What Does Science Explain? Part 5 – The Ghostly Forms of Physics

The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work — that is, correctly to describe phenomena from a reasonably wide area. Furthermore, it must satisfy certain esthetic criteria — that is, in relation to how much it describes, it must be rather simple. — John von Neumann (“Method in the Physical Sciences,” in The Unity of Knowledge, 1955)

Now we come to the final part of our series of posts, “What Does Science Explain?” (If you have not already, you can peruse parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 here). As I mentioned in my previous posts, the rise of modern science was accompanied by a change in humanity’s view of metaphysics, that is, our theory of existence. Medieval metaphysics, largely influenced by ancient philosophers, saw human beings as the center or summit of creation; furthermore, medieval metaphysics proposed a sophisticated, multifaceted view of causation. Modern scientists, however, rejected much of medieval metaphysics as subjective and saw reality as consisting mainly of objects impacting or influencing each other in mathematical patterns.  (See The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science by E.A. Burtt.)

I have already critically examined certain aspects of the metaphysics of modern science in parts 3 and 4. For part 5, I wish to look more closely at the role of Forms in causation — what Aristotle called “formal causation.” This theory of causation was strongly influenced by Aristotle’s predecessor Plato and his Theory of Forms. What is Plato’s “Theory of Forms”? In brief, Plato argued that the world we see around us — including all people, trees, and animals, stars, planets and other objects — is not the true reality. The world and the things in it are imperfect and perishable realizations of perfect forms that are eternal, and that continually give birth to the things we see. That is, forms are the eternal blueprints of perfection which the material world imperfectly represents. True philosophers do not focus on the material world as it is, but on the forms that material things imperfectly reflect. In order to judge a sculpture, painting, or natural setting, a person must have an inner sense of beauty. In order to evaluate the health of a particular human body, a doctor must have an idea of what a perfectly healthy human form is. In order to evaluate a government’s system of justice, a citizen must have an idea about what perfect justice would look like. In order to critically judge leaders, citizens must have a notion of the virtues that such a leader should have, such as wisdom, honesty, and courage.  Ultimately, according to Plato, a wise human being must learn and know the perfect forms behind the imperfect things we see: we must know the Form of Beauty, the Form of Justice, the Form of Wisdom, and the ultimate form, the Form of Goodness, from which all other forms flow.

Unsurprisingly, many intelligent people in the modern world regard Plato’s Theory of Forms as dubious or even outrageous. Modern science teaches us that sure knowledge can only be obtained by observation and testing of real things, but Plato tells us that our senses are deceptive, that the true reality is hidden behind what we sense. How can we possibly confirm that the forms are real? Even Plato’s student Aristotle had problems with the Theory of Forms and argued that while the forms were real, they did not really exist until they were manifested in material things.

However, there is one important sense in which modern science retained the notion of formal causation, and that is in mathematics. In other words, most scientists have rejected Plato’s Theory of Forms in all aspects except for Plato’s view of mathematics. “Mathematical Platonism,” as it is called, is the idea that mathematical forms are objectively real and are part of the intrinsic order of the universe. However, there are also sharp disagreements on this subject, with some mathematicians and scientists arguing that mathematical forms are actually creations of the human imagination.

The chief difference between Plato and modern scientists on the study of mathematics is this: According to Plato, the objects of geometry — perfect squares, perfect circles, perfect planes — existed nowhere in the material world; we only see imperfect realizations. But the truly wise studied the perfect, eternal forms of geometry rather than their imperfect realizations. Therefore, while astronomical observations indicated that planetary bodies orbited in imperfect circles, with some irregularities and errors, Plato argued that philosophers must study the perfect forms instead of the actual orbits! (The Republic, XXVI, 524D-530C) Modern science, on the other hand, is committed to observation and study of real orbits as well as the study of perfect mathematical forms.

Is it tenable to hold the belief that Plato and Aristotle’s view of eternal forms is mostly subjective nonsense, but they were absolutely right about mathematical forms being real? I argue that this selective borrowing of the ancient Greeks doesn’t quite work, that some of the questions and difficulties with proving the reality of Platonic forms also afflicts mathematical forms.

The main argument for mathematical Platonism is that mathematics is absolutely necessary for science: mathematics is the basis for the most important and valuable physical laws (which are usually in the form of equations), and everyone who accepts science must agree that the laws of nature or the laws of physics exist. However, the counterargument to this claim is that while mathematics is necessary for human beings to conduct science and understand reality, that does not mean that mathematical objects or even the laws of nature exist objectively, that is, outside of human minds.

