Science and the Hunt for Reality
Ch 1 – Objective or Subjective That Is the Question
We live in an objective real world, and we gain objective (actually intersubjective) knowledge of it thru our physical senses and by means of social interaction. Yet our knowledge of reality is not merely a social construct. The reliability of our knowledge derives from reality checks and from our evolutionary fitness.
Each of us possesses his or her own subjective inner world. That is where perception, feeling, emotion, belief, etc. lie. Our individual inner worlds are incommensurate with those of others.
The status of abstract logical structures (including mathematics) vis-a-vis the objectivity/subjectivity dichotomy is unclear.
Objective truth is consistency with the objective real world. Subjective truth lives in the inner world of each of us. Beliefs are subjective truths. Logical truth is the truth of logical deductions (including mathematical theorems) w/in the self-consistent frameworks in which they have been derived.
Subjective truths are all too often taken to be objective truths. Creationism is a current example of subjective truth being taken to be objective truth.
The objective real world is best comprehended by means of science.
Ch 2 – The Science of Nature and the Nature of Science
Science is our attempt to understand objectively the reproducible and predictable aspects of nature, where nature is taken to mean the material universe w/ which we can, or can conceivably, interact. The conduct of science involves searching for order among the reproducible phenomena of nature and then attempting to formulate laws that deswcribe the collected data and predict new results.
Ch 3 – Theory Explanation, Not Speculation
The criterion of naturality is not always strictly adhered to, however. The problem has to do w/ theories concerning aspects of nature that are generally considered to be among the most fundamental of all, such as space and time, the properties of the elementary particles, and the evolution of the universe. Put simply, to explain a most fundamental aspect of nature by something even more fundamental, one is forced to go beyond nature. In such a pinch, some scientists tend to prefer to stick with fundamentality even at the expense of naturality.
It appears to me that the main contribution to the beauty of a theory derives from its simplicity, its unification, and its generality. A theory deemed beautiful by scientists working in the relevant field is invariably simple, greatly unifying, and of broad generality.
To be falsifiable, a theory must predict sth in addition to what it was originally intended to explain. Its prediction is tested against experimental results that were not taken into account when the theory was devised. To produce predictions, a theory must fulfill the criterion of generality, as we saw above. The what is doing the explaining, being more general than what is being explained, can explain more than it was originally intended to explain and thus make testable predictions.
In the conduct of science, after finding laws of nature, we try to understand, i.e., explain, objectively those laws by means of theories. For a theory to be acceptable, whatever is doing the explaining must logically imply what is being explained. The former should form an aspect of nature just as much as the latter should. In addition, the former should be more general, more fundamental, more unifying, and simpler than the latter, and should be perceived as causing the latter. Beautiful theories are preferred. Theories should be falsifiable.
Ch 4 – Is Science the Whole Story?
Thought, feelings, etc. might be realizations of the integrated activity of the brain as a whole, although they cannot be attributed to any component of that activity.
In science, there are rather strict criteria for truth. The situation is not the same in metaphysics, including worldviews. Metaphysical considerations are unimpeded by any burden of obligation to be objectively true, although they might be expected not to contradict objective truths, and to be logically self-consistent. But even those expectations have no substantial foundation, and one can find metaphysical positions that do contradict the objective truth of science, or that are logically inconsistent, or both.
Thus personal taste and preference reign supreme in metaphysics, whereas in science their influence, though present, is not of overwhelming importance. In connection with that, compare the abundance, intensity, and acrimony of controversy, sometimes developing into personal animosity, in philosophy circles with the general moderation and civility of controversy among scientists.
As for myself, I will reject any worldview that is at odds with science, or is logically inconsistent. But that’s a consequence of my own worldview. If someone chooses to ignore science, that might have low survival value for that believer, but by what higher truth is he or she to be judged? And if someone holds inconsistent beliefs, by what higher standard is consistency a virtue?
