All around Jewish blogland, skeptics battle true believers in what is practically a formal dance for its predictability. That’s not to say that they’re not fun to engage in, or that you don’t learn something new every once in a while.
Among the claims made by skeptics is that science has proven itself to be the only reliable tool for discovering truths about the universe. This claim is most commonly rebutted by the argument that science is constantly changing and revising its opinions, and that much of what we accept today will be overturned tomorrow. Thus, there is no point in rejecting received knowledge (i.e. the Mesorah), for science, since science is unreliable. whereas the Mesorah must be true. (Of course, if you believe the latter, you don’t really need to make arguments, yuo simply have an axiom, albeit one that few others are willing to live by.)
Skeptics counter that science is refining its knowledge, but that on the whole, scientific knowledge in many areas is settled. We are not, for example, going to discover that light moves at a different speed, that gravity actually has no relation to mass or distance, or that the earth is only a few thousand years old.
I’m not so certain. Try this one for size: We have yet to understand the mechanism by which gravity works, even though we can predict its effect precisely. We know that the earth pulls on the moon, but how does it pull on the moon? The answers presented by physics today give such a mysterious picture of the universe as to be a radical departure from our current understanding of what the universe is and how it operates. While our measurements may not change much, and will continue to allow us to engage in scientific feats like space travel, computers, and all the other miracles of our age, our understanding will be radically different.
For all the controversy and exciting potential for discovery in the physical world, the more fluid world, the one from which the arguments of the true believers may yet find nourishment, is in the world of perception and cognition. Not to sound too much like a post-modernist, but facts do depend upon perception, and if we do not understand how we perceive and understand things, then how can we truly understand those things?
1. How is information coded in neural activity?
2. How are memories stored and retrieved?
3. What does the baseline activity in the brain represent?
4. How do brains simulate the future?
5. What are emotions?
6. What is intelligence?
7. How is time represented in the brain?
8. Why do brains sleep and dream?
9. How do the specialized systems of the brain integrate with one another?
10. What is consciousness?
With such bedrock questions about our own nature still open before us, how much confidence can we have in our scientific achievements? We’ve onyl been engaged in really effective systematic science for a couple of hundred years. Is the universe, and are we, so simple as to yield all secrets in so short a span? Perhaps believers need to respect what science has discovered and achieved more than they do, but skeptics most certainly need to learn some humility in the face of the fundamental ignorance that we still toil in.