Saturday, April 8, 2017

"The feeling of security given by the reductionist approach is in fact illusory"

"Such a situation would put a heavy strain on our faith in our theories and on our belief in the reality of the concepts which we form."  Eugene Wigner

The atheist religion needs to believe in something that no sensible person,  including many atheists, would ever believe, that just because someone, somewhere can think of an equation for something that that means that that equation is about something real in reality.  Which, as superstition, ranks right up there with the Republican-fascist conspiracy theories about what happens in the basement of a pizza joint that doesn't have a basement.  Yes, someone didn't like what I wrote about that last week.

I think it's possible that what physicists actually found when they couldn't make their equations come up with an absolute measure of the position of an electron in quantum physics was probably a hard fact about using mathematics as a powerful but, ultimately and inevitably a limited tool for addressing physical reality.  When you press the tool to that limit, perhaps you will find that it doesn't reveal the hard, solid, dependable view of the universe that constitutes a classical concept of objective reality that is external from the observer.   Which isn't some huge shock, it's been known to be true of the act of measurement ever since people started using standard measuring conventions, most obvious when trying to apply those standard measuring conventions against some physical object or, say, a plot of land or, especially, something which changes in dimension.

There has always been a built in margin of error in any act of measurement, sometimes you can't even really measure or even really estimate what that margin of error is.  That those exist in more sophisticated acts of measurement involving more than one possible vector in which those discrepancies between the act of measurement to cloud the issues isn't really shocking.  That it shocked the physicists who had gotten into the habit of believing that the impressive physics that Newton and his successors came up with showed us a solid, reliable, and, most cherished of all by them, an OBJECTIVE view of reality only shows that what they were using physics for up till that point could work within the range of uncertainty that it always had included.   That range of uncertainty was always acceptable in terms of the human use of knowledge.  It was always there, the idea that what classical physics gave was an objective view of reality was, itself, an accepted fudging of realty.

An aspect of how that faith in the objective reality of what physics showed us was through the physicists' often very useful practice of reducing the complexity of what they studied and observed, either through choosing a very simple object and a few aspects of its movement to study or though ignoring the range of possible influences on it movement.  As the means of measuring the objects they were studying and aspects of the objects became sufficiently precise and sophisticated in the later 19th century, problems with the imprecision of measurement became more relevant and important.  And, as it forced them to address the fact that the previous standards didn't actually give the absolute, total, and entirely dependably objective view of reality, it impinged on their most cherished beliefs gained by the really impressive usefulness of those practices up till that point.  I can imagine for people who were raised with, trained with and had a professional and, most of all a huge emotional stake in that faith in the potency of physics, facing those discrepancies was extremely painful.  Some, like Plank and Einstein, started doing physics which took the newly faced imprecision of measurement into account and did physics a new way.  But the need to maintain the, yes, if you want to put it that way, "religious" faith that what they were doing provided the kind of objective view of reality that was the cherished belief of physicists and their fans in the lay population persists.

I think the multi-verse phenomenon among physicists, perhaps the string theoriests, the M theorists, etc. are all trying to push against the limits of physics and coming up with all manner of bizarre ways to do that.  It reminds me of the epicycles and other things that late classical and medieval astronomy came up with to maintain the earth-centered cosmological system they liked so much only on both speed and acid.  I think the social sciences, trying to measure things, especially social phenomena that couldn't be reduced or really located and which were not static reality, has come up with many even more decadent claims presented as if they had any reliability at all when they don't.  Even trying to come up with a mathematical view of one human being, even just their physical body, runs up against limits almost at the beginning.

And if you think that's far fetched, while writing that I remembered that it was something which Eugene Wigner implied in his famous paper, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences

Let us consider a few examples of "false" theories which give, in view of their falseness, alarmingly accurate descriptions of groups of phenomena. With some goodwill, one can dismiss some of the evidence which these examples provide. The success of Bohr's early and pioneering ideas on the atom was always a rather narrow one and the same applies to Ptolemy's epicycles.

