MadSci Network: Physics

Re: To what extent does our physical knowledge depend on our senses?

Date: Tue May 13 10:24:34 2003
Posted By: Dan Berger, Faculty Chemistry/Science, Bluffton College
Area of science: Physics
ID: 1051507554.Ph

If human beings evolved with every attribute they now have except sight, could they even if only in theory have developed the same understanding of science that they have today?
The most honest answer is, "I don't know but probably yes."

Blindness is not, after all, such a terrible handicap in science. I have heard of a world-class paleontologist, an expert on ancient marine invertebrates, who is blind; and the late organic chemist Clifford Haymaker of Marquette University was blind from birth.

In some ways our explorations in science are like those of the learned men in the parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant. Because we can't see gamma rays or electrons or ... directly, we are forced to use instruments, much as a blind person might be forced to use a lab assistant to carry out chemical experiments or perform a dissection. But if the blind men had listened to one another instead of arguing, they might have arrived at a picture of the elephant not so different than that obtained by sighted people. In the same way, the cooperative nature of science helps us find the best approximation to the truth in whatever field.

It is probable that some of the conceptual models we use to understand the world would be different if all of us were blind--for example, the metaphor of "color" for quarks would certainly have been something else--but my belief is that there are only a certain number of ways to represent reality, and so (as has often happened in the history of science) two people working independently will find equivalent or even identical models. Two examples that come to mind are the periodic systems of Lothar Meyer and Dmitri Mendeleyev, and the quantum theories of Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger.

Ultimately, the information we obtain about the world is obtained through our senses; but why should that matter? I refer you to the scene in "A Beautiful Mind" in which John Nash asks one of his students if she sees the same man he does. As long as we can agree on such things, science works. The reason we can trust observation is that other people can make the same (or similar) observations; the reason we can trust instruments is that ultimately any instrumental readout is traceable to someone's direct observation. The way we calibrate instruments--which "see" things no human can see--is to perform a measurement for which the correct result is universally known--by observation!

This does not mean that observations, as opposed to interpretations, are independent of how we think about them--though in the limit (of, for example, a rock striking you in the head) they probably are. But observations, taken as a consensus, are more-or-less independent of one's sensory limitations. Two different scientists can agree that, for example, a particular fossil is a clam shell rather than a mussel shell, even if one is blind and the other is not.

Dan Berger
Bluffton College

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