Discovery, Science, Technology, and the 'Illusion of Knowledge' PHILOSOPHY

Article excerpt

THE fact of the matter is, Christopher Columbus didn't really know where he was going.

When he sailed from the mouth of the Rio Tento on the morning of August 3, 1492, he believed ocean covered only one-seventh of the globe, with the rest dry land - was that not the conclusion of orthodox Christian authorities? He believed the Western Ocean narrow, and that Asia extended further eastward than it does. After all, many of his carefully studied geographies said so.

After four trips to the New World he died believing he had been exploring the east coast of Asia. But his path of discovery eventually led Europeans to the knowledge that their certainties about geography had been false.

"The great obstacle of man is the illusion of knowledge," says Daniel Boorstin, distinguished American historian and Librarian of Congress emeritus. "The great significance of the voyages of discovery was their discovery of ignorance, of European man's ignorance of the world."

This thread, says Dr. Boorstin, links the voyages of Columbus with the modern explorations of another kind of new world: science and technology. From Newton to Einstein the history of science is a history of disproved thought. Take nuclear physics. The atom was once considered a unity, the smallest element of matter. The very word "atom" expresses that, as its Greek root "atomos" means "indivisible."

Today researchers are busy in labs showing how the boundaries of the known are, in fact, false. "It's a parable of the problem of science in all ages," says Boorstin in an interview at his Library of Congress office.

But Boorstin worries that over the last 500 years mankind has lost something. Once "discovery" meant something physical, a throwing of oneself into the unknown. Now it's something undertaken by someone wearing a white coat and worrying about tenure or promotion.

There is a real difference in the mindsets of inventors and what Boorstin calls "questors" such as Columbus. Inventors focus on something specific, Boorstin says, something meant to satisfy an identified need. They work on computers that will react to the spoken voice; cars that get 100 miles per gallon of gas. They work on the imaginable. Boorstin speaks somewhat disparagingly of Thomas Edison, who in the course of research on light bulb filaments discovered certain aspects of atomic physics he did not care to further explore.

"Edison was not interested in knowledge. He was interested in payoff," says Boorstin.

Questors, on the other hand, do not apply the rules of cost-benefit analysis, says Boorstin. They don't really know where their discovery will take them, and they don't care. Theirs is a sort of high-minded vagrancy.

"Space exploration is the obvious parallel today," he says.

Today's technological explorations also differ from geographical ones in their pace. It took centuries for the full impact of Columbus's encounter with the West to develop. The automobile transformed transportation in decades; the transistor, in years. The obsolescence cycles of some computer parts can now be measured in months. And of course the explosion of the atom changed the world in the blink of an eye.

With this speed comes unpredictability. The irony is that the very power of technology means those who unleash it don't have much control over where it goes. "Even when men think they have a why for their technological revolution, as indeed Albert Einstein . …