Only, if you're going to consider a few examples of false theories which give a few of "alarmingly accurate descriptions of groups of phenomena" you certainly should consider the many examples of people with the habit of believing in the ultimate potency of mathematical descriptions, especially in phenomena that are far more complex than what Bohr or Ptolemey's studies dealt with.  When what is allegedly being measured and, so described is far more complex, the chances that what is produced will turn out to be alarmingly inaccurate though the faith in science will lead people to believe it to be reality until reality bites back.  In the biological sciences of the late 19th century until even today, that faith has gotten millions of people killed, oppressed, discriminated against.  The next time you hear some behavioral scientist talk about the "difference" between "female and male brains" gender groups, races, ethnic groups, etc. when you read a sociological survey or anything that relies on reported responses of subjects, such as an opinion survey, you're just hearing that faith being pushed entirely past where it is warranted at all.   The "success" of some of it, such as the recently tested faith in the efficacy of polling in predicting presidential elections was most likely always an illusion based in that old and baseless faith in the ability of numbers to give you an objective view of reality.

Then there is this, from the end of Wigner's paper.

If viewed from our real vantage point, the situation presented by the free-electron theory is irritating but is not likely to forebode any inconsistencies which are unsurmountable for us. The free-electron theory raises doubts as to how much we should trust numerical agreement between theory and experiment as evidence for the correctness of the theory. We are used to such doubts.

A much more difficult and confusing situation would arise if we could, some day, establish a theory of the phenomena of consciousness, or of biology, which would be as coherent and convincing as our present theories of the inanimate world. Mendel's laws of inheritance and the subsequent work on genes may well form the beginning of such a theory as far as biology is concerned. Furthermore,, it is quite possible that an abstract argument can be found which shows that there is a conflict between such a theory and the accepted principles of physics. The argument could be of such abstract nature that it might not be possible to resolve the conflict, in favor of one or of the other theory, by an experiment. Such a situation would put a heavy strain on our faith in our theories and on our belief in the reality of the concepts which we form. It would give us a deep sense of frustration in our search for what I called "the ultimate truth." The reason that such a situation is conceivable is that, fundamentally, we do not know why our theories work so well. Hence, their accuracy may not prove their truth and consistency. Indeed, it is this writer's belief that something rather akin to the situation which was described above exists if the present laws of heredity and of physics are confronted.

As a physicist and mathematician, Wigner may have had a very naive view of the complexity you fast run into when you're studying living beings, even in some of their simpler aspects.  For those of you who may not have read the post here from a few weeks back, I'll point out what the eminent biologist Lynn Margulis said about an exchange she had with the eminent geneticist Richard Lewontin about mathematical modeling in genetics which runs up against the discrepancies and the limits of that faith in the efficacy of mathematics a lot faster and more consequentially than happens in studying electrons.

When evolutionary biologists use computer modeling to find out how many mutations you need to get from one species to another, it’s not mathematics—it’s numerology. They are limiting the field of study to something that’s manageable and ignoring what’s most important. They tend to know nothing about atmospheric chemistry and the influence it has on the organisms or the influence that the organisms have on the chemistry. They know nothing about biological systems like physiology, ecology, and biochemistry. Darwin was saying that changes accumulate through time, but population geneticists are describing mixtures that are temporary. Whatever is brought together by sex is broken up in the next generation by the same process. Evolutionary biology has been taken over by population geneticists. They are reductionists ad absurdum.  Population geneticist Richard Lewontin gave a talk here at UMass Amherst about six years ago, and he mathematized all of it—changes in the population, random mutation, sexual selection, cost and benefit. At the end of his talk he said, “You know, we’ve tried to test these ideas in the field and the lab, and there are really no measurements that match the quantities I’ve told you about.” This just appalled me. So I said, “Richard Lewontin, you are a great lecturer to have the courage to say it’s gotten you nowhere. But then why do you continue to do this work?” And he looked around and said, “It’s the only thing I know how to do, and if I don’t do it I won’t get my grant money.” So he’s an honest man, and that’s an honest answer.

