Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Biological Limits of Reason

There was a fascinating article on certainty--how we become "convinced"--and the limits of reason in Salon last week by Robert A. Burton (actually, it appears to be an excerpt from his book On Being Certain; link via the first comment to this post at The Valve). Here's a sample:
It's not easy, of course, but somehow we must incorporate what neuroscience is telling us about the limits of knowing into our everyday lives. We must accept that how we think isn't entirely within our control. Perhaps the easiest solution would be to substitute the word "believe" for "know." A physician faced with an unsubstantiated gut feeling might say, "I believe there's an effect despite the lack of evidence," not, "I'm sure there's an effect." And yes, scientists would be better served by saying, "I believe that evolution is correct because of the overwhelming evidence."

I realize that this last sentence runs against the grain of those who have fought the hardest to establish science as the method for determining the facts of the external world. It is particularly loathsome when you feel that you are playing into the hands of religious fanatics, medical quacks and word-twisting politicians. But in pointing out the biological limits of reason, including scientific thought, I'm not making the case that all ideas are equal or that scientific method is mere illusion. My purpose is not to destroy the foundations of science, but only to point out the inherent limitations of the questions that science asks and the answers it provides.

No comments: