We live in an age when the epistemological certainty of science is supposedly an unquestioned fact. To some the only way to true knowledge is through science and those things that are empirically verifiable. Anything else, such as philosophy or religion, is so much mumbo jumbo.
We are told by many of our cultural elites that “scientific consensus” is not to be questioned, whether this be about evolution or “climate change.” But consensus is a strange thing upon which to hang science’s definitive hat. By definition, science is theoretical; that which is supposedly true can at another time based on empirical observation be proven untrue, or at least open to question.
Thus science is at best a tenuous thing on which to base a complete worldview.
An unquestioned theory that has gained scientific consensus over the last century is Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the foundation of modern physics. Before Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton was the consensus; after Einstein, not so much. Yet scientists who lived prior to Einstein were convinced beyond doubt that Newton understood the true workings of the universe. After the Theory of Relativity, Newton was old news. Based on a recent inexplicable result of a scientific experiment, Einstein may be out as well.
The news hasn’t gotten widespread play in the media, but it certainly has the scientific world flummoxed. As Charles Krauthammer put it some weeks ago:
The implications of such a discovery are so mind boggling, however, that these same scientists immediately requested that other labs around the world try to replicate the experiment. Something must have been wrong to account for a result that, if we know anything about the universe, is impossible.
And that’s the problem. It has to be impossible because, if not, everything we know about the universe is wrong.
The fundamental axiom of Einstein’s theory of relativity is the absolute prohibition on speed faster than light. Einstein’s predictions about how time slows and mass increases as one approaches the speed of light have been verified by a mountain of experimental evidence. As velocity increases, mass approaches infinity and time slows to zero, making it progressively and, ultimately, infinitely difficult to achieve light speed. Which is why nothing does. And nothing ever has.
Until two weeks ago Thursday.
What happened on that Thursday is that a neutrino travelled faster than the speed of light, or so the experiment showed. Notice how Krauthammer says that Einstein’s predictions have been “verified by a mountain of experimental evidence.” One would think that against such a mountain confidence in the conclusion should be absolute. But science doesn’t allow absolute. Science allows only the tentative, even if a very positive tentative.
Yet the cultural zeitgeist is imbued with the mentality that the only way knowledge can be achieved is through empirical, scientifically replicable observation. Of course, most normal people not driven by ideology know that there are very different kinds of knowledge that have nothing to do with what can be proved by experimentation. How do you “know,” for example, what is good? How do you “know” when you are in love? How do you “prove” something is beautiful? How do you “know” what is right or wrong?
You can’t prove any of this through replicable experiments, but that is far from saying these things can’t be known, much less that we should decide that they don’t exist.
Those who understand the tenuous nature of man’s existence and our absolute finitude regarding what is knowable would approach any area of knowledge with an appropriate humility. As the old saying goes, the more we know, the more we don’t know. As we mature in life, we should become more humble even as our convictions about the meaning of life remain firm. Humility is not an invitation to nihilism, nor is it an embrace of what is called postmodernism. What it is, is a right understanding of a finite human being in the face of a universe filled with mystery.