Neither Gods Nor Fools: How Knowledge Evolves and Why Some Theories Are Facts

Chaos, complexity, and new technologies have transformed how we understand the evolution of knowledge. Lyapunov Fractal, 2006. Image in the public domain, Wikicommons.

Situated on our tiny planet, we are not gods. Neither are we fools. (Well, let’s ignore the Google news reader for a few moments and stick to philosophy and science.) In an “alt-fact” culture, where science and rationality are under assault in our planetary network of echo chambers, it is important to understand how knowledge evolves and why some theories are indeed facts.

Far too many (usually well-intentioned) people misunderstand science in their belief that all scientific discoveries are mere “theories” waiting to be confirmed or falsified by empirical evidence and facts. This view is largely inspired by Karl Popper’s philosophy of “scientific method” — created as a counter to the totalitarian philosophies and methodologies that were dominant in the early to mid-20th century. Popper’s methodology certainly applies to new, emerging, and discarded theories. In a nutshell, empirical evidence must support the claims of the new theory and a lack of evidence or other counter-evidence means the new theory may well be falsified.

That said, some theories become facts that can no longer be disputed. Not all theories are relative. For example, the sun-centered star system began as a theory based on limited powers of direct empirical observation without the aid of technology (Kepler and Copernicus). Powered by the technological innovation of the telescope, Galileo confirmed Copernicus’s theory, hence the “Copernican Revolution” — which has since been confirmed by NASA at least a zillion times.

That the Earth goes around the sun is an empirical fact and will be a fact until something knocks the Earth out of solar orbit or when the sun expands to scorch our planet and turn it into a cinder. It is flat-out absurd to claim that Earth orbiting the sun is not a fact and is only a theory. The same with gravity, evolution, the expansion of the universe, etc. It’s was Newton’s equations that guided humans to the moon and allow planes and rockets to fly and land. Darwin’s evolution has been overwhelmingly confirmed, as evidenced by the discoveries of the evolutionary, genetic, and biological sciences. Hubble’s expanding universe has been confirmed in numerous ways, though we still do not fully understand the causes of the expansion. But that the universe is expanding is a fact.

Shallow Relativism

Unfortunately, Popper’s “scientific method” can slide into a shallow relativism that undermines the very science it claims to save, thus paving the way for unchallenged authoritarian-theological claims to absolute truths supported by zero evidence. Or the claims that feelings have the same equivalence or truth value of empirical science. These claims are all over our culture. I know that’s not what Karl Popper intended, but that is the ultimate effect of claiming that all science is mere theory, theory looking for facts and not some certainty. That’s why Popper’s “method” needs to accompanied by Sartre’s existentialist ontology, among other philosophers. To say all science is mere theory is an excuse for sloppy thinking.

Expanding the Known and Unknown

Chaos and complexity theory have transformed how we understand knowledge and human certainty. This was made clear in the ground-breaking science book, Order Out Chaos (1984), by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers. Order Out Chaos presented a radical new model of chaos, complexity, and nonlinear systems, new and emerging sciences which represented a leap forward from Newtonian linear systems. It’s not that Newton was entirely wrong, just that his systems were integrated in larger systems of complexity—made possible by new technologies, especially ever more powerful computers.

In The Postmodern Condition (1979), Jean-Francois Lyotard summarizes the philosophical challenges, which remain relevant today:

“Postmodern science — by concerning itself with such things as undecidables, the limits of precise control, conflicts characterized by incomplete information, “fracta,” catastrophes, and pragmatic paradoxes — is theorizing its own evolution as discontinuous, catastrophic, nonrectifiable, and paradoxical. It is changing the meaning of the word knowledge, while expressing how such a change can take place. It is producing not the known, but the unknown.” [i]

Lyotard is profoundly right—in a sense. We are producing more of the known and unknown together. More known implies more unknown. Yet such uncertainty should not be mistaken for utter ignorance. That we are expanding the unknown is the natural product of expanding the known in a universe of staggering complexity at the micro- and macroscales.

Knowledge Emerges and Evolves with New Evidence

Science and philosophy can be embraced without a commitment to naïve empiricism or empty relativism. We are not omniscient beings, and our methods of knowing have natural limits. Such limits are determined by evolution and the cosmos. Knowledge is asymmetrical, evolving, and open ended. Like the cosmos from which we emerged, our models of the universe are always evolving and adapting to new evidence, new theories, and new technologies. Over time, some theories prove to be true, such as gravity, evolution, and Einstein’s relativity; others are proven false, such as geocentrism, the notion of a flat Earth, and the steady-state universe. It is natural that theory evolves, and such evolution does not mean all knowledge is relative.

Most recently, it has been suggested that humanity’s pollution and detritus have effected a new human-caused geological epoch — the Anthropocene. Scientists are gathering evidence that seems to support the suggestion and it is highly likely that “the Anthropocene” will be confirmed as a scientific fact, at least at this point in time. At the same time, the evidence is mounting that industrial-consumer society is also causing an exinction event. The point is this: science and knowledge are always evolving as new evidence emerges.

This is not to say science is perfect or omniscient, but it is the best we have for understanding the world from which we evolved. The imperfections in science and human understanding reflect the very nature of knowledge and how it is acquired. Over time, science does its best to discard theories that lack evidence and builds upon theories with verifiable evidence and predictability. The same process should hold true for all our fields of human inquiry, including models with apocalyptic predictions or outcomes. The big bang theory and chaos theory are supported by mountains of empirical evidence and provide models that offer various levels of verifiable predictions, even with the unpredictability of chaos. Because of the increasing power of media technologies, our knowledge of the universe is expanding rapidly, but always evolving. The same with our knowledge of climate change, extinction events, and the Anthropocene—the evidence is massively mounting and cannot be denied.

The fact that science evolves is often used to question scientific authority in matters of cosmic truth, but this is a flawed critique rooted in human yearnings for omniscience and eternal truths, mistakenly believed available to nonempirical, nonevidentiary modes of awareness. Science is not omniscient, and neither is any other field of human knowing.

Human knowledge is evolutionary and open ended, always subject to revision when presented with new facts, conditions, theories, and evidence from new media technologies. That’s why some predictions prove to be correct and some prove to be false. That’s why science is filled with surprising discoveries and big disappointments. It is natural that we are expanding the known and unknown, which is why there is a void in cosmic meaning.

That We Are Not Gods Does Not Mean We Are Fools

If knowledge, certainty, and prediction signifies the complete grasp of every possibility in the entire universe, then we are left with the false alternatives of being either omniscient gods or ignorant fools. If certainty and prediction mean omniscience, then we must certainly be ignorant now and blind to the future. From the fact that we cannot know everything, it does not follow that we cannot understand anything — that we are not gods does not mean we are fools.

[i] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 60. That I have cited Lyotard does not mean my ideas can be classified as “postmodern” or that I am a champion of postmodernism, which evolved into a deeply flawed philosophy. I am citing Lyotard because he provides a profound observation.

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Barry Vacker is author of the new book, Specter of the Monolith (2017), which outlines a new and entirely original space philosophy for the human species. The book is available in Apple’s iBooks, Barnes & Noble (here), and Amazon (here).

Theorist of big spaces and big ideas. Writer and mixed-media artist. Existentialist w/o the angst. PhD: Univ of Texas at Austin.