I have discussed some of the mysterious qualities of the “laws of nature” in previous posts (here and here). It is worth pointing out that there remains a serious debate among philosophers as to whether the laws of nature are (a) descriptions of causal regularities which help us to predict or (b) causal forces in themselves. This is an important distinction that most people, including scientists, don’t notice, although the theoretical consequences are enormous. Physicist Kip Thorne writes that laws “force the Universe to behave the way it does.” But if laws have that kind of power, they must be ubiquitous (exist everywhere), eternal (exist prior to the universe), and have enormous powers although they have no detectable energy or mass — in other words, the laws of nature constitute some kind of supernatural spirit. On the other hand, if laws are summary descriptions of causation, these difficulties can be avoided — but then the issue arises: do the laws of nature or of physics really exist objectively, outside of human minds, or are they simply human-constructed statements about patterns of causation? There are good reasons to believe the latter is true.

The first thing that needs to be said is that nearly all these so-called laws of nature are actually approximations of what really happens in nature, approximations that work only under certain restrictive conditions. Both of these considerations must be taken into account, because even the approximations fall apart outside of certain pre-specified conditions. Newton’s law of universal gravitation, for example, is not really universal. It becomes increasingly inaccurate under conditions of high gravity and very high velocities, and at the atomic level, gravity is completely swamped by other forces. Whether one uses Newton’s law depends on the specific conditions and the level of accuracy one requires. Kepler’s laws of planetary motion are an approximation based on the simplifying assumption of a planetary system consisting of one planet. The ideal gas law is an approximation which becomes inaccurate under conditions of low temperature and/or high pressure. The law of multiple proportions works for simple molecular compounds, but often fails for complex molecular compounds. Biologists have discovered so many exceptions to Mendel’s laws of genetics that some believe that Mendel’s laws should not even be considered laws.

The fact of the matter is that even with the best laws that science has come up with, we still can’t predict the motions of more than two interacting astronomical bodies without making unrealistic simplifying assumptions. Michael Scriven, a mathematician and philosopher at Claremont Graduate University, has concluded that the laws of nature or physics are actually cobbled together by scientists based on multiple criteria:

Briefly we may say that typical physical laws express a relationship between quantities or a property of systems which is the simplest useful approximation to the true physical behavior and which appears to be theoretically tractable. “Simplest” is vague in many cases, but clear for the extreme cases which provide its only use. “Useful” is a function of accuracy and range and purpose. (Michael Scriven, “The Key Property of Physical Laws — Inaccuracy,” in Current Issues in the Philosophy of Science, ed. Herbert Feigl)

The response to this argument is that it doesn’t disprove the objective existence of physical laws — it simply means that the laws that scientists come up with are approximations to real, objectively existing underlying laws. But if that is the case, why don’t scientists simply state what the true laws are? Because the “laws” would actually end up being extremely long and complex statements of causation, with so many conditions and exceptions that they would not really be considered laws.

An additional counterargument to mathematical Platonism is that while mathematics is necessary for science, it is not necessary for the universe. This is another important distinction that many people overlook. Understanding how things work often requires mathematics, but that doesn’t mean the things in themselves require mathematics. The study of geometry has given us pi and the Pythagorean theorem, but a child does not need to know these things in order to draw a circle or a right triangle. Circles and right triangles can exist without anyone, including the universe, knowing the value of pi or the Pythagorean theorem. Calculus was invented in order to understand change and acceleration; but an asteroid, a bird, or a cheetah is perfectly capable of changing direction or accelerating without needing to know calculus.

Even among mathematicians and scientists, there is a significant minority who have argued that mathematical objects are actually creations of the human imagination, that math may be used to model aspects of reality, but it does not necessarily do so. Mathematicians Philip J. Davis and Reuben Hersh argue that mathematics is the study of “true facts about imaginary objects.” Derek Abbot, a professor of engineering, writes that engineers tend to reject mathematical Platonism: “the engineer is well acquainted with the art of approximation. An engineer is trained to be aware of the frailty of each model and its limits when it breaks down. . . . An engineer . . . has no difficulty in seeing that there is no such a thing as a perfect circle anywhere in the physical universe, and thus pi is merely a useful mental construct.” (“The Reasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics“) Einstein himself, making a distinction between mathematical objects used as models and pure mathematics, wrote that “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” Hartry Field, a philosopher at New York University, has argued that mathematics is a useful fiction that may not even be necessary for science. Field goes to show that it is possible to reconstruct Newton’s theory of gravity without using mathematics. (There is more discussion on this subject here and here.)

