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Book Review : Engaging Look at All That's Impossible

July 21, 1987|LEE DEMBART

No Way: The Nature of the Impossible edited by Philip J. Davis and David Park (Freeman: $17.95; 325 pages)

Everyone learns from experience, but everyone's experience--no matter how broad--is always too small to draw valid universal conclusions. How, then, can the scientific method claim or even hope to discover the laws of nature? For that matter, why learn from experience? A person's experiences are never enough to be statistically significant.

These are key questions of epistemology--the study of how we know what we know and of the limits of that knowledge--and they keep coming to mind while reading "No Way: The Nature of the Impossible," a charming, engaging, thought-provoking book that challenges preconceptions at every turn.

Philip J. Davis, a mathematician at Brown University, and David Park, a physicist at Williams College, asked experts in 18 different subjects ranging across the sciences and the social sciences to write essays on the question, "What is impossible in your field?" The result is a collection that explores the frontiers of knowledge, and, more important (since the frontiers change with time), it explores the nature of knowledge, a subject with a long history.

Interesting Impossibilities

One question that several of the writers address is what is meant by impossible. There are logical impossibilities (2 plus 2 equaling 5, for example), but they are not very interesting. There are other impossibilities (bringing the dead back to life, for example) that are impossible now, but no one knows whether they will remain impossible in the future. Medical "miracles" that were unthought of 50 years ago (kidney transplants, for example) are now performed routinely.

These are the interesting impossibilities--things that experience tells us cannot happen but whose occurrence would not violate any known laws of thought or nature. It is impossible for the sun to rise in the west. Well, it's not logically impossible. It wouldn't violate any laws of nature that we know of. All that would be required would be for the Earth to reverse the direction that it rotates on its axis.

Perhaps we should call such things highly unlikely rather than impossible. In either case, if you think the sun is rising in the west tomorrow morning, you will almost certainly be mistaken.

Ten of the essays in "No Way" deal with the hard sciences--chemistry, physics, biology, medicine and so forth--and the other eight deal with other subjects--law, politics, economics, education, poetry, philosophy and such. With one or two exceptions, the science essays tend to be narrowly focused on their subject matter, while the other essays are more broadly cast and are both more accessible and more successful.

Powerful Indictment

One of the best is the essay by Richard P. Iano, a professor of education at Temple University, entitled "Is Education a Science? No Way!" It is a powerful indictment of education as a science and, by the by, of the effort of the social sciences in general to be like the natural sciences.

Iano argues convincingly that the insistence by the natural sciences that "knowledge is only that which can be fully articulated and specified" is too narrow to take in much important knowledge about human matters.

Another excellent essay is Sophie Freud's article entitled, "Paradoxes of Parenthood: On the Impossibility of Raising Children Perfectly."

"Parents are asked to provide discipline and acceptance," she writes, "firm guidance and encouragement toward autonomy; a commitment to high values and a willingness to compromise and conform to societal expectations." As a result, she says, "the parental role involves a series of incompatible demands, which defy satisfactory resolution." Is it really impossible, or just very hard?

Davis and Park, the editors, are smart guys, and they know that history is littered with the bodies of people who proclaimed one thing or another to be impossible only to be proved wrong in short order. They even include a selection of such statements throughout the book.

But the realization that much of what their book contains could be proved wrong has not dissuaded them from taking the plunge, and they have obviously encouraged their authors to be as nondogmatic as possible. They don't want to be cited in future volumes for having made foolish predictions. One must be humble in such endeavors.

The idea for the book is wonderful, and, though the quality of the individual essays varies some, the realization is of very high quality. Each of the pieces can stand alone; together they are a contemporary snapshot of the state of knowledge and of the idea of knowledge.

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