Metaphysics, in the sense of the philosophical framework in which science operates, is concerned with what lies around, below, above, before, and beyond science. Within the domain of science, scientists should stick to scientific considerations as far as possible. Metaphysics should consider only subjects lying outside this domain. Worldviews are conceptual frameworks and lie within the domain of metaphysics. In contrast to science, metaphysics, including worldviews, lacks criteria for objective truth, and personal taste reigns supreme. Transcendent worldviews involve the existence of a reality beyond nature. Nontranscendent worldviews make do with nature as all there is. Life, mind, consciousness, feeling, and so on fit into nontranscendentism as properties that can develop naturally in sufficiently complex systems.
Ch 5 – Our Unique Universe
Reproducibility > Order > Law > Predictability > Theory
Systems much larger than human size might be considered reproducible by declaration. They are treated as reproducible in the sense that nature supplies us with a sufficient variety and frequency of them that we can consider nature to be manipulating for us and presenting us with performed experiments at size scales beyond our manipulative capabilities. Such reasoning extends to even larger systems. But the grounds for considering them reproducible weaken twd the end of the list, since the larger the system, the less the variety and the lower the frequency that nature presents us for observation.
As we progress from small, readily reproducible systems to systems of increasing size, actual reproducibility begins to become invalid, to be replaced by declared reproducibility, which in turn loses its justification. When we push matters to their extreme and consider the whole universe, we have clearly and irretrievably lost the last vestige of reproducibility; the universe as a whole is a unique phenomenon and as such is intrinsically irreproducible.
So, being a unique phenomenon, the universe is intrinsically irreproducible. Thus the universe as a whole lies outside the framework of science. Order, law, predictability, and explanation are irrelevant and inapplicable to it, and we justifiably call it orderless, lawless, unpredictable, and unexplainable. Or, using livelier language, as far as science is concerned the universe does as it damn well pleases.
The universe, then, is the limit of our possible scientific understanding of the material world, while it itself, as a whole, can have no explanation in science. As for scientific understanding of the working of the universe as a whole, we will never be able to state anything more enlightning than it is b/c it is.
The universe as a whole is a unique phenomenon as far as science is concerned. It is therefore intrinsically irreproducible, and thus lies outside the framework of science. Thus order, law, predictability, and theory are irrelevant to the universe as whole; it is orderless, lawless, unpredictable, and unexplainable. Hence cosmology is a branch of metaphysics, and cosmological schemes, such as the inflationary big-bang schemes, are not theories; they are attempts to describe, not to explain scientifically, the working of the universe. Nevertheless, cosmological schemes are of immense value for science, offering insight, guidance, frameworks, and predictions. Such schemes’ apparent predictive power concerning the origin and past and future evolution of the universe is illusory, and their real predictive power is confined to the present.
Ch 6 – Nature’s Laws
Realism and Idealism
Although realism does not demand conservatism (parsimony, Ockham’s razor), it does encourage it. In regard to laws of nature, conservatism takes the form: As long as there is no compelling reason to the contrary, assume that the laws of nature we find here and now are, were, and will be valid everywhere and forever.
Regardless of one’s political views, conservatism is generally considered good science practice. (That is a metaphysical position.) In broad terms, the conservative platform in science is this. Hold on to what you have, stick to the tried and well-confirmed, for as long as is reasonably possible; make changes only when the need for change becomes overwhelming; and then make only the minimal changes needed to achieve the desired end.
Idealism says the laws of nature we “discover” are not intrinsic to the “raw material” of the ext world, but are mental constructs, artifacts of the way our minds interpret and organize our sensory impressions, of the way we perceive the world. Thus our laws of nature are determined by the properties of our sense organs and by our mental makeup.
One such hybrid worldview is that there indeed is order “out there” in the world external to ourselves, and that intelligent beings perceive it via their senses and formulate laws from those perceptions in accord with their mental makeups. Order would thus be objective, whereas laws of nature would be species-subjective, perhaps even individual-subjective.
According to this position, intelligent beings evolve and develop w/in, and by, the objective order. So their senses and mental makeups must have survival value and cannot bring about behavior that is too “unnatural,” such as acting according to “order” that has no objective support, or ignoring orderly phenomena that affect the beings strongly.
