Santa Fe Institute
Ignorance, Failure, Uncertainty, and the Optimism of Science
Science is a fundamentally optimistic enterprise. It is efficient and reliably produces fundamental and actionable knowledge about the world. Through it, we have technologies from cures to gadgets, and we take for granted the idea of progress in a way our ancestors never imagined. The engines behind science, surprisingly, are ignorance, the unknown, failure, and, perhaps most vexingly, uncertainty.In recent decades, science transitioned from viewing the universe like a clockwork run by laws and formulas to seeing it as irreducibly complex and uncertain, we gained new perspectives and opportunities that have led to technologies like lasers, microchips, the internet, genetics, and many more. And yet society continues to promote a 19th-century view of deterministic science. We might instead learn to revel in the adventure of navigable uncertainty and take advantage of the creative opportunities of a world that could be otherwise. Possibility of this sort is the rarest and purest form of optimism. Stuart Firestein is a neuroscientist and the Chair of Columbia University’s Department of Biological Sciences, where he researches the vertebrate olfactory system. He is also a member of SFI’s Fractal Faculty.