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Constructing Knowledge:

The Role of Human Limitations

in Scientific Reasoning

Kat herine Liu

umans have always relished organizing t he world int o
neat and definit e quant it ies, t o which t hey can easily
relat e. It is a pursuit t hat has consumed man t hroughout
t he ages. Modern scient ist s feverishly search for t he governing
laws of t he universe, just as Chinese scholars once scanned t he
st ars, and Greek philosophers debat ed t he meaning of life. Science
is born out of speculat ion and observat ion. It provides a means for
mankind t o grasp at t he divine, and explain t he inexplicable. Like
an art ist molds a work of art from a formless wedge of clay, so
science seeks t o press t he universe int o quant it at ive models. These
models reflect t he complex int eract ions wit hin nat ure, as t he
art ist 's sculpt ure at t empt s t o embody emot ion. However, no art ist
possesses t he skill t o define `devot ion' or 'grief int o physical
depict ion. An art ist is limit ed by t he nat ure of t he medium, and t he
complexit y of t he concept . The emot ion is t oo int ricat e, and
alt hough it may be copied, it can never be fully replicat ed. It
follows t hat in t his way no scient ific model can be complet ely
accurat e. A model is simply "an object of imit at ion ... an idealized
descript ion or concept ion of a part icular syst em" (Oxford).
Science is built upon t he st rengt h of it s models in approximat ing
t he universe. So alt hough science may provide a good
represent at ion of t he way t hings are, it provides not hing more, and
may not be t aken as an absolut e. Models are applied t o t he world
in at t empt s t o underst and it . Sir Isaac Newt on ut ilized models in
his at t empt t o underst and t he complicat ed concept of gravit y. He
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t ook t he force and described it simply and concisely, in a way we
as humans could underst and. Yet it event ually fell short of
describing t he full propert ies of t he force, and it has been long
since replaced.
In it s beginnings science was more likened t o what is now
named philosophy. It was a discipline founded purely upon
speculat ion; t he models invent ed t o describe t he world were based
on reason rat her t han experiment at ion. One example of t his is t he
heliocent ric model of t he universe, founded by t he ancient Greeks.
This model was based in t he idea t hat t he eart h was holy, and
t herefore in t he cent er of t hings. The concept was complet ely
devoid of observat ional backing, and st ood merely as t he product
of excellent argument at ion. Lat er on, mat hemat ics was invent ed as
t he language of science. Man no longer simply reasoned t he logic
behind models, but inst ead sought t o describe (or t ranslat e, if you
will) t he world using t his new language. Scient ist s began t o
measure t he world around t hem, developing t he models around
t heir quant it at ive observat ions, t est ing and fixing t he models as
t he dat a dict at ed. Oft en t he models were very crude, describing
only select sit uat ions and successfully predict ing a minut e amount
of scient ific problems. Science t oday is almost unrecognizable
from t he scient ific processes of t he past . Current models are
inconceivably complex, at t empt ing t o account for even t he most
minuscule aspect of nat ure. However, complex as t hese t heories
may be, t hey st ill fall short of accurat ely predict ing t he way t he
universe int eract s.
What t his analysis of t he progression of scient ific t hought
est ablishes is t hat models evolve from `guess and check' reasoning.
Models must be built upon as our underst anding of t he universe
increases, in order t o encompass it s complex nat ure. Beginning
"from observat ions in limit ed domains and formulat ing laws based
on t hem, and t hen ext ending t he observat ions and arriving at laws
t hat cont ain t he earlier laws as special cases" (Haber-Schaim 66) is
fundament al t o t he progression of scient ific models. Old models
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die when t hey are no longer consist ent enough wit h numerical
dat a t o persuade t he public of t heir validit y. It is because of t his
t hat no model goes for long wit hout modificat ion. The Sophist s of
ancient Greece saw "knowledge as human and changeable" (Gross
394). Mankind is cont inually replacing t he old models wit h
`bet t er', newer ones, const ant ly using mat hemat ics t o t est t he
model and persuade ot hers t hat t he model is accurat e. When t he
t wo no longer agree, t he old model must be revised. Taking a look
at t he past and current models for t he force we call gravit y
provides a good example for demonst rat ing t his nat ural
progression of t he scient ific model. In t he last 350 years, science
has developed over t hree models for describing t he force of gravit y
