“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”
Albert Einstein, The World as I See It, 1931
The debate between realism and anti-realism is, at least, a century old. Does Science describe the real world – or are its theories true only within a certain conceptual framework? Is science only instrumental or empirically adequate or is there more to it than that?
The current – mythological – image of scientific enquiry is as follows:
Without resorting to reality, one can, given infinite time and resources, produce all conceivable theories. One of these theories is bound to be the “truth”. To decide among them, scientists conduct experiments and compare their results to predictions yielded by the theories. A theory is falsified when one or more of its predictions fails. No amount of positive results – i.e., outcomes that confirm the theory’s predictions – can “prove right” a theory. Theories can only be proven false by that great arbiter, reality.
Jose Ortega y Gasset said (in an unrelated exchange) that all ideas stem from pre-rational beliefs. William James concurred by saying that accepting a truth often requires an act of will which goes beyond facts and into the realm of feelings. Maybe so, but there is little doubt today that beliefs are somehow involved in the formation of many scientific ideas, if not of the very endeavor of Science. After all, Science is a human activity and humans always believe that things exist (=are true) or could be true.
A distinction is traditionally made between believing in something’s existence, truth, value of appropriateness (this is the way that it ought to be) – and believing that something. The latter is a propositional attitude: we think that something, we wish that something, we feel that something and we believe that something. Believing in A and believing that A – are different.
It is reasonable to assume that belief is a limited affair. Few of us would tend to believe in contradictions and falsehoods. Catholic theologians talk about explicit belief (in something which is known to the believer to be true) versus implicit one (in the known consequences of something whose chim giả truth cannot be known). Truly, we believe in the probability of something (we, thus, express an opinion) – or in its certain existence (truth).
All humans believe in the existence of connections or relationships between things. This is not something which can be proven or proven false (to use Popper’s test). That things consistently follow each other does not prove they are related in any objective, “real”, manner – except in our minds. This belief in some order (if we define order as permanent relations between separate physical or abstract entities) permeates both Science and Superstition. They both believe that there must be – and is – a connection between things out there.
Science limits itself and believes that only certain entities inter-relate within well defined conceptual frames (called theories). Not everything has the potential to connect to everything else. Entities are discriminated, differentiated, classified and assimilated in worldviews in accordance with the types of connections that they forge with each other.
Moreover, Science believes that it has a set of very effective tools to diagnose, distinguish, observe and describe these relationships. It proves its point by issuing highly accurate predictions based on the relationships discerned through the use of said tools. Science (mostly) claims that these connections are “true” in the sense that they are certain – not probable.
The cycle of formulation, prediction and falsification (or proof) is the core of the human scientific activity. Alleged connections that cannot be captured in these nets of reasoning are cast out either as “hypothetical” or as “false”. In other words: Science defines “relations between entities” as “relations between entities which have been established and tested using the scientific apparatus and arsenal of tools”. This, admittedly, is a very cyclical argument, as close to tautology as it gets.
Superstition is a much simpler matter: everything is connected to everything in ways unbeknown to us. We can only witness the results of these subterranean currents and deduce the existence of such currents from the observable flotsam. The planets influence our lives, dry coffee sediments contain information about the future, black cats portend disasters, certain dates are propitious, certain numbers are to be avoided. The world is unsafe because it can never be fathomed. But the fact that we – limited as we are – cannot learn about a hidden connection – should not imply that it does not exist.
Science believes in two categories of relationships between entities (physical and abstract alike). The one is the category of direct links – the other that of links through a third entity. In the first case, A and B are seen to be directly related. In the second case, there is no apparent link between A and B, but a third entity, C could well provide such a connection (for instance, if A and B are parts of C or are separately, but concurrently somehow influenced by it).
Each of these two categories is divided to three subcategories: causal relationships, functional relationships and correlative relationship.
A and B will be said to be causally related if A precedes B, B never occurs if A does not precede it and always occurs after A occurs. To the discerning eye, this would seem to be a relationship of correlation (“whenever A happens B happens”) and this is true. Causation is subsumed by a the 1.0 correlation relationship category. In other words: it is a private case of the more general case of correlation.
A and B are functionally related if B can be predicted by assuming A but we have no way of establishing the truth value of A. The latter is a postulate or axiom. The time dependent Schrdinger Equation is a postulate (cannot be derived, it is only reasonable). Still, it is the dynamic laws underlying wave mechanics, an integral part of quantum mechanics, the most accurate scientific theory that we have. An unproved, non-derivable equation is related functionally to a host of exceedingly precise statements about the real world (observed experimental results).
A and B are correlated if A explains a considerable part of the existence or the nature of B. It is then clear that A and B are related. Evolution has equipped us with highly developed correlation mechanisms because they are efficient in insuring survival. To see a tiger and to associate the awesome sight with a sound is very useful.
