THE EDGE OF THE PATH

[ Sat. Feb. 1. 2014 ]

As an amateur, I like science. I see myself as a pilgrim on a mountain path, striving toward the summit of enlightenment. The most reliable process for finding out about the world is essential for citizenship and good for the soul (or it would be if science hadn’t failed to demonstrate the existence of a soul). “Most reliable” doesn’t mean 100% reliable, however, only the best compared to flawed intuitions and preconceptions. One of the virtues of science, ideally, is that it is self-correcting and therefore infinitely improvable. Infinity is a lot of room for improvement, though, so the problem is where to begin.

The first thing to fix, according to some scientists, is the assumption that science is infinitely improvable. That was one of the common themes among answers to the annual question from The Edge: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” Taken together, the suggestions from all 177 contributors are about as long as a book, but I skimmed over them to discover eleven areas of overlap and seven areas of disagreement. This involves lumping concepts that, to experts, might have fine-grained differences, but it does show where Edge’s big thinkers harmonize with each other. For instance, Obrist, Rees, Regis, and Saffo independently nominated for retirement the idea of unlimited progress. Judging by the ideas cluttering the scientific enterprise, the summit of ultimate knowledge does indeed seem unreachable.