The Blind Spot

The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 224
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Blind Spot
    Book Description:

    In today's unpredictable and chaotic world, we look to science to provide certainty and answers--and often blame it when things go wrong.The Blind Spotreveals why our faith in scientific certainty is a dangerous illusion, and how only by embracing science's inherent ambiguities and paradoxes can we truly appreciate its beauty and harness its potential.

    Crackling with insights into our most perplexing contemporary dilemmas, from climate change to the global financial meltdown, this book challenges our most sacredly held beliefs about science, technology, and progress. At the same time, it shows how the secret to better science can be found where we least expect it--in the uncertain, the ambiguous, and the inevitably unpredictable. William Byers explains why the subjective element in scientific inquiry is in fact what makes it so dynamic, and deftly balances the need for certainty and rigor in science with the equally important need for creativity, freedom, and downright wonder. Drawing on an array of fascinating examples--from Wall Street's overreliance on algorithms to provide certainty in uncertain markets, to undecidable problems in mathematics and computer science, to Georg Cantor's paradoxical but true assertion about infinity--Byers demonstrates how we can and must learn from the existence of blind spots in our scientific and mathematical understanding.

    The Blind Spotoffers an entirely new way of thinking about science, one that highlights its strengths and limitations, its unrealized promise, and, above all, its unavoidable ambiguity. It also points to a more sophisticated approach to the most intractable problems of our time.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3815-8
    Subjects: General Science, History of Science & Technology, Mathematics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. Preface: The Revelation of Uncertainty
    (pp. VII-XIV)
  4. 1 The Blind Spot
    (pp. 1-16)

    Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the great philosophers of our time, and yet the preceding statement is among his more obscure, especially when thought of in relation to science. In this case, he is saying that certain aspects of science, though real, cannot be put into words. Einstein understood this very well when he talked about his feeling that ʺbehind anything that can be experienced there is something that the mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection.ʺ² The ʺblind spotʺ is my name for those things that are real but...

  5. 2 The Blind Spot Revealed
    (pp. 17-37)

    If the blind spot that I have been discussing in the previous chapter is really present in all situations, then surely scientists must have encountered it on a regular basis in the pursuit of their scientific investigations. This chapter will expand on the manner in which the blind spot can be seen to underlie some of the most dramatic results of modern science. It gives rise to the phenomena of ambiguity, uncertainty, and incompleteness that I will discuss in the following chapters. I will also discuss the possible reactions to these encounters with the blind spot, with that aspect of...

  6. 3 Certainty or Wonder?
    (pp. 38-58)

    What are the implications for science and society of the existence of a blind spot that cannot be captured by systematic thought? We saw in the last chapter that there can be two reactions, which I characterized as negative and positive. In the former, the emphasis was on the fact that reality is forever uncertain, that all systems of thought have their limitations. The latter involved the realization that uncertainty and incompleteness are the price we pay for creativity—in fact, for being alive.

    In this chapter, we shall see that these two points of view lead to two different...

  7. 4 A World in Crisis!
    (pp. 59-68)

    What is the connection between our understanding of science and the crises that society is now facing? It is not that science is responsible for these crises but rather that a misguided view of science has been used in an attempt to create an environment that is secure and predictable in situations that are inappropriate. Human beings have a basic need for certainty. Yet since things are ultimately uncertain, we satisfy this need by creating artificial islands of certainty. We create models of reality and then insist that the modelsarereality. It is not that science, mathematics, and statistics...

  8. 5 Ambiguity
    (pp. 69-90)

    To live in a world of absolute certainty, even if it is only the dream of certainty, is not wrong but it is limited since it involves looking at only one side of the total situation. Acknowledging the existence of a blind spot implies a willingness to live with the other side, the side that contains uncertainty and incompleteness as well as ambiguity and even paradox. In this chapter, I focus on the phenomenon of ambiguity. The usual take on ambiguity is that it reflects a break down in certainty and is ʺcorrectedʺ by removing the ambiguity, thereby reestablishing certainty....

  9. 6 Self-Reference: The Human Element in Science
    (pp. 91-105)

    Science is divided from life by a built-in gap that is not sufficiently appreciated. Life is lived from the inside out as our subjectivity reaches out, as it were, to the objective world. Science goes in the opposite direction. It brings the outside world into our subjective comprehension. This chapter will bring this gap into sharp relief by introducing the ambiguous situation of the scientist whose presence hides unacknowledged behind most discussions of science. The blind spot and the resulting complexity of my description of science is intimately connected to the need to include the self-consciousness of the observer in...

  10. 7 The Mystery of Number
    (pp. 106-123)

    The last chapter was about limits to analytic intelligence. These limits are not just global, they are also local. They come up in almost every situation in which science is discussed; they are implicit in every basic scientific concept. Every scientific theory is supported by a web of primordial ideas; notions such as time, space, number, energy, and matter. Without such ideas, we could not get started with our scientific investigations since these building blocks help us develop a language in which to express our theories, laws, and equations. In a very real sense, such basic ideas generate the scientific...

  11. 8 Science as the Ambiguous Search for Unity
    (pp. 124-155)

    This is a key chapter, but a difficult one. The difficulty is precisely the central paradox of this book: If there is indeed a blind spot, how do you talk about it? If this uncertainty is present in all of our concepts and theories, does this mean we mean must refrain from talking and thinking? Of course not! But it does mean that our theoretical thinking should be put within a larger perspective, a perspective that is open-ended. In particular, certain ideas transcend any particular definition. This was the way in which number was discussed in the last chapter. I...

  12. 9 The Still Point
    (pp. 156-178)

    This chapter is an attempt to integrate some of the themes that have arisen in the previous chapters and, as a result, to begin thinking about science in a different way. A new perspective on science should have room for both the objective and the subjective, for certainty and reason, but also for the ambiguous and the paradoxical. It should view science as dynamic and creative rather than objective and unchanging.

    Any attempt to describe the world precipitates, implicitly or explicitly, a spiral of self-reference. This chapter will show how self-reference and the blind spot are implicit in ambiguity, and...

  13. 10 Conclusion: Living in a World of Uncertainty
    (pp. 179-186)

    One of the people who read a draft of an earlier version of this manuscript asked me how the writing of this book had changed my own view of science. The short answer is that my view of science has become more complex and, as a result, science is now even more interesting and exciting to me. I now see the scientific enterprise as a possible way to live with the total human situation; a vision in which science itself is an unfolding of the creative potentials of the universe. For a good deal of my life I had a...

  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 187-188)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 189-196)
  16. References
    (pp. 197-202)
  17. Index
    (pp. 203-208)