So what can we conclude about the existence of forms? I have to admit that although I’m skeptical, I have no sure conclusions. It seems unlikely that forms exist outside the mind . . . but I can’t prove they don’t exist either. Forms do seem to be necessary for human reasoning — no thinking human can do without them. And forms seem to be rooted in reality: perfect circles, perfect squares, and perfect human forms can be thought of as imaginative projections of things we see, unlike Sherlock Holmes or fire-breathing dragons or flying spaghetti monsters, which are more creatively fictitious. Perhaps one could reconcile these opposing views on forms by positing that the human mind and imagination is part of the universe itself, and that the universe is becoming increasingly consciously aware.

Another way to think about this issue was offered by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. According to Pirsig, Plato made a mistake by positing Goodness as a form. Even considered as the highest form, Goodness (or “Quality,” in Pirsig’s terminology) can’t really be thought of as a static thing floating around in space or some otherworldly realm. Forms are conceptual creations of humans who are responding to Goodness (Quality). Goodness itself is not a form, because it is not an unchanging thing — it is not static or even definable. It is “reality itself, ever changing, ultimately unknowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way.” (p. 342) Once we let go of the idea that Goodness or Quality is a form, we can realize that not only is Goodness part of reality, it is reality.

As conceptual creations, ideal forms are found in both science and religion. So why, then, does there seem to be such a sharp split between science and religion as modes of knowledge? I think it comes down to this: science creates ideal forms in order to model and predict physical phenomena, while religion creates ideal forms in order to provide guidance on how we should live.

Scientists like to see how things work — they study the parts in order to understand how the wholes work. To increase their understanding, scientists may break down certain parts into smaller parts, and those parts into even smaller parts, until they come to the most fundamental, indivisible parts. Mathematics has been extremely useful in modeling and understanding these parts of nature, so scientists create and appreciate mathematical forms.

Religion, on the other hand, tends to focus on larger wholes. The imaginative element of religion envisions perfect states of being, whether it be the Garden of Eden or the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as perfect (or near perfect) humans who serve as prophets or guides to a better life. Religion is less concerned with how things work than with how things ought to work, how things ought to be. So religion will tend to focus on subjects not covered by science, including the nature and meaning of beauty, love, and justice. There will always be debates about the appropriateness of particular forms in particular circumstances, but the use of forms in both science and religion is essential to understanding the universe and our place in it.

What Does Science Explain? Part 3 – The Mythos of Objectivity

In parts one and two of my series “What Does Science Explain?,” I contrasted the metaphysics of the medieval world with the metaphysics of modern science. The metaphysics of modern science, developed by Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, asserted that the only true reality was mathematics and the shape, motion, and solidity of objects, all else being subjective sensations existing solely within the human mind. I pointed out that the new scientific view was valuable in developing excellent predictive models, but that scientists made a mistake in elevating a method into a metaphysics, and that the limitations of the metaphysics of modern science called for a rethinking of the modern scientific worldview. (See The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science by Edwin Arthur Burtt.)

Early scientists rejected the medieval worldview that saw human beings as the center and summit of creation, and this rejection was correct with regard to astronomical observations of the position and movement of the earth. But the complete rejection of medieval metaphysics with regard to the role of humanity in the universe led to a strange division between theory and practice in science that endures to this day. The value and prestige of science rests in good part on its technological achievements in improving human life. But technology has a two-sided nature, a destructive side as well as a creative side. Aspects of this destructive side include automatic weaponry, missiles, conventional explosives, nuclear weapons, biological weapons, dangerous methods of climate engineering, perhaps even a threat from artificial intelligence. Even granting the necessity of the tools of violence for deterrence and self-defense, there remains the question of whether this destructive technology is going too far and slipping out of our control. So far the benefits of good technology have outweighed the hazards of destructive technology, but what research guidance is offered to scientists when human beings are removed from their high place in the universe and human values are separated from the “real” world of impersonal objects?

Consider the following question: Why do medical scientists focus their research on the treatment and cure of illness in humans rather than the treatment and cure of illness in cockroaches or lizards? This may seem like a silly question, but there’s no purely objective, scientific reason to prefer one course of research over another; the metaphysics of modern science has already disregarded the medieval view that humans have a privileged status in the universe. One could respond by arguing that human beings have a common self-interest in advancing human health through medical research, and this self-interest is enough. But what is the scientific justification for the pursuit of self-interest, which is not objective anyway? Without a recognition of the superior value of human life, medical science has no research guidance.

