Science and math.

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Science and math.

Postby Mytical » Aug 6 2007, 10:24

Recently I pondered something in the random thoughts thread, and decided that a new thread would be more appropriate for a discussion about it. I pondered if math truely was a universal language.

First let me make something clear. I do not think mankind is totally ignorant (well not totally), but I do think we are still fumbling around in the dark wearing blindfolds and earmuffs, with our hands tied behind our backs.

Our understanding of things is based on how we percieve them. We may in fact be so off the mark that if we were to encounter alien life forms, they may laugh themselves into unconsciousness when we first meet. That is not to say we have not made huge leaps and progress, far from it.

If a scientist were to travel back in time to say the middle ages, he would probably find it laughable what was believed then. 1000 years from now, a scientist might find it comical what we believe to be 'facts' now. But mankind is a vain creature.

Right now we 'know' our math is absolute. It 'has' to be universal, after all, we thought of it right? So every other intelligent life would have to think the same way. Sorry, I find that hard to believe.

It is more likely that we know a lot less then what we think then it is that we are absolutely correct. As our understanding grows, we might throw aside a lot of things we once thought as absolute. In time even our math might change, because our understanding improves.
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Postby Jolly Joker » Aug 6 2007, 10:36

No, wait a sec, you got Math wrong.

Math is no science in the general sense because Math is not based in any reality or on anything we perceive. If sciences can make use of math - describing things with the language of math - it doesn't change anything about that.
Math is basically nothing more than a very small set of axioms, and everything that has developed out of it has been proven OUT OF THE AXIOMS.
However, there are OTHER maths possible, based on other axioms. There have been tries to do that, but of course it's quite difficult to work out something that has been broadened over such a long time.

So Math can't be "wrong" because it doesn't describe reality or something. It's basically just a precise, "well"-defined unanimous language science finds handy to describe things with.
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Postby Mytical » Aug 6 2007, 10:40

Yes, but the possiblity that another intelligent species (if they exsist) coming apon the same 'definition' would be near impossible as it is our definition. Just as time is abstract and defined by us as well.
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Postby Pitsu » Aug 6 2007, 10:49

As JJ said, math cannot be more wrong or right than English, Finnish or any alien language. Science, on the other hand, can indeed be "wrong", most likely because of incomplete knowledge of all involved factors. Like a bit more than 100 years ago, everyone believed that Newton's physics explains eveything. But then a little Einstein started to whine that under certain conditions Newton equations do not work. But changes - new evidences, correction older ones or classifying old results as artefacts, is IMO a natural process in science. I would therefore not worry about my grandchildren seeing me as an outdated one. Even more, since the world does not develop linearly towards brighter future, it is not impossible that the people in 1000 years are more mistaken in their "facts" than us.
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Postby Veldrynus » Aug 6 2007, 12:06

Mytical wrote:Yes, but the possiblity that another intelligent species (if they exsist) coming apon the same 'definition' would be near impossible as it is our definition. Just as time is abstract and defined by us as well.
Yep. You obviously don't understand what math is. It's a complex abstract logic system, that has nothing to do with the perceived reality. It works with absolute truths (axioms) that are the same everywhere in the universe. What scientists do is basically and attempt to translate the observed reality into the language of math. Sometimes this can hardly be done, but it's not the fault of the math. It is impossible to visualize or imagine the "one" ("1") itself.

It's a common language a comparative base, regardless it's visual representation. Just like in english, where the word 'fish' is also an abstract term representing a cold-blooded aquatic vertebrate living on Earth. When you say "fish" you do not think explicitly of this one Image, neither of Image, therefore it is abstract. "Fish" means a series of general characteristics (an archetype) the describes a group of animals.

These two statements can mean the same thing, but only if the symbols represent the same abstract meaning:
1+2=3
and
@(*<$) Where: *=1, $=2, <=+ , '='=( ),@=3
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Re: Science and math.

Postby Corribus » Aug 6 2007, 15:43

Mytical wrote:If a scientist were to travel back in time to say the middle ages, he would probably find it laughable what was believed then. 1000 years from now, a scientist might find it comical what we believe to be 'facts' now. But mankind is a vain creature.
And I will add that this is not a totally fair statement, on several levels.