Nature presents us w/ a set of happenings. We find order among them and formulate laws that abstract from the order and describe it. The laws predict additional happenings; they tell us what would happen in situations that have not yet occurred. So the laws contain more info than nature has provided us. Where does this info come from? It comes from our minds. We inject it during the inspired passage from perceived order to laws. When we extrapolate from the actual set of situations and happenings to all possible situations and consequent happenings, we inject sth of ourselves. Thus, laws are made of data from the real world as well as of stuff from our minds.
We prefer simplicity, and we injected our preference into the law.
Reductionism and Holism
So long as nature is not yet understood, there is no reason a priori to consider any aspect or phenomenon of it as being intrinsically more or less impt than any other. Thus it is not meaningful to pick out some part of nature as being more”worthy” of investigation than other parts. Neither is it meaningful, according to the holist position, to investigate an aspect or phenomenon of nature as if it were isolated from the rest of nature. The result of such an effort would not reflect the normal behavior of that aspect or phenomenon, since in reality it is not isolated at all, but is interrelated w/ all of nature, including us.
So although one’s position along the realism-idealism range can be justified only subjectively, by ones finding it attractive or satisfying, it seems best to determine one’s reductionism-holism position by the purely pragmatic criterion of whether it allows, or even encourages, science to progress or not.
Observer and Observed
The amount of residual observer-observed involvement, after all efforts have been made to separate, can be characterized more or less by sth like atom size. An atom-size discrepancy in the observation of a planet, a house, or even a cell is negligible, whereas such a discrepancy in the observation of an atom or an elementary particle is of major significance.
Quantum theory teaches us that nature abhors the confinement of submicroscopic objects, such as atoms and elementary particles, to very small regions of space. The smaller the confinement region, the sooner the object will escape and the faster it will move elsewhere! So if we confine A and B, say electrons, to small regions to ensure good separation, they will both soon be anywhere else, and we will have failed to keep them apart. If, on the contrary, we confine the to large regions in the hope they will stay w/in their assigned regions, the regions will be overlapping, and we will have failed again. And it turns out the same for intermediate-size regions as well. We just can’t win! Nonseparability is a general and inescapable fact of nature and cannot be circumvented. (This affect is intimately connected with Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.)
With regard to the reductionism-holism view of observer-observed separation, the most useful position to hold in the range btw the poles–useful in the sense of allowing the best grasp of the situation–is determined by the size of the observed phenomenon: the larger the size, the closer to the reductionism pole; the smaller the size, the closer to the holism pole. [assumption being made here that observation does not alter what is being observed on a larger than atom scale and that things may be studied in isolation w/ negligible impact]. For molecular phenomena and smaller, nearly pure holism seems to be appropriate, since nature’s intrinsic nonseparability is highly significant for them.
Quasi-Isolated System and Surroundings
removal of self
suppose an observable (not isolated from us) system isolated from rest of nature
ideal case: isolated system (naturally impossible). No matter what, a quasi-isolated system will still be subject to:
forces of gravity, inertia, & intrinsic nonseparable character of nature
Inertia is the property of bodies according to which a body’s behavior is governed by Newton’s first universal law of motion. In the absence of forces acting on them, or when such forces cancel each other, bodies remain at rest or continue to move uniformly in a straight line. Or expressed positively, inertia is the property of bodies such that force is required to alter their state of motion from one of rest or one of uniform straight-line motion. Inertia can be made a measurable physical quantity by means of Newton’s second law, according to which a body’s mass serves as a good measure of its inertia.
The inertia of any body is caused by some influence, some interaction, btw the body and all the other matter in the universe.
So the situation with regard to isolated systems is this. To enable themselves to do science, scientists reductionistically try to investigate relatively simple isolated systems. But “isolated” systems are never really totally isolated. They are not totally isolated from us, otherwise we could not observe them (and they would not be part of nature). Neither are they totally isolated from the rest of nature.
Such interaction forces, ones that allow both prediction and retrodiction, are said to possess time-reversal symmetry.
So to discover reproducibility, order, law, and predictability in the natural evolution of quasi-isolated systems, we conceptually split the evolution process into initial state and law of evolution. The usefulness of such a separation depends on the independence of the two “parts”: whether, for a given system, the same law of evolution applies equally to any initial state, and whether initial states can be set up w/ no regard for what will subsequently evolve from them. In other words, one the one hand, nature allows us complete freedom in setting up initial states, while, on the other hand, what evolves from an initial state is entirely beyond our ctrl.