Or consider this: right now, astronomers are developing and employing advanced technologies to detect other worlds in the galaxy that may have life. The question of life on other planets has long interested astronomers, but it was impossible with older technologies to adequately search for life. It would be safe to say that the discovery of life on another planet would be a landmark development in science, and the discovery of intelligent life on another planet would be an astonishing development. The first scientist who discovered a world with intelligent life would surely win awards and fame. And yet, we already have intelligent life on earth and the metaphysics of modern science devalues it. In practice, of course, most scientists do value human life; the point is, the metaphysics behind science doesn’t, leaving scientists at a loss for providing an intellectual justification for a research program that protects and advances human life.

A second limitation of modern science’s metaphysics, closely related to the first, is its disregard of certain human sensations in acquiring knowledge. Early scientists promoted the view that only the “primary qualities” of mathematics, shape, size, and motion were real, while the “secondary qualities” of color, taste, smell, and sound existed only in the mind. This distinction between primary and secondary qualities was criticized at the time by philosophers such as George Berkeley, a bishop of the Anglican Church. Berkeley argued that the distinction between primary and secondary qualities was false and that even size, shape, and motion were relative to the perceptions and judgment of observers. Berkeley also opposed Isaac Newton’s theory that space and time were absolute entities, arguing instead that these were ideas rooted in human sensations. But Berkeley was disregarded by scientists, largely because Newton offered predictive models of great value.

Three hundred years later, Isaac Newton’s models retain their great value and are still widely used — but it is worth noting that Berkeley’s metaphysics has actually proved superior in many respects to Newton’s metaphysics.

Consider the nature of mathematics. For many centuries mathematicians believed that mathematical objects were objectively real and certain and that Euclidean geometry was the one true geometry. However, the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries in the nineteenth century shook this assumption, and mathematicians had to reconcile themselves to the fact that it was possible to create multiple geometries of equal validity. There were differences between the geometries in terms of their simplicity and their ability to solve particular problems, but no one geometry was more “real” than the others.

If you think about it, this should not be surprising. The basic objects of geometry — points, lines, and planes — aren’t floating around in space waiting for you to take note of them. They are concepts, creations of the human brain. We may see particular objects that resemble points, lines, and planes, but space itself has no visible content; we have to add content to it.  And we have a choice in what content to use. It is possible to create a geometry in which all lines are straight or all lines are curved; in which some lines are parallel or no lines are parallel;  or in which lines are parallel over a finite distance but eventually meet at some infinitely great distance. It is also possible to create a geometry with axioms that assume no lines, only points; or a geometry that assumes “regions” rather than points. So the notion that mathematics is a “primary quality” that exists within objects independent of human minds is a myth. (For more on the imaginary qualities of mathematics, see my previous posts here and here.)

But aside from the discovery of multiple mathematical systems, what has really killed the artificial distinction between “primary qualities,” allegedly objective, and “secondary qualities,” allegedly subjective, is modern science itself, particularly in the findings of relativity theory and quantum mechanics.

According to relativity theory, there is no single, objectively real size, shape, or motion of objects — these qualities are all relative to an observer in a particular reference frame (say, at the same location on earth, in the same vehicle, or in the same rocket ship). Contrary to some excessive and simplistic views, relativity theory does NOT mean that any and all opinions are equally valid. In fact, all observers within the same reference frame should be seeing the same thing and their measurements should match. But observers in different reference frames may have radically different measurements of the size, shape, and motion of an object, and there is no one single reference frame that is privileged — they are all equally valid.

Consider the question of motion. How fast are you moving right now? Relative to your computer or chair, you are probably still. But the earth is rotating at 1040 miles per hour, so relative to an observer on the moon, you would be moving at that speed — adjusting for the fact that the moon is also orbiting around the earth at 2288 miles per hour. But also note that the earth is orbiting the sun at 66,000 miles per hour, our solar system is orbiting the galaxy at 52,000 miles per hour, and our galaxy is moving at 1,200,000 miles per hour; so from the standpoint of an observer in another galaxy you are moving at a fantastically fast speed in a series of crazy looping motions. Isaac Newton argued that there was an absolute position in space by which your true, objective speed could be measured. But Einstein dismissed that view, and the scientific consensus today is that Einstein was right — the answer to the question of how fast you are moving is relative to the location and speed of the observer.

