The Island of Knowledge by Marcelo Gleiser
With The Dancing Universe, The Prophet and the Astronomer, and A Tear at the Edge of Creation, Brazilian astronomer Marcelo Gleiser established himself as a scientific popularizer and explicator of the first rank. Indeed, he is unmatched in the integration of intellectual history and
philosophy into the scientific discussion in popular scientific writing. Having explored the origin of the universe, eschatology and cosmic
catastrophe, and the quest for theories of everything in his previous
books, Gleiser turns to the limits of knowledge in The Island of Knowledge.
"We humans share a compulsion: to make sense of the world and to figure
out how we fit in, individually and collectively....The methods and
questions change, but the need to know, the urge to make sense of life,
is the same." (241) Being a scientist, of course, Gleiser is of course inclined to the scientific method of knowing, and using the history of physics from the Presocratic atomists to cutting-edge research as illustration, he shows the more we know, the larger the "island" of our understanding grows (though not without an occasional temporary retreat as some things we "know" "erode" away), but also the bigger the "coastline" between the known and unknown. Furthermore, the island will never grow to fill the ocean of the unknown, which is infinite. In other words, there can never come a day where we know everything. There are fundamental limits to our knowledge, boundaries science cannot cross, and any notion of "knowing it all" is sheer delusion.
At first, this sounds like a rather pessimistic viewpoint. Rather than surrender to fatalism, however, Gleiser finds this an invigorating realization. If we cannot know everything, than there is always something to know, and the joy of discovery is endless! Science is thus a neverending search for truth. But Gleiser is a particularly hard-nosed sort of scientist,
one who insists that there is a firm separation between what we know and
what it means, and that what we think we know is not necessarily Truth.
"The very nature of scientific inquiry, always ongoing and always
under revision necessarily implies the notion of a changing
understanding of reality. As a consequence, we can't ever state what
reality is. The best that we can do is to state what we know of the
nature of reality today." (271) His is a plea for humility in the face of, but also wonder at, the universe. "The nexus of of our quest for knowledge is not to be found outside of
us but within us....The cause for celebration is not 'up above" or 'in
the mind of God' but in this small mass we humans carry within out
cranial cavity." (251-252)
Gleiser is a favorite of mine. As I mentioned above, the way he weaves history and philosophy into science is superb, and gives deeper context. He acknowledges the power and validity of ways of knowing other than science, while never straying into muddled mysticism as some science writers rather embarrassingly do. Gleiser does not countenance "Well, we can't know everything, so God
Did It" arguments. He's a materialist; everything is subject to
scientific scrutiny, even if there are practical, even fundamental,
limits to it, and rigorous scientific methodology must be
maintained at all times. He's also just a good writer, engaging and interesting. He does good, meaty footnotes, too, which you all know is a fetish of mine.
His wonder at the universe, his belief that there is no meaning "out there," but that we can
create meaning, is what profoundly resonates with me. I'm a doubtful person by nature. Grand pronouncements of meaning and purpose do not comfort me. Actually, they do rather the reverse, because I simply cannot believe in them and their certainty. The universe is awesome in its indifference. Despair at this fact, though, has always struck me as pointless and counterproductive. Therefore, as someone who is also curious and studious, the notion of the quest being the meaning, that endless learning is the highest pursuit, is one that naturally appeals.