Saturday, February 8, 2014

Non-Closure: Scientists Battling At The Limits of Science

Remember last week when I said this?

2, The "tests" are all designed to address physical entities with the properties of physical entities, they would be inadequate to address non-physical entities. For all anyone knows, nonphysical entities could interact directly with matter in ways different than physical objects and forces react with other physical objects and forces. It's quite possible that they constantly interact with them or some of them, such as our bodies, and we don't have the ability "to address them in a meaningful, testable way".

That's not just some non-materialists dodge, some way to shield some desired aspect of human experience from the mighty force of science, it's a real problem that current controversies in science run up against whenever the issues require taking human consciousness and decisions into consideration.  It is entirely important in the glamour science of cosmology, multiverses, string theory, etc.

Yesterday I happened to come across a column by Max Tegmark, popularizer of certain of those multiverse models, in which he runs smack into the problem and smack into one of the major critics of the entire effort, Peter Woit.  The alleged motive of the article, which is an apologia for the entire effort, is to help those who "don't like" multiverses attack the various models, "levels" of multiverse theory.  In defense of what I take is Tegmark's preferred model he says:

The Level IV multiverse is also vulnerable to a type-B attack: we can simply reject the notion that there’s an external reality completely independent of us humans, for example in the spirit of Niels Bohr’s famous dictum, “no reality without observation”. A second type-B attack option is to falsify the mathematical universe hypothesis by demonstrating that there’s some physical phenomenon that has no mathematical description.

The first thing to notice is his challenge to demonstrate "that there's some physical phenomenon that has no mathematical description",  which, of course is impossible to do scientifically, the only way that would be considered valid in the effort. The rules and procedures of science are supposed to demand mathematical description, Tegmark sets the critics of his preferred model with an impossible task.   If anyone tried to do that,  the first thing that would happen is that scientists who didn't like it would point out that it was not science, rejecting it for being a pseudo-scientific effort to substitute narrative for measurement.  In the comments to the article, Peter Woit presents that point.

About Level IV: What you are doing here is kind of like a monotheistic believer telling me that his hypothesis of the existence of a certain kind of deity is scientifically testable, because if a different kind of deity appears before us tomorrorw with golden tablets, that will falsify his hypothesis.

It’s this Level IV, your specific contribution to this, which I continue to claim is grandiose nonsense. You are making strings of meaningless statements, and absurd claims about scientific testability. And I think this is the consensus opinion of your colleagues. I have never met any scientist who takes your views on this seriously. Can you point to even one prominent physicist who agrees with you about this?

I'll, for now, pass by the temptation to go into Woit's opportunistic introduction of atheist snark, which is the habitual first resort within these brawls.   In another comment he says, more explicitly:

Again, for about the fifth or sixth time. If your Level IV multiverse is a meaningful scientific statement, it should have testable (at least in principle) implications. The only one you have provided is that it is science because it could be shown to be wrong by finding “that there’s some physical phenomenon that has no mathematical description.” This is just absurd and I don’t think you can identify any serious scientist who would take it seriously. It’s completely unclear what “having no mathematical description” means, as well as absurdly implausible on its face. You are saying “my theory is falsifiable because if something absurdly implausible were to happen it would be wrong”.

Which is, of course, a righteous upholding of what scientists claim science does, though, as Tegmark's article points out, enormous amounts of science isn't about testing and evidence, it's not even about measurement in any real sense.   Though it is exactly this kind of thing that these guys, and they include people as popular and adored as Stephen Hawking,  demand is science even though it violates the very definition of science as popularly and, as Woit says, professionally understood.

Most important to note of all is this

... we can simply reject the notion that there’s an external reality completely independent of us humans, for example in the spirit of Niels Bohr’s famous dictum, “no reality without observation”.

I'm afraid that the idea that there could be "an external reality completely independent of humans" is a complete and absolute non-starter, though it is the biggest of all pretenses made in regard to science.   There is nothing apart from the most direct, rawest, and most primitive experience of our own consciousness that is directly available to us, we have no ability to remove us from any consideration of an "external reality".   No mater how much Tegmark or anyone else hates the fact there is nothing "independent of us humans" in  the external universe, directly available for human consideration.  Everything about the universe available for us to discuss is through human minds, human perception, human cultural practices. "Us humans" are stuck in the subject matter of science no less than we are the subject matter of any other area of HUMAN culture.   Making believe you can ignore that fact will get you far but not in this kind of argument, not unless you want to distort it by ignoring that very relevant factor. 

The entire basis of his article is that this scientific quest is based on some rather unsupported, though universally assumed, assumptions that sit right on the defining foundation of science.  From the beginning of his article he says:

Many physicists have explored various types of parallel universes in recent books, including Sean Carroll, David Deutsch, Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, Martin Rees, Leonard Susskind and Alexander Vilenkin. Interestingly, not a single one of these books (my own included) makes any outright claims that parallel universes exist. Instead, all their arguments involve what logicians know as “modus ponens”: that if X implies Y and X is true, then Y must also be true. Specifically, they argue that if some scientific theory X has enough experimental support for us to take it seriously, then we must take seriously also all its predictions Y, even if these predictions are themselves untestable (involving parallel universes, for example).

