Henri Poincaré on certainty and doubt in science

"Libra" from the Zodiac Series by Johfra Bosschart (Perigord Noir, France: 1974)

"Libra" from the Zodiac Series by Johfra Bosschart (Perigord Noir, France: 1974).
Image credit: Visionary Revue

To the superficial observer scientific truth is unassailable, the logic of science is infallible; and if scientific men sometimes make mistakes, it is because they have not understood the rules of the game. Mathematical truths are derived from a few self-evident propositions, by a chain of flawless reasonings; they are imposed not only on us, but on Nature itself. By them the Creator is fettered, as it were, and His choice is limited to a relatively small number of solutions. A few experiments, therefore, will be sufficient to enable us to determine what choice He has made. From each experiment a number of consequences will follow by a series of mathematical deductions, and in this way each of them will reveal to us a corner of the universe. This, to the minds of most people, and to students who are getting their first ideas of physics, is the origin of certainty in science. This is what they take to be the role of experiment and mathematics. And thus, too, it was understood a hundred years ago by many men of science who dreamed of constructing the world with the aid of the smallest possible amount of material borrowed from experiment.

But upon more mature reflection the position held by hypothesis was seen; it was recognised that it is as necessary to the experimenter as it is to the mathematician. And then the doubt arose if all these constructions are built on solid foundations. The conclusion was drawn that a breath would bring them to the ground. This sceptical attitude does not escape the charge of superficiality. To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.
Henri Poincaré in his Author’s Preface to Science and Hypothesis, translated from the French by William John Greenstreet, (London; New York: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd., 1905), p. xxi. First published as La science et l’hypothèse, (Paris: Ernest Flammarion, 1900). Cited in part by Craig in private email.

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"To the superficial observer scientific truth is unassailable"
Henri Poincaré Posted on behalf of on Saturday, July 10th, 2010 under Quotations.

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