The Known, The Strange and The New

19/05/2016 15:52

It was in 1900 that Lord Kelvin, renowned British scientist and the toast of the establishment, addressed a group of physicists at the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He spoke with the authority of a man responsible for the second law of thermodynamics who had given his name to the absolute temperature scale that is still used today. He grandly claimed, "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." This was before Einstein's theory of relativity had rewritten Newton, before the atom had been split and the nuclear bomb devised. Before Heisenberg and the Uncertainty principle had made the universe indeterminate, before we had come to see the universe as expanding and given credence to the Big Bang, before we were even aware of galaxies beyond our own. Quarks and bosons, black holes, and the more recent proposals of dark matter and dark energy would have seemed mere fantasy.

We smile condescendingly at Lord Kelvin's hubris. Yet we have still not learnt the lesson. For we still continue to imagine that we largely understand the world. More than a century on, knowledge appears accessible at the click of a wiki button. We accept that there aspects of our theories which are a little unclear but we, like Lord Kelvin, are inclined to assume we are largely on solid ground and a complete theory is almost in our grasp. The great and the good collude in this fantasy. In 1980 Stephen Hawking proclaimed a theory of everything was in sight and would probably be found by 2000. Unsurprisingly it has not come to pass.

It is not only science and factual disciplines that fall prey to this pretension. We also have a habit of assuming we know what is morally right. We look back at public hangings, the slave trade, laws against homosexuality and prejudice against women, and congratulate ourselves on our progress and our knowledge of the right way to behave in contrast to the aberrations of the past - even as we bemoan our ability to act accordingly.

Yet a time will surely come when our current beliefs and theories are thought mistaken, when our heroes are derided as villains, when our morality is seen as prejudice. At such a point our current scientific theories and ways of understanding the world will be seen to be as limited as Lord Kelvin's, our histories as quaint fictions, and our political and moral assumptions the habits of a blinkered and ignorant age.

The known is a land of illusion and humans are curiously at risk of its siren call. Each culture, each age, has its own particular brand of hubris and each is confident of its particular way of holding the world. Its beliefs are codified and passed on by revered institutions that maintain and support what is understood to be current knowledge.

Yet the closer we look the stranger the world becomes. It is not just the margins of our theories that are unknown, but right at the heart of each and every one of our assumptions there is strangeness. In the context of science, ask a question of any of the fundamental notions and perplexity breaks out. What is a particle? What is a force? How could there be a beginning? But it is of course not limited to science, the same puzzlement applies in every field of endeavour.

Recognising the limitation and impossibility of knowledge need not lead us to some wild postmodern abandonment of the attempt to understand the world but instead to a renewed determination to uncover the strange, within the known, in search of the new. It is in the strange, in the elements of our theories that don't fit, in the unexpected flaws of our theories, in the limitation of our accounts of the world to answer simple questions, that we find the potential to find new, alternative and better ways to hold the world.

The Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI) and its philosophy festival HowTheLightGetsIn were founded with these sentiments in mind. So it is also with the theme of The Known The Strange and The New that we tackle these issues head on at HowTheLightGetsIn 2016. This year's festival, held in Hay-on-Wye over ten days at the end of May, is sure to be an exhilarating journey. With luck it will leave us less inclined to repeat Lord Kelvin's error and more inclined to identify the strange, and so create better and more effective ways to make sense of the world and ourselves.