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News Release January 25, 2002
GSA Release No. 02-07
Contact: Ann Cairns
Director – Communications and Marketing, 303-357-1056

Philosophy of the Guessing Game of Geology: How Do We Guess?

What do Karl Marx and Adam Smith have to do with geology? Lots. Their contrasting perspectives on interpreting the past revolutionized world politics, economics, and the sciences as well. Their views continue to affect how scientists do science.

But the question is, "How can we know the past?" Geologist A.M. Celāl Sengör from Istanbul Technical University in Turkey explores this philosophical and scientific quandary in his recent book, Is the Present the Key to the Past or the Past the Key to the Present?, published by the Geological Society of America.

Sengör contrasts the views of natural scientist James Hutton and social scientist Adam Smith with those held by natural scientist Abraham Gottlieb Werner and social scientist Karl Marx. He points out that historical knowledge is neither more nor less trustworthy than any other knowledge based on insufficient data.

"When I looked at the way Hutton and Smith did history, I noticed that they recognized this. That is why their histories became scientific," he said. "Marx and Werner thought that the past could be completely known, or at least completely known to enable one to understand completely the laws that governed its course in order to be able to make secure predictions. This confidence is religious rather than scientific. That is why Wernerian geology and Marxist economics quickly solidified into articles of belief and lost whatever scientific character they might have had."

By delving into and understanding the philosophy of science, one can reevaluate one's own approach and become open to new ways of thinking and looking at our Earth. One's methodology, then, can be fine-tuned to become more effective.

Sengör, for example, reevaluated his methodology after reading the work of Karl Popper (1902-1994) who is thought to be the most important philosopher of science since Francis Bacon.

"Before, I felt that what I was thinking was so out of mainstream in the methodology of doing research, that I had a sort of apprehension that I may be terribly wrong," he said. "Once I realized that there were excellent arguments in favor of my thinking from all areas of human endeavor, I felt more self-confident and hence bolder in hypothesizing and more merciless towards my own ideas. Thinking this way cures one from the terror of being wrong! One realizes that being wrong is the norm and that science aims to correct only piecemeal our wrong hypotheses. Thus we asymptotically approach the truth."

Who knows? Perhaps Sengör's work will start another revolution of its own.

— by Kara LeBeau, GSA Staff Writer

Contact information:
Dr. Sengör is visiting CalTech until March 19, 2002:
Geological & Planetary Sciences Department
The California Institute of Technology
MC 100-23
1200 E. California Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91125
PHONE: (626) 395-6123
After March 19:
Faculty of Mines, Department of Geology
Istanbul Technical University
Ayazaga 80626, Istanbul
PHONE: (90-212) 2856209
FAX: (90-212) 285 62 10

Special Paper 355:
Is the Present the Key to the Past or the Past the Key to the Present?
By Celâl Sengör
60 pages with endnotes
ISBN 0-8137-2355-8

For more information, go to


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