Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

October 30, 2010

The possible impossibility of truth and the importance of incorrectness

Filed under: Knowledge,philosophy — Razib Khan @ 11:54 am

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.

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