The relativity of motion was anticipated by the aforementioned George Berkeley as early as the eighteenth century, in his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (paragraphs 112-16). Berkeley’s work was subsequently read by the physicist Ernest Mach, who subsequently influenced Einstein.

Relativity theory also tells us that there is no absolute size and shape, that these also vary according to the frame of reference of an observer in relation to what is observed. An object moving at very fast speeds relative to an observer will be shortened in length, which also affects its shape. (See the examples here and here.) What is the “real” size and shape of the object? There is none — you have to specify the reference frame in order to get an answer. Professor Richard Wolfson, a physicist at Middlebury College who has a great lecture series on relativity theory, explains what happens at very fast speeds:

An example in which length contraction is important is the Stanford Linear Accelerator, which is 2 miles long as measured on Earth, but only about 3 feet long to the electrons moving down the accelerator at 0.9999995c [nearly the speed of light]. . . . [Is] the length of the Stanford Linear Accelerator ‘really’ 2 miles? No! To claim so is to give special status to one frame of reference, and that is precisely what relativity precludes. (Course Guidebook to Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution, Lecture 10.)

In fact, from the perspective of a light particle (a photon), there is infinite length contraction — there is no distance and the entire universe looks like a point!

The final nail in the coffin of the metaphysics of modern science is surely the weird world of quantum physics. According to quantum physics, particles at the subatomic level do not occupy only one position at a particular moment of time but can exist in multiple positions at the same time — only when the subatomic particles are observed do the various possibilities “collapse” into a single outcome. This oddity led to the paradoxical thought experiment known as “Schrodinger’s Cat” (video here). The importance of the “observer effect” to modern physics is so great that some physicists, such as the late physicist John Wheeler, believed that human observation actually plays a role in shaping the very reality of the universe! Stephen Hawking holds a similar view, arguing that our observation “collapses” multiple possibilities into a single history of the universe: “We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.” (See The Grand Design, pp. 82-83, 139-41.) There are serious disputes among scientists about whether uncertainties at the subatomic level really justify the multiverse theories of Wheeler and Hawking, but that is another story.

Nevertheless, despite the obsolescence of the metaphysical premises of modern science, when scientists talk about the methods of science, they still distinguish between the reality of objects and the unreality of what exists in the mind, and emphasize the importance of being objective at all times. Why is that? Why do scientists still use a metaphysics developed centuries ago by Kepler, Galileo, and Newton? I think this practice persists largely because the growth of knowledge since these early thinkers has led to overspecialization — if one is interested in science, one pursues a degree in chemistry, biology, or physics; if one is interested in metaphysics, one pursues a degree in philosophy. Scientists generally aren’t interested in or can’t understand what philosophers have to say, and philosophers have the same view of scientists. So science carries on with a metaphysics that is hundreds of years old and obsolete.

It’s true that the idea of objectivity was developed in response to the very real problem of the uncertainty of human sense impressions and the fallibility of the conclusions our minds draw in response to those sense impressions. Sometimes we think we see something, but we don’t. People make mistakes, they may see mirages; in extreme cases, they may hallucinate. Or we see the same thing but have different interpretations. Early scientists tried to solve this problem by separating human senses and the human mind from the “real” world of objects. But this view was philosophically dubious to begin with and has been refuted by science itself. So how do we resolve the problem of mistaken and differing perceptions and interpretations?

Well, we supplement our limited senses and minds with the senses and minds of other human beings. We gather together, we learn what others have perceived and concluded, we engage in dialogue and debate, we conduct repeated observations and check our results with the results of others. If we come to an agreement, then we have a tentative conclusion; if we don’t agree, more observation, testing, and dialogue is required to develop a picture that resolves the competing claims. In some cases we may simply end up with an explanation that accounts for why we come up with different conclusions — perhaps we are in different locations, moving at different speeds, or there is something about our sensory apparatus that causes us to sense differently. (There is an extensive literature in science about why people see colors differently due to the nature of the eye and brain.)

Central to the whole process of science is a common effort — but there is also the necessity of subduing one’s ego, acknowledging that not only are there other people smarter than we are, but that the collective efforts of even less-smart people are greater than our own individual efforts. Subduing one’s ego is also required in order to prepare for the necessity of changing one’s mind in response to new evidence and arguments. Ultimately, the search for knowledge is a social and moral enterprise. But we are not going to succeed in that endeavor by positing a reality separate from human beings and composed only of objects. (Next: Part 4)