In a not-so-recent discussion I had on Stephen Law’s blog, I had trouble convincing some of the participants that, not only is there a difference between science and philosophy, but the distinction is an important one.
In a comment on my last post, Timmo made a reference to Richard Feynman’s book, The Character of Physical Law, which got me re-reading it. You may wonder how these 2 issues are related. Well, in my last post I discussed some of Erwin Schrodinger’s philosophy, and the aforementioned Feynman’s book is probably his most philosophical. Together, they highlight the fact that Feynman’s philosophical musings probably couldn’t be more different than Schrodinger’s, yet I doubt that they would disagree on the science. The same is true of contemporary physicists. For example, Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, even though they have collaborated scientifically and even won a joint prize in physics, are philosophically miles apart on the nature of mind. In his book, Shadows of the Mind, Penrose actually invited Hawking to provide a counter-philosophical point of view, which, of course, he did. Likewise, Albert Einstein and Kurt Godel were very good friends, when they were both fellows at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, but held philosophically divergent views: Godel was a mathematical Platonist and Einstein was not; yet I’m sure they didn’t disagree on the mathematics of each other’s theories.
As a general rule, philosophy deals with questions, the answers for which are not certain, and in many cases, may never be; whereas science deals with questions, where the answers will decide the ultimate truth, and the limits of truth, for a particular theory. Bertrand Russell made the observation that, in philosophy, there may be no right or wrong answers, but the questions, when addressed in the right spirit, are the bulwark against dogmatism and the conservative resistance we find to genuine questing for knowledge. A corollary to this approach is to beware of those who claim they have answers of certainty to questions of profundity.
You may wonder where religion fits into all this. Well, religion is philosophy taken to the metaphysical extreme, but is often confounded by politics to the extent that some people don’t delineate one from the other. In fact, religion is often confounded with ideology, because, for many people, religion and ideology are unassailable truths. But truth is arguably the most elusive concept in the human world, and in this context is an abuse.
I have 2 ways of defining science. Firstly, a general definition is that science is the study of the natural world in all its manifestations. So this leaves out many aspects of knowledge that are human-based, or what is generically called the humanities: all the arts, and topics like ethics and justice. Arguably, psychology crosses the boundary, and I discussed this briefly in another post, Is psychology a science? (Nov. 08). But the topic of ‘mind’, that was raised by Schrodinger, certainly falls into a category where science, psychology and philosophy all merge, but I don’t want to get too far off the track, so I will return to ‘mind’ later. Interestingly, philosophy is generally considered a humanities subject.
The other definition, which is effectively a working definition, is that science is a dialectic between theory and experimentation or observation. Questions that can’t be answered by experimental analysis generally remain philosophical until they can. An example is AI (artificial intelligence). Will AI ever be sentient? Providing we can agree on a definition of sentience, this question will probably one day be resolved. Until that day, it will remain a philosophical question. But there are other philosophical questions that may never be decided by science. An example is the so-called multiverse (multiple universes) theory. If they exist, we may never find any evidence of them, though one should be careful of never saying never. Metaphysical questions like: does the universe have a purpose? (See my post on this topic, Oct. 07) is an example of a subtly different nature. This is a question that science can’t answer, although almost anyone who gives an answer, one way or the other, uses their scientific knowledge to support it. And this is why the distinction is important. Using science to support a philosophical point of view doesn’t turn philosophy into science, though many people, when lost in their own rhetoric, may infer that it does, whether intentionally or not.
On the subject of the dialectic in science, Feynman, in his book, The Character of Physical Law, gives excellent examples, whilst discussing the evolution of the Universal Theory of Gravitation: specifically, how astronomical observations forced changes to theory and then confirmed theory. In other words, without experimentation and observation, we would have just continued to bark up the wrong tree.
His opening chapter on The Law of Gravitation, an example of Physical Law provides one of the best expositions of this dialectic, including descriptions of the experiments that Galileo performed to show gravity’s universality on Earth. And how Tycho Brahe’s unprecedented accuracy in tracking planetary motion gave Johannes Kepler the key to his 3 laws, which ultimately led Newton to the Universal Theory of Gravity we have today. Yes, it’s been modified by Einstein, as Feynman explains, but Newton was able to marry Kepler’s laws to his calculus that not only clinched the theory but eventually led to predictions of another planet perturbing Neptune’s orbit. The ultimate test of a theory is when it predicts hitherto unobserved events.
String Theory is an example of a theory without the dialectic, so we have innumerable variants of which none can be validated by reality. String Theory is not exactly philosophy either – it’s a mathematical adventure. I would describe it as a mathematical model looking for an experiment to make it a scientifically valid theory. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I provide a review of Peter Woit’s book, Not Even Wrong, in a post I wrote earlier this year (Nature’s Layers of Reality, May 09).
And this leads to the significance of mathematics. No one who discusses physics and philosophy can avoid discussing the role of mathematics, and this includes Feynman. In the edition of Feynman’s book that I have (1992), Paul Davies has written an Introduction. He not only acknowledges Feynman’s influence, unorthodoxy and brilliance as a communicator, but relates a dialogue he once had with him on the philosophy of mathematics.
