Monday, November 26, 2007

Scientific Mysticism: A physicist betrays a closely held secret about science

Well, the advocates of scientism are up in arms about an article in yesterday's New York Times--an indication that it must be good. The article, by Paul Davies, is called "Taking Science on Faith." Of course, the violence of the negative reaction is what one would expect from those who have seen one of their own betray their deepest secrets to an unappreciative world.

Davies is director of Beyond, a research center at Arizona State University. As the title suggests, Davies argues that science has first principles of its own that are not themselves, at least for now, subject to scientific analysis.
All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way... And so far this faith has been justified.

...Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.

This idea--that science operates on assumptions that are not themselves scientific--is certainly not a new one. The great 18th century empirical philosopher David Hume pointed out that several of the ideas upon which science operates, primarily induction and causation, cannot be rationally justified. We assume them as a practical matter but we cannot certify them by reason.

In the case of causation, we witness certain events that occur together repeatedly, and we therefore conclude that one causes the other. But Hume points out that there is no evidence of a "cause", only evidence of constant correlation. Our evidence only takes us to the fact that these things are repeatedly observed together, but our evidence never shows us a cause. We read a cause into it. There is no way by science in particular or reason in general to justify the belief that it is really there.

In the case of induction, whereby we infer universal laws from repeated specific observations, Hume argued that we rely on the assumption that the future will always be like the past. But our observations do not extend into the future. We only have observations about the past and the present. Any observations about the future are speculation, and the belief that the future will always be like the past has no scientific or rational warrant.

The ideas of causation and induction, upon which the scientific method depends, are ideas which not only cannot be justified by science, but by reason at all.

It seems to me that G. K. Chesterton's explanation is the only plausible one: it is magic.
My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery ... The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.
In his great essay "The Ethics of Elfland" (which Martin Gardner included in his Great Essays in Science), Chesterton, although he never mentions him by name, takes full account of Hume. He first observes, as did Hume, that there is deductive reasoning on one hand (what Hume called "Relations of Ideas"): abstract logical and mathematical relations where certitude reigns:
There are certain sequences or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it. Haeckel may talk as much fatalism about that fact as he pleases: it really must be. If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit. If the three brothers all ride horses, there are six animals and eighteen legs involved: that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it.
But the certainties involved in deduction are absent in induction (what Hume called "Matters of Fact):
But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened -- dawn and death and so on -- as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. These men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton's nose, Newton's nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike.
Chesterton says that those who ignore this distinction between the deductive and the inductive are nothing more than scientific mystics who have far overstepped their reason in viewing unnecessary things as necessary:
Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the "Laws of Nature." When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o'clock. We must answer that it is magic. It is not a "law," for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it...All the terms used in the science books, "law," "necessity," "order," "tendency," and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, "charm," "spell," "enchantment." They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.
Now all this talk about magic and enchantment sound like the worst form of mysticism to materialists like Richard Dawkins. But Chesterton points out that it is people like Dawkins who are the mystics: "It is the man who talks about 'a law' that he has never seen," he says, "who is the mystic."
Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist. He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none. A forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together. A sentimentalist might shed tears at the smell of apple-blossom, because, by a dark association of his own, it reminded him of his boyhood. So the materialist professor (though he conceals his tears) is yet a sentimentalist, because, by a dark association of his own, apple-blossoms remind him of apples. But the cool rationalist from fairyland does not see why, in the abstract, the apple tree should not grow crimson tulips; it sometimes does in his country.
Finally, Chesterton recounts how the magic evident in the world led him to another conclusion:
I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were wilful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.
Davies, however, is not nearly so rational as the denizens of Chesterton's fairyland--or at least, he still requires his fairy tales to have a scientific air to them. He cannot finally accept Hume's judgment--or Chesterton's prescription. He still longs for the day when science will be able to resolves its deepest dilemmas.

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

Davies just won't take the obvious way out. Still, it's a powerful thesis, and one that isn't being appreciated by many of his scientific colleagues in each of whose heart is a mystic pretending he isn't there.

5 comments:

motheral said...

By all the Gods that live, how many logical fallacies and obvious blind spots can one fit into a single blog post? Let's take a quick first look...

First, what do you mean by your phrase "the violence of the negative reaction?" Is this Davies guy getting death threats? Or do you always label criticism of your point of view "violent?"

All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way... And so far this faith has been justified.

That's not an "assumption," it's an observation: we see, every day, that the physical Universe, and everything we see in it, behave in ways that are predictable according to well-known laws. Your failure -- or refusal -- to admit the difference between an "assumption" and an "observation," is where your thesis begins to fail.

The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational.

Is that really the idea that scientists have? Or do they simply admit we haven't yet found the reason for the way things are?

Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.

First, Davies fails to specify what he means by "rooted." Second, you and he have made an unwarranted logical leap from "we don't yet know why the Universe behaves as it does" to "meaninglessness and absurdity." And third, there's no "fiendishly clever bit of trickery" involved -- the laws of nature are still in force, whether or not we understand the underlying reasons.

The great 18th century empirical philosopher David Hume pointed out that several of the ideas upon which science operates, primarily induction and causation, cannot be rationally justified. We assume them as a practical matter but we cannot certify them by reason.

Either Hume was wrong, or you're misinterpreting what he said. If we "assume" certain things as a "practical matter," and get consistently good results by doing so (as you just admitted we do), then that is itself a rational justification for assuming them. We observe, for example, that the Sun has risen in the east throughout human history; and that no reliable or corroborated source has ever said it does otherwise; therefore, extrapolating from the past consistent pattern, we conclude (barring contrary information) that the Sun will continue to rise in the east in the foreseeable future. And that extrapolation (not "assumption") is perfectly rational insofar as the patttern continues and we are able to plan our actions based on such predictions.

