Explain It to Me Again, Computer

What if technology makes scientific discoveries that we can’t understand?

By |Posted Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, at 5:47 AM

Karl Popper in the 1980s.

Karl Popper in the 1980s.Courtesy of the London School of Economics Library/Flickr/Wikipedia

This article arises from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On Feb. 28-March 2, Future Tense will be taking part in Emerge, an annual conference on ASU’s Tempe campus about what the future holds for humans. This year’s theme: the future of truth. Visit the Emerge website to learn more and to get your ticket.

When scientists think about truth, they often think about it in the context of their own work: the ability of scientific ideas to explain our world. These explanations can take many forms. On the simple end, we have basic empirical laws (such as how metals change their conductivity with temperature), in which we fit the world to some sort of experimentally derived curve. On the more complicated and more explanatory end of the scale, we have grand theories for our surroundings. From evolution by natural selection to quantum mechanics and Newton’s law of gravitation, these types of theories can unify a variety of phenomena that we see in the world, describe the mechanisms of the universe beyond what we can see with our own eyes, and yield incredible predictions about how the world should work.

The details of how exactly these theories describe our world—and what constitutes a proper theory—are more properly left to philosophers of science. But adhering to philosophical realism, as many scientists do, implies that we think these theories actually describe our universe and can help us improve our surroundings or create impressive new technologies.

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