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Path to the truth is littered with useful failures

August 23, 2004

Science avoids fundamentalism by embracing fallibility as its tool of progress, writes Umberto Eco.

Many readers probably don't know exactly what black holes are and, frankly, the best I can do is to imagine them like the pike in Yellow Submarine that devours everything around it until it finally swallows itself. But in order to understand the news item from which I am taking my cue, all you need to know about black holes is that they are one of the most controversial and absorbing problems in astrophysics.

Recently I read in the papers that the celebrated scientist Stephen Hawking (perhaps better known to the general public for the strength and determination with which he has worked all his life despite a terrible illness that would have reduced a lesser person to being a vegetable) has made a statement that is sensational. He maintains that he made an error in his theory of black holes (published in the '70s) and is now preparing to propose the necessary corrections before an audience of fellow scientists.

For those involved in the sciences there is nothing exceptional about this, apart from Hawking's exceptional standing, but I feel that the episode should be brought to the attention of young people in every non-fundamentalist or nonconfessional school so that they may reflect upon the principles of modern science.

Science is frequently criticised by the mass media, which hold it responsible for the devilish pride that is leading humanity toward possible destruction. But in doing so they are evidently confusing science with technology.

It is not science that is responsible for atomic weapons, the hole in the ozone layer, global warming and so on. If anything, science is that branch of knowledge that is still capable of warning us of the risks we run when, even in applying its principles, we put our trust in irresponsible technologies.

The problem is that in many critiques of the ideology of progress (or the so-called spirit of the Enlightenment) the spirit of science is often identified with that of certain idealistic philosophies of the 19th century, according to which history is always moving towards better things, or towards the triumphant realisation of itself, of the spirit or of some other driving force that is forever marching on towards optimal ends.

At bottom, however, many people (of my generation at least) were always left in doubt on reading idealist philosophy, from which it emerges that every thinker who came after had understood better (or "verified") what little had been discovered by those who came before (which is a bit like saying that Aristotle was more intelligent than Plato). And it is this concept of history that the Italian poet Leopardi challenged when he waxed ironic about "magnificent and progressive destinies".

But these days, in order to substitute a whole series of ideologies in crisis, some people are flirting more and more with a school of thought according to which the course of history is not leading us closer and closer to the Truth.

According to these people all that there is to understand has already been understood by long vanished ancient civilisations and it is only by humbly returning to that traditional and immutable treasure that we may reconcile ourselves with ourselves and with our destiny.

In the most overtly occultist versions of this school of thought, the Truth was cultivated by civilisations we have lost touch with: Atlantis engulfed by the ocean, the Hyperboreans, 100 per cent pure Aryans who lived on an eternally temperate polar icecap, the sages of ancient India, and other amusing yarns that, being indemonstrable, allow third-rate philosophers and writers of potboilers to keep on churning out warmed over versions of the same old hermetic hogwash for the amusement of holiday readers.

Modern science does not hold that what is new is always right. On the contrary, it is based on the principle of "fallibilism" (enunciated by the American philosopher Charles Peirce, elaborated upon by Popper and many other theorists, and put into practice by scientists.

According to this principle, science progresses by continually correcting itself, falsifying its hypotheses by trial and error, admitting its own mistakes – and by considering that an experiment that doesn't work out is not a failure but is worth as much as a successful one, because it proves that a certain line of research was mistaken and it is necessary either to change direction or even to start over from scratch.

And this is what was proposed centuries ago in Italy by an institute of learning known as the Accademia del Cimento, whose motto was "provando e riprovando". This would normally translate into English as "to try and try again", but here there is a subtle distinction. Whereas in Italian "riprovare" normally means to try again, here it means to "reprove" or "reject" that which cannot be maintained in the light of reason and experience.

This way of thinking is opposed, as I said before, to all forms of fundamentalism, to all literal interpretations of holy writ – which are also open to continuous reinterpretation – and to all dogmatic certainty in one's own ideas. This is that good "philosophy", in the everyday and Socratic sense of the term, which ought to be taught in schools.

Umberto Eco is the author of the novel Baudolino as well as the books The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum.
Copyright © 2004 Umberto Eco

(Copyright note: I first read this article in the print version of the Sydney Morning Herald. I asked the Herald for permission to reproduce it and I was told that it first appeared in the New York Times so I should ask them. According to its archives, the NYT had only published one article by Professor Eco in the previous ten years, and it wasn't this one. Google didn't find the article anywhere at all. About two weeks after I published it here, The Guardian published it and, confusingly, both claimed the copyright for itself and also attributed it to Professor Eco. As the only thing I can be sure of is who wrote it, I have also acknowledged Professor Eco as the copyright owner.

I subsequently found out that it was first published in Italian in L'espresso in, July 2004, with an English version in Turning Back the Clock, a collection of Eco's essays translated by Alastair McEwan.


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