WHAT THE GREAT A’TUIN CAN TEACH PHILOSOPHERS OF SCIENCE…AND SCIENTISTS

A'Tuin

“In a distant and second-hand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part… See… Great A’Tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination. In a brain bigger than a city, with geological Slowness, He thinks only of the Weight. Most of the weight is of course accounted for by Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, the four giant elephants upon whose broad and startanned shoulders the disc of the World rests, garlanded by the long waterfall at its vast circumference and domed by the baby-blue vault of Heaven.” TERRY PRATCHETT, THE COLOR OF MAGIC

As much as I would love to talk about Discworld all day, this post will take a while to get to the Great A’Tuin, so if you reached this page thinking it was about Discworld, please bear with me. It’s really about the relationship between philosophers of science and scientists, and why, most of the time,  these two species pretend the other does not exist. And how, they are not really so different from one another. (This is where A’Tuin will be helpful)

Anyone with a background in science who ever stumbled onto a graduate level philosophy class by freak accident like I did, has likely confronted the ponderous existential crisis in this field as it tries to decide between which of the following questions to address:

A) “WHERE DOES THE SCIENCE END AND THE PHILOSOPHY BEGIN?”

B) “WHERE DOES THE PHILOSOPHY END AND THE SCIENCE BEGIN?” 

The questions in themselves are perfectly valid –if you are a philosopher– but sometime in the nineties, the philosophy community decided that all permutations of these arguments had been exhausted and ‘moved on’ to dealing with problems of classifications and taxonomy, trying to resolve the ‘meaning’ of words like ‘species’ and asking questions like “WHY DO WE CALL KOALAS BEARS WHEN THEY ARE NOT CLASSIFIED AS BEARS IN BIOLOGY?THEREFORE, IS ‘BEAR-NESS JUST A VISUAL RESEMBLANCE OR SOMETHING ‘ELSE’ THAT BIOLOGY HAS THE RIGHT TO DEFINE?”“IS A GUINEA PIG A RODENT?” etc.  (Applied to humans, the question becomes: “What does it mean when we say that someone ‘looks’ Irish? Is Irish-ness a genetic pattern that ought to be classified ‘scientifically, or simply a set of external characteristics?”  )

All these questions are ultimately variations of A) and B).  And once these questions are also exhausted, philosophers will come up with more novel variations to kill time, while awaiting the universe’s heat death.

For laypersons, these questions are likely boring. Since science, you would think, doesn’t waste time with such things. Until of course, you remember the Pluto crisis and how it was ‘resolved’.

At the time, I remember thinking why scientists needed to vote and decide on such a trivial issue, and I’m sure a lot of people felt the same way. What difference did it make that Pluto was no longer a planet? It’s not like Pluto’s mass or orbit had changed.  The numbers, the equations had not changed. Measurements are just measurements. But the very fact that scientists had to organize an entire conference and vote on this, suggests that scientists are equally susceptible to language traps as philosophers.

A scientist would argue however, that none of this has anything to do with the scientific method, which helps us uncover causal connections in the universe. That mathematical relations and language relations are distinct. Since mathematics is the real language of nature, scientists think that by getting rid of human language and thereby avoiding language traps, they are zoning in on the ‘true’ nature of reality. It must be remembered however, that Isaac Newton considered himself a ‘natural philosopher’ as did all scientists in Newton’s time.

But In the twentieth century, the birth of quantum mechanics led to the “shut up and calculate” approach.  Ever since, philosophy has lost the podium to Science and steered clear of issues concerning the material universe, limiting itself to speculating on the nature of ‘mind’. But some renegade philosophers have been trying to return philosophy to its former pedestal, while others have compared science to modern-day myth-making.  And a certain fictional philosopher, after much thought, posited the following iconic profound statement – “Things just happen. What the hell.”

In both philosophy and science, we come across contradictions. We expend a lot of mental energy wrestling with these problems because, deep down, we know that a ‘contradiction’ is a fabrication of human perception.  In science there is the relativity-quantum divide,  but macro-micro divides are not unique to science. It’s also there in economics. Hell, it’s even there in astrology – you can use astrological laws to address individual horoscopes as well as the stock market.

This suggests that the problem is at the heart of causation itself:

"Logic takes care of itself; all we have to do is to look and see how it does it..."

“Logic takes care of itself; all we have to do is to look and see how it does it…”

Quantum mechanics has made scientists smug. It makes them naively believe that the finer and finer their instruments become, the more accurate their measurements, they are making progress in understanding the universe. (To all of you who made it this far, patiently waiting for the Great A’tuin to enter the frame, congratulations!)

The comparison with unpredictability in quantum systems and those of predictions by an astrologer sounds preposterous to the quantum theorist, but sounds completely normal to the astrologer.  An astrologer is equally confident in astrological macro laws as the physicist is in physical laws like gravity, because astrological laws find expression in recorded history – certain kinds of events repeatedly, inevitably unfold during very specific planetary conjunctions. They are perpetuated by individuals, but ultimately affect masses. And just like in quantum theory, individual horoscopes are far more difficult to make accurate predictions of.  Macro-systems like nations are easier to predict.  In fact, an astrologer would argue that this data is more precise than quantum theory because, using the same patterns an astrologer continuously predicts when the next event will happen because the next conjunction has already been calculated.

A scientist would of course, bring in causality, and argue that there is no way to ‘predict’ that the event was perpetuated at that conjunction precisely, or even because of the conjunction. Therefore there is no chain of causality.

A scientist finds it difficult to see that there is no chain of causality then, in some of his or her own arguments either. Like changing ‘electrons cause electricity’ (which is absurd, since a single electron takes over an hour to travel 1 m across a copper wire) to ‘electricity is the flow of electrons’.  (What causes the electrons to drift as a herd then?)

Just like the astrologer, a scientist is dependent on a history of data that he has not directly measured.  The difference is, the scientist argues, how were the astrologer’s mathematical charts predicting planetary movement cycles measured? Did they just magically appear one day, or were they derived? There is no record.  The question is, does that make a difference?

An astrologer would argue that these laws invariably work. It makes no difference how the data was obtained. Furthermore, an astrologer is not concerned with absolute accuracy. Astrology, since the ‘beginning’ of time, has known that imprecision is a part of prediction. That predictive laws work out only on an average.

If only scientists took philosophy as seriously as philosophers take science…

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