“…Feynman had an abiding suspicion of philosophers. I once had occasion to tackle him about the nature of mathematics… whether abstract mathematical laws could be considered to enjoy an independent Platonic existence. He gave a spirited and skilful description of why this indeed appears so but soon backed off when I pressed him to take a specific philosophical position. He was similarly wary when I attempted to draw him out on the subject of reductionism.”
Feynman devotes an entire chapter (lecture) to the topic, The Relation of Mathematics to Physics, describing it as a language with reasoning, and sees it as an intellectual construct based on axioms. He doesn’t address Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, because it’s not strictly relevant to his topic: mathematics in physics. He refers to Newton’s calculus as an ‘invention’, whereas Platonists would call it a ‘discovery’.
But more relevant to this discussion is that he describes 3 different ways of looking at the Universal Theory of Gravity, even though they are all mathematically equivalent. One is ‘action at a distance’ or force mediated by the inverse square law; two is by a ‘potential field’; and three is by the ‘least action’ principle, which is Feynman’s personal favourite, and I discuss it in 2 other post ( Nature’s Layers of Reality, May 09 and The Laws of Nature, Mar.08). The point is that these are philosophical interpretations that would determine how a scientist may investigate a phenomenon further. Feynman prefers the ‘least action’ principle because it applies to the refraction of light as well, and therefore suggests a universal principle.
So there is philosophy within science as well as philosophy outside of science, and, once again, I think the distinction is important. Philosophy within science is more likely to be eventually resolved because it generally leads to new avenues of investigation. Feynman says of this: “…every theoretical physicist who is any good knows six or seven different theoretical representations of exactly the same physics.” By ‘exactly the same physics’ he means the mathematics is equivalent (this will become more evident when I discuss quantum mechanics). In other words, it contributes to the dialectic between theory and empirical evidence. Philosophy outside of science is generally removed from the dialectic, which is why it remains philosophy and not science. Philosophy within science remains philosophy until it can evolve into theory. In quantum mechanics (as I discuss below) theory is effectively deadlocked and has been for many decades. At least, that is the impression I get from what I’ve read on the subject by people who know it.
As an aside, the abovementioned quote was once construed by a philosophical writer (Michael Frayn in The Human Touch) as evidence that theoretical physicists effectively make things up because "nature doesn’t have six or seven different ways to represent itself, or even one." But it’s obvious to me that, even though Feynman referred to theories as ‘guesses’ in his usual cavalier manner, he didn’t doubt the validity of nature’s laws. In the cases he’s referring to, the mathematics is solid, but the philosophical interpretations are not (I elaborate on this below).
Elsewhere in the book, Feynman alludes to a view that we will eventually understand all the laws of physics. This is a philosophical position and one I’ve argued against in the past. My reason is history. We never know what we are going to discover and every resolution of a mystery in science has only revealed more mysteries. I find it hard to imagine that this will ever stop, but I also admit that I don’t want it to stop. Feynman, on the other hand, argues that we will eventually run out of finding new laws: either, because of the limit of our ability to reveal them or the limit of their actual existence. He believes that the 20th Century was a golden age of discovery in physics, and no one can deny that. But each age has uncovered new intellectual territory and nature appears far from revealing all its secrets.
On a related note, I quote Feynman in my post, Nature’s Layers of Reality, (cited by Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong) where he is scathing about String Theory. I’m not in a position to judge String Theory, but I don’t think it’s the scientific Holy Grail as some commentators do, and it does reveal how much we still don’t know. String Theory is an example of where people hope to find a ‘Theory of Everything’. It’s one of the reasons I’m a sceptic, but I could be proven wrong.
In previous posts (specifically Quantum Mechanical Philosophy, Jul.09) I describe how the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics are not resolved, yet as a meta-theory, it is arguably the most empirically successful ever. Paul Davies makes exactly the same point in The Goldilocks Enigma. Quantum mechanics demonstrates, more strikingly than any other endeavour, the fundamental differences that lie between science and philosophy. Philosophically, there is the Copenhagen interpretation (Neils Bohr), the Many Worlds interpretation (Hugh Everitt) and the Hidden Variables interpretation (David Bohm). And there are variations amongst these, which I discuss to some extent in the aforementioned post. These are not just different theories; they all have philosophical implications on how we perceive reality. Epistemologically, it can’t get more serious than that.
The Copenhagen interpretation is generally considered to be the conventional interpretation, but as Feynman says in his book: “…I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”. What he means is that no one can explain quantum phenomena in plain language without creating cognitive or logical contradictions. Schrodinger created a thought experiment, popularly known as Schrodinger’s Cat, that encapsulates this conundrum perfectly, where, theoretically, a cat can be dead and alive at the same time. Ironically, Schrodinger also created (he would say discovered) the mathematical equations that have made quantum mechanics the most successful theory ever.
