Saturday, June 26, 2010
The Phil Warnell Page
Here are the first five articles (of 23) at Phil Warnell's excellent Philosophy of Science website, What is Einstein's Moon ?
Just five, consider it a tease and if like what you read I'd suggest visiting Phil's site directly.
Phil is a rock solid no-BS philosopher whose foundational thinking has helped me immensely. It's always a pleasure to meet someone of like mind. Thank you, Philip.
1. How and Why?
Well I guess the first thing to answer is why the blog and why dedicated to science and philosophy? That in itself is a bit of a story. The thing is I have always thought of the world and my relation to it in such terms. Ever since I was young I was one of those wonder people. That is I would wonder about this and wonder about that. It always seemed strange that here I was, born into this ponderous world preconstructed for me to observe and I didn’t have a clue what it was, how it was and why it was. Well when you think like this you are unavoidably lead to science and philosophy. The pursuit of the “what” questions and the “how” questions are things us mortals try to understand through a method called science. The “why” questions are attempted to be discovered through philosophical analysis and consideration. Many may wonder why science does not try to tackle it all. Well at one time this was truly the case. The term philosopher is Greek for “lover of knowledge“. In fact still today when someone receives a PhD in any of the sciences he is awarded a Doctorate in Philosophy. Of course, many of you know this. This doesn’t provide an answer. Well let’s take a look at a standard dictionary definition of philosophy taken from answer.com it reads:
“Investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods“.
Still confused? Well the key words here are “empirical methods” Philosophy in the modern definition shuns empirical methods or in other words testing it’s validity by way of predictions against what we see in the world. This was not always the case.
Plato for instance did not exclude physical testing and at the same time warned us about where and when it was appropriate. He concludes in his Allegory of the Cave:
” Whereas our argument shows that the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being and of the brightest and best of being, or in other words, of the good.”
Plato here reminds us that true understanding incorporates both methodologies not only the empirical method but also by what he refers to as the “good”, which in the context of what I am talking about is the “why”. He implies that to have any success that both must be considered jointly . In the modern world these things have grown to become separated. The next question here is of course is “how and “why”. So that’s what this whole blog will be dealing with, my understandings and questions of the “how” and the “why”.
Before we go more into the "hows" and the "whys" that are the focus of this blog one might ask what my influences have been in all this? To be truthful there are many. Too many to simply synopsize in a single entry. What I can say is that I have been fortunate enough to have a mentor in all this for several years. Now this mentorship is not the usual one. Many consider a mentor as someone who takes you by the hand to lead you to conclusions that they already have. This is not what my mentor has been for me. My mentor has been a friend , guide, confidant and critic, one that recognized my interest and encouraged me to explore it thoroughly and consider as many of the options that one can . My mentor also had me examine my current positions and thoughts in terms of their soundness. This person for me is Douglas L. Hemmick PhD . He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy who's specialty is Quantum Foundations. You will see a link to his web site listed on this page. One might say Quantum Foundations, what is that? Well to be fair I think it better for you to click the link and see what Dr. Hemmick has to say himself about this. What I will tell you is that the study of his subject brings one closer to the realization that we simply can't separate the "how" questions from the "why" questions. Now a curious thing is that the vast majority of his fellow physicists don't feel that the "foundations" as a line of research has much relevance from a scientific standpoint. Many feel his area of endeavor is better described as metaphysics and is not true physics. Well curiously enough, if one limits themselves to the narrow modern definition that I set out in my last post, that would be true.
So is this current position of not mixing the hows with the whys a valid one? What we will find when we examine this closely is that it is a position that has evolved over time. Also, to be accurate, it is not a position that is totally universal or static. In the main though it suggests that science is only to address the "how" questions and philosophy the "whys". More importantly, the sciences in general, particularly physics, in some sense doesn't feel that "why" is a valid question in relation to the understanding of our world. On the other side, main stream philosophy has evolved into something that is homocentric, with man at the centre where the "how" questions are considered somewhat unimportant. Is it not strange that the pursuit of understanding has found itself in this seemingly paradoxical state?
