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mattbrowne's avatar

Amazing scientific and technological progress - Is the number of open questions actually decreasing?

Asked by mattbrowne (31633points) September 9th, 2009

From Wikipedia: Epistemology or theory of knowledge is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge. It addresses the questions:
* What is knowledge?
* How is knowledge acquired?
* What do people know?
* How do we know what we know?
* Why do we know what we know?

Much of the debate in this field has focused on analyzing the nature of knowledge and how it relates to similar notions such as truth, belief, and justification. It also deals with the means of production of knowledge, as well as skepticism about different knowledge claims.

Will quantum gravity end the need for further research in fundamental physics? Because quantum gravity can ultimately explain any natural phenomenon including dark matter and dark energy and what happened during the 10^-50 second after the big bang. What if at some point a fifth fundamental force is discovered? Or can someone rule this out for certain?

Personally, I believe in the principle that every new answer results in at least two new questions. The quest for knowledge is an infinite undertaking. Science does have limits. Even a human mind merged with a technological superintelligence would have limits. But not everyone agrees with this view. We already know almost everything, some would argue, and we are very close to closing the remaining gaps. Does this mean the number of open questions actually decreasing?

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16 Answers

laureth's avatar

The more we know, the more we know we do not know.

Critter38's avatar

“We already know almost everything, some would argue…”

The diameter of our observable universe is over 90 billion light years.

Let’s approximate and say that there are 10 billion suns in each galaxy and 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

then let’s also say that there are somewhere between 5 and 30 million species on this planet alone…and we’ve described less than 2 million of them….let alone know anything about their ecologies, behaviour,, etc.. or the life that might be found on any other planet.

As Im sure you’re aware as you’ve answered the question yourself, and so has laureth…it’s simply silly to think we’re running out of questions to answer.

I am in awe of what we have discovered about the nature of the universe through our combined scientific efforts, but the universe is larger and more remarkable than we can imagine.

We add pieces to a puzzle without a border.

Saturated_Brain's avatar

As someone who’s studied epistemology, let me tell you that we’ll probably never get to the truth of knowledge. Humans are so infinitely complex that we’ll probably spend forever trying to understand why we think and how we think.

I paraphrase with great liberty, but a quotation I encountered went something like this: “If were simple enough to understand ourselves, we wouldn’t have the capability to do so. Yet the paradox is that because we have the mental capability to think about ourselves, we will probably never be able to understand ourselves”.

To answer your question, you need to know that in epistemology, there are many different branches in what we know (known as areas of knowledge). Science is only one of them, with its own inherent methodologies and concepts. We’ve still got the arts, mathematics, history, the social sciences and ethics (there’s probably more in there according to wikipedia, but I’m just telling you what I was taught). So even if all of science’s questions were answered (pretty impossible, if you ask me), you’ve still got a long way to go in understanding what the truth is, or if there even is such a thing as a truth.

And even then, science may not necessarily tell us all about ourselves. Emotions are very hard to work on scientifically, as are people in general. And there’re a lot more open-ended questions to ask on how we gain our knowledge (eg, how does language play a part in shaping our thoughts?).

I agree with you in that when we answer one question, we’ll face two (or many, many more) questions.

Let’s end this answer with a nice appropriate quotation by Socrates.

I know that I know nothing

LostInParadise's avatar

I hope that the final theoretical piece is never found. I would like there to be an unsolved mystery at the heart of science. Assuming though that the Theory of Everything is eventually discovered, it may very well mean the end of the reductionist approach to science. But that does not necessarily mean the end of science. It is like knowing the rules of chess does not make someone a master player. There have been some very interesting results in systems and complexity theory. I would think that there there will still be more to discover for some time.

There is a similar question regarding art. There has been a long term reduction in the restrictions on what is considered art. We now accept that pictures do not have to be representational, poems do not have to rhyme or scan and music does not require a rhythm. We have performance art and found objects and the distinction has blurred between commercial and “serious” art. Is there anything left to be done (or undone)?

mattbrowne's avatar

@Critter38 – I think the number of questions is actually increasing, but to be fair I think the number of galaxies and stars and species example isn’t proof for an increase of the number of questions. The questions exist today and next week. Which questions would be new?

The Hubble volume defines the size of the observable universe. Spacetime itself can expand faster than light. As the universe continues to expand more and more cluster will become invisible.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

Well, if you are talking about Fluther, the number of open questions per diem seems to be about constant. It’s the ratio of good questions to insipid ones that seems to diminish.

This one is good. I would not be here otherwise.

Critter38's avatar

@mattbrowne ”...I think the number of galaxies and stars and species example isn’t proof for an increase of the number of questions.”

That’s because I didn’t make that point in relation to “proving” an increase in number of questions. I made it in relation to the question you asked, which was whether we were running out of questions to ask. Nevertheless, I think it takes some concerted effort not to see the relationship between the vastness of the universe, the complexity of life, and the potential for new questions.

