Alexander B. Fry speculates on the epistemological problems raised by science’s search for dark matter. Excerpts:

The world we see is an illusion, albeit a highly persistent one. We have gradually got used to the idea that nature’s true reality is one of uncertain quantum fields; that what we see is not necessarily what is. Dark matter is a profound extension of this concept. It appears that the majority of matter in the universe has been hidden from us. That puts physicists and the general public alike in an uneasy place. Physicists worry that they can’t point to an unequivocal confirmed prediction or a positive detection of the stuff itself. The wider audience finds it hard to accept something that is necessarily so shadowy and elusive. The situation, in fact, bears an ominous resemblance to the aether controversy of more than a century ago. …

Dark matter, dark energy, dark money, dark markets, dark biomass, dark lexicon, dark genome: scientists seem to add dark to any influential phenomenon that is poorly understood and somehow obscured from direct perception. The darkness, in other words, is metaphorical.


Nature plays an epistemological trick on us all. The things we observe each have one kind of existence, but the things we cannot observe could have limitless kinds of existence. A good theory should be just complex enough. Dark matter is the simplest solution to a complicated problem, not a complicated solution to simple problem. Yet there is no guarantee that it will ever be illuminated. And whether or not astrophysicists find it in a conceptual sense, we will never grasp it in our hands. It will remain out of touch. To live in a universe that is largely inaccessible is to live in a realm of endless possibilities, for better or worse.

The human condition: to be curious to know it all, but, in our finitude, to be unable to know it all, in part because we cannot perceive it all, much less understand it all.

I’m interested in perception, and how our beliefs both make it easier to see what’s really there, and make it harder to see what’s really there, depending on the context.