Is the idea that anything can be determined with absolute certainty an illusion?
In mathematics and science, “certainty” is often assumed to be the result of quantification or experimentation. This notion is reassuring, but it can also set a dangerous precedent for how we view and interact with the natural world. This so-called mythology of science, or misguided “culture of certainty,” hides what mathematics professor emeritus Byers (How Mathematicians Think, 2007) calls “the blind spot”—an inevitable ambiguity within all situations, from the velocity of an elementary particle to the behavior of the stock market. Even established scientific fields like evolutionary biology or quantum mechanics are inherently ambiguous, though the data and knowledge gleaned from these fields is still revolutionary. The author argues that while reconfiguring the human attitude toward embracing uncertainty may be uncomfortable, ultimately it will enable creative opportunity on a massive scale; that an acceptance of ambiguity is “the price we pay for creativity.” Byers suggests that a continuing adherence to certainties may allow the fundamental uncertainty of modern culture to manifest itself in a variety of catastrophic ways. For example, Wall Street's faith in certain algorithmic approaches to investing makes an interesting point about how incapable of certainty such mathematics can be—as evidenced by its recent collapse. In addition, the author argues that perhaps very little of what we deduce scientifically is actually objective: Is it possible to conduct an experiment without the observer or participant affecting the outcome? If mathematicians are able to use real numbers to solve immense equations, but the answers reveal an even deeper paradox, is there such a thing as truth?
Byers incorporates many brilliant thinkers and seminal scientific breakthroughs into his discussion, offering the cogent, invigorating argument that only by embracing uncertainty can we truly progress.