(1)

It is perhaps a little judgmental of you to assume that a scientist would laugh at someone because they believe in something that goes against scientific knowledge. You don't have to go back 1000 years, by the way. Plenty of people today believe things that have no basis in empirical reality and for no good logical reason whatsoever. Christians, just to name one group. For you to assume - and make blanket statements claiming - that scientists as a group make fun of these people for their beliefs is just wrong and unfair. I respect the right of someone to believe whatever they want - as long as it's not hurting someone else - and while I may personally feel that their belief stems from ignorance, I certainly do not ridicule someone for it. Particularly if I were to go back several thousand years, I would not laugh at people because people thought lightning was caused by the hand of Zeus. I would recognize that that belief, at the least, stems from honest ignorance, and leave it at that.

(2)

Your assertion that scientists from 1000 years in the future, if they could go back in time to today, would laugh at US because of what WE believe is equally problematic. I assume you are referring to the fact that what we "know" today (scientifically) is likely to be shown to be very inaccurate in the future, and not the fact that people still (today) believe in "ridiculous" fantastical and/or supernatural phenomena like fairies, ghosts, astrology and God. I've already addressed the latter possibility in any case so let me address the former.

The difference between NOW and 1000 years ago is that 1000 years ago science as a formal discipline was not really established (it was much better in ancient Greece and didn't really get going until the Renaissance, although religion tried its best to stomp it out). Science as we know it today is undoubtedly incomplete and scienctific knowledge 1000 years from now will undoubtedly be MORE complete than it is know. However, the basic structure of scientific inquiry and endeavor is unlikely to change. Hypothesis, theory, experimentation, more theory. The scientific method is immutable. Scientists of today would be justified in objectively criticising what was "scientifically known" in the middle ages because, frankly, there was very little real science going on. "Knowledge" (if it could be called that) of objective reality in the middle ages was predominantly based upon superstition, belief, and religious dogma, something that goes against the very foundation of science. Such perceptions of reality cannot be judged right or wrong - and certainly not laughed at - because it's not a reality based upon the aforementioned scientific method. For the same reason we cannot judge, again scientifically, modern non-scientific notions of reality (creationism, to name one). They are beliefs, plain and simple. Note that scientists do not attempt to judge these beliefs scientifically - it's those who believe in them that try to justify them so, and that does, admittedly, rankle.

Now today science is an established discipline, complete with many systems of checks and balances. The reason why no scientist from the future would come now and judge us as idiots (much less laugh at us) takes some explanation.

I should state up front that this does not mean that scientists are never wrong. But you see, the difference between science and - for lack of better words - religion as an explanation for objective reality is that science will eventually determine when and where (and if) it is wrong, and make corrections. The only belief involved in science is the belief that empiricism explains the world. And so while science may be wrong on anything at any given point in time, it is only wrong temporarily, because science is a cumulative discipline, and science is always challenging itself to continually improve. Religion and other belief systems do not work this way. These belief systems start with an axiom - a truth which is assumed to be self evident - and then the system stagnates. The religious system does not discard old "knowledge" when it is shown to wrong, incomplete or obselete, mostly because there's no attempt to determine whether that "knowledge" is wrong, incomplete or obselete in the first place! Sure, every hundred years or so some heretic comes along and challenges the system with new ideas, but like the old ideas they are not tested, verified, or proven, and so rather than new "knowledge" replacing old "knowledge", the religion splinters and you get groups of people believing both sets of "knowledge" because there's no logical reason why any one body of "knowledge" is better than any other. And the two sets of people fight about it, and this leads to wars, but both groups of people go on believing what they wish forever, with very little change, unless one group manages to kill off the entire other group. In science, old knowledge IS replaced, eventually, with new knowledge. When a new theory comes along with some evidence to back it up, yeah scientists will fight about it (but we certainly don't kill each other) but once enough experimentation has been done to show the truth one way or another, we eventually all come back into unified agreement and old, wrong science is discarded as what it is: useless.

People who claim that "science is wrong, too, sometimes" have a very poor perception of science and the way it works, because widely accepted scientific theories are rarely downright completely wrong. On a local level, interpretations of data sets or experimental studies may be incorrect, but these are easily and efficiently rejected by the peer-review process. But on a more global level, the "big theories" have been evaluated extensively by hundreds, thousands of scientists and experiments. And so they are rarely completely wrong. A better word is incomplete. Newtonian Physics is a good example. Newtonian Physics is not WRONG. It's quite right and does a good job explaining everyday phenomena like apples falling, trains moving, etc. But.. there were always some things that Newtonian Physics could never explain, particularly when things get really small or really fast, and it took newer, better theories - theories that reduce to the old theories in the macroscopic world - to explain these things. And even THESE theories - quantum mechanics and relativity - aren't totally complete either. But we haven't really figured out what's going to replace them. We just know something WILL.