And I'll point out, they're dealing with something far simpler than the massively more complex whole organisms and stupendously more complex species and ecological systems in which those genes exist.   The reason to believe that reductionist practices and mathematical modeling will work in studying and understanding, even in a partial or general way, those far surpasses unreasonable belief. As I recall Margulis called it "religious faith" somewhere, I think that much religious faith is far more modest and far more reasonable.  A more apt, accurate and honest comparison wouldn't be to religion, it would be to pseudo-scientific ideologies which sprang up in the 19th and 20th centuries among those atheists who had that faith in the ultimate power of mathematics and science which has led their fellow atheists (and others) in science astray, as well.

I think the creation of jillions and jillions of universes by physicists frustrated with the fact that they can't have an objective view of reality is sort of like the ultimate expression of what led Ptolemey to come up with his means of making things work when they didn't.  Only he was addressing things that could be seen to be there and so he couldn't come up with magic to make it work.  Modern physics reached a point after World War Two when it chose to allow that.  I think if Bertrand Russell in the late 1920s hadn't used his hatred of religion to make an analogy to the decadence he feared modern physics would lead to, he might have been more accurate about the nature of that decadence. And it's a quite materialistic and quite atheistic decadence, based on faith in a far different, far more human and totally material set of desiderata.

* I'll quote the mathematician René Thom, again

The excellent beginning made by quantum mechanics with the hydrogen atom peters out slowly in the sands of approximations in as much as we move toward more complex situations…. This decline in the efficiency of mathematical algorithms accelerates when we go into chemistry.   The interactions between two molecules of any degree of complexity evades precise mathematical description … In biology, if we make exceptions of the theory of population and of formal genetics, the use of mathematics is confined to modeling a few local situations (transmission of nerve impulses, blood flow in the arteries, etc.)  of slight theoretical interest and limited practical value… The relatively rapid degeneration of the possible use of mathematics when one moves from physics to biology is certainly known among specialists, but there is a reluctance to reveal it to the public at large … The feeling of security given by the reductionist approach is in fact illusory.

And refusing to face that has brought science into complete decadence.

Hate Update:  I think the stuff Comte and Marx came up with was pretty bad and the political-social-legal application of natural selection was far worse.  The ultimate decadence among atheist-materialists today, the demotion of the mind to being a product of chance, random events, randomly present chemicals and physical phenomena in our skulls, the demotion of our minds into the total impeaching of the significance of our thoughts - though, they insist, out of any rational coherence,  not their own thoughts - is just more of the same misplaced faith that is the theme of this post.   Science works best when it is honestly applied to things it can honestly be applied to and the claims made for the results are honest about the range in which those are reliable and the limit within which it is reliable.  Very little science is presented with that honesty.  A hell of a lot of what is included within "science" today is an atheist equivalent of the "astrology and necromancy" that Bertrand Russell talked about in the wake of the robust belief in the Roman Catholic church.

When the robustness of the Catholic faith decayed at the time of the Renaissance, it tended to be replaced by astrology and necromancy, and in like manner we must expect the decay of the scientific faith to lead to a recrudescence of pre-scientific superstitions.

Only the very faith that Russell had in the total efficacy of science and mathematics had already produced far more dangerous and far more potent superstitions which were already piling up corpses.  That pile had started in the Reign of Terror carried out as part of the very "enlightenment" Russell feared was passing away.  He had seen more of it in his disillusioning visit to the Soviet Union nine years before he wrote that article, though his faith in science and his a-historical upper class Brit hatred of religion led him to entirely mischaracterize the incipient horrors he already saw forming under Lenin in his book The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism.  But that would take an even longer post to go through.  Whatever you can say about the horrific results of Marxism, it wasn't religious superstition that it was based in, it was ultimately based in the very faith in the efficacy and monist potency of materialism and science Russell held that produced it.   And the same can be said about Nazism which was based, entirely, on a belief in natural selection and the eugenics which blamed civilization and the morality of the Golden Rule as impeding its violent, brutal culling out of the "weaker members" of the human species.

Hate Update 2:  Bertrand Russell's chapter treating The Materialistic Theory of History is absolutely full of double-talk, ahistorical garbage, bigotry, etc.  He literally contradicts himself throughout it.  His motive wasn't honesty about the developing horror of Soviet Marxim, it was to attribute everything about it to things he didn't like.  You can still read similar stuff with similar motives on the atheist, alleged left, today.

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