Beauty in Science

Part of a continuing series on how to combine Art, Science and Sport to create a hybrid capable of replacing War. 

Like Beauty in Sport, Beauty in Science also proves easier to define and understand than Beauty in Art, particularly with an example of the contrast between an “ugly” theory and a “beautiful” theory. Towards this end, consider the historical attempt to understand the motion of the planets in the nighttime sky. For centuries, the dominant theory in the West was that all the planets orbited around the Earth in concentric circles. A elegant idea in conception, it turned into a very ugly theory when put into practice, for the simple reason that it did not match well with the observed data. When actual observations of the night sky were compared with the geocentric model, it seemed as though sometimes the planets were reversing direction and moving backwards, speeding up and slowing down, or simply not appearing where they were supposed to. So in order to keep the theory alive, the idea of “epicycles” was invented, smaller circular paths that interacted with the larger orbits and caused all the observed eccentricities.

What made this an ugly theory was partly that it was hugely complex, hard to understand, and frequently inaccurate, and partly that it was filled to the brim with what is often called “fudge factor,” numbers and calculations added for the specific purpose of getting the data to come out right, but without any larger justification or explanation. In the case of the geocentric theory, there was no explanation for the epicycles, or how big they were, or how many of them there might be. They were added solely to make the larger theory less flagrantly wrong all the time.

In contrast, the eventual heliocentric theory of the solar system was a very beautiful theory. It is simple, and easy to understand. It can be explaned in a single sentence, which even most non-scientists can understand: “All planets move around the sun (in orbits that are shaped like ellipses with the sun at one focal point).” It matches all the observed data with a high degree of accuracy, and without any need for “fudge factors.” In addition, it makes clear previously unsuspected new insights. For instance, the variability in the speed of the planets is completely predictable from the observation that a line between the sun and any given planet will trace out an equal area in an equal amount of time for any portion of its orbit, a result that could never have been suspected in the “ugly” theory.

If we generalize the scientific aesthetic in the same way that we generalized the athletic aesthetic, we derive something like this: Beauty in Science is a theory that brings order, simplicity, new insights and consistently correct predictions to a complex, challenging, and previously impossible to understand dataset, and that does so without either manipulating the original data or adding unexplained, unmotivated factors into the calculations to force them to match the observations.

Next Week: Back to Art

Science

Third in a series on ending war.

If Sport can neither take the place of War, nor of Consumerism, then how about Science and Technology?  Together they compose a powerful economic engine, with advances in technology shaping and reshaping the global economy both through the development of new consumable products and through technological advances in the production, distribution and marketing of those products.  And unlike the deliberately trivial consequences of achievements in Sport, achievements in Science have a very real, significant and consequential impact on the world.  But how does it perform against our criteria?

  1. It creates jobs that challenge individuals and nations to their limits: Science and Technology do reasonably well on this criteria.  Individuals are certainly challenged by science to their intellectual limits, and scientific achievements such as the construction of supercolliders or the exploration of space can challenge a nation’s resources and capacity.
  2. It distributes jobs:  This criteria is a bit of a cipher.  Science and technology jobs are certainly well-distributed throughout society, but always adjuncts to other organizations.  Scientists and technicians work for governments, for corporations, for universities, and so forth, but we don’t necessarily see the same kind of distributive hierarchy we’ve seen for other Employment-Creation Systems (ECS).  In addition, science and technology jobs tend to be the province of an educated intellectual elite, rather than a general population.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:
    1. by serving as a test of ideologies:  Science and technology diverge here.  Science and scientific innovation bears a strong imprint of the ideology that creates it, in terms of such things as decisions over what projects should be funded, and what lines of inquiry are worthwhile.  However, technology is nearly useless as a test of ideology, because it can so easily be alienated from its origins.  A computer is a computer, no matter where it is made and what the ideology is of the people who manufactured it.
    2. by being definitive:  Here the same subclause that ruined Sport claims another victim. The test of a science, not in absolute terms, but in terms of its place in human life, is the technology you can create with it, and the test of a technology is the usages to which you can devote it.  In practice, what this means is that Science and Technology cannot take the place of War, because it is too easy and too common to adapt them to the purposes of War.  The pursuit of Science may be an end to itself, but the test of Science devolves into the same old physical battle, except played out in a high-tech manner.

