Skip to main content

The Blind Spot – William Byers ***

If you decide to read this book, and you’re not a professional philosopher, you’d be advised to first find a quiet place where you won’t easily be disturbed, and proceed slowly. This is seriously difficult stuff.
Or at least I found it so in parts. This is because William Byers’s aim is nothing less than to develop the foundations of a whole new philosophy of science, based on the ideas of ambiguity and uncertainty in science, and it’s very much written along the lines of’ ‘Now I will introduce the idea of…’ etc. I’ll give a sketch of what Byers’s way of thinking about science actually is – some elements of it are familiar and easily comprehensible, some less so.
The general idea is that, whilst science has traditionally been seen as something which can provide certainty and which can give us a completely objective view of reality, there is an inherent uncertainty built into scientific ideas and a limit to what it can shed light on. Science can’t solve every problem, as we might be tempted to believe, due to its ‘blind spots’, and it’s important that we recognise this fact, Byers say. I think Byers overestimates the extent to which scientists (and the public) believe science can, in fact, solve every problem, but this is a relatively minor point.
Going a little deeper into Byers’s philosophy of science, we have talk of the self-referential nature of science, and the notion of the subjectivity of logical reasoning. We’re also invited to think of scientific concepts as ‘protoconcepts’ that are fluid and not static – they are approximations and there’s nothing concrete about them. Nothing overly challenging here – this is comprehensible stuff, and these ideas will be relatively familiar to some.
Going deeper still, though, things become quite tough. There is Byers’s idea of ‘The One’, which is a kind of unity of the universe and consciousness. This unity, it is explained, is connected to what he calls the fundamental ambiguity in science. The fundamental ambiguity is the idea that science is partly ambiguous, and partly unambiguous, with the unambiguous aspects of science also being ambiguous. Did you get that?
I wish I could say that this point becomes clearer when you read the whole book, but I’m not sure it does. I was always waiting for the point where I would go ‘Ah, yes, now I see what he means’, but this moment never came, and I was often left in a state of confusion. I was also waiting for an example of a specific scientific idea that was going to illustrate the abstract point being made – but one was never forthcoming. The idea of ambiguity in science isn’t a problem – think of an electron, for instance, which is inherently ambiguous, not being wholly a wave nor a particle. But the discussion of ‘ambiguous ambiguities’ and so on is taken to a level where it’s sometimes hard to get a real hold on what’s being talked about.
I should say a couple of things. First of all, despite the above, the general argument that we need to re-evaluate exactly what science can do for us, and what its limits are, remains clear and convincing. Secondly, what’s good is that the author is aware that parts of the book are difficult to get your head round, and is sympathetic to the fact that we’re likely to struggle with it.
It’s certainly a challenge, then (although which of us with an interest in science hasn’t come across challenging and difficult ideas before?). I would recommend that any students of philosophy of science take a look at this. As for anyone with a general interest in science and philosophy, just be aware that you’ll be encountering some pretty obscure ideas and might, at points, struggle with it.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…