The point is that, unlike religion or other belief system, science builds upon itself. Not only do we reject bad theories through experimentation, but we actively recognize the limits of current theories and imrove them with new ones. We KNOW our theories are not complete. Religion has no such humility for most adherents. So, while pretty much every science recognizes that quantum mechanics is a BETTER theory than newtonian mechanics, particularly to describe the very very small world of atoms, molecules, and whatnot, none of us would go back to the late 1600s and say to Newton, "You bloody idiot, didn't you know that your moving apple is both a particle AND a wave?? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA". Nor would we go to Bohr and say, "You stupid tosspot, you thought electrons orbited atoms in precise spherical shells? What a dumbass! HAHAHAHAHAHA!".

Because the simple fact is that while Newton's description of classical mechanics may have not been completely right, nor for that matter Bohr's model of the atom, they certainly weren't wrong, they're still used today (300+ years later in the former case), they're still taught in classrooms, and, MOST IMPORTANT - science would not be what it is today without them. You cannot go back and criticise Bohr's incorrect model of the atom just because we know it's not really right today. Because without Bohr's model of the atom, we wouldn't know crap about atoms today. Science is cumulative steps towards achieving the truth about objective reality. You can't make fun of people who took earlier steps, because without those earlier steps, we'd never be where we are today. Old science isn't wrong, it's not even not right. The difference between old science and new science is that new science, build upon old science, can explain more things than old science. But old science is still in most cases a useful approximation. And even if old science WAS shown to be completely incorrect, we recognize that through failure comes enlightment. John Doe's theory of X may have been completely incorrect, but through being incorrect, we probably learned about what WAS correct along the way, and, more importantly, WHY it was correct.

So, scientists from 1000 years in the future would not come to us today and laugh at anybody. Certainly they wouldn't laugh at today's scientists, because at the least they would recognize that everything they know in the future would be based on what we know now, AND they STILL are probably teaching today's and yesterday's theories (relativity, quantum mechanics, newtonian mechanics, all the way back to Archimedes!) in THEIR classrooms in the future.

Edit: Oh and by the way, you're taking the "math as a language" thing way too literally. Math is not something you "think in".
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Postby Kalah » Aug 6 2007, 16:09

Corribus the chem professor, ladies and gentlemen.

Damn fine post, Sir. :applause:
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Postby Corribus » Aug 6 2007, 16:23

Thanks, Kalah. How about an amazon gift certificate to show your appreciation? :D
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Re: Science and math.

Postby ThunderTitan » Aug 6 2007, 16:31

Corribus wrote: Edit: Oh and by the way, you're taking the "math as a language" thing way too literally. Math is not something you "think in".
Tell that to the cylons.... also, if the brain is just a bio-electrical computer, isn't that exactly what we "think in"?
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Re: Science and math.

Postby Jolly Joker » Aug 6 2007, 17:06

Corribus wrote: The only belief involved in science is the belief that empiricism explains the world. And so while science may be wrong on anything at any given point in time, it is only wrong temporarily...,
I think that is a very problematical statement. How do you define "world"? Because if I'm not wrong it has already been established that empiricism CANNOT explain the whole world, since it has been proven that not everything can be empirically, err, determined. Acknowledging this, a lot of scientific roads have left the path of strict empiricism due to a lack of data. This is not only true for what comes immediately to mind like quantum phenomena, it's true for example for our planet's past as well: we have in truth only a few meager fossils, an extremely small percentage of all the living things that have existed, and we have in fact no real idea about, for example, the lineage of men.
We have as another example not much of an idea what is IN our planet or IN the oceans and so on and so forth, and while this MIGHT change in terms of the core of the Earth it might as well not for certain problems that seem rather obvious - like for instance that it's hotter there than on the surface of the sun.
And so on. Empiricism has its limits - theoretically and practically.
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Re: Science and math.

