The possible impossibility of truth and the importance of incorrectness

By Razib Khan | October 30, 2010 12:54 pm

In the post below on the genetic history of India, or earlier when discussing the revisions of European prehistory, one general trend that is cropping up is that the future seems more complex and muddled than we’d presumed. This introduces the real possibility that in the foreseeable future we won’t be able to opine with any credibility about the nature of the pre-literate past, because our tools are good enough to falsify simple models, but not powerful enough to distinguish between the set of more complex models. In contrast, ten years ago when it came to the expansion of farming in Europe on offer we had simple and clear dichotomies; demic diffusion of Anatolian farmers vs. cultural diffusion of farming techniques along trade routes. Ten years ago when it came to India we are mooting the possibilities between elite transmission of Indo-European language, versus demographically significant migrations into South Asia bringing the Indo-Aryan dialects.


I think that such models are wrong, because there are major parameters left out of the picture. Now in the world we see around us the possibility of really achieving plausible consensus around a positive truth has decreased significantly, because the causal possibilities are proliferating. A model then becomes synonymous with a story. But to admit that it may be that we can’t know is still a greater improvement on the delusion that we did know.

These are general observations. R. A. Fisher’s attempt to transform evolutionary biology into a deterministic set of laws as powerful as those of thermodynamics seems to have failed; at least beyond a trivial level. The importance of history and contingency, of specific detail, muddles the general insight which we can derive in evolutionary processes. But if there is no general insight to derive then we shouldn’t be deriving it, should we? False confidence in knowledge we think we have is a far greater sin than the admission of ignorance.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: philosophy
MORE ABOUT: Knowledge
  • onur

    Contrary to the general opinion of the philosophers of earlier ages, Nietzsche defined humans as an ignorant species. Ignorance was the most characteristic feature of the human species according to Nietzsche.

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  • Denis Vluegt

    Nice excursion into epistemology. I am a bit more sanguine perhaps. Just as modern DNA forensics allow investigators to solve cases that were thought unsolvable, we can hope that future archaelogists and other researchers will have a toolkit at their disposal that answers questions that have us stumped today.

  • bioIgnoramus

    The most important sentence in science is “I don’t know”. Which is just one of the reasons that I think most Climate Scientists poltroons.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    we can hope that future archaelogists and other researchers will have a toolkit at their disposal that answers questions that have us stumped today.

    right. that’s why i had the chicken qualifier of “foreseeable.” i’m thinking in the 20 year range. don’t know beyond that.

  • https://bluetenlese.wordpress.com M. Möhling

    > A model then becomes synonymous with a story
    I’m glad you didn’t write narrative. I stumbled over that last word, anyway, it’s what disconcerts me the most in the post.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    Excellent post, Razib. This is quote worthy: “Our tools are good enough to falsify simple models, but not powerful enough to distinguish between the set of more complex models .”

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  • http://www.agility3r.com Jennifer Sertl

    I will post this and read it daily so that I might be more humble:
    False confidence in knowledge we think we have is a far greater sin than the admission of ignorance.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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