Satellite Dish. Photo by Marat Gilyadzinov via Unsplash.

What happens when the instruments we use to make rigorous scientific predictions operate in ways that we cannot comprehend with natural cognition? In a recent essay published in Aeon, SFI President David Krakauer takes a philosophical deep dive into this fascinating and pressing question.

Until recently, Krakauer explains, scientific instruments—telescopes, lenses, formal mathematical models—were used to deepen and clarify our natural understanding.  In recent years, however, a schism has opened up between understanding and prediction. Often, the tools we use to make successful predictions defy human comprehension. Tools like neural nets often display immense power to predict and analyze phenomena, but we increasingly lack the natural cognitive power to explain precisely how they do it.

The implications of this fact reach deep into the epistemological foundations of science. For Krakauer, “the most successful forms of future knowledge will be those that harmonize the human dream of understanding with the increasingly obscure echoes of the machines.” How we get there requires a careful analysis of the growing gap between the two.

Read the article in Aeon (April 20, 2020)