Thoughts on Theories and the Need for Certainty

The other day I read a report on studies that tend to confirm the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – the idea that language affects the very fashion in which we think and even how we think. In turn, that got me to thinking about theories and the controversies which surround them.  While what Whorf postulated almost seventy years ago certainly made sense to him, and the idea behind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis made sense to me when I read Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao years and years ago, long before I even knew that Whorf and Sapir even existed, much less that Whorf had postulated what Vance wrote about more than thirty years before the book, at the time Whorf offered their theory there was no proof… and no real way to offer such proof.  The same was also initially true about the theory of continental drift and the idea of plate tectonics, and even, if for a shorter time, that of Einstein’s theories of relativity.

The lack of proof didn’t mean that the theories were right – or wrong – but merely that they could neither be proved nor disproved at the time they were first offered.  In the cases I’ve mentioned, the preponderance of evidence suggests the theories were correct, or at least largely so.

But… how can you tell the difference between a theory which might be true, if proof existed, and one that is absurd because no proof can ever be developed?  Can you?

And what about the cases where the “proof” itself is not accepted, as was certainly partly true in the case of continental drift?

Human beings want certainty in their science, but the more we learn the more we discover, in essence, that there are exceptions, i.e., modifications, complications, refinements, etc.  Just as the human genome is finally sequenced, research discovers that genes are not even the genetic end-all and be all, because there’s an epigenetic mechanism that can modify and even override genes. 

Unfortunately, the all too understandable reaction of many people is to claim that scientists don’t know what they’re talking about, or that they’re always changing their minds.  Part of this reaction, I suspect, is based on the human arrogance that we should be able to know everything, and that if our supposedly best scientific minds don’t, then they’re not the best… or they’re not good for anything. Another reaction is that mankind was never meant to know everything, and we should just look to our favorite deity for explanations – which are, of course, simple and comforting… and explain very little.

Of course, a little humility in the search for answers and explanations wouldn’t hurt, either, along with the understanding that in a universe that’s taken over fourteen billion years to develop, it might just take a bit more time than the few hundred years humans have had the technology to seek the answers to the complexity of the universe.

But then, that means you can’t get the answer on Google instant.

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