The Corner

Known Unknowns

A scandalized reader:

Someone has written (on The Corner!) something I would expect you to land on like white on rice: “Beyond the reach of science” (!)

What is your response, Sir?

I did a quick check (was out of the office all day). Must be this one:

It’s become an obstacle to their understanding of human beings, too, this notion that to understand the genetic machine is synonymous with understanding (and frequently dismissing or derogating) the emergent properties of that machine, which are in reality so various, subtle, and abstract as to be quite beyond the reach of science.

My response is that human beings in general — and I’ll include myself — have a mighty desire for mystery. In the present age this desire manifests itself in assertions that such-and-such is “beyond the reach of science.”

That there will always be something that is beyond the reach of science is obvious. Scientific knowledge is a circle of light in an infinity of darkness. The hope is to expand the circle a bit. There will always be darkness beyond, though.

However, to settle on one particular thing and say “that will for ever be beyond the reach of science,” is hazardous. The track record of such negative predictions is very poor. The reason for this is probably that the kinds of topics that entice such remarks are precisely those which, at some given time, are just beyond the circle of light & about to get illuminated. They are, in Donald Rumsfeld’s pithy phrasing, “known unknowns.”

“Emergent properties” are mostly just sensations. (Water is H2O, liquid at room temperature, abundant on the Earth’s surface, and so on. Wetness is an emergent property.) Sensations are, to the best of our current understanding, brain events. If we understand more about the brain, we shall understand more about emergent properties. It’ll be a long haul, but we’re on it. And once again: “more” isn’t “everything,” ever.

Now if you’ll excuse me, Toby’s whining for his walk. When he looks at me with those big soulful eyes, I can’t resist.

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