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Lecture explores the known, unknown and unknowable

Laurinburg, N.C. – “We use science to make sense of the universe. It is related to very deep questions. Every culture has come up with a narrative of creation. It is based on an urge to know. We are creatures that want to understand. Science provides us with different ways to understand nature.”

These were the words world-renowned theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser used to open the 2011 John Calvin McNair Lecture on Science and Theology at St. Andrews University Tuesday evening.

“The questions we ask about Nature and about existence are framed according to their historical context,” Gleiser said. “In other words, as knowledge evolves, the way we frame our questions—even the same ones, say, what is the size of the cosmos? — also change.”

Gleiser went on to explain that because science is built on concepts that are observational, measureable and testable, there are fundamental limitations to what science can explain.

“Science is not a final product,” he shared. “It is an ongoing narrative. We need to fail in order to move forward. We need to be more humble about what we can and cannot do. Science is good at proving things exist but cannot prove what does not exist.”

Pulling from his lecture title, “The known, the unknown and the unknowable,” Gleiser defined those terms for the near capacity audience.

“The known comprises the accumulated body of knowledge about the natural world, obtained through the diligent application of the scientific method based on empirical validation,” he said. “A quick glance at the history of science shows that what belongs within this realm changes in time: as we learn more of the world, more becomes known; but also, what was once considered accepted knowledge may become obsolete or simply wrong.

“The realm of the unknown comprises that which we don’t yet know exists but that we should be able to discover and understand through the methods of science,” he continued. “A simple metaphor may serve to illustrate this point, which I call the Island of Knowledge: we live within this island, which grows as our knowledge of the world grows. Outside is the unknown. As the history of science shows, new discoveries lead not only to answers but also—and crucially—to new questions. Thus, as we learn more and the island grows, so do the shores of our ignorance.”

The unknowable, as defined by Gleiser, are those areas that lie beyond the reach of science because it cannot follow the logical framework science applies to examine natural phenomena.

“The unknowables I am referring to are firmly rooted on our approach to knowledge, on the very limitations of the methods we have to describe what is real,” Gleiser said. “Science needs a scaffolding, a structure upon which to operate.”

Returning to the idea of failure as a key to advancement, Gleiser emphasized the need for scientific theories to be testable.

“If a hypothesis cannot be put to the test, it cannot serve as a scientific hypothesis or a viable explanation of how nature works,” he said. “For testing to happen, we need to measure. And so, we can state that we only know what we can measure: measurement plays a key role in the advancement of knowledge, although this is often forgotten in the heat of theoretical speculation. This means that our knowledge of the physical world changes in time, advancing as our measuring technologies advance. We can thus conclude that what we call ‘reality’ is elusive: what wasn’t real yesterday may become real tomorrow.”

Gleiser closed by answering what we as humans can attach ourselves to if science is “an ever-evolving, self-correcting narrative.”

“Surprisingly, our current view of the world leads us to a repositioning of humanity at the center of the cosmos,” he said. “Not, of course, as its geographic center, or for being “chosen creatures” as in pre-Copernican times, but as sentient beings capable of high reasoning and thus of realizing how crucial the preservation of life is.

“There are trillions of moons and planets out there. We are the only organic entities with the ability to think about existence. We can understand the value of life. We need to realize how rare planet earth is. Until we find other sentient beings in the Universe, we are how the Universe thinks about itself. To be the cosmic conscience and the guardians of life should imbue us with a renewed sense of meaning.”

The ongoing dialog on the relationship between science and religion will again take center stage at St. Andrews University on Feb. 21, 2012 when Former Governor James Martin shares his insights at the Religion and Science Roundtable. Free and open to the public, preregistration will be required due to space limitations. More information will become available closer to the date of the event.

About St. Andrews University

St. Andrews is a student and teaching-focused University which offers a broad range of undergraduate majors in a curriculum that is global in scope and practical in its application. The quality of the St. Andrews educational experience has been recognized by U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review, and GI Jobs among others. In addition to its academic programs, the University has an acclaimed university press, men’s and women’s athletic teams, a nationally competitive equestrian program, and an award-winning pipe band. St. Andrews is a branch of Webber International University, Florida. Further information may be obtained by visiting the University’s website www.sapc.edu, calling 800-763-0198, or sending an e-mail to info@sapc.edu.


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