3. Does Science Dismiss the Big Question, "Why" ?
Well now to begin where I left off I made a sweeping statement that modern science not only avoids the “why” questions but goes further to profess that such questions are not appropriate within the discipline. It goes even further to proclaim that such questions will not expand the quest for human understanding of the natural world. Many may say this is a outlandish statement and further where would I get such an idea. Well you don’t have to go far to find support for this.
As a example I quote Lisa Randall from a interview that appeared in this month’s Discover magazine. Professor Randall is a leading theoretical physicist and expert in particle physics, string theory, and cosmology. Her current research is focused on a aspect of string theory that suggests that our three dimensional universe may be only a part of a larger multi-dimensional one. This is all in pursuit of what is commonly and might I add improperly referred to as “The Theory of Everything”. Ms. Randall is currently the most quoted and cross referenced physicist in the world. I would contend that this qualifies her as being a representative of modern science, its thinking and its views. When Professor Randall was asked:
“Will physics ever be able to tackle the biggest questions—for instance, why does the universe even bother to exist?”
She responds with:
”Science is not religion. We're not going to be able to answer the "why" questions. But when you put together all of what we know about the universe, it fits together amazingly well. The fact that inflationary theory [the current model of the Big Bang] can be tested by looking at the cosmic microwave background is remarkable to me. That's not to say we can't go further. I'd like to ask: Do we live in a pocket of three-dimensional space and time? We're asking how this universe began, but maybe we should be asking how a larger, 10-dimensional universe began and how we got here from there.”
She then is asked:
“This sounds like your formula for keeping science and religion from fighting with each other.
” She then responds:
“A lot of scientists take the Stephen Jay Gould approach: Religion asks questions about morals, whereas science just asks questions about the natural world. But when people try to use religion to address the natural world, science pushes back on it, and religion has to accommodate the results. Beliefs can be permanent, but beliefs can also be flexible. Personally, if I find out my belief is wrong, I change my mind. I think that's a good way to live.”
So as you can see the lines have been drawn. First, Professor Randall admits that science does not even attempt to answer the “why” questions and then proclaims such questions are not relevant to understanding the natural world. She considers such questions the purview of religion. Now as we know religion can be seen and considered within the wider view as philosophy. I think if we pushed Professor Randall further she would agree with this extension. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Professor Randal’s ideas are silly for I respect and admire what she does and how she strives to further our understanding of the natural world. I’ve read her new book - Warped Passages- and even attended a recent public lecture she gave. I’m simply making the point the this is what the general view is. So then, is it true that the “why” questions are beyond what one can expect of human understanding? It appears this is what science thinks. But how has science arrived at this? More importantly is it correct? Also, have all modern scientists thought this way? Well this is what we will continue to explore.
4. Can "Why" Be a Valid Question?
Now that we have established that modern science rejects the “why” question as something that will lead to increased human understanding of our natural world, some might tend to agree. You might say what possible benefit can one attain by asking the question in the first place? Well the answer could be simply that by asking such questions we end up with answers that suggest a greater truth. The reverse sometimes is the case as well in that by asking the question “ how” we are lead to or given the answer to the question “why”. When this happens the “why” then expands and adds validity to the answer and suggests that it is true. You might say can I give such an example?
One such example is when Charles Darwin went out on his famous voyage aboard the Beagle to visit many parts of the world and returned with a great collection and documentation of life’s species. In the course of studying them he observed slight variations within many species. Variations such as the shape and length of the beaks of finches he had found on the Galapagos Islands. First he asked himself, “how” could these small variations have occurred. The answer given was that small variations occurred by random mutation. The next question is “how” did these mutations persist. The answer put forth was that these mutations would only persist if such change made the species more viable. In other words it gave the individual an advantage to live. This advantage to live instilled in such individuals a better chance to propagate and have this change passed on to the next generation. When this change is passed to following generations then this would increase the survivability of that subset of the species that inherited them. So what am I getting at here? Well by asking those two “how” questions and proposing the answers Darwin was also given the answer to a “why” question. That “why” question is why is life so varied and ever changing. The answer suggested by Darwin's inquiry was that it is natures strategy for the survival and continuance of life.
