The Blind Spot

By William Byers

With The Blind Spot William Byers, professor emeritus of mathematics and statistics at Concordia University, has written a passionate, informed manifesto taking aim at our culture’s reigning myth of scientific certainty. What Byers would like to put in its place is a science of wonder, one that acknowledges the “Blind Spot” – a metaphor for all that remains inherently and irreducibly unknowable, ambiguous, and mysterious.

This uncertainty is not a bad thing. Though he never mentions Keats, Byers’ “science of wonder” is suggestive of the poet’s “negative capability”: when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts. Such a state is to be recommended for several reasons. In the first place it is generative. A science of certainty is a closed, essentially static system, while a science of wonder is all about stimulating human creativity and encouraging free thought and the imagination. It also offers a more honest and accurate account of the real world. “Ambiguity, not logical consistency, is the way things are.” In ignoring this, the science of certainty makes excessive and misleading claims for the validity of its methods and models. This makes the dream of total certainty a dangerous one, encouraging us to put too much faith in our ability to control complex systems, like the environment or financial markets, which are inherently unstable and unpredictable.

Byers presents a number of complex ideas and paradoxes – like the underlying unity and ambiguity of reality, and the importance of “self-reference,” or the human element – in an accessible and informative way. He also works hard to bring together C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” of the arts and sciences, and with some success. The discussion remains a bit abstract and pared-down though, and might have benefited from a deeper examination into and further examples of what Byers sees the “crisis” as consisting of (which, for starters, seems more a crisis of certainty than uncertainty, since the former attitude/delusion is what he sees as getting us into trouble).

That said, The Blind Spot is an important book for our time, part of a necessary and pressing debate over how to think, and live, within certain and uncertain limits.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, June 2011.

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