(Greene). Two of t hese models were deemed not comprehensive
enough t o describe t he force's full implicat ions, however t he
current model is root ed solely in complex mat hemat ical t heory,
which is it self not complet ely proven. This model is based on a
t iny, massless part icle named a gravit on, which has never been
observed inside a laborat ory set t ing (Greene).
The idea of gravit y is immensely complex in it self. Out of
t hree high school-level physics t ext books (Physics, Physics Made
Simple, and Physics: Teacher's ResourceBook), t here were zero list ing in
glossaries for t he t erm "gravit y"., and one t ext book failed t o list t he
word in it s index. Indeed up t o Newt on's t ime, physicist s
generally ignored gravit y, insist ing only t hat it exist ed, never
at t empt ing t o derive it s propert ies (Greene). When Newt on
finally t ackled t he problem in t he lat e 1600's he st at ed t hat "any
t wo bodies in t he universe at t ract each ot her wit h a force t hat is
direct ly proport ional t o t heir masses and inversely proport ional t o
t he square of t heir dist ances apart " (Freeman 26). This definit ion
is t he one commonly t aught t o a high school junior or senior, and
is oft en t he first t ime t he st udent has been int roduced t o a formal
definit ion of t he word "gravit y". Alt hough int roduced t o t he
concept of gravit y, younger st udent s, like Newt on's forefat hers,
are t aught t o ignore t he concept s behind gravit y and inst ead
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embrace only t he fact t hat it exist s. Young st udent s t herefore are
t aught t o t ake t he force for grant ed, seeing it as a given rat her t han
one of t he universe's grand myst eries.
The model of gravit y t hat replaced Newt on's is so
fright fully complex t hat most people are exposed t o it for t he first
t ime in college level physics classes (if t hey are exposed t o it at
all). This model is named General Relat ivit y, invent ed by Albert
Einst ein in t he earlier part of t he last cent ury, and st at es t hat what
we perceive of as gravit y is t he effect of object s following
curvat ures in t he fabric of space and t ime (Mart in). An object of
larger mass creat es a larger bend in t his fabric, causing smaller
object s nearby t o be drawn nearer t o t he larger object (Mart in).
This view of gravit y is usually not t aught unt il t he st udent s are
fluent enough in t he mat hemat ical language needed t o underst and
it . Alt hough t his model describes t he effect of t he force here on
eart h just as well as a middle school st udent 's "t hings fall", and a
high school st udent 's "t wo masses at t ract one anot her" ment alit y,
Einst ein's t heory is more accurat e at describing t he complex
processes of t he force at t he cosmic level. It was t he nat ural
progression of t he `guess and check' process of t he scient ific
model; t here were t hings t hat Newt on's model could not describe,
so a new model had t o be invent ed. One problem wit h Newt on's
t heory is t hat , in order for it t o work, gravit y must be
inst ant aneously conveyed. However, in t he real world
`inst ant aneous' is a problem. `Inst ant aneous' implies t hat
somet hing happens wit hout t aking any t ime. That means no t ime
t o t ravel from place t o place, no t ime t o accelerat e or decelerat e;
indeed it is everywhere, all at once, exact ly where it needs t o be.
`Inst ant aneous' is simply not an opt ion. Einst ein solved t he
problem, st at ing t hat gravit y, like anyt hing else, t ook t ime t o
t ravel from point `A' t o point `B' (Greene).
As complex as Einst ein's t heory is, it t oo leaves holes in it s
argument . Where General Relat ivit y leaves off, t he model of t he
super-st ring picks up. This is current ly t he last in a series of
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progressively more complex models for t he effect we called
gravit y. This last t heory is usually reserved for graduat e st udent s
in t he field of physics. It st at es t hat t he universe and all it s
element s are composed of t iny (10e-33cm) one dimensional,
massless st rings of energy (Greene). Down, in t he dept hs of t his
complex model, is t he mat hemat ical equat ion which predict s t hat
all forces are conveyed via t iny "messenger part icles", which
includes t he part icle responsible for gravit y, t he gravit on (Greene).
However, t his part icular model is virt ually un-t est able. It is
founded in such complex t heoret ical mat hemat ics and physics
t hat many physicist s t oday consider it a product of philosophy,
rat her t han of t he scient ific process. It s aut horit y as it st ands
t oday relies almost ent irely in it s rhet oric.
Even t he model of st ring t heory it self is not wit hout a few
limit at ions t hat mat hemat ics alone could not `smoot h' out :
"Nevert heless, describing t he spacet ime fabric in t his