I would argue that because Darwin’s “how” questions lead to the answer of this “why” question is what gives the theory of evolution such appeal. In other words suggests that it is true. It is also what makes it so reprehensible to many. What do I mean by this? Remember now what I contended has happened to the pursuit of human understanding. I said that it had divided into two camps. One being science that explores and answers the “how” questions and philosophy which is to explore and answer the “why” questions. Well here in the course of asking “how” Darwin had also answered “why”. In other words he had crossed the line that has been drawn between the two disciplines.
5. Making Jello a la Darwin
My last post ended where Darwin discovered as the “why” answer that natural selection was nature's strategy for the survival and continuance of life. You might inquire, do all “why” questions lead to such ground breaking conclusions and deep understanding ? The answer of course is no. We could ask “how” did the chicken cross the road? The answer being by putting one foot in front of the other. Then you might say “why” did the chicken cross the road? Well I’ll let you answer this question. The point is the question in itself, on its own does not have the power. It is where it is asked. When it is applied to the inquiries of the natural world it can lead to profound insight. The problem being that it is not asked very often by modern science.
The question now is how did we get to this point where science and philosophy have parted company? There are actually a few ways to look at this. If you asked a scientist of today they would most likely say that it is because science has become so specialized and complex that the philosophers are not able to keep up with it all and therefore cannot meaningfully contribute. This however is a dodge, for it avoids why the scientists themselves are not looking at their work from a philosophical perspective. Many scientists are of the opinion that to pose the “why” question suggests motive or intent plays a role in the nature of our world. I’m going to be bold here for I am convinced the vast majority of scientists believe that there is no motive or intent or to put it another way a scheme of nature. Many may point to Darwin’s Theory which I just outlined and say it shows a process where random is a element and this suggests that there is no scheme to nature. Equally, many philosophies, some of which are described as religions rail at the very same point for they believe that this also indicates there is no scheme in nature and so therefore it must be wrong. Despite their opposed views, on this point to they both agree. But are they correct to think this way?
To examine this let’s draw an analogy between nature's process for the survival and continuance of life to making a bowl of jello. When you make jello you take a bowl you put in some water plus jello powder along with some sugar. Then you stir, after which you put the whole lot in the refrigerator for a while and wait for it to set. Now in Darwin’s theory nature takes a world (the bowl) adds in primitive life along with a ever changing environment (the ingredients) then allows some random changes (the stirring), then waits for some time (sitting in the frig) and there you have it, life as it is recognized today. So what then is there in Darwin’s theory that is so convincing to many scientists and so unacceptable to some philosophers? Well it’s this random aspect. Both groups consider that random process shows that there is no scheme to nature and yet what is the act of stirring when we made the jello. Most would say it was a quick and easy method to get all the ingredients evenly mixed or distributed. In truth though you accomplished this by use of a process that evokes random. Now what did nature do? To assure that life was given the benifit of trying out numerous possibilities in terms of making it viable, nature invokes a scheme that involves random as part of the process. Now I would ask both the scientists and the philosophers, is it logical or reasonable to restrict nature in such a way? If this were true then they should also insist that I couldn’t make jello properly unless I purposely and accurately located all of the jello powder and the sugar within the water. If one looks at it this way it doesn’t make much sense. There is more to be said about this random aspect to nature and its implications for science and philosophy. This however I will leave for future posts.
Here's a picture of what Phil looked like in the early spring of his life (it's only midsummer now Phil, plenty of time for us both, the world ain't done with us yet). Heck, I looked like that too. Thank goodness for memories!