Postby Corribus » Aug 6 2007, 17:14

Jolly Joker wrote:I think that is a very problematical statement. How do you define "world"?
World, universe, reality, whatever.
Because if I'm not wrong it has already been established that empiricism CANNOT explain the whole world, since it has been proven that not everything can be empirically, err, determined.
Such as? And I'd like to know how you prove something like that, anyway. Proof has empirical connotations. So how do you prove, empirically, that something is not empirical?
Acknowledging this, a lot of scientific roads have left the path of strict empiricism due to a lack of data. This is not only true for what comes immediately to mind like quantum phenomena, it's true for example for our planet's past as well: we have in truth only a few meager fossils, an extremely small percentage of all the living things that have existed, and we have in fact no real idea about, for example, the lineage of men.
Before I address this in too much detail, I'd like from you an answer to the above question (examples of what you assert as "proven to not have an empirical answer"). If you point to holes in the fossil record, that is not proof of anything one way or the other. The lack of evidence for something does not prove that something is incorrect. I'm not sure what you mean by "no idea bout the lineage of men", but I can assure you that the lack of evidence for anything is not equated to mean that evidence is not possible, nor does it mean that there is not an empirical answer.

We have as another example not much of an idea what is IN our planet or IN the oceans and so on and so forth, and while this MIGHT change in terms of the core of the Earth it might as well not for certain problems that seem rather obvious - like for instance that it's hotter there than on the surface of the sun.
I'm not sure what you are getting at. Could you clarify? Especially with how this relates to empiricism, please.
And so on. Empiricism has its limits - theoretically and practically.
You haven't shown this to be the case. Please try to elucidate your point of view.
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Postby Veldrynus » Aug 6 2007, 18:10

All people seek understanding of the world. They want simple answers, without any difficult scientific babble. It's even harder to accept these, when one cannot understand them.
The answers of science are mostly unexciting, complex, rational, objective and very cold, and usually also present this world as a "cruel and unfair" place. Is it really surprising, that some people want to believe, that "there must be something more out there"? Some hidden ultimately powerful force that will serve justice? Especially those who have a hard time here, they need to believe that world is actually fair, and soon they will get the a reward or help. Full of fear and insecurities, they need someone to tell them how to live ,what to do. Well, exactly because of these psychological needs, there are religions. They give easy answers, guidance and above all, hope. Science cannot do this.
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Postby Jolly Joker » Aug 6 2007, 18:30

Heisenberg uncertainty relation is - proven - a principal thing: observation (i.e. empirical methods) has an influence on the result. There is a measure of uncertainty (and it has nothing to do with limits of observation as such, it's a principal thing).
That means, there are fundamental limits.
Second, if you want to empirically determine what was or happened in the past this is very difficult because a lot of data are not accessible anymore. Cosmic background radiation may be evidence for a big bang, but we are already in the realm of sketching theories and trying to find evidence in support, because it's rather difficult to check exactly.
The same is true for our own planet's past. All theories concerning the development of the Earth have holes and no theory is really able to explain everything. The reason is of course that empirical data are hard to come by, so a lot is speculation.

Other data are difficult to come by for other reasons: information out of the core of the earth, for example, seem a rather big problem to come by - and not necessarily because we are so limited in our means. The Russians took 19 years to drill into a depth of just over 12 kilometers. The real core is estimated to begin in some 5000 kilometers. The problem is, that even that showed completely different results than what had been expected. At 10000 Meters there were already 180° Celsius. At any rate, it looks like there's something like a little sun active in our planet as well - which makes empirical data gathering a bit difficult, to say the least, and probably very dangerous as well.

The problem here is that all this has the purpose to EXPLAIN things, that means it's fairly difficult NOT to speculate on the basis of the meager amount of data there is - but it's hardly certainty based on facts and in terms of our own history it's more than doubtful that this situation will ever change.

So empiricism faces two major problems:
One: certain findings in physics limiting empiricism in a principal way
Two: There seem to be things that defy observation in a more practical way. For one thing, things past, and things that are difficult to explore, like the core of the earth or - as a better example for what I mean - a black hole.

With ONE at the front it would in my opinion be folly to postpone things into the future: we will eventually be able and so on - we won't, not in this universe.
That doesn't mean it's useless, mind you. But it's not the holy grail either.
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Postby Corribus » Aug 6 2007, 19:11

Jolly Joker wrote:Heisenberg uncertainty relation is - proven - a principal thing: observation (i.e. empirical methods) has an influence on the result. There is a measure of uncertainty (and it has nothing to do with limits of observation as such, it's a principal thing).
That means, there are fundamental limits.
First, the HUP does not say that something cannot be observed, or even that there is a limit to how something may be observed. Specifically it states that certain quantities cannot be observed simultaneously to infinite precision. This only applies to certain pairs of observables under certain circumstances. For instance, momentum and position. However, you CAN observe both momentum and position at the same time. The limit is that there is an uncertainty in the value that one must take if you know, exactly, the other.

