“Humankind in general stopped understanding where science is going”

Viktor Gorbatov on the present and future of scientific knowledge

“Humankind in general stopped understanding where science is going” Photo: myhseolymp.ru

We can hear the news from the scientific sphere almost every day. However, this world is distancing itself from the “ordinary people’s” world. Philosopher Viktor Gorbatov explained to Realnoe Vremya why humankind systematically gets most of the scientific discoveries wrong and the flipside of science popularisation.

“What if the humans voluntarily end up as an appendage of artificial intelligence, the pet of AI?”

Could you tell us what technological revolutions humankind has had in the last years?

I will single out three key things that are on everyone’s lips. Firstly, it is a qualitatively new state of the Internet, the Internet of Things. The first-generation Internet was rather a connection between corporations and people. But common things, for instance, a fridge or kettle will gradually become Internet users. They will exchange much more information than people. Of course, this can lead to the transformation of many social institutions. Such technology can change the future.

The second technology or, more precisely, a set of technologies is linked with cyborgisation. It is also neurointerface that allow controlling different devices with your mind and enable paralised people to even walk with the help of controlled exoskeletons. Here we can also add different chips and implants to boost memory, improvement of physical and intellectual abilities of the organism, postponement of ageing, substitution of ill and injured organs. It seems that such technologies can also change the future of humankind, moreover, not only externally but also internally, at the level of self-reflection and self-identification.

Artificial intelligence is the third thing that seems to me especially important. AI seems to have broken new ground where it can not only complement but also exceed natural intelligence. What if the humans voluntarily end up as an appendage of artificial intelligence, the pet of AI? Humankind is maybe destined to rethink its role and vision of itself as the culmination, the summit of progress. For instance, in the Strugatsky brothers’ novel Definitely Maybe it was suggested that a slice of lemon or a snifter of cognac are probably the culmination. And the humans were created just to plant lemons and make cognac.

AI seems to have broken new ground where it can not only complement but also exceed natural intelligence. What if the humans voluntarily end up as an appendage of artificial intelligence, the favourite pet of AI? Humankind is maybe destined to rethink its role and vision of itself as the culmination, the summit of progress

What is the goal of contemporary science? To create a comfortable life for people and explain what is still inexplicable?

I will make a brief digression answering this question. There are two big camps among scientists and philosophers of science, which have different values. The first camp can be called realists. They think that there is something real than what science really deals with. For instance, there is the truth, facts, there is sense in aspiring to discover new facts and look for the truth. They consider that we can measure our movement towards the truth, and we can have some criterion of this progress. Important orientation comes from such a totality of assumptions: science has its own autonomous value. For instance, the quest for the truth for science (it if is understood realistically, not just as a beautiful word) is the guiding value for which science exists. And service to society, the progress of humankind and happiness of the future generations — this all can already be considered pleasant side effects.

And there is another camp, the camp of instrumentalists, which says that we can’t seriously assume the existence of some truth, which is independent of us, some facts, which are independent of our theories and the way of their observation. They say that the value of science is in its practical application. And all beautiful formulas, all theoretical concepts, all laws generated by science aren’t the penetration into the essence of things (because there is no essence) but rather a convenient way of describing facts we have at our disposal. In other words, instrumentalists underestimate the value of scientific realism. They pay more attention to the fact that science works well, but we don’t know if it reaches the truth. Science at least solves descriptive, technological and other problems that arise. Here representatives of this camp can’t rely on autonomous values, which are precisely characteristic of science, like the quest for the truth. They have to somehow legitimise the value of scientific quest externally, by indicating service to humankind, the happiness of the future generations and so on. So it is not possible to answer your first question unambiguously. There is no agreement between either scientists themselves or philosophers.

“There were made several discoveries that turn ideas and expectations existing 20-30 years ago upside down

But scientific progress can’t stop, right? Will technological revolutions go on?

To answer this question, let’s go back to the past for just a couple of minutes. The first milestone is the turn of the 19 and 20th centuries. A mathematical congress took place in Paris in 1900 where luminaries of then science expressed their understanding of its current state and its future. Many of them had keynote addresses that they were close to creating final theories, they were about to come to an end of physics, maths, logic. They considered they would prove all possible theorems, and that’s it. David Hilbert announced the slogan then “We must know. We will know”. In other words, what can be proved in mathematics must be proved. Without remnant, completely.

Should we say that just a few years later Bertrand Russell discovered the famous paradox in the foundations of mathematics (Russell's paradox)? And in 1939, Kurt Gödel published the famous incompleteness theorem — it turns out that any quite a rich formal system contains at least some true assumptions that it can’t prove itself.

Now let’s look at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. Here we also meet finalist moods, expectations of the end of science, positive (we will know everything) or negative (we will bump into something essentially unknowable). Generally speaking, what should we be surprised at? History tells us that humankind’s eschatological moods, expectations of the end aggravate at the end of every century. Scientists aren’t an exception here.

