Quite by chance, at a cost of only 50 cents, I found a gem at the AAUW book sale. “Causality & Chance In Modern Physics,” written by David Bohm, was a joy (but a struggle) to read. Trying to understand the ideas of a professor of physics explaining the way scientists formulate the laws of nature was a challenge — but very rewarding.
Bohm was at his best in pointing out how scientists go about finding an accurate account of how the universe works and then developing a law of nature to predict future expectations. According to Bohm, scientists do not expect to find a fixed and final statement about the way nature works. This is because the universe throughout is in perpetual motion, change and “becoming.”
The idea of a constant redefining of “truth” is unsettling for those who suppose or wish that our present knowledge can be neatly packaged and safely placed on a shelf to be admired. The mathematician Blaise Pascal’s famous lament might serve as a reminder that life is not a series of neatly planned and directed acts.
“This is our true state; this is what renders us incapable both of certain knowledge and absolute ignorance. We sail on a vast expanse, ever uncertain, ever drifting, and hurried from one to the other goal. If we think to attach ourselves firmly to any point, it totters and fails us; if we follow, it eludes our grasp, and fails us, vanishing forever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, yet always the most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find a steadfast place and an ultimate fixed basis whereon we may build a tower to reach the infinite. But our whole foundation breaks up, and earth opens to the abysses.”
This gloomy existential outlook, however, is as unappealing as the scientific concept of a never-ending quest for a final statement. Bohm deals directly with this almost universal demand for ultimate truth. He concludes that, “It is clear from the above discussion that scientific research does not and cannot lead to a knowledge of nature that is completely free from error. Rather it leads us only to an unending process in which the degree of truth in our knowledge is continually increasing.”
This confession of partial, limited forever adjustable knowledge runs counter to the human need for security and finality. Since fact and logic can never supply adequate security, it is understandable that a leap of faith to some sort of authority claiming to provide this need is so readily adopted. These sources of alleged absolute knowledge are popular and easily accessed. Unfortunately, they come at a cost.
Absolute and inerrant persons, books or institutions have little trouble selling their wares. They disparage the humanly acquired product of science and logic because it has such a lowly origin. They have no hesitancy because they have a “higher” kind of knowledge from a “higher” source.
It is a surprising fact that so many do not take the time to observe that those who profess to possess the absolute cannot agree on what is absolute and publically clash about who has the “real” absolute. Many who accept one of the various absolute plans do so because they feel unqualified to question whole systems of dogmatic theology or to entangle a maze of abstract terms.
It is, therefore, easy to turn this confusing task over to specialists who are gifted in word magic. They do not seem to realize that they have given to another person one of the most precious gifts they have as a human being — the power of rational thought. Searching for certainty in an uncertain world requires the capacity to function with suspended judgment and patience. The search for truth is elusive and there is no need for shame to admit this fact.
Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.