But if you wish to shift the goalposts to which questions would be “new”. Any question that builds upon newly obtained knowledge is new, because the context of the answer obtained is altered. Any question that hasn’t been asked before is new.

But if you want “proof”...We now have evidence that some populations of great tit will feed on hibernating bats. So, we now have a whole new area for posing new questions. Is this behaviour found in other bird species? Is this behaviour culturally inherited? Under what circumstances will they resort to this behaviour? Do they find their prey by the bats squeaks? Is it opportunistic feeding or facultative? etc….

To be frank, “Which questions would be new?” seems purposely obtuse from someone who writes in their own post that “every new answer results in at least two new questions”..

mattbrowne's avatar

@Critter38 – Thanks for the clarification. The new answer to “how electrons behave in an uncertain way” created the new question how does this agree with special relativity. Some people however believe that the development of quantum gravity will answer more questions and very few existing fundamental questions remain, let alone new questions arising from quantum physics. I’m not purposely obtuse, I’m trying to see several views related to this argument.

Strauss's avatar

@mattbrowne I think one of the open-ended questions raised by quantum gravity would be this:
How does science reconcile the “subjective”, observer-centric world of quantum mechanics to the “objective” “out-there-ness” of general relativity?

This question, in itself, generates more specific questions, and so on and so on.

So I actually think the number of open questions is increasing as our awareness and knowledge of the universe increases.

Zaku's avatar

The more right someone thinks they are, the less they inquire.

LostInParadise's avatar

Knowing the laws of physics would not mean the end of science. Physics helps in understanding chemistry, but there are emergent chemical properties that physics does not help with. Chemistry helps in explaining the biology of organisms, but again there are emergent properties that go beyond chemistry. The biology of organisms is useful for explaining the operation of ecosystems, but once again the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

There is much yet to be discovered, particularly in the biological sciences. We still don’t know the exact mechanism that allows birds to migrate to very specific locations. We can’t construct machines that can walk properly on two legs. We are still far away from understanding consciousness or creating truly artificial intelligence.

There is something of a Luddite in me, something that makes me fearful of what will happen if we understand biology to the extent that we can construct our own plants and animals or if we understand intelligence well enough to create humanoid robots. But these things will be explored and answers most likely will be found, but not for some time yet.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Yetanotheruser – An excellent point. But interestingly we can already anticipate this particular question today. What I really meant was this:

Let X be the number of existing questions today (9.9.2009)
Let Y be the number of new answers as a result of new observations and experimentation a week later (16.9.2009)
Let Z be the number of new questions not listed on 9.9.2009 as a result of contemplating Y new answers

Is Y < Z or is Y > Z ?

Note: ‘How does science reconcile the “subjective”, observer-centric world of quantum mechanics to the “objective” “out-there-ness” of general relativity?’ is part of X, not Z

mattbrowne's avatar

@LostInParadise – I also find it ironic that a machine can beat a chess master, but can’t go upstairs when the steps are uneven (something a 3-year-old child manages easily).

Strauss's avatar

@mattbrowne I like the way you think

Given: X equals the number of existing questions yesterday (9.9.2009)
Given: Y is the number of new answers as a result of new observations and experimentation a week later (16.9.2009)
If Z equals the number of new questions not listed on 9.9.2009 as a result of contemplating Y new answers,
and if every new answer (Y) results in at least two new questions (Z),
then Z is greater than or equal to 2Y
Therefore Y<Z

Z ‘is greater than or equal to’ 2Y, therefore Z > Y

mattbrowne's avatar

@Yetanotheruser – Yes, that would be the consequence of my reasoning. But my assumption that every new answer leads to two new question is based on gut feeling and I could be wrong. I’m trying to explore if certain new answers e.g. a proven framework of quantum gravity and a confirmed level 1 to 4 multiverse actually lead to a situation for which Y > Z. The term theory of “everything” suggests that Y > Z which means, sure there are a few new questions that might arise but they are by far outnumbered by the answers as a result of say quantum theory. See the story of Max Planck’s academic adviser and I quote ‘The Munich physics professor Philipp von Jolly advised Planck against going into physics, saying, “in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes.” Planck replied that he did not wish to discover new things, only to understand the known fundamentals of the field, and began his studies in 1874 at the University of Munich.’ I feel that some people today think that very soon almost everything in fundamental physics will be discovered.

LostInParadise's avatar

Having a Theory of Everything does not mean Y > Z. It only means that there is a theory that explains the most fundamental laws of physics. The fundamental laws of physics do not even come close to explaining everything else. For example, mixing a hot liquid and a cool one will result in the mixture reaching an intermediate temperature. This is a statistical property and it would be pointless to try to determine what happens by following each individual particle, even if this could be done.

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