The aura of the physical

As every student of physics learns, ‘solid’ matter is not solid.  So they ‘discover’ a fact that is counter-intuitive; yet they still understand it on the basis of naïve experience – that is, they rely on the concept of solid in order to appreciate its opposite.  In other words, understandings of fact remain rooted in our subjective realisations which build a knowledge of the world and ourselves upon the capacity for recognition.  In short, there is no knowing without its subjective content.  And whilst we can appreciate that reality is bigger than our concepts, we have no notion of the real, the right or the true that is ‘discoverable’ without some reference to those intuitive sensibilities.  How else might we recognise a truth for ourselves?  Unfortunately, a mutual distrust lingers between scientists and proponents of common sense over the identification of ‘objective facts’ which allow for the recognition of things that are ‘meant to be’ independent of what we think.

Actually, the physical sciences don’t replace common sense or vice versa – they are mutually complimentary – and no pragmatic physicist or engineer behaves as though the world at large can’t be solid, or functionally flat.  In fact, ‘behavioural phenomena’ matter at all levels – as constituents of diverse realities from the quantum and beyond.  The fact is, there is more to reality than a single version – the world is and is not solid etc.  Likewise, there is more to the ‘world at large’ than the ‘characteristic’ properties of the physical, especially when they turn uncharacteristically subjective and reflective.  Thus objects ‘do science’ but not like scientists do it.  Then, in order to bridge the gap, scientists look upon the fact of conscious experience retrospectively as an effect that is wholly identifiable with its physical causes – as if physics encounters itself in the ‘psychoplasm’ of the brain – as if to cancel out any duality in the event – as if dualities are unnatural.

Mike Laidler

 

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Elephants and Feathers

My left leg and a light bulb don’t equal two of anything even though one plus one surely equals two – except there is always scope for an active imagination to find a connection. Indeed no branch of mathematics is without its imaginative dimension – especially when we take a mathematical equation to stand for an equalisation of differences, so to prove that mathematics not only shows how the universe works, it also shows how it is. However, reality is bigger than our explanations, which is why an active imagination remains an essential requirement for doing science. And it takes an active imagination to say that all things are really one thing because the differences disappear at atomic levels.

Therefore, whilst it is true that an elephant equals a feather because their differences disappear when comparing their behaviour under gravity, nevertheless such convergences in reality have nothing to tell us about the emergent divergences – whereby realities come to differ from one another. Meanwhile, our scientific equations rely on differences that can be equated. Yet even at an elementary level there remains a functional difference between energy and matter, otherwise we would have no basis to start looking for their equivalence. And despite all our proofs there are other phenomenal differences that pertain – because life is an unnecessary divergence within material reality, and consciousness marks a fundamental departure of a different sort, whilst the brain provides only secondary evidence of the existence of a thought.

Mike Laidler

Angry science

Typically, there is more to a scientific fact than meets the eye and that extra something is the scientific theory.  Of course, all theories begin as speculative and sometimes emotive interpretations of observation.   But no fact becomes ‘a fact of science’ unless it is wrapped up in a theory.  And as it happens, there is nothing more theoretical than our attempts to explain the ‘beginning of the universe’.

Scientists are firstly human beings who relish peer support and it is only natural for them to defend the validity of their ‘pet’ theories by citing the extent of their confirmation.  But theories remain theoretical whilst the principle job of the scientist is, in fact, to seek disconfirmation – though it is not uncommon to see ‘dispassionate scientists’ becoming passionately attached to ‘their’ favoured theories.

For instance, a high-level dispute has recently broken out over the validity of the dominant theory of ‘The Big Bang and inflation’ as the explanation of the beginning of the universe.  Suffice it to say that scientific theories rise to dominance on the back of the amount of support they receive, especially when they are confirmed by observation.  But the observable facts are always open to revision and according to the late Karl Popper, who remains a respected authority on this topic, the weight of evidence is no guarantor of the truth.

In addition, this fracas has all the elements of a classic scientific dispute of the type predicted by the late Thomas Kuhn in his seminal book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  The proponents of the dominant theory of inflation are acting as though their take on the facts has the status of a ‘paradigm’ – in short, it overrules any facts to the contrary and in so doing stands for an accord that preserves its version of ‘normal science’ as the official view of reality.

But science depends on its revolutionaries – the problem being that it’s all theory at the end of the day; and the speculation remains fallible, especially when the theory is so broad-based in its ambitions as to claim the status of a ‘theory of everything’.

Mike Laidler

Further Reading: Hannah Osborne’s article on 13.5.17: ‘Hawking Pens Angry Letter about How the Universe Began’ msn.com/en-gb/news/techandscience/hawking-pens-angry-letter-about-how-the-universe-began/a

Is science never right?

