PHILOSOPHY AND SCIENCE BY GORDON WEIR

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If philosophy is the nature of understanding of knowledge, its reality and existence, then science is the delivery guy. But the delivery guy is delivering less and less that either makes any sense or can be verified mathematically or by empirical means. A lot of the ideas are intriguing and the mathematics both elegant and beautiful but other than aesthetically pleasing  they have reached an impasse that either demands too much money, energy or else the violation of the laws of nature; including exceeding the speed of light or evolutionary constraints. Don’t get me wrong, there is still much to learn and even more to understand fully, but the reality is one of diminishing returns in that for the huge amounts of money spent,  a lot of the most recent discoveries don’t really provide anything which is genuinely useful to humanity other than satisfying its quest for knowledge. Black holes evaporate and gravitational waves distort space time, making everything they pass through alter their dimensions by an amount impossible to measure. Does anyone have a use for any of this?

A Holy Grail in physics has been the search for a theory that combines the known quantum forces in one unified theory. Electromagnetism is what keeps electrons in orbit around the atomic nuclei. The weak nuclear force is responsible for the decay of particles as they transition into other particles or release energy. The combined theory of electromagnetism and the weak force is known as the electroweak theory. Quantum Chromo Dynamics (QCD) describes the strong quantum force which is responsible for holding together the elementary particles, known as quarks, that make up protons and neutrons, together in the atomic nuclei. Combining the electroweak theory and QCD would provide physicists with their longed for and, so far, elusive goal. Unfortunately, if such a unified theory is found, many people, including physics Nobel Laurite Steven Weinberg, believes that it probably won’t have any practical use.

You may have already noticed that something was missing from our, so called, unified theory; and that is gravity. The problem with gravity is that it doesn’t  fit well with theories of the very small such as those that describe the quantum world. Instead, our understanding of gravity comes from the very large and from people such as Newton and Einstein. So what exactly is gravity? Gravity is the distortion of space time; the fabric which makes up the universe. A large object, such as a star, will bend space time such that any nearby objects fall towards it; think of a bowling ball in the centre of a large rubber mat suspended in mid-air; the mat sags in the centre due to the weight of the bowling ball. Now consider what happens when a golf ball is placed at the edge of the rubber mat; the golf ball falls into the middle, attracted by the presence of the larger ball. Time is also bent, since the distance from one side of the mat to the other is now longer, due to the sagging of the mat. This means that travel time is now longer. So everything with mass has gravity, with the gravitational force determined only by the object’s mass. The good news is that there is another alternative theory which has the capability of combining what we know about the quantum world and gravity: it is called String Theory. In String Theory, the Universe is criss-crossed by tiny strings (so small that even sub-atomic particles such as protons are vast in comparison) that vibrate, with each differing frequency of vibration determining it to be a type of elementary particle or force. Many, however, argue that the theory may never be empirically verified; the ten dimensions needed don’t help either!

Certainly, we have been here before. A famous scientist at the end of the nineteenth century (Lord Kelvin?) declared, with great confidence, that every scientific discovery had been made, only for Einstein et al to come along and spoil his argument. It is also the case that today’s scientists are often compared, derogatively, to their earlier counterparts. I have to admit that most of the scientists I know of are dead. This, however, is no reason to dismiss the work of today’s biologists, chemists and physicists; it is more complicated than that. Quantum mechanics predicts with almost absolute certainty the behaviour of the very small; but ask someone why a particle behaves in a certain way (‘nobody understands quantum mechanics’ – Richard Feynman) and most will shake their heads or else say that they don’t know why, or how, but they do know what the outcome will be; much like watching a magician tell you your card was the king of hearts. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of science, such as String Theory, is that it has captivated some of the best minds on the planet and, consequently, if shown to be another dead end in the quest for a theory that describes our universe, then those involved will have wasted an entire career and their legacy will be one of derision or simply to never be as much as a footnote in the history of science.