Extended Mach Principle
A generalization of the Mach principle (which states that the origin of inertia lies w/ all the matter of the universe, i.e., the inertia of any body is due to all the other matter present in the universe), the Extended Mach principle is that the origin of the laws of nature for quasi-isolated systems lies w/ the totality of all systems, i.e., w/ the universe as a whole. Or more succinctly, the origin of the laws of nature is the universe as a whole.
Thus we’re drawn to the whole universe as the origin of the laws of nature.
From the standpt of the hybrid position presented in the section Realism and Idealism earlier in this chap, we could say that the origin of the order that is common to all quasi-isolated systems is the whole universe, whereas the origin of the laws that are formed from the order is we ourselves.
And, as w/ the standard principle, the extended one might, on the one hand, be viewed reductionistically as indication the existence of some influence by which the whole universe imposes behavior on small parts of itself. Then we might try to grasp it scientifically by performing experiments to search for and study such an influence. On the other hand, the extended Mach principle might be viewed holistically. Then it would be inappropriate to consider quasi-isolated systems as being meaning fully separable from the rest of the universe, and the behavior of such systems would result unanalyzably from their condition of forming parts of the whole universe.
But along the way we learned about the extended Mach principle, by which the orderly behavior of a part of the universe is considered to be not only part of the orderless behavior of the whole universe, but brought about by it. How can orderlessness bring about order? How can intrinsic lawlessness give rise to laws of nature?
The orderless universe is considered to bring about orderly behavior of parts of itself, in each of our examples the orderly behavior of a compound system is brought about by the combined orderless behaviors of its parts. The pt is that order can arise from orderlessness, and law from lawlessness.
For the universe as a whole, however, it is the total that is orderless and yet is supposed to bring about orderly behavior of parts of itself.
Why does the orderless universe have orderly aspects? This is a deep question. Here we are looking for an explanation of the very existence of laws of nature. Why is there order in nature?
A satisfactory scientific explanation, i.e., a satisfactory theory, of the existence of the laws of nature should entail sth more fundamental than the existence of the laws of nature and also more fundamental than the universe as a whole, which, by the extended Mach principle, engenders the laws of nature. The only natural thing I can think of that is conventionally more fundamental than the existence of the laws of nature is the universe as a whole. And nothing at all is conventionally more fundamental than the universe as a whole, since it is, by definition, everything. Thus we find ourselves at the end of science’s explanatory power. The existence of laws of nature w/in the lawless universe appears to be unexplainable by anything that is conventionally more fundamental than itself.
There exists w/in science an unconventional approach called the anthropic principle, which holds that in a certain sense the existence of human beings is more fundamental than the universe as a whole.
The Mach principle, that the origin of inertia lies w/ all the matter in the universe, is generalized to the extended Mach principle, that the origin of the laws of nature for quasi-isolated systems lies w/ the universe as a whole. Thus the intrinsically orderless universe possesses orderly, lawful aspects, which are the order, predictability, and laws we find in nature. We find evidence also of nature’s orderlessness on various scales, including principally the submicroscopic scale, as described by quantum theory. Science can offer no conventional explanation for the existence of laws of nature w/in the lawless universe.
Ch 7 – Facing the Universe
Thus Homo sapiens plays an essential role in (human) science in the sense that: (1) science is a by-product of our existence; (2) it is our conception of nature that we attempt to explain; and (3) a valid explanation is one that satisfies us.
The anthropic principle states, for a start, that the existence of Homo sapiens may, w/in the framework of science, serve as an explanation for phenomena and aspects of nature, b/c we’re natural & hence exert natural influences w/ the material world w/ which we can, or can conceivably, interact.
If the nonexistence of B implies the nonexistence of A, then, and completely equivalently, the existence of A implies the existence of B.
“The gravitational force not having its observed strength implies our nonexistence” is equivalent to “Our existence implies the observed strength for the gravitational force.”
