Monday, 20 June 2011

The Blind Spot – William Byers ***

If you decide to read this book, and you’re not a professional philosopher, you’d be advised to first find a quiet place where you won’t easily be disturbed, and proceed slowly. This is seriously difficult stuff.
Or at least I found it so in parts. This is because William Byers’s aim is nothing less than to develop the foundations of a whole new philosophy of science, based on the ideas of ambiguity and uncertainty in science, and it’s very much written along the lines of’ ‘Now I will introduce the idea of…’ etc. I’ll give a sketch of what Byers’s way of thinking about science actually is – some elements of it are familiar and easily comprehensible, some less so.
The general idea is that, whilst science has traditionally been seen as something which can provide certainty and which can give us a completely objective view of reality, there is an inherent uncertainty built into scientific ideas and a limit to what it can shed light on. Science can’t solve every problem, as we might be tempted to believe, due to its ‘blind spots’, and it’s important that we recognise this fact, Byers say. I think Byers overestimates the extent to which scientists (and the public) believe science can, in fact, solve every problem, but this is a relatively minor point.
Going a little deeper into Byers’s philosophy of science, we have talk of the self-referential nature of science, and the notion of the subjectivity of logical reasoning. We’re also invited to think of scientific concepts as ‘protoconcepts’ that are fluid and not static – they are approximations and there’s nothing concrete about them. Nothing overly challenging here – this is comprehensible stuff, and these ideas will be relatively familiar to some.
Going deeper still, though, things become quite tough. There is Byers’s idea of ‘The One’, which is a kind of unity of the universe and consciousness. This unity, it is explained, is connected to what he calls the fundamental ambiguity in science. The fundamental ambiguity is the idea that science is partly ambiguous, and partly unambiguous, with the unambiguous aspects of science also being ambiguous. Did you get that?
I wish I could say that this point becomes clearer when you read the whole book, but I’m not sure it does. I was always waiting for the point where I would go ‘Ah, yes, now I see what he means’, but this moment never came, and I was often left in a state of confusion. I was also waiting for an example of a specific scientific idea that was going to illustrate the abstract point being made – but one was never forthcoming. The idea of ambiguity in science isn’t a problem – think of an electron, for instance, which is inherently ambiguous, not being wholly a wave nor a particle. But the discussion of ‘ambiguous ambiguities’ and so on is taken to a level where it’s sometimes hard to get a real hold on what’s being talked about.
I should say a couple of things. First of all, despite the above, the general argument that we need to re-evaluate exactly what science can do for us, and what its limits are, remains clear and convincing. Secondly, what’s good is that the author is aware that parts of the book are difficult to get your head round, and is sympathetic to the fact that we’re likely to struggle with it.
It’s certainly a challenge, then (although which of us with an interest in science hasn’t come across challenging and difficult ideas before?). I would recommend that any students of philosophy of science take a look at this. As for anyone with a general interest in science and philosophy, just be aware that you’ll be encountering some pretty obscure ideas and might, at points, struggle with it.
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Review by Matt Chorley

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