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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Science is not philosophy

Today's scientists are not shy about tackling philosophical questions yet they are not trained in philosophy and, as Wolpert admits, they follow a rule that all scientific ideas are contrary to common sense. Here's an example. Wolpert puts forward the oft-heard argument that a scientific theory ultimately counts for nothing if it does not measure up to what can be observed in nature. Yet he approvingly quotes Albert Einstein as saying that a theory is significant not to the degree it is confirmed by facts observed in nature, but to the degree it is simple and logical; and he quotes Arthur Eddington as saying that observations are not to be given much confidence unless they are confirmed by theory.

Common sense tells us there's a contradiction here. Wolpert admits it: Scientists have to face at least two problems that drive them in opposite directions. The first problem is that science postulates causal mechanisms to explain why the world appears as it does to us. The second is that since a fundamental cause is always before its visible effect in the form of the bodily objects of this world, the cause cannot be perceived as a bodily object can be. In other words, the objectivity of a scientist is restricted by his material body. Thus from his embodied standpoint, he has a difficult task proving that his postulated fundamental cause is real. But prove it he will try, starting with what Einstein termed free fantasy.

Thus fundamental causes (or to be precise, postulations about fundamental causes) such as mechanical forces, electromagnetic and other fields, wave functions, and ultimate particles like the Higgs boson, acquire by free fantasy the same real status as bodily objects. And by the same free fantasy, the everyday bodily objects around us like people, animals, plants, houses, tables and chairs become unstable, hazy theoretical concepts. In the meantime, where did common sense go? I would contend, writes Wolpert, that if something fits in with common sense it almost certainly isn't science. LSD prophet Timothy Leary may have best put his finger on it when he wrote that in science, realities are determined by whoever determines them.

Substance and Shadow -Suhotra Swami

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