Still, we cannot state with any modicum of certainty that we possess all the conceivable tools for the detection, description, analysis and utilization of relations between entities. Put differently: we cannot say that there are no connections that escape the tight nets that we cast in order to capture them. We cannot, for instance, say with any degree of certainty that there are no hyper-structures which would provide new, surprising insights into the interconnectedness of objects in the real world or in our mind. We cannot even say that the epistemological structures with which we were endowed are final or satisfactory. We do not know enough about knowing.
Consider the cases of Non-Aristotelian logic formalisms, Non-Euclidean geometries, Newtonian Mechanics and non classical physical theories (the relativity theories and, more so, quantum mechanics and its various interpretations). All of them revealed to us connections which we could not have imagined prior to their appearance. All of them created new tools for the capture of interconnectivity and inter-relatedness. All of them suggested one kind or the other of mental hyper-structures in which new links between entities (hitherto considered disparate) could be established.
So far, so good for superstitions. Today’s superstition could well become tomorrow’s Science given the right theoretical developments. The source of the clash lies elsewhere, in the insistence of superstitions upon a causal relation.
The general structure of a superstition is: A is caused by B. The causation propagates through unknown (one or more) mechanisms. These mechanisms are unidentified (empirically) or unidentifiable (in principle). For instance, al the mechanisms of causal propagation which are somehow connected to divine powers can never, in principle, be understood (because the true nature of divinity is sealed to human understanding).
Thus, superstitions incorporate mechanisms of action which are, either, unknown to Science or are impossible to know, as far as Science goes. All the “action-at-a-distance” mechanisms are of the latter type (unknowable). Parapsychological mechanisms are more of the first kind (unknown).
The philosophical argument behind superstitions is pretty straightforward and appealing. Perhaps this is the source of their appeal. It goes as follows:
There is nothing that can be thought of that is impossible (in all the Universes);
There is nothing impossible (in all the Universes) that can be thought of;
Everything that can be thought about is, therefore, possible (somewhere in the Universes);
Everything that is possible exists (somewhere in the Universes).
If something can be thought of (=is possible) and is not known (=proven or observed) yet – it is most probably due to the shortcomings of Science and not because it does not exist.
Some of these propositions can be easily attacked. For instance: we can think about contradictions and falsehoods but (apart from a form of mental representation) no one will claim that they exist in reality or that they are possible. These statements, though, apply very well to entities, the existence of which has yet to be disproved (=not known as false, or whose truth value is uncertain) and to improbable (though possible) things. It is in these formal logical niches that superstition thrives.
APPENDIX – From “The Cycle of Science”
“There was a time when the newspapers said that only twelve men understood the theory of relativity. I do not believe that there ever was such a time… On the other hand, I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics… Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’, because you will get ‘down the drain’ into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.”
R. P. Feynman (1967)
“The first processes, therefore, in the effectual studies of the sciences, must be ones of simplification and reduction of the results of previous investigations to a form in which the mind can grasp them.”
J. C. Maxwell, On Faraday’s lines of force
” …conventional formulations of quantum theory, and of quantum field theory in particular, are unprofessionally vague and ambiguous. Professional theoretical physicists ought to be able to do better. Bohm has shown us a way.”
John S. Bell, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics
“It would seem that the theory [quantum mechanics] is exclusively concerned about ‘results of measurement’, and has nothing to say about anything else. What exactly qualifies some physical systems to play the role of ‘measurer’? Was the wavefunction of the world waiting to jump for thousands of millions of years until a single-celled living creature appeared? Or did it have to wait a little longer, for some better qualified system … with a Ph.D.? If the theory is to apply to anything but highly idealized laboratory operations, are we not obliged to admit that more or less ‘measurement-like’ processes are going on more or less all the time, more or less everywhere. Do we not have jumping then all the time?
The first charge against ‘measurement’, in the fundamental axioms of quantum mechanics, is that it anchors the shifty split of the world into ‘system’ and ‘apparatus’. A second charge is that the word comes loaded with meaning from everyday life, meaning which is entirely inappropriate in the quantum context. When it is said that something is ‘measured’ it is difficult not to think of the result as referring to some pre-existing property of the object in question. This is to disregard Bohr’s insistence that in quantum phenomena the apparatus as well as the system is essentially involved. If it were not so, how could we understand, for example, that ‘measurement’ of a component of ‘angular momentum’ … in an arbitrarily chosen direction … yields one of a discrete set of values? When one forgets the role of the apparatus, as the word ‘measurement’ makes all too likely, one despairs of ordinary logic … hence ‘quantum logic’. When one remembers the role of the apparatus, ordinary logic is just fine.