Is it true, as said, that ‘science is never right’?† Then is there something that goes beyond the fact of the ‘scientific facts’, calling into question their propriety, which might also call into question scientific findings in fields of study ranging from medicine and psychology to economics and climatology? Does it mean that there is more to knowledge and discovery than science can offer and that our scientific methodologies have their limits? Or does it mean that science is above reproach – because it has already taken account of its fallibilities and has dispensed with belief, especially the dogma of believing totally in itself? Might this allow scientific opinion to form the bedrock of opinion about matters touching upon explanations of fact, including the nature of existence; therefore we can be assured that non-scientific opinions are inferior – for what can those opinions amount to if even the rational sciences can’t profess to being absolutely right – ever? But is it possible that there is more to the universe than its scientific firmament, and who is qualified to say? Who is the impartial questioner of the facts? – not science, if science deems that those questions can be valid only when they are framed scientifically. 

If physicists are ‘never right’‡ then does it mean that governments are being approached to fund scientific projects on false pretexts, with promises of results that cannot be trusted? Does it mean that the famous Higgs boson is not necessarily real just because physicists say it is, or that it may be when they believe otherwise – because the evidence to contradict or redefine their findings is always round the corner? Are scientists claiming that the evidence tells them what to think, when it is their thinking that directs their attention to ‘the evidence’ and its selection? How important is the weight of evidence if it stands to be overturned by facts that hitherto weighed lightly in the minds of scientists? Perhaps explanation is but a technical way of expressing theories loaded with meanings that cannot be finalised – meanwhile discovery involves something more than a factual retrieval exercise. Perhaps it means that the real world is bigger than science and that science remains as it was at the outset – a methodological philosophy of nature. Perhaps ‘nature’, so called, amounts to a theory about something that is bigger than our grandest ideas about what it is – including the idea that it is a thing in existence definable by advantage of its observation.
Mike Laidler

† Interview with the scientist Brian Cox on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, 16 June 2016. (Vide: ‘The science paradox’.)
‡ Per Professor Brian Cox speaking on ‘Start the Week’, BBC Radio 4, 19 December 2016. 

The Mind In Science

Foreword: This article was first published as a letter in the January 2016 edition of The Psychologist: the monthly publication of the British Psychological Society; volume 29, no 1. (www.thepsychologist.org.uk)

I would like to add some philosophical observations to the recent contributions on the performance of psychological research.

There is a fundamental ‘uncertainty principle’ in psychology because the study of behaviour can change it, intentionally or not, whilst psychological research cannot control for the incalculable influences of its findings. In addition, psychology is open to the accusation of being subjectively invested in its subject matter to the detriment of ‘pure objectivity’ – after all, don’t we start with subjective premises like thoughts, feelings, memories, attitudes etc? And, despite the physical sciences being just as susceptible to ‘confirmation bias’ they seem better placed to get away with the trick of being ‘essentially objective’ – as if ‘objectivity’ is independent of the meaning we give to it. In fact, it may be fair to say that scientists are more like tinkerers than independent observers, and to make this point I take my cue from the works of Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper.

Science faces a continuous challenge to determine the facts, which, aside from the most general of interpretations, are rarely conclusive. Indeed, the ideal of science – that the facts will speak for themselves – is a complete myth. Furthermore, every fact is a fact in multiple contexts and its isolation does not necessarily reflect its true nature. Evidence, such as it is, is a construct of the questions we ask, and is limited by all those we fail to ask. In general terms, there is no evidence without a mind to be convinced, and it doesn’t matter how objective we strive to be, we cannot escape the fact that there would be no objectivity without a subjective backdrop; indeed objectivity exists as a selective version of subjectivity. It is no wonder then that as the evidence accumulates, we find ourselves overturning or re-interpreting facts of prior investigations that were hitherto taken to be conclusive.

In reality, science remains a community of tinkerers. We like to think that our discoveries bolster our claims to have mastered the facts and that we know what we are doing because, like Little Jack Horner, we have managed to pull the plum out of the pie. And though we might have good reasons for selecting our pie, our generalisations don’t mean that the facts have told us what to think, or that that the ‘hard evidence’ runs our research – indeed it remains very much the opposite. Meanwhile, we strive to remain in control of our selections, so ensuring that the results remain subject to our foibles – which is why, as Karl Popper pointed out, we can always find confirmations of our pet theories and still be wrong.

A cynic might conclude that reliability and replication thereby serve to promote a line of research at the expense of the wider truth. But what kind of truth is to be found outside research? It would seem that the answer lies in our assessments of validity, so long as we remember that those assessments remain no more than that – since no fact speaks for itself whilst it requires a theory to speak for it. Nevertheless, there is one conclusion we are entitled to draw on the basis of our privileged position as subjective entities in an objective universe – that no matter how research proceeds and performs in the future, it remains relative to the unique ‘contamination’ of the mind in science, and necessarily so, albeit, paradoxically, not necessarily sufficient to convince us.

Mike Laidler MBPsS
philosophyalive.co.uk

References
Kuhn, Thomas S (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.
Popper, Karl R (1957). The Poverty of Historicism. Routledge & Kegan Paul

Factualities

Explanation is not all it seems.  Explanations owe more to matters of language than fact.  They echo the voice of authority, partly borrowed from the facts, but crucially sponsored by the credibility of who says what.  For most purposes they serve as rarefied beliefs – vouching for the way things ‘must be’.  At the cutting edge they take the form of specialised communications between like-minded thinkers claiming to speak for the truth – assuring us that facts dispel uncertainties, and truth is furthered by the elimination of contradiction.  Contradiction showcases opposing statements of fact.  Either way, the facts are neither disposed to tell us anything, nor explain themselves.  In most cases the facts have been selected to suit the explanation, though their proponents gain rhetorical advantage in pretending it is the other way round.   Politicians are particularly adept at this – the fuzziness of language being the politician’s weapon of choice and first line of defence.

