- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (October 27, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0465049648
- ISBN-13: 978-0465049646
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 78 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #164,220 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning 1st Edition
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Early Western philosophers looked for a unified theory of the nature of matter. Thales (600 BCE) thought "all stuffs of the world were but different manifestations of a primal stuff, the embodiment of a reality always in flux". Parmenides, somewhat later, wrote "that what is can not change, for it then becomes what it is not". According to Lucretius (50 BCE), Leucippus and Democritus thought that all things were made of unchanging atoms moving in a void under various forces, assuming different shapes and forms under different forces by the reordering of numerous atoms. Aristotle posited a bottom-up natural arrangement of his four basic substances--earth, water, air and fire--to explain why a body moved up or down when displaced from its natural place.
As the author notes, scientific inquiry is an ongoing process, implying an ever-changing perception of reality. Aristotle's version of physical reality dominated western thought until Galileo, Kepler and Newton in the 17th century turned to measurement of physical phenomena and the construction of natural laws to explain those measurements, thereby constructing a new version of physical reality which was embellished over the next two centuries, notably by Maxwell's introduction of the electromagnetic field.
Then, early in the 20th century this classical version of physical reality was shattered by Einstein's replacement of Newton's force-at-a-distance concept of gravity by the warping of space, and the quantum theory of Heisenberg and Schrodinger raised issues of how to understand the fundamental laws that govern physical reality. The author provides an enlightening discussion of the many fascinating aspects of 20th century physics, from which he concludes that there may be inherent limits to what science (physics) can say about physical reality, and these limits are more than just limitations in technology. Many physicists, myself included, would stop short of this conclusion, noting the author's earlier statement that scientific inquiry is an ongoing process, implying an ever-changing perception of reality.
Regarding the book's title, the expanding island/shoreline metaphor is apt and well elaborated. Here the area of the island associates with the body of extant knowledge, and the shoreline with the accumulation of unanswered questions. From the shoreline, the waters loom as the unknown, and even some of the unknowable, against the horizon of the marginally knowable. Beyond the horizon lies the strictly unknowable, as proscribed via physical constraints. Notably, the island of knowledge is not composed solely of scientific knowledge, as the author admits other ways of knowing (which lie outside the scope of the book). Plato's Allegory of the Cave is also invoked to characterize human limitations in discerning reality. As an interesting twist, the cave wall, onto which human access to reality is projected, affords enhanced perceptual resolution concomitant with the increase in extant knowledge.
The book is divided into three complementary parts: the cosmos, matter, and cognitive faculties. I found the first two parts to be excellent and most insightful, but the third part seemed rather weak and not well integrated into the foregoing parts. Seemingly, the book's treatment of cognitive faculties is directed at limitations regarding human prospects for dealing with the potentially knowable. Here, binding limitations associate with intellectual tools like mathematics, and constraints like those imposed by Godel's Proof. Thus, some cognitive limitations apply to scientific inquiry in general. Aside from these absolute limitations, each individual investigator has personal perceptual horizons that tend to occlude or distort the apprehension of what precisely is known, what is potentially knowable, and what questions are in consequence entailed or answerable. Apart from inherent limitations on what is knowable per considerations of physics then, there are cognitive limitations of either an essential nature or an incidental one.
Furthermore, these three parts of the book do not reflect a "shifting scientific worldview" (p. xiv), at least in my construal; rather, these foci have been more or less contemporaneous since antiquity. Instead, the distinguishing shifts largely associate with the progression of four understandings of the phenomenon of gravity: Aristotelian, Newtonian, Einsteinian, and that of quantum gravity. This progression is quite well developed in the first two parts of the book. Moreover, this progression now yields to the prospect of a pending "new physics (that) needs to explain how...the physics of the very large meets the physics of the very small. This is the realm of `quantum gravity', the marriage of the general theory of relativity with quantum physics" (p. 72).
What especially held my interest in the first two parts was the well integrated and highly readable exposition of the key controversies and discoveries in the physical sciences. The text read well and the ideas flowed smoothly. This coverage was augmented by relevant notes on shifting worldviews, contributions/speculations of principal figures, and the author's remarks/insights. Regarding worldview transitions, the current protracted puzzlement and dissensus with respect to the interpretation and full assimilation of quantum theory receive insightful treatment, albeit one necessarily with a less than satisfying closure. Basically, the radical yet demonstrated aspects of quantum physics of action-at-a-distance and quantum interference are deeply disquieting and obdurately problematic for many in the physical sciences research community. This demonstration is nicely described in Chapter 26, wherein the author undertakes to "discuss Bell's theorem and how its experimental implementation shows that reality is stranger than fiction." Here, the `extraordinary' prevails in several experimental cases, which show the violation of Bell's inequality in consonance with the quantum predictions.
Accordingly, a still emerging worldview will somehow have to rationalize and accept "how nature behaves at the shortest distances", i.e., action nonlocality and measurement nondeterminism. In consequence, there is now major research emphasis on the foundations of quantum physics, as in the phenomena of pair entanglement and superluminal interactions. Meanwhile, derivative technologies like semiconductor devices and quantum computing are nonetheless exploiting quantum effects, if only on an as yet exploratory basis.
Among the interesting sidelights regarding the actual research pursuits of quite a few historically prominent figures are their somewhat prevalent investigations into alchemy or the occult. Newton, for example, was considerably involved in alchemy, and J. J. Thompson in occult endeavors. Alchemy, moreover, is seen as sort of a precursor to modern science, although it eventually discarded such subject matters. With the demonstration of quantum weirdness or the `extraordinary', however, it would seem that such discarding may not be altogether warranted, at least rhetorically.
As a non-specialist in its subject areas, I nonetheless really enjoyed this book. Its content was very illuminating, largely in that it clearly explained and integrated matters with which I had been somewhat familiar but inadequately informed. Despite certain of my reservations, like one cited above, I believe this book to be a solid Five-Star selection. Further, Professor Gleiser's writing would suggest that he is an agile, spellbinding, and compelling lecturer.