In fact, as it so happens, there is a wonderful historical example of Scientific competition used between nations as a substitute for open aggression –the Cold War.  The United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were unwilling to risk the disastrous consequences of an all out War between superpowers, so instead they sublimated their struggle for ideological superiority into a race to achieve clear scientific and technological superiority.  On the plus side, this led to some amazing scientific breakthroughs, most notably the achievement of manned spaceflight and the lunar landing.  In addition, it produced an extended period of relative peace between the two nations.  Finally, it arguably achieved a victory without violence for the United States when the USSR peacefully disbanded.

On the negative side, however, the arms race –the uglier side of scientific progress –led to the invention and stockpiling of “doomsday weapons,” weapons capable of killing vast numbers of people at once, many of which are no longer in secure hands.  In addition, the “peacetime” of the Cold War was in some senses a fiction, since the United States and the USSR were still fighting out their ideological battles in “hot” wars conducted through intermediaries like the Vietnamese and the Koreans.  So we might consider this a partial solution, but one that comes at what is potentially too high a cost.

NEXT WEEK: Art

Can the questions answered by science be unlimited or limited by what can be investigated?

We have to define science first –let’s say it is the body of knowledge formed through the scientific method of testing hypotheses against verifiable empirical data.

It becomes clear that there are a range of questions science cannot answer. Science cannot answer the question of “what is science?” because the body of knowledge that composes science has boundaries that are dependent on already having an accepted definition of science. Science also cannot answer the question of “what questions can science not answer?” since that would require the ability to prove a negative, which cannot be done through empirical testing.

It also seems clear that science is ill-equipped to consider questions about unique phenomena –events or entities that cannot be duplicated, since the replicability of results is a key component of empirical verification. Science is also maladapted for the consideration of transcendent entities –i.e. God, if we assume God to be unbound by scientific laws.

It’s important, however, to keep in mind three things:

  • First, the limitations of science do not mean science is not a valuable and essential tool of understanding.
  • Second (and conversely), science’s inability to consider certain questions does not necessarily mean that the things considered by those questions are unreal, unimportant, or even unknowable (through other sources of knowledge).
  • Third, there are almost certainly things that do not currently seem empirically verifiable that may someday reveal an empirical footprint, and thus pass into the realm of what can be considered by science.

For an example of the last, consider the phenomenon of invisible electromagnetic radiation such as radio waves and UV light. At one point in history these rays would have seemed speculative, metaphysical, unverifiable, and perhaps even absurd, yet now their existence and their effects are uncontroversially accepted as belonging to the realm or science fact –because the advance of scientific equipment has made it possible to test them in ways that are verifiable and repeatable.

difference between philosophy & science

The simplest answer is that philosophy is concerned with questions of why whereas science is concerned with questions of how. In other words, if I ask “How do we convert coal to energy?”, that is a science question, but if I ask “Why do we convert coal to energy?” and ”Should we convert coal to energy?” then I am starting to enter the realm of philosophy.

At one time all that we think of as science today was considered a part of philosophy, which encompassed all pursuits aimed at gaining, increasing or using knowledge and wisdom. Today, however, the two often seem very far apart.

Over the years there have been many different proposals about how the gap between science and philosophy should be bridged. Some believe that philosophy should become more scientific. At one time, there was even a strain of thought that argued that philosophy should become subservient to science and concern itself only with asking questions about scientific methodologies! I side rather with those who say scientists should become more philosophical, and spend more time questioning the use the meaning and the larger implications of their experiments and discoveries.

We must also remember that every science is based in some philosophy –some viewpoint about the nature and purpose of the universe.

Hi. If something is objectively true, does it have to fall within the realm of science, and does the fact that something does not fall within the realm of science prove its relativism? (Examples – art and ethics)

This is a great question. Unfortunately, the answer is surprisingly controversial and complex:

The first challenge is figuring out what “objectively true” means. Most –but not all!– people believe there is a universe “out there” that has characteristics which are independent of any particular person’s observations or perceptions. This is a position generally known in philosophy as “Realism.”

To find out if you are a “Realist”, try this thought experiment: Imagine you personally do not exist, and furthermore that other people don’t exist, and in fact, that there is no intelligent life in the universe. Do things such as stars and planets still exist? Does a proton still have the same mass? Does water on earth still freeze at zero degrees Celsius? If you think so, you are a Realist.