Second, even if there ARE limits to what can be observed, what exactly is the point you are making? When I say reality is grounded in empiricism, that means that whatever phenomenon you can point to, there is, in principle, a logical explanation that can be observed and tested through empirical experimentation. I'm not sure why you think the HUP challenges that assertion. After all, the HUP can be - and has been - observed experimentally on countless occasions. If you want examples, I can provide them. In fact, the HUP is a great example of how something that was previously unexplainable, was shown to have a simple empirical explanation. The HUP was posited theoretically and shown to be true empirically. So really if anything, it supports MY point.
Second, if you want to empirically determine what was or happened in the past this is very difficult because a lot of data are not accessible anymore.
The statement that reality is based in empiricism is not contingent upon time. Just because the evidence for an event no longer exist, does not mean it didn't happen. If John killed Jack, and then John destroyed all the evidence, does that give us free rein to claim that God killed Jack? No. Regardless of whether the physical evidence that provese that John killed Jack is destroyed, John still killed Jack. The empirical explanation still exists, no matter if we can get at it directly or not. The empirical basis of science is that, in principle, there is an empirical explanation for anything, not that direct evidence exists to empirically prove anything.
Cosmic background radiation may be evidence for a big bang, but we are already in the realm of sketching theories and trying to find evidence in support, because it's rather difficult to check exactly.
So what? Just because the empirical evidence is hard or even impossible to find does not mean that there is not an empirical explanation.
The same is true for our own planet's past. All theories concerning the development of the Earth have holes and no theory is really able to explain everything. The reason is of course that empirical data are hard to come by, so a lot is speculation.
So what? Just because the empirical evidence is hard or even impossible to find does not mean that there is not an empirical explanation.

Speculation? Call it what you want. Many theories are posited hypothetically before they are substantiated by obtaining evidence. That doesn't mean they are worthless. The point is that the scientist (objective empiricist, logical positivist, naturalist, whateverist) believes that observable phenomena can be explained without invoking supernaturalism, and these explanations can be understood through experimentation (gathering empirical evidence). The key word I use here is "believes". This is the one axiom upon which science is based. It is a belief. For you to sit here and try to prove otherwise is no different from me trying to prove that God does not exist. Impossible. You cannot prove that there are things which cannot be explained empirically anymore than you can prove that there is an afterlife.

Given that axiomatic truth, I certainly believe that, no matter how many holes a theory about the origins of the Earth possesses, if it has one shred of empirical evidence to support it - even if it has NO shreds of empirical evidence to support it but has the POTENTIAL to be proven empirically by using other scientific laws themselves based upon empirical evidence - it is infinitely better than any "theory" that invokes God or other supernatural critters that cannot be observed and require no logic or empirical laws to support them. Especially if those "theories" blatantly go AGAINST empirical laws and, if I accepted them, would require me to flagrantly IGNORE hundreds of years of objective science. But that's just my belief in empiricism speaking. If you want to believe in God or magic carpets or astrology or talking centipedes, then that's your prerogative.

If you are interested in empiricism in a philosophical sense I direct you to the classic works of John Locke or David Hume.
Other data are difficult to come by for other reasons: information out of the core of the earth, for example, seem a rather big problem to come by - and not necessarily because we are so limited in our means.
I stress again that the empirical basis of science has nothing to do with the DIFFICULTY of procuring empirical evidence. Many experiments were thought to be difficult, if not impossible, to ever carry out. There are experiments today that have been proposed (Roger Penrose has an interesting experiment designed to test his theories of quantum gravity, but they will be a long time coming, if ever) but which are obviously quite impossible at the current time to perform. But if a theory is based upon other theories themselves based upon and substantiated by empirical evidence, then it is assumed that such theories can themselves, in principle, be proven - either right or wrong - even if there are no means yet to do so.
So empiricism faces two major problems:
One: certain findings in physics limiting empiricism in a principal way
It doesn't limit empiricism. It limits what is allowed to be observed under certain circumstances. It doesn't render the principle of empiricism wrong. It's not a problem for philosophical empiricism at all. Empiricism does not claim that there are no limits to what can be observed. Only that every thing that IS OBSERVABLE has a logical explanation based in empirical law.
Two: There seem to be things that defy observation in a more practical way. For one thing, things past, and things that are difficult to explore, like the core of the earth or - as a better example for what I mean - a black hole.
This isn't a problem for empiricism either. Empiricism is not about practicality. It's a belief that the universe is bounded by empirical law, and that all empirical laws can be studied empirically, if only in principle. It does not mean that the empirical laws are easy to understand or that they are easily observable. It means that knowledge is acquired a posteriori, and that supernatural explanations need not be invoked to explain any observable feature of our reality. Nothing you can say can prove this belief incorrect, no can anything you say prove it to be correct. It is a belief like any other belief, taken on faith. The difference is that I find it easier to believe what my eyes tell me is true than the words of an anonymous priest, imam, caliph prophet or whatever whose motives are unclear. I trust myself, my eyes and my logic.
Last edited by Corribus on Aug 6 2007, 20:10, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Jolly Joker » Aug 6 2007, 19:57