The anthropic explanation runs into two difficulties. The subjective difficulty is that scientists just don’t feel that any explaining is being done, since there is no causation, as we just saw. This is the standard objection to the anthropic principle.
We must gracefully concede lack of generality, unification, simplicity, and causation in the anthropic explanation. And that is the subjective difficulty of the principle when it is applied to the explanation of apparently fundamental aspects of nature. W/o those, it’s hard to feel that an anthropic explanation is acceptable. We must not concede lack of fundamentality, however. Our existence is the most fundamental aspect of nature for us, b/c it underlies our perception of other aspects of nature.
After all, in the whole of nature, what phenomenon are we most sure of, have the least doubts about, have the most confidence in, if not our own existence? Consider what a person deprived of all sensory perception would be aware of. Whereas it is fairly innocuous to doubt any other natural phenomenon, consider the paradox involved in doubting one’s own existence. Indeed, cogito ergo sum!
Thus the anthropic principle not only states that the existence of Homo sapiens may serve as an explanation for other aspects of nature, but the principle can offer the most fundamental explanations, since it bases them on the most fundamental natural phenomenon we have, our own existence. The anthropic principle stated in its full form: The existence of Homo sapiens may, w/in the framework of science, serve as an explanation for phenomena and aspects of nature, and more over, such explanations are the most fundamental.
The objective difficulty is known as the invariant-context problem, or the assumption that while we’re considering the hypothetical possibility of varying the strength of the gravitational force, we’re tacitly assuming that no other aspect of the universe, no other law of nature, nothing else at all, is being varied.
So where do we stand w/ the anthropic principle? True, it would not be a satisfying explanation, since it would not meet the criteria of generality, unification, simplicity, or causation. But it would fulfill the criteria of logical implication and fundamentality, and would thus be a viable explanation, where the conventional alternative offers no explanation at all. W/ anthropic enlightenment and good will, one can get used to anthropic explanations, esp when no conventional ones are available. Nevertheless, the explanations offered by the anthropic principle are liable to be qualified by the assumption of invariant context, which is their objective difficulty.
Our existence is really the most fundamental aspect of nature for us, and perhaps succeed in thus explaining the last extremely fundamental aspect we were trying to explain.
What a beautiful circularity: our existence explaining our existence!
self-reference: The object of the investigation intrinsically contains its investigators as part of itself; the investigators are investigating an object of which they are intrinsically a part. That is the holistic worldview w/in which the anthropic principle operates.
The anthropic principle is no return to anthropocentrism, that is, it does not reinstate humanity to its historically former privileged position as the center of nature. It does, however, recognize our privileged position as the center of science, since science is a human endeavor.
An anthropic explanation is, however, an explanation of last resort, to be used only when no conventional explanation is available, in order to provide, where applicable, some scientific explanation rather than having none at all.
The anthropic principle is concerned not only w/ what is going on in nature but also w/ science, our attempt to understand objectively what is going on in nature, as a human endeavor. It recognizes that we, as investigators of nature, are intrinsically part of the object of our investigation, so that in the final reckoning we can’t avoid coming back to ourselves in some manner or other.
“We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origin. At last, we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the footprint. And lo! it is our own.”
Since lack of order implies our nonexistence, it is logically equivalent that our existence implies order. Thus, since we do exist, the lawless universe must have orderly aspects, and these orderly aspects must, and do, affect us strongly enough to allow our existence. They are the laws of nature we discover. The orderless aspects of the universe must and do affect us only weakly; otherwise, by the same reasoning, we could not survive.
Space and Time
Space is the dimension of material being; time is the dimension of becoming.
Space is the assignment of a measure involving three numbers to material being, in answer to the question “Where?”
Fundamentality follows from the fact that our existence is, for us, the most fundamental aspect of nature.
Anthropic explanations should be used only as a last resort, for aspects of nature that are apparently so fundamental that no conventional explanation is available. That is b/c anthropic explanations suffer from the subjective difficulty that our existence seems neither more general, more unifying, nor more simple than whatever it is that’s doing the explaining, and we do not perceive our existence as causing whatever it is that’s, being explained either. Anthropic explanations also suffer from the objective difficulty of the invariant-context problem.