It is impossible to read about a lot of science without feeling that you have accidently picked up the wrong book and are in fact reading about philosophy; the reality is that scientific discoveries and theories are a large part of the philosopher’s diet; never more so that when the theories involved may never be verified; which in itself gives rise to some ideas that are border line insane.  Consider, for example, the theory that when our universe was created, countless other also came into existence, and that every action we could have taken is played out in some other parallel world in some other dimension; instead of the king of hearts you picked the queen (not too mad). Another idea, from a renowned British scientist, is that space is filled with clouds of viruses and that at certain points in its journey through space, the earth passes through such a cloud, hence the regular occurrences of plagues and pandemics (definitely madder). The fact is, in quantum and astronomical physics, there is so much which is open to conjecture and, in a way, this opens the door for the multitude of opinions and theories that abound and, you never know, it might be the maddest of the lot which is right.

It is perhaps the strangeness and uncertainty about the quantum world that so entices philosophers. How strange? Consider the double slit experiment (see above) where electrons are aimed at a barrier containing two vertical slits. With both slits left open the electrons appear to behave like a wave producing a pattern on a target wall beyond the barrier of vertically very dark regions and far lighter vertical regions – the waves arriving at the wall have either reinforced the pattern or cancelled it – peaks and troughs. With only one slit open, the electrons now behave as particles, striking the wall continuously in roughly the same place, creating a single dark region. So the experiment shows that electrons may be regarded as waves or particles depending on how they are observed. Now the strange bit! Repeat the experiment with both slits and you should expect the wave pattern. Without observing the pattern, cover one of the slits and now look (don’t fire off any more electrons). The pattern you observe is the one you would expect if one of the slits had been covered during the entire experiment. The electrons appear to know in advance how they will be observed! Very strange! No one, certainly not the physicists, know what’s happening – enter the philosophers.

People like a challenge, none more so than a philosopher who’s quest in life is about trying to understand what life, existence and reality is all about. Someone once said of quantum mechanics that as good an answer as any, to most questions, is 42 (The answer to the meaning of life in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). They may be right – who knows? The German philosopher Kant famously said that every answer begets another question. And it gets worse as philosophers with an ironic bent come up with questions which are unanswerable, meaning that what we thought was correct or true, is now uncertain and incomplete. And anyway what is truth? Can anything be true in the absolute, irrefutable sense? Can someone who has witnessed the same result of an experiment thousands of times, say with complete certainty that the same result will always be achieved even if we continue to perform the experiment for eternity? Is truth only ever partial? You see Kant was right, questions, questions and even more questions. Another definition of truth, by the logical positivism branch of philosophy, is that, in order to be true, something has to be logically or empirically demonstrated. Mathematics is often a big part of this, but critics argue that too many theories are being pursued and presented in a purely mathematical way and are, as a result, difficult to understand, often preferring to have mathematical elegance over truth and substance and lacking in any real ability for people to visualise the theory (Einstein said that if he could not visualise something then he couldn’t understand it). The reality is that we, as a species, tend to see something as true when it repeatedly fulfils certain expectations and, for the most part, this is fine, it is only when we get deeper and deeper in that these difficulties arise. In other words, is it not crucial to have a complete understanding of everything, only a working knowledge. The alternative is to continue, perhaps for eternity, to keep going, opening up ever more complexity and even more unanswerable questions. This being the case, has science, at least in some areas of research, gone as far as it needs to and should it now concentrate more effort on use and application of what is already known?

Philosophy and science will be forever intertwined and both, in my opinion, will continue discovering new things to add to our already over-burdened knowledge bank. How much will be of any use is open for discussion and will we ever understand what is going on in the quantum world or be able to say for sure what’s going on inside a black hole? Some have said that understanding the quantum world will provide us with the answer. What then? Will everyone simply stop what they are doing? Maybe, only then, will the philosophers take over and try to make sense of it all.

And what of the future? Many believe that intelligent machines will one day produce everything we need and that our limited cognitive abilities will lag so far behind such machines that they will also take over the search for more knowledge and greater understanding. Others go further, believing that the ultimate goal of artificial intelligence will be to turn the universe into a super-massive super computer. And what of consciousness and memory? Will we ever fully understand these enough to transfer them into a virtual version of our-selves?

The reality is………… what? That we don’t really know that much about ourselves or the universe. Just as we only know about 5% or so of what is out there, dark matter and dark energy still being a mystery to us, maybe this is where we also are with our understanding of everything. To be honest, in my opinion, this is generous; I think we know a lot less. But this is no bad thing, because it means that instead of reaching the end of its life, science, in fact is only at the beginning and that means that for the foreseeable future, humankind will still have a purpose. Now that’s philosophy!