In other contexts, physicists have been able to take words from ordinary language and use them as technical terms with no great harm done. Take for example the ‘strangeness’, ‘charm’, and ‘beauty’ of elementary particle physics. No one is taken in by this ‘baby talk’… Would that it were so with ‘measurement’. But in fact the word has had such a damaging effect on the discussion, that I think it should now be banned altogether in quantum mechanics.”
J. S. Bell, Against “Measurement”
“Is it not clear from the smallness of the scintillation on the screen that we have to do with a particle? And is it not clear, from the diffraction and interference patterns, that the motion of the particle is directed by a wave? De Broglie showed in detail how the motion of a particle, passing through just one of two holes in screen, could be influenced by waves propagating through both holes. And so influenced that the particle does not go where the waves cancel out, but is attracted to where they co-operate. This idea seems to me so natural and simple, to resolve the wave-particle dilemma in such a clear and ordinary way, that it is a great mystery to me that it was so generally ignored.”
J. S. Bell, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics
“…in physics the only observations we must consider are position observations, if only the positions of instrument pointers. It is a great merit of the de Broglie-Bohm picture to force us to consider this fact. If you make axioms, rather than definitions and theorems, about the “measurement” of anything else, then you commit redundancy and risk inconsistency.”
“To outward appearance, the modern world was born of an anti religious movement: man becoming self-sufficient and reason supplanting belief. Our generation and the two that preceded it have heard little of but talk of the conflict between science and faith; indeed it seemed at one moment a foregone conclusion that the former was destined to take the place of the latter… After close on two centuries of passionate struggles, neither science nor faith has succeeded in discrediting its adversary.
On the contrary, it becomes obvious that neither can develop normally without the other. And the reason is simple: the same life animates both. Neither in its impetus nor its achievements can science go to its limits without becoming tinged with mysticism and charged with faith.”
Pierre Thierry de Chardin, “The Phenomenon of Man”
I opened this appendix with lengthy quotations of John S. Bell, the main proponent of the Bohemian Mechanics interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (really, an alternative rather than an interpretation). The renowned physicist, David Bohm (in the 50s), basing himself on work done much earlier by de Broglie (the unwilling father of the wave-particle dualism), embedded the Schrdinger Equation (SE throughout this article) in a deterministic physical theory which postulated a non-Newtonian motion of particles. This is a fine example of the life cycle of scientific theories.
Witchcraft, Religion, Alchemy and Science succeeded one another and each such transition was characterized by transitional pathologies reminiscent of psychotic disorders. The exceptions are (arguably) medicine and biology. A phenomenology of ossified bodies of knowledge would make a fascinating read. This is the end of the aforementioned life cycle: Growth, Pathology, Ossification.
This article identifies the current Ossification Phase of Science and suggests that it is soon to be succeeded by another discipline. It does so after studying and rejecting other explanations to the current state of science: that human knowledge is limited by its very nature, that the world is inherently incomprehensible, that methods of thought and understanding tend to self-organize to form closed mythic systems and that there is a problem of the language which we employ to make our inquiries of the world describable and communicable.
Kuhn’s approach to Scientific Revolutions is but one of a series of approaches to issues of theory and paradigm shifts in scientific thought and its resulting evolution. Scientific theories seem to be subject to a process of natural selection as much as organisms are in nature.
Animals could be construed to be theorems (with a positive truth value) in the logical system “Nature”. But species become extinct because nature itself changes (not nature as a set of potentials – but the relevant natural phenomena to which the species are exposed). Could we say the same about scientific theories? Are they being selected and deselected partly due to a changing, shifting backdrop?
Indeed, the whole debate between “realists” and “anti-realists” in the philosophy of Science can be thus settled, by adopting this single premise: that the Universe itself is not a fixture. By contrasting a fixed subject of the study (“The World”) with the moving image of Science – anti-realists gained the upper hand.
Arguments such as the under-determination of theories by data and the pessimistic meta-inductions from past falsity (of scientific “knowledge”) emphasized the transience and asymptotic nature of the fruits of the scientific endeavor. But all this rests on the implicit assumption that there is some universal, immutable, truth out there (which science strives to approximate). The apparent problem evaporates if we allow both the observer and the observed, the theory and its subject, the background, as well as the fleeting images, to be alterable.
Science develops through reduction of miracles. Laws of nature are formulated. They are assumed to encompass all the (relevant) natural phenomena (that is, phenomena governed by natural forces and within nature). Ex definitio, nothing can exist outside nature – it is all-inclusive and all-pervasive, omnipresent (formerly the attributes of the divine).
Supernatural forces, supernatural intervention – are a contradiction in terms, oxymorons. If it exists – it is natural. That which is supernatural – does not exist. Miracles do not only contravene