A brief reflection on the absurd success of science

Swarms of living things? Human beings? Heaven and earth? None of this is real. Not really.

What there really is, for science, are only things made up of smaller things made up of smaller things made up of smaller things.


"Print Gallery" by M.C. Escher blends optical illusions together, but there's a place where the images can't fit together consistently: the very center, where Escher cheated by putting his signature.
“Print Gallery” by M.C. Escher blends optical illusions together, but there’s a place where the images can’t fit together consistently: the very center, where Escher cheated by putting his signature.

So writes philosopher Alva Noë for the NPR 13.7 blog (emphasis in the original). The piece is brief, punchy, and (to me at least) confusingly written, possibly because of the brevity. However, from what I can glean, Noë is claiming that because the stuff of daily life — humans, our environment, Earth itself — is made up of atoms, which themselves are made of subatomic particles, our experience is illusory. Throw in some perplexing statements about God and the Genesis creation narrative and we’re left with an essay that not-so-subtly equates physics with mythology.

Ordinarily that sort of thing wouldn’t get more than a moment’s rise out of me, but Noë is a professor and published writer. Also, this is NPR, which at its best is home to in-depth stories, reflective pieces, and intelligent discourse. Because, if Noë means what I think he means, this piece is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the modern scientific view of the physical Universe and a damaging one at that.

We are confabulators and the world we think we know and share is, at best, our figment. A grand illusion.[1]

I’m no philosopher, so my understanding of epistemology (the ways we know) is probably limited. However, I’m disturbed by the association of the macroscopic world with an “illusion”, a “figment”. True, the fundamental particles of nature are not generally accessible in our daily existence, but the macroscopic world arises from the microscopic — and we understand the former ultimately via the latter. Even without knowing about atoms or electrons, we can describe things like air pressure or electric current in a consistent way. You need not know about the process of making ink to understand the book. The novel is not an illusion because you don’t know how the paper is made.

Noë may be saying the entire edifice of physics is an illusion; I’m not sure. However, it’s a reliable illusion, shared by many across the world. If the world we observe is illusory, it’s a persistent one: we can perform experiments and create consistent theoretical models. We can use those experiments and models to make medicines that treat diseases, build computers, and predict the behavior of stars in galaxies hundreds of millions of light-years away. And I say “we” deliberately: this isn’t one person engaging in delusional behavior, but a large community spanning much of the globe, running through time into past centuries and hopefully extending far into the future.

The success of science is remarkable, even unreasonable in light of how the natural world could behave. We easily and regularly conceive of worlds that largely resemble our own, but where some rules are different, allowing for psychic or telekinetic powers, magic, and flying animals the size of cities. Mythologies are built around cyclic time, where past and future are indistinguishable and history is a meaningless concept. Yet, not everything we can think of is true. Some illusions are truly illusory. We can trust that quarks exist (for example) because our experiments behave as though they do, and no other model can yet to describe the same phenomena as effectively, but we can be pretty certain that there is no such thing as Bigfoot.

I get that much of science isn’t intuitive: quantum physics and genetics are two examples that come to mind as essential parts of modern science that require mental restructuring to grasp. They may seem as alien to those who are seeing them for the first time as a culture’s mythology or religion does to outsiders, but here’s a difference: science can be learned, and does not require belief. Quite the opposite: science requires skepticism and questioning; it fails when one makes too many assumptions, or when one trusts a favored idea too much.

Certainly there are values you must adopt to accept that science is a trustworthy way of looking at the world, and those values can be very alien: authority is tenuous, there is no ultimate judge of a theory’s veracity, and when a scientist thinks they are being absolutely objective, that’s when to double-check their results with the greatest scrutiny. We can be fooled, but despite that fact, we have achieved a remarkably successful way of examining our world.


  1. Add to his crimes getting a Styx song stuck in my head.

2 responses to “A brief reflection on the absurd success of science”

  1. Nicely put. I’m firmly in the “we create only models of the real world” camp, where our theories are tenuous and subject to change (as we find the limits of our models). But to go from there to “nothing exists” seems a rather silly jump to me. Of course the “silly jump” is stock in trade for those who seek to get their students (and others) to think deeply about things. Perhaps the provocative philosopher poked in order to get a physicist to write this very blog? Hmmm. Now that I’ve thought about this, I’m going to have a stout and start a fire. That combustion reaction WILL take place.

  2. There is a firm line between science and belief. This does not say that they both cannot peaceably coexist, but rather that they are two separate and distinct things. My working definition of science is that science is the study of reproducible events. Nothing more and nothing less. Belief is everything else.

    In this sense, science is a really humble endeavor seeking to count and record what we observe. From this perspective, it is limited and only a minuscule sampling of what we know. Based on Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, it can’t even prove its own veracity.

    Because it only seeks to count what we observe, science does not presume such absurd arguments as this world is illusory, or that there is no God, god(s), or whatevers, or nothings. Such presumption requires a faith or belief. In this definition, even atheism is a belief structure. Because, the proof for or against a Devine creator can only be made by that individual and is not reproducible.

    Here science teaches me humility. As a scientist, I care about reproducibility with such a maniacal zeal as to put the Inquisition to shame. Because I do this, and because I accept the limits of what I can see and understand. I am taught acceptance of others perspectives for those situations that I cannot explain, which is infinitely larger than what I can explain.

    Live and let live. I cannot make someone, who refuses to see the evidence in front of them, actually see the evidence. I don’t have to. For that, consequence removes any truculence. I remain optimistic because entropy always wins. There is no cheating the second law.

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