st ring-st it ched form does lead us t o cont emplat e t he
following quest ion. An ordinary piece of fabric is t he
end product of someone having carefully woven
t oget her individual t hreads, t he raw mat erial of
common t ext iles. Similarly we can ask ourselves
whet her t here is a raw precursor t o t he fabric of
spacet ime . . . But in t he raw st at e, before t he st rings
t hat make up t he cosmic fabric engage in t he orderly,
coherent vibrat ional dance we are discussing, thereis no
realization of space or time. Even our language is t oo
coarse t o handle t hese ideas, for, in fact , t here is even no
not ion of before. In a sense it 's as if individual st rings are
"shards" of space and t ime, and only when t hey
appropriat ely undergo sympat het ic vibrat ions do
t he convent ional not ions of space and t ime emerge"
[emphasis original] (Greene 378).
This passage illust rat es anot her of t he limit at ions of scient ific
models, language. Here, st ring t heory uses t he met aphor of a piece
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of clot h t o describe t he bends and folds of spacet ime. However,
since fabric it self is composed of smaller bit s of "raw mat erial", it
begs t he quest ion whet her spacet ime is also composed of such
basic pieces. The met aphor is direct ing t he fut ure of st ring t heory.
Researchers in t he field look t o relat ions like t his one t o guide
t heir research. Language limit s human knowledge, since language
is of our own creat ion. This model, like all models, init ially relies
on t he language of mat hemat ics t o t ake shape, and lat er of t he
languages of people t o cont inue. Science is limit ed by t he means
wit h which we are able t o communicat e it t o ot hers, since "t he
creat ion of knowledge begins wit h self persuasion and ends wit h
t he persuasion of ot hers" (Gross 391). In t his way, t he model can
t ake on new direct ions and meanings, apart from it s int ended
simplified depict ion of nat ure. The model associat es t he concept s
found in t he nat ural world t o separat e concept s in t he human
world, such as spacet ime and clot h, which, out side of t he realm of
t he limit at ions of human comprehension, are complet ely
unrelat ed. Since models must be conveyed using language, and
language is limit ing, models can never be full represent at ions of
t he universe.
In t he end, models are not hing more t han simplist ic
represent at ions of t he way t he world works. As humans, we can
not comprehend t he t rue propert ies of nat ure. Our minds and
bodies limit us in our abilit y t o comprehend t he "why" t hat makes
t hings happen. Inst ead we must t ranslat e what we see int o
models, via t he language of mat hemat ics, as accurat ely as
(ironically) humanly possible. We see apples fall, light cast ing
shadows, and elect ricit y running from t he power company t o our
homes. We invent ed t he gravit on, t he phot on, and elect rical current
as models t o describe t hese processes happening around us, and
label it as t rut h, since our brains cannot see it any ot her way. In t he
case of gravit y, no one ever has seen what made t hat fat eful apple
fall on Newt on's head, but what we have done is t ake a reflect ion of
t he fact , t hings fall, and brought it down int o t he human sphere.
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Science is only our int erpret at ion of t he t rut h - a way of bringing
t he t ranscendent down t o a human level of comprehension. Since it
is only a st at ement about how t he world may work, and "only
st at ement s have meaning, and of t he t rut h of st at ement s we must be
persuaded" (Gross 392), our explanat ion of t he world is limit ed in
our abilit y t o describe it , in models. However a model is just t hat ,
and "any model is an approximat ion by it s very nat ure and bound t o
fail at some point " (Zumdahl 154). The t rut h behind science lies in
it s rhet oric. It is "not speculat ive, but social; t he result not of
revelat ion, but of persuasion" (Gross 407). It holds no t rut h beyond
t hat which societ y it willing t o give it . Rat her, science is not hing
more t han a good approximat ion of what may possibly be.
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Works Cit ed

Freeman, Ira. Physics MadeSimple. USA: Doubleday, 1990.
Greene, Brian. TheElegant Universe. USA: Vint age Books, 2003.
Gross, Alan. "Rhet orical Analysis." Academic Discourse. Ed. Gail St ygall.
Mason, OH: Thomson Cust om Publishing, 2003. 391-408.
Haber-Schaim, Uri, et al. Physics. USA: D.C. Heat h and Co., 1981.
Haber-Schaim, Uri, et al. Physics: Teacher's ResourceBook. USA: D.C.
Heat h and Co., 1981.
Mart in, J. L. General relativity : a guideto its consequences for gravity and
cosmology. New York: Halst ed Press, 1988.
"Model." TheOxford American CollegeDictionary. 2002 ed.
Zumdahl, St even. Chemical Principles. USA: Hought on Mifflin, 2002.