,000
described by science, many of them have nothing more known than a brief report
by a single observer, who may only be describing a dead specimen.
Reductionism is the taking apart of a subject of investigation, reducing
it to atomistic parts, studying the parts to exhaustion and than coming to the
conclusion that one can explain the whole by reciting the nature of the parts.
This does not work for living systems, and the more complex the living system,
the less reliable reductionism is. If the DNA genome for any lifeform were
fully decoded into chemical sequence pairs it would not in itself tell any one
scientist who did not already know from discovery (empericism) the form,
nature, function, or lifespan of this DNA instruction set in a living being.
Making atom bombs, precision rocket science sending robots to Mars,
cellular phones which usually work, have all given the impression that science
has obtained the means to discover the tiny fraction yet still unknown. But
the big flashy knowns have obscured how much is yet unknown. Science works
best now, as through the past when it admits that there are unknowns which
have no explanation in science. To admit there is a problem is the first step
in solving one. Where abundant technology obscures the quantity of unknowns
it does a disservice in the solving of problems, especially for life sciences
which defy the reductionist approach.
Living systems are somewhat more amenable to the top-down "systems
analysis" than bottom-up reductionist approach. This is a kind of "fuzzy
logic" used by scientists and non-scientists alike. It puts the wisdom of a
tribal bushman on the par with an Oxford Biologist. They may not speak the
same language but they use the same science in the same way for equal
predictability and explanatory effect. This is not accepted by some, who
insist that there is nothing to be learned from primitive methods or peoples,
and the clean antiseptic laboratory white method is the only one capable of
scrutiny of living systems. No such thing has ever been proved by
"scientific" methods, and in fact, bushmen have a better record of maintaining
working ecologies than industrial nations scientists.
Michael Jordan uses advanced calculus, in his head instinctively, to
compute the rate of change of himself, his basketball, his various moving
teammates and opponents, and the remaining distance of a stationary hoop. No
laboratory denizen can compete with him, but those who speak the language of
calculus are presumed to know more about the subject. What Michael Jordan
does is use top-down systems analysis with cybernetic feedback loops, and
genetic gifts to integrate these skills at top human speed. Michael Jordan
can be analyzed by top-down systems analysis, but not bottom-up reductionism.
This is the point that reductionism always fails to serve, because it works
well reliably only on closed systems of preferably dead parts. Life requires
open systems and levels of complexity which will never be totally suitable for
Just because systems analysis is "fuzzy", working through successive
approximations, with interim sampling, the results can have a success
predictability which one can bet ones life on. Humans have bet their life on
this method of discovery of the truth for thousands of centuries. It works.
It is transferrable to the next generation, and the successive approximations
get better all the time. This is an ages-old method of knowledge, which like
Michael Jordan's calculus, is intuitivly performed without using high-faluting
language to describe it.
The only records of this form of knowledge may be in a single person's
head, or in the behavior of a species of life. It is intrinsically anecdotal.
This means that there is wealth to be obtained from predictive and explanatory
successes which were never derived from reductionistic research-based
experiments. One example is Luther Burbank, who over 40 years produced a new
botanical creation every three weeks on average, or some 4,000 of them total.
He kept what few records he made on backs of envelopes and scraps of paper.
Since he was changing plants, repetition was process, not reductionistic
replications. His successes are historical fact, and no reductionist has ever
come close to his productivity. His autobiography told the secrets of his
success, but it falls on deaf ears. It was anecdotal.
I could go on for book-length, but the point has been made. Science as a
religion which you take as an article of faith shall provide the answers it
does not yet have makes a very puny god. If science practiced the humility of
Burbank it might double its' store of knowledge and know 2% about life.
---- LionKuntz@AOL.COM ----
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