The notion that we might uncover the nature of the world through a combination of careful observation and logic goes back to the inception of the scientific project. It was the dream of the Enlightenment and it could even be said that this vision has defined modern western culture. A motivating and liberating force, it has given us a sense of progress, a sense that unlike previous cultures and other societies we are on the road to truth. Nevertheless, it is profoundly mistaken.
In the closing pages of A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking took a sideswipe at contemporary philosophy, arguing that it has been reduced to an analysis of language. In his haste to dismiss philosophy he allowed himself to misunderstand not only language but the nature of the world. Hawking makes the simple error of assuming that the world and our descriptions of it might be one and the same. In our descriptions of the world we divide it into things: trees and houses, people and events, stars and planets, atoms and molecules. But the world is not a thing or a combination of things, for these categories-these closures, as I call them-are the outcome of our descriptions. Instead, the world is open and it is we who close it. Through our closures we grasp the openness of the world as things, and out of these things we build stories and models through which we are able to intervene. But these stories and models are not the world, nor could they in principle come close to being the world.
The world does not come pre-packaged and divided into its parts. We are not in a cosmic supermarket identifying cling-wrapped items of reality. Instead we find ourselves in openness, and in order to make sense of it, to have some means of intervening to certain effect, we realise closure. We do not form our closures in a vacuum. We find ourselves in a network of linguistic closures already realised and handed down by our culture from generation to generation. As biological organisms, we are already set up, through evolution, to generate certain types of sensory closure. These biological and cultural systems of closure have been adopted because they prove useful, not because they are true.
Current theories of astrophysics, with tales of the big bang, black holes and antimatter, have the feel of science fiction. And in…