THE CERTAINTY DELUSION
THE CERTAINTY DELUSION
D. R. Khashaba
Dear Reader: In the following rambling thoughts I may have given way to much foolishness. I am not asking you to take anything of what I say on trust. If I goad you to think things out for yourself, will it have been a waste of time?
In Let Us Philosophize (1998, 2008) I wrote:
“Words are treacherous. Words, creatures of the mind, jump at every opportunity to lord it over the mind. There is not a single word that one may use unguardedly. Every word holds out a snare, and one must beware of falling into the snares of words. The mind must constantly assert its mastery over words by re-thinking, re-creating all its terms, all its formulations. Otherwise it soon finds itself a slave to the creatures it created to sing its hymns of glory. …”
Despite the rhetorical tone, I meant every word to be taken in complete earnestness. In all my subsequent writings I have emphasized that no determinate formulation of words or thought can be exempt from intrinsic contradictoriness. This is the lesson that Plato meant to convey in the Parmenides, a dialogue which scholars, blind to its plain message, have found perplexing. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, logicians, pursuing the dream of Leibniz, developed the ‘perfect’ language of symbolic logic. That has been put to many practical uses, but has a single ‘truth’ in whatever field of knowledge been arrived at by sheer manipulation of logical symbolism? Was not Wittgenstein fully justified in holding that pure logic says nothing?
The ‘science’ of economics has been fully mathematized. If the economies of the most advanced countries in the world are not in complete shambles, can economists honestly claim credit for that? I frame my sentences guardedly in view of my confessed ignorance, but I expect a clear-sighted competent economist could put the point more strongly.
The astounding advance of science and technology in the past four centuries gave rise to the rationalist illusion that there can be absolute certainty in scientific formulations and to the sister delusion that it is possible – at any rate in principle – to predict future natural states with absolute certainty provided we have adequate information about the preceding state. This is the dogma of causal determinism which was given its classic expression by Pierre Laplace (1749-1827).
The dogma of causal determinism is allied to the illusion that we know what causation is. I maintain that the only causation we know is the causation of our free will. The ‘causes’ science deals with are descriptions of observed natural processes and interpretations of observed regularities in nature. Nature has well-settled habits and these enable us to make serviceable predictions. These predictions, including the most precise scientific predictions, are approximations that can never be absolutely certain or absolutely accurate. The sun will not rise tomorrow if our galaxy collides with another galaxy. The most accurate calculation of the earth’s orbit round the sun cannot be absolutely accurate if only because the mass of the sun is constantly changing.
To remain with the sun: the most prominent regularity observed by humans in nature is that the sun rises every morning and goes down at the end of the day. Humans sought to interpret that. They saw the sun as a god that benevolently comes up every morning to give light and warmth to all living things. This ‘explained’ the movement of the sun as well as any other interpretation. Ptolemy in the second century of our era gave an intricate astronomical interpretation of the planetary movements that served for centuries. Copernicus gave another that we find fits the observed phenomena better but which – I affirm bluntly – explains nothing. Nor did Newton explain anything: he gave a formula that enables us to calculate the movements of bodies to a practically satisfactory degree of accuracy. He said that what makes bodies move that way is something he called the force of gravitation, but he confessed he did not know what that force might be. Einstein did away with the force and attributed the movement to a curvature in space’ I venture to say that that is no better an explanation than the god Ra or the god Apollo. What Einstein contributed was new mathematical formulations yielding more satisfactory calculations. It may be apposite here to quote an insightful statement of Einstein’s that I have quoted several times before: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
Since I have already stuck my neck out, I will permit myself another roguery. Since there is no absolute space (pace Newton) and since the universe has no fixed centre, I suppose a god standing outside the universe would wink and see the earth orbiting the sun, then wink again and see the sun orbiting the earth, and he would wisely know that both views are equally right and equally wrong.
D. R. Khashaba
January 9, 2017