John Horgan’s book The End of Science, which was published in 1996, is a very important text for me. By that time, as a science journalist, he had had a lot of interviews with Nobel prize winners, famous scientists who took science to new summits, famous philosophers of science. He managed to meet with Popper, Kun and Feyerabend when they were still alive. In general it turned out that most of the leading intellectuals expected the end of science, though imagined it differently… Now we live in the second decade of the 21st century already, and a lot has changed again. There were made several discoveries that turn ideas and expectations existing 20-30 years ago upside down.

Which ones?

First of all, scientists unexpectedly made progress in the creation of the unified TOE, the Theory of Everything. Unexpected possibilities of creating completely new concepts and verifying the previous ones that were considered unverifiable and speculative were discovered. It is especially notable in fundamental physics, astrophysics, cosmology. Thanks to the creation of the Large Hadron Collider, Higgs boson was discovered. There were made successes in quantum teleportation and so on. Of course, one should treat this news carefully — especially in the way the popular mass media present it. But big breakthroughs that can’t be ignored are plain to see anyway. Scientists report that they transported particles faster than the speed of light, whatever that means. To put it mildly, it contradicts what we considered unalterable in the late 20th century.

“We break new ground where scientists talk about things that can’t be imagined because they are disproportionate to the humans”

Scientists’ words and theories are gradually alienating from the understanding of not a very educated person. It seems that we will completely stop understanding scientists.

In general I can also consider myself as a person who looks at successes of science from the outside, from the pit or even from the gallery. With the appearance of not classical and post-neoclassical ideals of scientific rationality, science began to significantly alienate from the sound mind and our habitual ideas of the illustrative, imaginable, expected. Remember at least Thomas Young’s famous interference experiment when a particle, for instance, electron, behaves as a wave. It seemed to be exploding all our ideas, but then we got used to it. Thanks to the principle of complementarity, we learnt how to comfort ourselves and say: “Never mind, it is the specifics of this kind of phenomena. We have to apply two incompatible sets of classical concepts, but in general they give us the big picture, though contradict each other”.

Thanks to popularisation, thanks to the idea of Schrödinger's cat, the general public has already learnt how to imagine what quantum superposition is. Perhaps, we will learn to understand other things that seem counterintuitive too with time. But I am afraid that scientists will have discovered new ones over this time. They already work faster.

Humankind in general stopped understanding where science is going. Popularisation of science is a good deed, but I don’t know if it can solve this problem

Have you had any unexpected discoveries in your life linked with discoveries in science?

Yes, I have a vivid memory when ten years ago a high school senior told me that the sum of all natural numbers (it is the numbers that naturally come about when counting, like 1, 2, 3) was equal to minus 1/12. It was so strange to me. I thought there might be some focus there and used all my logical skills to find the trick. But the more I studied the material, the more convinced I was that contemporary mathematics already spoke the language that wasn’t habitual for us. The method of working with endless divergent series and their sum is such a strange thing, but it has sense. To understand its sense, one has to study the subject very well.

It seems that we break new ground not only in mathematics but also in physics and cosmology where scientists talk about things that can’t be imagined because they are disproportionate to the humans. It is no surprise. Once science reached the subatomic world where the humans have never been and will never be. This is a world of occurrences of another nature. In other words, the humans evolved not to be good at the structure of the atom. The structure of their sense organs and thinking abilities is unfit to adequately understand the subatomic reality in some clear pictures. Neither were the humans created to travel at near light speed and reason upon metagalaxies and universes. This is why any way of talking about it will always entail a lot of ifs. When physicists say that quarks have a “colour” and “aroma”, they, of course, don’t mean what we mean in our everyday life.

What do you think the danger for science is?

I think big danger is when scientists trying to give some illustrative meaning to their new concepts make up improvised, new images, metaphors or borrow them from everyday life. The danger is that people hurriedly and naively start to accept these metaphors. If we take some average scientific mass media, we will likely see catastrophic distortion, gigantic simplification in headlines, some astonishing ambiguity, which are designed for the reader for easier perception and understanding. In fact, it confuses us more and doesn’t take us closer to the truth.

We are in a situation when we hear shouts from the front line of science, which is far away: “Hey, look, we’ve discovered something new!” But while we find out what exactly was discovered, the essence of this discovery in our consciousness is hopelessly distorted, like in a bad phone. Humankind gets most of the scientific news wrong. I think it is a problem.

Humankind in general stopped understanding where science is going. Popularisation of science is a good deed, but I don’t know if it can solve this problem because popularisation has a flipside — it is inevitably linked with simplification. And any simplification is fraught with distortion, and we can’t be sure that this distortion is acceptable.

By Matvey Antropov. Photo: myhseolymp.ru