Scientific explanation tackles the problem by putting its explanations on trial – as if the facts will decide.  Scientists acknowledge known unknowns, but it is the unknown unknowns that weaken their conclusions, which harbour a persisting hiatus that outstrips all progress in working towards an ultimate truth.  The strange thing about scientific explanation is that it can seem right, because it works, yet still be wrong – being ‘right’ for the wrong reasons.  Nevertheless, for scientists, it is the explanation that counts, and they soldier on without knowing whether their findings will ever have a practical application.   In the meantime the whole of explanation comes down to tentative theories which remain fallible because of the ever vacant space for the unknown.  But the greater fallacy is due to our precepts of what we need and don’t need to know, given the fact of what we take to know already – prescribing that whereof we cannot know, thereof we must ignore.

Mike Laidler

Questions: ‘Loaded dice’ and ‘a theory of everything’

’What is a theory of everything?
Based upon the current idiom of science, it is a theory that can capture the whole of existence in a single factual or mathematical proof – as if that fact or equation can stand apart from the realms of theory, and as if reality dictates to theory that everything reduces to that one thing.

What is a theory of chance?
We are surrounded by chance events, which prompts us to ask whether the universe might have started that way. Chance can be seen to operate within certain boundaries to yield uncertain outcomes. For instance, rolling a die can have uncertain outcomes, but they are limited by the nature of the die, which doesn’t look like it got here by chance. Of course there may be additional uncertain consequences, such as an ensuing fight, but these are indirect and tend to remain only notionally connected. Normally, chance and probability are used to calculate the likelihood of an outcome, but that’s not quite the same thing as explaining it; however, other, more fanciful suppositions court the idea that anything can happen by chance – that a rolling rock could in theory turn itself into a die – although fewer still would go so far as to say it is theoretically possible for a rolling rock to turn into a chicken. Yet many hypotheses are promulgated, to varying degrees of nonsense, in the attempt to explain changes we can’t explain except by putting them down to chance – even to the point of decrying the importance of known non-chance events – as if the works of Shakespeare could, in theory, be replicated by placing typewriters in an infinite monkey cage. Other theories place chance at the origin of ‘life, the universe and everything’ – as the essential pre-existing or spontaneously exiting cause, or as a nexus in multiple universes.

If the answer isn’t ‘in the beginning’, where is it?
It’s likely to be in ‘an end-point’ outside of our reach. That’s why we prefer to look to beginnings – because they seem more accessible and there are still clues to be found, although we tend to treat each discoverable beginning as not the actual beginning of ‘it all’. However, an ‘ultimate beginning’ is not likely to be a repository of everything in any event, simply because of the fact that we can see things changing to become more than they were, and it is happening right before our eyes. So we are witnessing new beginnings all the time and remain challenged by the inexplicable facts of change, which we try to make explicable by looking in vein to ever more distant beginnings for a more ample cause. Meanwhile, theories of beginnings and ends remain highly theoretical – for isn’t every end a new beginning in the bigger picture of a dynamic universe where effects adorn the reality of their causes with something new? Furthermore, the idea of a first cause setting up a consistent chain of events, seems to suggest that ‘the dice were loaded from the start’, unless this consistency is an illusion of our place and time in ‘our universe’ – because the infinite variety of alternatives that are consistent with chance remain hidden from us in an unobservable ‘multiverse’.

Is there a purpose to existence?
This is a question we can feel more at home with, indeed we can also make some firm inroads towards an answer, because we already know there is purpose and meaning in existence, if only by way of our own presence, nature and outlook – and since we happen to be a real part of the universe we bear proof in ourselves of what can transpire. This change in the nature of nature is no less significant in cosmic terms just because we find it happens to be peculiar to us. But questions remain to be answered: where does it all lead and does it end with us? It seems that the answers lie in the bigger picture, where ends turn out to be bigger than beginnings – whereby our sense of meaning and purpose, despite manifesting as a part of us, may in fact be a staging point of a further beginning. (The question of ‘a bigger picture’ has been examined above).
So it may well be the case that we are privy to only a part of the answer, given that it is fair to assume that we exist in a universe that is bigger than us and that the nature of our being owes to more than we bring to it. Nevertheless, we can take comfort from the incompleteness of our situation, in the stark realisation that the purpose in existence is likely to be bigger than all we can make of it, just as the facts are likely to remain bigger than all we can make of them. Thereafter, the main obstacle to our progress is ourselves and our equally deficient observation that reality is confined to the facts of a purposeless nature that fixes the fate of what it all adds up to, which we uphold by promising ourselves that this explanation will win through in the end – as if we can deem ourselves adequate to explain the existence of existence or the extent of its nature and possibilities.

Mike Laidler