I'm not going into quoting detail here, but don't forget, the initial statement was, the world is EXPLAINABLE by empiricism. It isn't. A black hole is - in itself - a paradox situation. Empiricism is delivering data that are explained in a certain way - that there are "objects" in reality cou cannot get information out of. There are no data to collect except those that you cannot collect any. All knowledge about black holes is of an indirect nature.

Secondly, I don't think that your interpretation of HUP is right. While it says a lot more than can discussed here the main thing is that the DATA, or the empirical "flesh" will be changed or influenced by collecting them. This is evident not only in the position/speed thing it's evident in that particle behave differently depending on how you observe and how you set experiments.

In the end *I* "believe" that empiricism is simply not enough to explain the world - and will never be. I'm not saying it's worthless, mind you. It's a bit like Newton and Einstein. I think that Empiricism is like Newton. It gives results, it's reliable in a certain area and region, but it doesn't explain the world. You need more than Newton, so to speak, and I think empiricism is on my side here.
Think about Gödel. He proved that in a halfway complex system there ARE things that cannot be proven. Necessarily. That means there will necessarily be things you HAVE TO believe. Why should it be different in this universe? But this means that empiricism alone won't be enough to explain the world.
Therefore it makes no sense to *believe* in it either since it'd clear it's limited.
Of course it makes no sense either to believe in things that are in blatant contradiction to empiricistic knowledge.
I hope. I could make myself clear. This is a pretty difficult matter.
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Postby Gaidal Cain » Aug 6 2007, 20:21

Jolly Joker wrote:I'm not going into quoting detail here, but don't forget, the initial statement was, the world is EXPLAINABLE by empiricism. It isn't. A black hole is - in itself - a paradox situation. Empiricism is delivering data that are explained in a certain way - that there are "objects" in reality cou cannot get information out of. There are no data to collect except those that you cannot collect any. All knowledge about black holes is of an indirect nature.
I can get data directly from a black hole - or as directly asi would with any object of an astronomical size. I don't need to find a huge scale to be able to tell a how heavy the sun is. I don't need to change my eyes to be able to validate quantum mechanics. There are lots of things we can't observe directly, but still, trhough empiricism, has been explained.
While it says a lot more than can discussed here the main thing is that the DATA, or the empirical "flesh" will be changed or influenced by collecting them.
While that's the most common interpretation of the uncertainity principle, it is not the only one. And it extends far beyond "measuring/observing".
This is evident not only in the position/speed thing it's evident in that particle behave differently depending on how you observe and how you set experiments.
Hardly a surprise, since that applies to macroscopic objects as well.
That means there will necessarily be things you HAVE TO believe. Why should it be different in this universe? But this means that empiricism alone won't be enough to explain the world.
Empiricism is in itself a belief, so of course there are things you have to believe. But I fail to see how the belief that the flying spagetthi monster will appear and save me if I jump of a bridge is going to do me any good. There are people who might need their giant cosmic teddy bear (to speak with Freud), but they don't need it in the meaning that they understand the world better, but rather in that it helps them live a better life.
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Postby Jolly Joker » Aug 6 2007, 20:31

Frankly, I don't see your point, GC. Could you make it a bit clearer?
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Postby Gaidal Cain » Aug 6 2007, 21:04

1. You don't know as much about science as you think you do.
2. You don't seem to get that no one but a few strange people believe in empiricism as the only thing there is. There's plenty of room for other ideas on other ares (for example, empiricism tells us very little about how the world should be) You can choose to believe in non-empiricism as much as you'd like, but in the end, those ideas most likely won't help you understand how the world works (for example, string theory is currently of much use since it's just a bunch of maths which doesn't offer any way to test if it's correct or not. You can still choose to believe in it or not, but you won't come to a situation where the correctness of it will matter).
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Postby Corribus » Aug 6 2007, 21:04

Jolly Joker wrote:forget, the initial statement was, the world is EXPLAINABLE by empiricism.
First of all let me state upright that the philosophy of science, like any branch of philosophy, is rife with many many "-isms", each with a subtlely different definition. I am quite sure that I often use the wrong "-ism" half the time, so it is important to define what we mean here.

