Science is Rebellion

Knowledge relies on throwing out what we think.

What seems most obvious about the world can in fact be false: this is the main characteristic of scientific thinking. Scientific thinking is a continuous quest for novel ways of conceptualising the world. Knowledge is born from a respectful, but radical, act of rebellion against what we currently think. This is the richest heritage the West has left to today’s global culture, its finest contribution.

This act of rebellion is a challenge launched first twenty six centuries ago in Miletus, by Thales and Anaximander: freeing humanity’s understanding of the world from the mythical-religious matrix that had structured thought for thousands of years; considering the possibility that the world is understandable, step after step, without recourse to one or many gods. This is a new prospect for humanity – one that, twenty six centuries later, still frightens the majority of women and men on this little planet floating in space.

The path opened by Anaximander, the continuous re-envisioning of the world, is an immense adventure. The frightening aspect of this adventure is recognising our ignorance. I think that accepting our uncertainty is not only the high road to knowledge – it is also the honest and beautiful choice. Our knowledge, like the Earth, floats in nothingness. Its provisional nature and the underlying void do not make life meaningless; they make it more precious.

We do not know where this adventure is leading, but scientific thinking – continuous critical revision of accepted knowledge, openness to the possibility of rebellion against any belief, the ability to explore new images of the world and create novel ones – represents a major chapter in the slow evolution of the history of humankind. We are immersed in it, curious to see where it may lead.

Thirty centuries ago, human beings, via a course of events that is unknown to us, had surrounded themselves with a system of thought based upon sacrosanct truths. To protect these truths, humanity had developed a complex system of rules, taboos, and power relationships. But reality is change, and the flow of the centuries has radically transformed humankind’s political, mental, and conceptual structures. We no longer need to worship a pharaoh in order to endow with legitimacy the political systems through which we govern ourselves. There are other ways. We no longer need to invoke Zeus to make sense of thunder and rain. Human beings have built the modern world by accepting uncertainty. 

The world is infinitely more complicated than the naïve images we create to find our way through it. The same is true of our thought. The very distinction between the world and our thought is an enigma. Our emotional, social, and psychological complexity still exceeds our grasp. We must choose between hiding away in empty truths, or accepting the radical uncertainty of our knowledge – remaining, like the Earth, suspended in a void. This choice means trusting in a way of knowing that is keen, effective, but without an infallible basis. Only in this way can we continue to understand, recognise our errors and naïveté, broaden our knowledge, and give life the freedom to flourish and grow. I prefer the path of uncertainty. It seems to me that it teaches us more about the world, it is more worthy, more honest, more serious, and more beautiful.


This is an edited extract from Carlo Rovelli, The First Scientist (Westholme 2007)

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David Morey 2 21 August 2015

I like this, however, I'd like to know how Carlo understands how science is able to develop and improve in such changeable and uncertain circumstances.

binra 24 October 2014

Blessed are those whose intuitive faith challenges their experience, because our experience is a constructed reality of belief and definition, accepted true.
Believing is seeing, but of course what one says one believes is belied by one's actual experience and the inevitable reactions that automatically follow on from whatever interpretation IS currently operating.
The underlying 'revolution' is a separation device operating in consciousness whereby a mind seems to have become itself alone in conflict of identity and world in chaos that it takes as the basis to assume and assert power over itself and its world.
The intent to define and understand in this sense is an assertion of control imposed upon a natural order or relational unity that has been/is being temporarily disrupted by the separation device.
One can symbolize this and that's the way the older approaches to knowledge operate, in symbols that used archetypes to story the reflection of consciousness itself - that increasingly became disconnected from original context and became used more as modus of social control.
The reversal operates such that we become defined by our own conditioning, that is like saying we believe our own lies or fall under the spell of our own Word.
So it is appropriate that what seemed to 'get us locked into' limitation, conflict, and a disconnected sense that attempts to use its externally mapped world of others to 'fix or resolve or work out' its own 'salvation', validation, or however it so defines itself justified or complete.
Curiosity and imagination can be used to question the basis of our 'self' and its corresponding 'reality'. For not only is there no separate 'god' acting upon or coercing a Living Universe/Multiverse into existence, there is likewise no separate 'self'.
The layer or level of mind is but one facet and itself operates many levels at once - unconscious, so-called conscious, and superconscious - and we generally assert our surface consciousness to be ON TOP rather than notice it screens a selective focus of possibility from a vast range of probability of a truly infinite range of potential.
Human 'reality' is in some sense like a sandcastle upon an infinite beach - or a bubble in an infinite breaking wave - yet the power of the wave is in it, and the focus of the desire and intent that Life Know Itself guides, moves and supports it. For there IS no actual separation or disconnection from That which moves and gives form to the Formless. Nor can one use the vocabulary-ability of a separated self-sense to objectify or make coercive relation with it or under it.
Anything undertaken from the basis of a dis-integrating movement brings the reinforcement of a dis-integrated self and world; a self in pieces. Humpty the broken cosmic egg-o.
So yes; the willingness to accept that we do not KNOW operates to allow the Knowing that is the Communication of the Whole as the Part, and through the Part in communication extended and relationship embraced. The nature of Reality that is unchangeable is that existence is; and that the one is the all and the all are the one, and that what one puts out is what one gets back.
Such is Creation - not of a separate and separating 'god' but in God of God and as God - for That which Is is, but how you - as an integral expression of All That Is - choose to experience existence, is through the sharing of and in and as Idea. No way of experiencing - or rather - of being the gift-communication of experience itself is in itself more or less valid that any or instant or facet of Creation - not least because nothing is in and of itself alone and apart to be so judged. But what is or is not relevant and resonant to YOUR core signature vibration of focusing desire and exploration is natural to disregard in the creative unfolding of the revelation of ever novel ways to experience and relate and feel and know.
All 'self's' operate against their own Good when they are defined in misalignment with their true desire. Protecting the joyless by sacrificing one's joy is absurd seen in the clear. But the mind protects against being seen in the clear for fear of loss and of change of pain and loss, by which it has conditioned itself to survive against.
Coming back into alignment is also the uncovering of a greater clarity of purpose, of vision and of a more integral meaning from which to live and be. It is our natural inheritance from a prodigal exercise within 'as if' - for Source remains Is - and you Know "I am" as your own Indivisibility of being - regardless that the mind can play divide and rule upon its own models. 'What' anything is and how you choose to relate to it be seem to be conditioned and determined by a universe of cause and effect - but any of this can be challenged back to uncover its roots in the Word or definition/belief we put out - in the understanding that the collective agreements constitute a structure of experiencing that like a classroom, is not an authority to overthrow or a prison to break down - so much as a living framework of opportunity for teaching and learning in rich reflection and shared appreciation.
The mind of revolution/evolution can fade to the appreciation of mind as servant and instrument of truly creative freedom shared. It really is a matter of 'where we are coming from' rather than where we believe we have been and thus are conditioned to repeat round and round in revolving whilst ever struggling to evolve within such self conflicted futility.
Science is a valid exploration within the willingness to uncover truth. But without the love of truth there can only be assertions, coercions and war to establish the version that serves whatever it is that one is choosing to love INSTEAD. Consciousness is inherently responsible in the clear for it sees that it does unto itself. Questioning a version of consciousness that refuses to pause and open to revisit its foundations is not an act of war but of love, though not at first recognized such in a mind that believes division and control as the condition on which its own existence depends.

Abe Beauvoir 23 October 2014

I like what the article says about accepting the, "path of uncertainty", and essentially always entertaining a skepticism to some degree or another, but the question I'd ask is: does science genuinely take the skeptic light to itself/is science an act of Pyrrhonian skepticism?