Mathematically, there are no contradictions or conundrums – Schrodinger’s wave mechanical equations and their derivatives, especially the famous Dirac equation, have not only confirmed existing observed phenomena but predicted new ones. Dirac’s equation not only prescribed quantum electron ‘spin’ as an inherent feature of the equation, but predicted the electron’s anti-particle (the positron) and therefore anti-matter. As Feynman says, the best theories, by far, are those where we get more out than what we've put in. More relevant to this discussion, quantum mechanics demonstrates explicitly that science deals in answers and philosophy deals in questions, and sometimes one is not resolved by the other as we might expect.
And now I must come to ‘mind’ because it’s the one topic that really does cross boundaries (including religion). Feynman doesn’t discuss it, because it’s not relevant to his lectures on physics, but Schrodinger did (see previous post), and so does Penrose, who has written 3 books on the subject that I have read. I haven’t read Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained but I’ve read John Searle’s Mind, and it’s the most accessible I’ve found on the subject thus far. I’ve discussed this in previous posts (Subjectivity: The Mind’s I, June 09) and of course in my last post on Schrodinger. I think Schrodinger makes a couple of salient points, which I’ve alluded to previously. In particular, that there is a subjective aspect to consciousness that makes it ontological as well as epistemological. Searle makes this point as well, in his aforementioned book, as does the Dalai Lama in his book, The Universe in a Single Atom.
Schrodinger, in particular, explains how phenomena like light and sound can be measured and analysed by instruments, and we can even analyse how they are transcribed into nerve impulses in our bodies, but all the instruments and analysis in the world can’t describe or explain the actual experience we have of light and sound. This is a contentious point, but people forget that this is what consciousness is, first and foremost: an experience. And if each and every one of us didn’t have this experience, science would no doubt tell us that it doesn’t exist, in the same way that science tells us that free will doesn’t exist. It is still the greatest enigma in the universe, and is likely to remain that way, possibly for ever.
And this leads to Schrodinger’s second salient point: without ‘mind’ the universe would be meaningless. In an earlier post (The Existential God, Sep.09) I reviewed Don Cupitt’s book, Above Us Only Sky, who goes further and says that without language, there would be no meaning and no ‘truth’. I won’t revisit Cupitt, but one should not confuse meaning with reality, nor ontology with epistemology. To quote Einstein: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it’s comprehensible.” There are various ways one can interpret that statement but mine is: The greatest mystery of the universe is that it created the ability to understand itself. Paul Davies takes this head-on in The Goldilocks Enigma and elaborates on a philosophical premise proposed by John Wheeler. Wheeler effectively argued that the universe exists as the result of a cosmological-scale quantum loop. Because we observe it, it exists. I’m not going to argue one way or the other with Wheeler, but I agree with Schrodinger that without ‘mind’ there is no point to the universe’s existence, and Davies makes a similar point. At the end of The Goldilocks Enigma he summarises all the philosophical viewpoints that are in currency (including ID, the multiverse and the ‘absurd universe’, probably better known as the accidental universe) ending with Wheeler’s, which he calls The self-explaining universe. To quote: “I have suggested that only self-consistent loops capable of understanding themselves can create themselves, so that only universes with (at least the potential for) life and mind really exist.”
In a way I’ve returned to a point I alluded to much earlier: does the universe have a purpose? This is a philosophical question, as I said, but it leads into religion and religious belief. Paul Davies obviously believes it does, and says so, but he’s quick to point out that this does not axiomatically lead to a belief in God. Feynman, whom I’m almost certain was an atheist, makes only one reference to God in his book, when he discusses the hierarchical nature of nature. He explains how the laws of physics can have consequences at a higher level that are unforeseeable yet totally necessary for the universe’s existence as we know it. The example he gives is Hoyle’s and Salpeter’s prediction concerning carbon 12, which arises from the unlikely combination of 3 helium atoms creating a specific new energy level that allows the rest of the elements in the periodic table to exist. Feynman doesn’t make anything metaphysical of this, but he makes the point that nature’s laws at one level have consequences at a higher level of existence that are not readily apparent.
He invokes God (metaphorically, as he’s quick to point out) as either the progenitor of the laws or the ultimate end result; at opposite ends of reality. In an uncharacteristically poetic moment, in another part of the book, he says: “Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.” He’s indirectly invoking the implication in the title of the Dalai Lama’s book on science and religion The Universe in a Single Atom. The laws of nature are the threads and the tapestry is the universe in all its complexity.
There are no objective religious truths, contrary to what fundamentalists tell us, but there are mathematical truths. And the more we learn about the universe, the more mathematics plays a role. Every book I’ve read on nature’s laws illustrates this fundamental premise. Feynman, Einstein and Hawking would suggest that the mathematics is human reason, but others, like Penrose, Schrodinger and Godel, would argue that mathematics is independent of human thought, albeit we only know it through human thought. Pythagoras and Plato might have argued that God exists in the mathematics and Schrodinger might have argued that God is the ultimate unity of mind (refer my last post). Like Feynman’s metaphorical attribution, they represent opposite ends of reality. At the end of the day, God becomes a metaphor and a projection for what we don’t know, whichever end of reality we posit that projection.
Religion is mind’s quest to find meaning in its own existence. If we were to accept that simple premise without the urge to create an edifice of mythology and political ideology around it, maybe we could all accept each other’s religion.