Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Science vs Reality

Recently, I had the opportunity to engage in a fascinating discussion with two ironically-named gentlemen (who I will leave unnamed here in case irony overcomes my readers). Both are eminently reasonable, but Gentleman #1 took issue with my definition of 'reasonable' and Gentlemen #2 took issue with my view of science.

According to Gentleman #1, it is better to define 'reasonable' as 'just; fair; agreeable to reason' than to use the 'argument of popularity'. Actually, in the context of what a reasonable belief is, it is perfectly normal to define 'reasonable' as 'something a majority of the population are in agreement with'. This is of course a legalistic position, akin to the idea of 'the man in the street' or 'the reasonable man'. But the problem with Gentleman #1's stand is that we as humans define 'just' as 'that which fits the common sensibility', 'fair' as 'that which seems balanced to the common sensibility', and 'agreeable' as 'that which most people agree with'.

According to Gentleman #2, reality is a the objective test of science. The problem is that this is a circular argument. In scientific circles, it is common to find the argument that reality is that which is verified by some form of the scientific method (as borrowed by Francis Bacon from the Islamic world). If this is true, that reality is verified by science, then how can reality be the objective test of science? The fact is that we can only trust our reason and our perception to the extent that it keeps producing exactly the same answer. This, of course, means that the inductive fallacy lies in wait.

My point is that a properly scientific skeptic would indeed be only provisionally certain, and even then only in the pragmatic sense, about any scientific claim to knowledge. If computers work because of applied science, that's great. Whether this is true or real, that's for the philosophers.

It is utterly possible to (as the humorist Terry Pratchett has done) postulate a science that works by little psychic beings of immaterial (and hence non-space limited) 'substance'. This would have the advantage of making the entities we call 'subatomic particles' and 'atoms' (and base much of our science on) explainable in terms of inherent intelligence; it would also explain action at a distance.

Unfortunately, it would also be unsatisfactory to scientists because the next question would be, "How do we understand the minds of these little psychic beings?" In fact, scientists dig until they hit 'fundament', and then they call what they've found 'fundamental' until they get better shovels. The problem is the 'better shovels' part.

What if you reach the point at which no better shovel is possible? This is apparently the case with the Planck constant, which describes the level of quantization of energy. Other physical constants (for example, the rest mass of the electron, Avogadro's number) depend on it to some extent; the fine-structure constant is interdependent with it in establishing the nature of our universe.

Well, having reaching that kind of fundament, I suppose the next question would be, "Why it is that value and not another value?" A true scientist would never accept the 'because it is, and that's all' explanation. But to me (and logically, anyone else), it is the explanation which must eventually suffice, and it would be unreasonable to think otherwise, simply because of the gap in orders of magnitude between our perceptions (and their proxies) and what lies beneath Planck's constant.

That would lead to the conclusion that true scientists are unreasonable, which must be irksome to them — if there were any such people at all. However, there is hope. As GBS once said (in Man and Superman, 1903), "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Perhaps that progress will (as it often has) redefine our concept of what is reasonable. It is now reasonable to believe in flying steel machines, as it might not have been five centuries ago. But flying steel machines operate at the same level of perceptual reality as we do, while quantum electrodynamics (and other such theories) don't.

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