Apollo’s Reckoning

Angus Barrett asks whether there is an ultimate destination for science.

Nietzsche thought that existence was found in the tension between two forces: the ordered, rational and conscious Apollonian, and the chaotic, emotional and unconscious Dionysian, both of which he named after the Greek gods who represented these differing concepts. He believed that life was maximised when the two are balanced; when the Dionysian is applied constructively within an Apollonian framework. He was reiterating the ancient idea of the primacy of the universal dipole and the being that was generated at its interface – which was in turn to be rediscovered by modern neuroscientists in the bi-hemispheric structure of the brain. It turns out that our minds are precisely equipped to address these two opposing parts of experience: the known and the unknown, the self and the other, the predictable and the potential, and so on. While processing of unfamiliar information seems to be dedicated to the right hemisphere, familiarity is more the remit of the left. And if something’s existence is dependent on our knowledge of that thing, this could be described as the fundamental process of creation.

Science – our rational inquiry into the workings of the natural world – is a forum for this process. There is what we know and what we don’t, our great consensus and our unsolved mysteries, and then there is the astronomer at his telescope, or the biologist at her microscope, shining a light onto the dark and uncharted territory between the two. But to view science in this way is to ask a question far deeper than any about the inner workings of stars or cells. That is: ‘Is there an ultimate destination for our work?’ Will our rational inquiry ever uncover every secret of the natural world? Will Apollo, bearing the illuminating torch of science, ever overcome the Dionysian beast once and for all?

Not surprisingly, the jury is still out on this. Many believe that our current framework and narrative correctly describe the universe and that even the so-far impenetrable problems at the bookends of science – the very small and the very big, the origin of life, the fate of the universe – will eventually, perhaps even soon, be understood. The big picture is there, and all we are doing is filling in the gaps. Others believe that such complete understanding is within our grasp, but that other revolutionary discoveries are still to be made. Some, although acknowledging that an underlying nature exists, think that inherent inadequacies in our resources or cognition mean that it will resist elucidation for ever. And then there are many who doubt whether scientific truth, in an absolute sense, exists at all.

What is absolute truth? Whether we will find it depends on what it is. For the empiricists, what was true could not go beyond conscious observation – all that is real, all that we can be certain of, is our experience. But the core pre-supposition of science is that there is indeed an objective reality ‘out there’, existing independently of our observation of it, our interaction with it, or our attention to it. The scientific method seeks to transcend the limits of momentary observation and time, to find truth beyond the subjective and beyond the particular. It does this by taking many observations – the more the better – and then abstracting patterns which are common to all of them, a process of wrestling truth from its particular context. Interestingly, this is precisely what occurs along the right-left hemispheric axis of the brain as knowledge is assimilated. Novel information is observed in its context mostly by the right hemisphere, before being abstracted and categorised by the left to be reapplied elsewhere: the unknown becomes the known. But the left hemisphere is also primarily concerned with ‘making things’, with tools, the artificial and the constructed, which may have important implications about the nature of scientific truth. Could it be artificial too?

Science does indeed run into a problem: the natural world from which it attempts to abstract truth inherently resists abstraction. The abstract and the contextual, just like the primary perspectives of the two brain hemispheres, are deeply incompatible. To reduce the abundance of the natural world to absolute truth is like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Whether the indeterminacy of the quantum world, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, randomness or the stochasticity of biological systems, centuries of inquiry have revealed a cosmos with uncertainty, relativity and probability at its core. This uncertainty is not just in human or experimental imperfection, but in the very nature of things. Nothing is certain, nothing is completely predictable; there are only tendencies for particular things to occur. What we consider to be scientific truth is no more than an approximation, a useful but ultimately inaccurate construction of the left hemisphere, a ‘best guess’ of sorts, and nothing more.

Nietzsche, too, was sceptical of universal truth: ‘There are no eternal facts, as there are no absolute truths’. Instead, he believed in a process of ‘eternal recurrence’, one in which history repeats itself over and over, where ‘everything dies, everything blossoms again; eternally runs the year of being. Everything breaks, everything is joined anew; eternally the same House of Being is built.’ Progress of any sort, whether scientific or ethical, is simultaneously cyclical and directional, a widening gyre with no destination, an infinite regress of frontiers through which our edifices of truth are to be dismantled and rebuilt from the ashes via the same process of abstraction and transformation. Truth is ultimately relative, provisional, a human construction that comes and goes in cycles.

So, does this mean all of our work is in vain? Personally, I don’t think so. Nietzsche told us that existence could be found in the tension between the known and the unknown, between the finite and the infinite, and that the preservation of both, along with the process that transforms one into the other, was a pre-requisite for everything: for experience and understanding, for life and death, for meaning itself. And if our quest for knowledge ended, what would become of us? What would give our existence meaning? Thus, we should view science not as an answer but as a question, not a product but a process, not a destination but a journey. We can be satisfied with partial truth, with provisional and constructed truth, because ‘ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love’. In other words, not truth, but the pursuit of truth, should be our goal.

Oxford professor Roger Penrose, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, put it most plainly and powerfully when he was asked why he thought believing in an ultimate destination for science was a pessimistic outlook. ‘Solving mysteries is a wonderful thing to do,’ he replied. ‘And if they were all solved, somehow, that would be rather boring’.

Angus Barrett is an Undergraduate in Biology at Magdalen College. Artwork by Pippa Newberry. Cartoon by Ralf Zeigermann.