Ch 8 – The Hunt for Reality
Realism is the metaphysical position that there is an objective, observer-independent underlying reality that we discover and study thru our physical senses (and thru our measuring and observing instruments as extensions of our senses).
Positivism is the metaphysical position that only our sense data, derived from measurements and observations, are fundamental.
And finally, almost all this raw material is well comprehended by science and fits together beautifully, meshing into a most elegant conceptual fabric, the whole wonderful world of science.
The crucial implication is that scientific knowledge of objective reality is indirect knowledge. Direct knowledge, in contrast, somehow passes directly from the object of the knowledge into our consciousness. We might call it intuition or belief or feeling. But by its character, science confines us to our physical senses in our observations of nature.
Here intuition, belief, and feeling are forbidden and have no part in science. Thus science dooms itself to merely indirect knowledge of the reality it tries to comprehend.
It is reasonable to believe that perceived reality cannot be much out of tune w/ objective reality, at least w/ those aspects of reality that strongly and frequently affect our survival as individuals and as a species.
The argument here is one of motivation and utility: If we have no hope of approaching objective reality, we might as well give up believing in it. It is reasonable and conceptually economical to believe that our perceptions and concepts even give us a literal picture of objective reality.
Even so, we cannot presume that our perceptions and concepts of reality necessarily give us a literal description of, or even remain faithful guides to, aspects of reality that do not affect us strongly or frequently, such as for submicroscopic phenomena or for astronomical and larger-scale phenomena. The reason is that the argument based on evolutionary adaptation then loses its validity. (these matters become no longer relevant to the concerns of human survival.) It does not much matter whether we are adapted to aspects of reality that affect us only weakly or rarely.
In quantum theory there is too much dependence on the observer to allow perceived reality to be a literal description of objective reality, which is assumed to be independent of observers.
The act of observation realizes the potentiality and endows the particle w/ the property of position.
It’s not as if, prior to the observation, the particle had a location that we didn’t know, but which the observation revealed. Quantum theory clearly rules this out and affirms that it is the act of observation itself that bestows the property of position upon the particle, which previously did not possess the property. The intrinsic dependence of the perceived reality of properties, such as position, on the activities of observers demonstrates that the perceived reality of the quantum aspects of nature cannot be a literal description of an observer-independent, objective reality.
Partially Hidden Reality
Using arguments and justifications based on common sense, on our understanding of nature, and on reasonableness, utility, conceptual economy, and motivation, we have seen how science leads us to a belief in an objective reality. Our scientific knowledge of this reality is indirect. But science should nevertheless give us a literal description of objective reality, at least for those aspects of it that strongly and frequently affect our survival as individuals and as a species. Yet quantum theory, the best theory we presently possesses, cannot be a literal description of this reality. Thus objective reality is partially, very likely mostly, hidden from us.
The quantum aspect of nature involves observers too much for that. So any objective reality must be “farther” from us than nature, “more distant” from us than perceived reality. It must transcend them. Thus I’m led to the believe in a partially hidden objective reality, a reality transcending nature, a reality most likely surpassing human understanding. But nonetheless an objective reality! An observer-independent underlying reality that is the same reality for protons, for planets, for peanuts, and for people.
as long as objectivity is maintained; as long as one’s assumptions do not contradict observer independence, or the idea that it is the same underlying reality for helium, for helicopters, for hyacinths, and for all humans. If objectivity were to be abandoned, there would be no point in the whole metaphysical construct we have developed in this chapter.
Our final discussion in this book concerned the nature of reality, in particular what science tells us about it. Using arguments and justifications based on common sense, on our understanding of nature, and on reasonableness, utility, conceptual economy, and motivation, we’re led by science to the belief in an objective reality. We saw, however, that our scientific knowledge of this reality is indirect. But science should nevertheless give us a literal description of objective reality, at least for those aspects of it that strongly and frequently affect our survival as individuals and as a species. Yet quantum theory, which is the best theory we have, cannot be a literal description of this reality. Thus objective reality is at least partially hidden from us. Since this reality transcends nature, we’re thus led to a transcendent worldview. There’s more to objective reality than meets the eye, it seems.