...So are there parallel universes, or is the universe we observe (the spherical region of space from which light has had time to reach us during the 13.8 billion years since our Big Bang) all that exists? We don’t know. The interesting claim that these books collectively make is that various theories imply that various types of parallel universes exist (see table), so that by modus ponens, if we take any of these theories seriously, we’re forced to take seriously also some parallel universes. Conversely, if we can experimentally rule out any of these theories based on their other predictions, we’ve destroyed the evidence for the corresponding parallel universes.

All of these theories, the entire, enormous and very well funded scientific effort to created jillions of universes and an effective infinity of other entities are based on a principle of logical speculation which, I suspect, rests on unanswered and unanswerable questions in the vacuum that made Kurt Godel famous, the thing that, when Eddington pointed it out as where physics were headed, Bertrand Russell's smoldering resentment over the ashes of his world view set him off in his third career as an anti-religious zealot.

Considering that none of this glamorous and fashionable physics and cosmology is based on physical observation, that, as even Tegmark admits, it is all based on ideas contained in the minds of human beings, as, unadmittedly, every scientific and every other idea ultimately is, that it runs smack into problems with the limits of possibility in human's ability to check them is no great surprise.  What did they expect to happen when they started inventing universes, jilliions of which are proposed to have entirely different physics than that used to invent them.  Even, as Woit has pointed out,  demanded to be freed of logical coherence in the manner that science, itself, is founded on.

Calling this reliance on pure logical speculation "science" gets you right back to the beginning with Galileo dropping different weights off of the Tower of Pisa, overturning the logical arguments from Aristotle that had held sway up to that point, demonstrating the power of observation to falsify logic from one of the towering intellects of European history.   It is too delicious an irony to be able to point out that it is exactly those scientists who insist on reestablishing the standards of the scholastic period as science, are so frequently the ones who have inserted their ideological war against faith into their science - the number of times the subject of nailing the coffin of God shut with multiverse theory and other purported science of this kind is, literally amazing.


I've been thinking of wading back into the matter of natural selection which demonstrates another problem of science as it is as opposed to how it is supposed to be.  And the problem is the same one.   Natural selection is not directly observed in nature, it is the product of human thought, it is a framework that was adopted by those whose observations mightily support the idea of the evolution of species but who couldn't come up with an intellectual explanation of how it could have happened.   For me,  I'd always accepted natural selection because I accepted the physical evidence for evolution, geological and genetic,  and those who made careers in evolutionary science and, even more so the popularization of that science, required a belief in natural selection.   Only the more I look at natural selection, the more skeptical I become that it is more than a human construct.

The short-lived apostasy on natural selection by Karl Popper, the famous and influential philosopher of science, intrigues me, though I haven't had the time to do the research necessary to pin it down.  He implied that natural selection is tautological, something it obviously risks being, only later to recant in a way that reminds me of nothing so much as the popularized version of Galileo, on being shown the instruments of torture.

Well, when I look at natural selection I see a series of stories and scenarios, not, except in the rarest of cases, attached to specific reports of specific observations but generalized stories in the way of lore. A reason for the death of this kind of animal - usually it's an animal in the popular presentation, fungi don't have the same narrative appeal - is posited because such and such made it die out.  No evidence is given that that is how it happened and that a genetic trait was advanced to define the species through that selective scenario demonstrated.  Natural selection means it "must" have happened that way and natural selection, with the universal power as determinant of biological truth granted it by custom and dogma, is, if anything, more powerful than the reputation of Aristotle.

Ignored in all of this is that natural selection is both presented within the stories as their motivating generator, the reason that what happens in the story happens, and the stories are, at the same time, used to generate natural selection.   People proposing natural selection create scenarios out of natural selection, in which natural selection produces the result created, which is used to prove natural selection.

I might be mistaken, but that looks like the ultimate act of question begging of all times.  And that begged question has produced enormous amounts of some of the worst science done in the past two centuries, science that has had the most  devastating of effects in the real world where natural selection has never been directly observed.   It was the allegedly scientific engine that fueled eugenics laws and the actual mutilation of scores of thousands if not more in its most benign application, the murders of millions in what we must hope for is its most unforgettable, mandated lesson.

Only I am afraid that the power of the tales of natural selection have more power than the far less glamorized reality of history.  And that doesn't begin to measure the misery caused by those in the would be social and behavioral sciences who have latched onto natural selection in its most absurdly tenuous assertion.  As just an example of the continuing damage flowing from it, consider the excuses given in the form of tales of natural selection for the suppression of women, rape, economic and social domination of women, women reduced to fungible commodities, as parasitic to the male gender all pretending to be science is breathtaking in both their baseless absurdity and in their power to gull and lull, resting on the faith in anything called "science".

If we are going to suffer the results of science, we should insist that scientists match their pretenses of attachment to the physical universe, of rigorous attachment to and restraint by physical evidence.   But, even more so, we must insist that they stop pretending to have detached science from its human substrate, with all its limits and all of its less than universally enabling vicissitudes.  Humans tell themselves stories that they want to hear and the history of science is full of examples of respected scientists believing what they want to believe even as they pretend that, somehow, by their superior status as scientists, they can leave that all behind.  Well, sorry, they put their pants on the same way everyone else does, they're only human no matter what they get paid to use their minds for.

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