Monday 19 July 2010

Chargaff - explanation versus understanding

"Profounder men than I have failed to diagnose, let alone cure, the disease that has infected us all, and I should say that the ostensible goals have obliterated the real origins of our search.

"The wonderful, inconceivably intricate tapestry is being taken apart strand by strand; each thread is being pulled out, torn up, and analyzed; and at the end even the memory of the design is lost and can no longer be recalled.


"In general, it is hoped that our road will lead to understanding; mostly it leads only to explanations. The difference between these two terms is being forgotten: a sleight of hand


“Einstein is somewhere quoted as having said: ‘the un-understandable about nature is that it is understandable.’ I think he should have said: ‘that it is explainable’. These are two very different things, for we understand very little about nature.

“Even the most exact of our exact sciences float above axiomatic abysses that cannot be explored.”

From Heraclitean Fire by Erwin Chargaff.



I did not want to go on quoting beyond that last profound sentence of Chragaff’s – but he goes on to say that although, in a fever of reason, one may believe that understanding can be grasped; “when one wakes up and the fever is gone, all one is left with is litanies of shallowness.”

Litanies of shallowness – it makes me think of the spoutings of today’s leading medical scientists when they try to ‘philosophize’ in the media on themes such as ageing, suffering and death.

Then Chargaff makes a devastating observation (elsewhere amplified), when he exclaims: “How often is the regularity of these ‘laws of nature’ only the reflection if the regularity of the method employed in their formulation!”

i.e. the ‘laws’ of nature – tested and true hypotheses – are typically no more than an artifact of the ‘regularity’ of scientific discourse: standard methods of thought, reasoning and ‘experiment’ generating repeatable results – we know not why – but this mere repeatability being mistaken for insight, for ‘understanding’.

More on that matter anon, I hope.

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