By empiricism I am referring to the axiom of science which states that any empirical observation - by which I mean, any phenomenon I observe, the observable world - has a rational explanation that can, in principle, be explained using logic, deductive reasoning, analysis, experimentation, and theories themselves based on all of the above. I see no violation of this principle in any of your examples.
A black hole is - in itself - a paradox situation. Empiricism is delivering data that are explained in a certain way - that there are "objects" in reality cou cannot get information out of. There are no data to collect except those that you cannot collect any. All knowledge about black holes is of an indirect nature.
At present we cannot observe the inside of a black hole. We may never be able to. However, we have theories, themselves based upon empirical evidence and experimentation, that offer explanations of what the inside of a black whole might look like. Given that these theories themselves are based on empirical law, it is likely that they are, in principle, testable. That does not mean we will ever be able to look inside a black hole. But it means that experiments may be devised to determine whether theories that explain black hole structures are plausible. And even so - it might be argued that, because we cannot observe inside a black hole, there is nothing to violate the axiom of empiricism. Also, matter/energy does radiated from a black hole. Such matter may carry information about the inside of the black hole.
Secondly, I don't think that your interpretation of HUP is right. While it says a lot more than can discussed here the main thing is that the DATA, or the empirical "flesh" will be changed or influenced by collecting them. This is evident not only in the position/speed thing it's evident in that particle behave differently depending on how you observe and how you set experiments.
You are confusing the HUP with what is often called the "observer effect". I checked and the wikipedia HUP article has a section about this common mistake, if you are interested. The HUP says nothing about the act of observation disturbing the system and impacting the measurement. The HUP is a natural quantitative limit to the precision with which two observables can be measured simultaneously. It arises naturally out of the fact that moving objects - particularly very small moving objects - are both waves and particles at the same time. The most common two observables that obey this principle are momentum and position, but other important pairs include: energy and time, and angular momentum along two different perpendicular axes. Generally speaking any observable can be represented by a mathematical operator; when the operators of two observables do not commute (or, another way to say it, when they do not share a common set of eigenfunctions), the two observables cannot be measured at the same time with infinite precision (and it's actually more quantitative than that). In the macroscopic world this still holds, but because the bound is scaled by Planck's constant, which is extremely small, you never observe it in your day to day world.

An example of the limitations imposed by HUP: when excited, atoms emit light of particular frequencies. Astronomers use these lines to determine the elemental makeup of stars, because different atoms have different lines. Because the frequency of a given line is, in principle, equal to the difference in energy between discreet atomic energy levels, the lines should, in principle, be just that: lines of exactly one frequency. As it turns out, however, even with an instrument that was capable of measuring the frequencies absolutely perfectly, each line is actually a broadened band - that is, each "line" arises from a bunch of photons having a distribution of energy values. This is a consequence of the HUP for time and energy - atoms spend a certain amount of time in their excited-states (lifetime) prior to emission of a photon, and because the system is changing as a function of time, so there is an uncertainty in the value of the photon's frequency associated with the uncertainty in the position of the atom's energy levels. You see this even under ideal conditions - and it has nothing to do with act of observation itself. (Actually the effect is usually washed out by other broadening mechanisms related to imperfect experimental conditions.) It also certainly has no implications for empiricism as a guiding principle of science!
In the end *I* "believe" that empiricism is simply not enough to explain the world - and will never be.
Sure, that's fine! You may be right. But I believe that every observable phenomenon has a logical explanation, and as I said, there's no way you can use logic or "proof" to show otherwise.
That means there will necessarily be things you HAVE TO believe. Why should it be different in this universe? But this means that empiricism alone won't be enough to explain the world.
You mean: there have to be things you must take on faith? Well that's true, but it would also be true if you could prove everything using empirical science. I can prove to you that fire is hot. But it is up to you whether you believe what science tells you, or something else. Even if you stick your hand in the flames, and cause yourself terrible pain, you could believe that your senses deceive you, and many people do believe such things. You cannot prove or disprove belief, and you certainly don't need to point to a nebulous gap in scientific knowledge to demonstrate that principle. Personally I believe that all gaps can be filled in by empirical knowledge. Others believe in, as Richard Dawkins calls it, "The God of the Gaps". To each his own. :)
"What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?" - Richard P. Feynman