You could easily make a different set of assumptions, such as "we can't predict where and when the Sun will rise until we see it," but what rational basis would you have for doing so? (Has anyone ever observed the Sun to rise in the north on alternate Tuesdays?) And what would you be able to accomplish based on such a contrary assumption?

But Hume points out that there is no evidence of a "cause", only evidence of constant correlation.

This is utter nonsense. We do, in fact, see evidence of causation in many cases; for example, when ice melts after the temperature rises, we know exactly HOW and WHY the rising temperature caused the ice to melt, and we can predict, with a good deal of confidence, that ice will always melt when it's heated past a certain measurable temperature.

Any observations about the future are speculation, and the belief that the future will always be like the past has no scientific or rational warrant.

Except for the observable fact that those who believe this are proven right, and predictions to the contrary have a 100% failure rate. What more "rational warrant" do you want?

(Here's a helpful hint: if you want to talk intelligently about science, try to find a source in the modern era, not the friggin' 18th century. This Hume guy may have been the bee's knees in the 18th century, but he's a bit outdated now.)

You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.

You can imagine anything you want; but if what you imagine is never seen to happen in real life, and you can't find a mechanism by which it could be made to happen, then what you imagine has no relevance outside your own head.

But Chesterton points out that it is people like Dawkins who are the mystics: "It is the man who talks about 'a law' that he has never seen," he says, "who is the mystic."

If we observe objects behaving consistently according to certain laws, and if we can't get them to behave in violation of said laws, then we do indeed "see" the laws, and there is nothing "mystical" about them. So no, you can't get away with calling scientists "mystics." This Chesterton guy seems rather clueless about reality, and possibly on drugs as well. You really need to find yourself some more knowledgeable sources.

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence.

Scientists who are "fixated on immutable laws" have solved a LOT of problems in the material world, and given a lot of people a lot of hope -- and a lot of opportunities -- that mystics or organized religion were never able to provide. If you want to pretend that science can't do anything useful, you'll have to show us a better alternative.

motheral said...

Testing...

Martin Cothran said...

Motheral,

Good questions. I'll be working on this this weekend. Stay tuned...

Martin Cothran said...

Either Hume was wrong, or you're misinterpreting what he said.

Uh, no. Don't think so. Read his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. That is what a good part of the book is about. Philosophers have been contending with this argument ever since he gave it.

If we "assume" certain things as a "practical matter," and get consistently good results by doing so (as you just admitted we do), then that is itself a rational justification for assuming them.

It is? So you're saying that if something "works" it's rational? Note that I didn't say it didn't "work", I said it wasn't rational. In fact, my exact contention (as Hume proved) is that just because something "works" doesn't mean it is rational, and just saying it is is no answer to the argument.

We observe, for example, that the Sun has risen in the east throughout human history; and that no reliable or corroborated source has ever said it does otherwise; therefore, extrapolating from the past consistent pattern, we conclude (barring contrary information) that the Sun will continue to rise in the east in the foreseeable future. And that extrapolation (not "assumption") is perfectly rational insofar as the pattern continues and we are able to plan our actions based on such predictions.

This is no answer to Hume. It's like saying to him, after reading his argument, "Is not!" You are making the following assumption:

The future will always be like the past.

The question Hume asks is, "How do you know this? How do you justify that assumption rationally?" It can't be based on observation, since you can't observe the future.

Tell me the two premises that justify this conclusion. If you can't produce them, then it is not rational.

It's scientific mysticism.

motheral said...

It is? So you're saying that if something "works" it's rational? Note that I didn't say it didn't "work", I said it wasn't rational. In fact, my exact contention (as Hume proved) is that just because something "works" doesn't mean it is rational, and just saying it is is no answer to the argument.

Excuse me, but that's pretty much the definition of "rational:" I "assume" (or rather, to be more precise, I conclude from extrapolation) something, based on a consistent pattern of factual evidence, in order to achieve a necessary result. The conclusion is based on objective evidence and consequences, not on emotion. That's about as rational as it gets. What more "rationality" do you demand? Or are you just using a different definition of "rational" from the rest of us?

The question Hume asks is, "How do you know this? How do you justify that assumption rationally?" It can't be based on observation, since you can't observe the future.

I just explained how we justify it, and all you do is ask the same question over and over and pretend you're making some cutting-edge point. What different assumptions, exactly, would you offer instead? On what rational basis would you make them? What rational reason can you give for making them? If you can't prove a different set of assumptions more "rational" than those the rest of us act on, then you can't possibly pretend our assumptions aren't rational.

(Besides, it's all very well to SAY you reject the prevailing "assumptions" about the real world; do you actually ACT on any contrary assumptions? If you see a truck or train approaching you at full speed, I have no doubt you'll be acting on those same "assumptions" whose rationality you now self-importantly question.)

It's scientific mysticism.

I'm neither a scientist nor a mystic, but I've been exposed to a lot of both at various times, and I can tell you that a) there's nothing "mystical" about how we cope with observable reality; and b) repeatedly saying "we can't know we know what we know" is neither scientific nor mystical; it's obscurantism -- a deliberate attempt to pretend that others can't possibly know what they clearly do know, and can't possibly use knowledge to accomplish what they've already accomplished. That's a standard tool of religious con-artists to protect their BS from the withering light of reason.

Pretending you can't see the rationality of our thoughts and actions does not make you insightful; it only makes you look like a fool or raving loony who can't handle reality on its own terms.