The majority of people, even if they aren’t sure that the things that exist actually have the forms and the nature that we think they do, believe that something exists objectively –which is to say, independent of any given subject. Unfortunately, this is impossible to “prove”, given that each of us is imprisoned, so to speak, inside our own experience. There is no way for me to show incontrovertibly that there is anything independent of my own personal experience.

In addition, Realism by itself doesn’t actually tell us as much as you might think –it says something exists beyond our perceptions, but not what that something is. If, however, you believe that the world is more-or-less the way it appears to be, then you are not just a Realist, you are a “Naturalist”, or a “Realist about Perceptions”. In other words, you think the familiar world of trees, sky, earth, stars, moon, sun, etcetera, exists generally the way it seems to.

This seems like a natural (no pun intended) step, but it runs into some problems. One is that it is vulnerable to the possibility explored in the “Matrix” movies that your perception of the world and all its objects are generated by causes quite different than the seeming ones –in the case of the Matrix, a computer, in the case of Descartes’ similar hypothesis, an malicious demon. It may seem far-fetched, but it gains plausibility when we think of how easily our perceptions can be shifted –a set of rose-colored glasses makes everything look pink, just as being told that a student is smart can change our perceptions of his or her classwork.

This leads us at long last to the starting point of your question. In general, scientists replace “Naive Naturalism”, the thought that the world is just as we perceive it, with “Scientific Naturalism”. In scientific naturalism, it is accepted that objects may have a “real existence” very different from our perceptions –for instance, who would guess that fire and water are both made of the exact same building blocks of electrons, protons and neutrons? The claim is made, however, that objective reality relates to our perceptions of it in orderly, rule-governed and consistent ways, and that those relationships can be discovered through the use of the scientific method.

The scientific method is not the only way of discovering truths or “Truths” about the world, but it does have many practical advantages, including the fact that the things it discovers are, by definition, reliable (they will work the same way each time) and fit into a general schema that fits together with all the other scientific truths.

If we take your question at face value, “If something is objectively true, does it have to fall within the realm of science?” the answer is no. Assuming we take a Realist stance, and agree that there ARE things that are objectively true out there, it is clear that some of those true things will be outside the realm of what science can tell us now –whether or not there is intelligent life on other planets, for example –and even that some of it might forever be outside the realm of what science can demonstrate.

I think what you really mean, however, is “does a proposition have to be tested by the scientific method in order to be a valid and reliable piece of knowledge?” That’s not a question that itself has an objective or uncontroversial answer. For example, we might say that there could be other methods –substantially different from our current science –that would give reliable answers. Would we consider those methods “scientific” because they were reliable? In that case, all we mean by “scientific” is “reliable”. But we can’t disprove that other such methods might exist –after all, much of what we consider as good science today would have been alien to scientists of the past.

Another counterclaim is that there are other non-methodical sources of truth. A religious person (such as myself) might be comfortable with the claim that religious revelation provides a source of truths that are equally or exceedingly “objective” as the truths verified by science, while a non-religious person would reject that claim.

As far as the second part of your question, what about things such as art and ethics? Are they intrinsically relativist, which is to say, are they irreducibly dependent on subjective and personal beliefs or characteristics that do not generalize?

On the one hand, we should keep in mind the fact that it might be possible that a “science” of art or ethics could be someday created, which is to say, that we could figure out ways to make statements about those fields that are as testable and reliable as those about fields such as physics and chemistry. In my opinion, however, that would first require not just a different understanding of art and ethics, but also a different understanding of science. Previous attempts to make a science out of such things have generally focused on reducing them to purely material terms, and have not resulted in any notable successes.

This brings up a final issue raised by your question. Do we live in a universe where everything is best explained in purely material terms –i.e. as the extended ramifications of the trajectories of protons, electrons, neutrons and other particles, or even in a universe where everything is capable of being explained in such terms? There are quite a large number of people who would endorse not merely the second statement but also to the first (please notice the differences!). But it should be made clear, such a statement is essentially a declaration of faith. It is not an independently provable proposition, and it is capable of being wrong.

Let me thus rephrase your questions: “Given the current state of human knowledge, is the scientific method the only widely accepted, internally consistent, controllable and reliable way of constructing new knowledge; and do fields such as art and ethics currently fall outside the realm of what science has thus far proven itself to be capable of considering successfully?” The answer to that question is a highly qualified “yes”.