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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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Knowledge and the Higgs Boson

This essay makes a point that is only implicit in most of my other essays–namely that scientists are arro—oops that is for another post. The point here is that science is defined not by how it goes about acquiring knowledge but rather by how it defines knowledge. The underlying claim is that the definitions of knowledge as used, for example, in philosophy are not useful and that science has the one definition that has so far proven fruitful. No, not arrogant at all.

The classical concept of knowledge was described by Plato (428/427 BCE – 348/347 BCE) as having to meet three criteria: it must be justified, true, and believed. That description does seem reasonable. After all, can something be considered knowledge if it is false? Similarly, would we consider a correct guess knowledge? Guess right three times in a row and you are considered an expert –but do you have knowledge? Believed, I have more trouble with that: believed by whom? Certainly, something that no one believes is not knowledge even if true and justified.

The above criteria for knowledge seem like common sense and the ancient Greek philosophers had a real knack for encapsulating the common sense view of the world in their philosophy. But common sense is frequently wrong, so let us look at those criteria with a more jaundiced eye. Let us start with the first criteria: it must be justified. How do we justify a belief? From the sophists of ancient Greece, to the post-modernists and the-anything-goes hippies of the 1960s, and all their ilk in between it has been demonstrated that what can be known for certain is vanishingly small.

Renee Descartes (1596 – 1960) argues in the beginning of his Discourse on the Method that all knowledge is subject to doubt: a process called methodological skepticism. To a large extend, he is correct. Then to get to something that is certain he came up with his famous statement: I think, therefore I am.  For a long time this seemed to me like a sure argument. Hence, “I exist” seemed an incontrovertible fact. I then made the mistake of reading Nietzsche[1] (1844—1900). He criticizes the argument as presupposing the existence of “I” and “thinking” among other things. It has also been criticized by a number of other philosophers including Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970). To quote the latter: Some care is needed in using Descartes’ argument. “I think, therefore I am” says rather more than is strictly certain. It might seem as though we are quite sure of being the same person to-day as we were yesterday, and this is no doubt true in some sense. But the real Self is as hard to arrive at as the real table, and does not seem to have that absolute, convincing certainty that belongs to particular experiences. Oh, well back to the drawing board.  

The criteria for knowledge, as postulated by Plato, lead to knowledge either not existing or being of the most trivial kind. No belief can be absolutely justified and there is no way to tell for certain if any proposed truth is an incontrovertible fact.  So where are we? If there are no incontrovertible facts we must deal with uncertainty. In science we make a virtue of this necessity. We start with observations, but unlike the logical positivists we do not assume they are reality or correspond to any ultimate reality. Thus following Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) we distinguish the thing-in-itself from its appearances. All we have access to are the appearances. The thing-in-itself is forever hidden.

But all is not lost. We make models to describe past observations. This is relatively easy to do. We then test our models by making testable predictions for future observations. Models are judged by their track record in making correct predictions–the more striking the prediction the better. The standard model of particle physics prediction of the Higgs[2] boson is a prime example of science at its best. The standard model did not become a fact when the Higgs was discovered, rather its standing as a useful model was enhanced.  It is the reliance on the track record of successful predictions that is the demarcation criteria for science and I would suggest the hallmark for defining knowledge. The scientific models and the observations they are based on are our only true knowledge. However, to mistake them for descriptions of the ultimate reality or the thing-in-itself would be folly, not knowledge.

 



[1] Reading Nietzsche is always a mistake. He was a madman.

[2] To be buzzword compliant, I mention the Higgs boson.

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