How Much Can We Know?

By Marcelo Gleiser

“What we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning,” wrote German physicist Werner Heisenberg, who was the first to fathom the uncertainty inherent in quantum physics. To those who think of science as a direct path to the truth about the world, this quote must be surprising, perhaps even upsetting. Is Heisenberg saying that our scientific theories are contingent on us as observers? If he is, and we take him seriously, does this mean that what we call scientific truth is nothing but a big illusion?

People will quickly counterstrike with something like: Why do airplanes fly or antibiotics work? Why are we able to build machines that process information with such amazing efficiency? Surely, such inventions and so many others are based on laws of nature that function independently of us. There is order in the universe, and science gradually uncovers this order.

No question about it: There is order in the universe, and much of science is about finding patterns of behavior—from quarks to mammals to galaxies—that we translate into general laws. We strip away unnecessary complications and focus on what is essential, the core properties of the system we are studying. We then build a descriptive narrative of how the system behaves, which, in the best cases, is also predictive.

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