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Friday, October 15, 2004

Science Never Proves Anything

by Gregory Bateson

Science sometimes improves hypothesis and sometimes disproves them. But proof would be another matter and perhaps never occurs except in the realms of totally abstract tautology. We can sometimes say that if such and such abstract suppositions or postulates are given, then such and such abstract suppositions or postulates are given, then such and such must follow absolutely. But the truth about what can be perceived or arrived at by induction from perception is something else again.

Let us say that truth would mean a precise correspondence between out description and what we describe or between our total network of abstractions and deductions and some total understanding of the outside world. Truth in this sense is not obtainable. And even if we ignore the barriers of coding, the circumstance that our description will be in words or figures or pictures but that what we describe is going to be in flesh and blood and action – even disregarding that hurdle of translation, we shall never be able to claim final knowledge of anything whatsoever.

A conventional way of arguing this matter is somewhat as follows: Let us say that I offer you a series – perhaps of number, perhaps of other indications – and that I provide the presupposition that the series is ordered. For the sake of simplicity, let it be a series of numbers:

2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12

Then I ask you, "What is the next number in this series?" You will probably say, "14."

But if you do, I will say, "Oh, no. The next number is 27." In other words, the generalization to which you jumped from the data given in the first instance – that the series was the series of even numbers – was proved to be wrong or only approximate by the next event.

Let us pursue the matter further. Let me continue my statement by creating a series as follows:

2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 27, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 27, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 27, …

Now if I ask you to guess the next number, you will probably say, "2." After all, you have been given tree repetitions of the sequence from 2 to 27; and if you are a good scientist, you will be influenced by the presupposition called Occam’s razor, or the rule of parsimony: that is, a preference for the simplest assumption that will fit the facts. On the basis of simplicity you will make the next prediction. But those facts – what are they? They are not, after all, available to you beyond the end of the (possibly incomplete) sequence that has been given.

You assume that you can predict, and indeed I suggested this presupposition to you. But the only basis you have is your (trained) preference for the simpler answer and your trust that my challenge indeed meant that the sequence was incomplete and ordered.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), it is so that the next fact is never available. All you have is the hope of simplicity, and the next fact may always drive you to the next level of complexity.

Or let us say that for any sequence of numbers I can offer, there will always be a few ways of describing that sequence which will be simple, but there will be an infinite number of alternative ways not limited by the criterion of simplicity.

Suppose the numbers are represented by letters:

x, w, p, n

and so on. Such letters could stand for any numbers whatsoever, even fractions. I have only to repeat the series three or four times in some verbal or visual or other sensory form, even in the forms of pain or kinesthesia, and you will begin to perceive pattern in what I offer you. It will become in your mind – and in mine – a theme, and it will have aesthetic value. To that extent, it will be familiar and understandable.

But the pattern may be changed or broken by addition, by repetition, by anything that will force you to a new perception of it, and these changes can never be predicted with absolute certainty because they have not yet happened.

We do not know enough about how the present will lead into the future. We shall never be able to say, "Ha! My perception, my accounting for that series, will indeed cover its next and future components," or " Next time I meet with these phenomena, I shall be able to predict their total course."

Prediction can never be absolutely valid and therefore science can never prove some generalization or even test a single descriptive statement and in that way arrive at final truth.

There are other ways of arguing this impossibility. The argument of this book – which again, surely, can only convince you insofar as what I say fits with what you know and which may be collapsed or totally changed in a few years – presupposes that science is a way of perceiving and making what we may call "sense" of our percepts. But perception operates only upon difference. All receipt of information is necessarily the receipt of news of difference, and all perception of difference is limited by threshold. Differences that are too slight or too slowly presented are not perceivable. They are not food for perception.

It follows that what we, as scientists, can perceive is always limited by threshold. That is, what is subliminal will not be grist for our mill. Knowledge at any given moment will be a function of the thresholds of our available means of perception. The invention of the microscope or the telescope or of means of measuring time to the faction of a nanosecond or weighing quantities of matter to millionths of a gram – all such improved devices of perception will disclose what was utterly unpredictable from the levels of perception that we could achieve before that discovery.

Not only can we not predict into the next instant of future, but, more profoundly, we cannot predict into the next dimension of the microscopic, the astronomically distant, or the geologically ancient. As a method of perception – and that is all science can claim to be – science, like all other methods of perception, is limited in its ability to collect the outward and visible signs of whatever may be truth.

Science probes; it does not prove.