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Postby Banedon » Aug 7 2007, 0:53

You're a real scientist Corribus :) I totally agree with your posts (and you sure express them better than me), except this point:
But on a more global level, the "big theories" have been evaluated extensively by hundreds, thousands of scientists and experiments. And so they are rarely completely wrong. A better word is incomplete. Newtonian Physics is a good example. Newtonian Physics is not WRONG. It's quite right and does a good job explaining everyday phenomena like apples falling, trains moving, etc. But.. there were always some things that Newtonian Physics could never explain, particularly when things get really small or really fast, and it took newer, better theories - theories that reduce to the old theories in the macroscopic world - to explain these things. And even THESE theories - quantum mechanics and relativity - aren't totally complete either. But we haven't really figured out what's going to replace them. We just know something WILL.
No, I'll argue that Newtonian Physics is wrong. Maybe it's just the mathematician in me speaking, but I view scientific theories in black and white - a theory is either right or wrong; there is no middleground. The 'middleground' is just the case when we don't know, when we can't label the theory right, or wrong. Since theories can never be proven, we can't ever say a theory is right as well; we can just have a lot of confidence that it is not wrong. Therefore, in some sense, all theories are wrong, or middleground, where we don't know if they are right.

That's the purely logical view, but even on the less logical level I'll still have to say that Newtonian Physics is wrong. It's wrong because the theory cannot be infinitely extended to all situations conceivable, and also because it assumes concepts like absolute time, which is not the case. This doesn't mean that Newtonian Physics is useless; it's obviously sufficient for 99% of everyday needs. Nonetheless, the core ideas it champions are inaccurate, and therefore the theory is wrong.

You can't really say it's incomplete because the basic assumptions Newton made are themselves invalid. Bohr's model of the Hydrogen atom is wrong because the real Hydrogen atom is nowhere like his idea. There're no particle-like electrons orbiting a particle-like nucleus and all that, and there's no way that you can extend, complete (verb) Bohr's model by developing his ideas. A better example of an incomplete theory may be Dalton's theory of atomic constituents, because while the main ideas were right, the subtleties were wrong (eventually fixed).

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Some thoughts on Science in general...

I'm a firm believer of Science, and I believe everything can be explained by it. Even a so-called 'miracle' can be explained by it, because if for example someone miraculously recovers from AIDS after his parents pray for him, something may have happened on an esoteric level, where forces we have not even imagined and catalogued have come into play and somehow cured the patient. We don't know because thus far we haven't been able to summon miracles on will. But I'm sure that if someone can consistently conjure a leaf (for example) from thin air the phenomenon will be studied, analyzed and eventually explained.

I was in India on a study trip a week ago, and we debated Science there as well. There's one point we discussed that I think is particularly important. One student posed the question, if there must be an explanation for everything, then there must be an explanation for the Big Bang. What caused it? Similarly, Darwin's theory of evolution can only work when life already exists. What caused life?

The answer is this - we don't know, but it doesn't mean we will never know. Two thousand years in the past there was no explanation as well for why the Sun rose everyday. Civilizations around the world believed in a Sun God and celebrated the 'miracle' of sunrise, because there was no way for the science of that time to explain it. Now we know the Sun rises because of the Earth's orbit and rotation, and all this talk of a Sun God seems superstitious and superflous. The problems over the origins of the Big Bang and the cause of life are similar. We don't know, and science at present can do no more than offer hypotheses. But it doesn't mean we will never know. Perhaps scientists in the future will be able to generate life from non-living material, or to come up with a theory that will explain the origin of the Big Bang and why the Big Bang came to happen. The current inability of science to explain this just reflects our own incomplete knowledge.

PS: This is a point Corribus in which I think you may be mistaken.
Corribus wrote:You cannot prove that there are things which cannot be explained empirically anymore than you can prove that there is an afterlife.
How do you know we can never prove there isn't an afterlife? There've already been scientific studies on what happens after death, and there've been so-called Near Death Experience (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Near-death_experience). Someday we may be able to prove that an afterlife exists. Like you said, a lack of proof for something does not prove that it does not exist or is wrong, right?


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