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Cosmology, Quantum Mechanics & Consciousness Message Board › The methodology of physics and the (other) natural sciences

The methodology of physics and the (other) natural sciences

lan B.
user 10895495
London, GB
Post #: 126

At Andrew's kind request I have begun this thread, since discussion of scientific methosd lies waa-ay outside the remit of any discussion as to the nature of consciousness, althoughit may well be equally tortuous, beset by traps and snares, and riddled with 2un-outed" tacit background assumptions!

To begin then, Andrew, you say:

>"Next up is your description of what science is ultimately about, in which you have very kindly avoided the oft-used but peculiar 'dimensional analysis' with a plain English explanation of your point. Now I am going to divert temporarily from the consciousness theme to comment on your and Camilla's conception about science. It is time for me to say what I think and to be very blunt. I don't think either of you are even close to understanding what modern science is really about."

"Modern science" is essentially about what Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei thought it was about! OK, Karl Popper has emphasised the role of the difficult-to-achieve-if-not-at-all quantifiability of the decision-making propensities of experts within some specialist field in regard to "making a decision" (in The Logic of Scientific Discovery) and stressed that such decision-making whilst not arbitrary is certainly not simplistically mandated by some allegedly simple logically deductive implication from some finite set of facts, however large.

Popper famously argued for the role of falsifiability (i.e. "falsifiability in principle if indeed the theory in question turns out to make incorrect predictions in the relevant respect; this subtlety is often lost on those who immediately jump to the mistaken conclusion that "all scientific theories are wrong; Popper has proven it!"). It turns out that "falsifiability" has some perhaps unexpectedly subtle wrinkles of its own. Whilst emphasising the long-standing mistake made by philosophers up until at least the beginning of the second third of the 20th century, i.e. that scientific knowledge progresses inductively, i.e. by dint of accumulating an ever-growing list of confirmations of some theory or other's empirical predictions -- just one single single disconfirming counter-example shows that centuries'-worth of affirmative results has proven nothing! -- it turns out that in order for the relevantly concerned scientific community even to find itself even in the position of being able to falsify on empirical grounds some long-standing and venerable theory such as Newtonian mechanics then obviously just one disconfirming result won't cut it! For the scientific community has learnt to think in terms of the old theory, and if it has evinced brilliant predictive success thus far, then they will be loth to transfer their allegiance to some upstart and -- initially speaking at least -- well-nigh incomprehensible aspirational successor theory such as special relativity. What is needed is a long list of such predictive counter-examples, and -- wait for it! -- sooner or later our panel of scientific experts will "make a decision", but not for logically deductive reasons, but rather as a consequence of their reluctant acceptance of the fact that the facts are finally, undeniably stacking up in favour of the newer interpretation. I.e. these decision-makers are employing Popper's wretchedly condemned "Principle of Induction"!

There is far much more to say on the subject of the philosophy of science, and one could quite easily acquire a library of, say, 1,000 or so textbooks minutely discussing very subtle points such as the non-Popperian afterthought which I've mentioned just above. I will attempt within this thread to be as conscientious as is indicated should any correspondent wish to pursue me in this connection. Firstly, however, I need to address Andrew's severely cross-purposive comment aabout dimensional analysis:

>"This theme of dimensional analysis is something I learned about in school physics, it is merely a device and in my studies of science to higher levels and over decades since I have not heard it mentioned again until the last few weeks when both of you have repeatedly used it. It very much appears to me that dimensional analysis is something taught in philosophy school along with other notions such as reductionism."

If only! Apart from the very highly pro-science logical positivists, just about all philosophers of science -- poarticularly during the past 50 years or so, have vehemently disparaged reductionism. (Just hit the web to find out if you don't believe me.)

.. And as for dimensional analysis, no, I can honestly say that after > 20 years' exposure to the cross-talk of professional philosophers attending conferences on various aspects of the philosophy of science, not once has anyone ever mentioned dimensional analysis!

(If only. If only! crying )

It would in any case be extremely odd were dimensional analysis to form any substantive basis for discussion in terms that would interest any philosophers of science! It would be somewhat akin to asking some literary critic to comment on the use of the 26 letters of the alphabet within the works of John Milton. Dimensional analysis forms part of the basic procedural assumptions of working physicists: "if it isn't dimensionally expressible within physics, then whatever you're trying to say doesn't even make sense". (That's precisely why it is customarily introduced at O-level!)

It would be rather like trying to express a poem by Milton using symbols drawn from the language of the description of chess-moves between 2 Grandmasters. What would such an enterprise, even in principle, be trying to get at?

Anyway, you take the point, Andrew: phenomenal qualities, secondary qualities -- however you wish to label them -- i.e. the seen patches of colour, the heard sounds, the smelled odours, and so on -- are not expressible within this oh-so-elementary-and-utterly-indispensab­le dimensional language of physics, and, consequently, none of the natural sciences find themselves in any position either to understand or to explain them!

It's that simple.

[ Continued .. ]

A former member
Post #: 72

Dimensional Analysis.

I agree with Ian, it's a feeble schoolboy tool of no consequence.

It has no role to play here.

I did see a reference to it in a post, and found it quite impossible to understand. I thought it must be a reference to some advanced technique that I was not equipped to understand: maybe trying to reperesnt all of science in some infinite-dimensional metric space to see if Reductionism could either be proved or disproved.

Or something...


lan B.
user 10895495
London, GB
Post #: 127

[ Continued .. ]


>"To me, and I suspect a lot of professional scientists, these concepts are merely part of the framework by which philosophers try to classify and convey the ways of science, but they are not really what science is about at the front line of progress. I have the impression that some philosophers believe that they can legitimately extrapolate from past observations of scientific progress to likely future developments. Such beliefs are almost certainly as misguided as those of amateur investors in the stock market who think they can identify future winnings from past patterns."

Sadly the reverse is typically true! Although philosophers typically don't know much science -- more's the pity! -- their undergraduate teaching and their academic seminars are replete with examples conscientiously marshalled and assembled by historians of science whose sole professional raison d'être is to test -- in a manner exactly parallel to that of Popper's description of scientific methodology itself -- specific examples of past situations in which posterity has judged there to have been some genuine increase in scientific knowledge by applying such abstract criteria as "falsifiability" to such discovery-situations as they were happening (i.e. by studying the scientific professionals' correspondence at the time, by examining their experimental protocols and so on) precisely in order to "field-test" such "second-order" empirical claims which have been made by philosophers of science themselves.

>"Real hard science, the science of fundamental physics, is much harder than such simplistic beliefs would suggest."

What justified that outburst? What is its putative relevance? Sorry, Andrew!

>"Modern science is about discovering features in the world in the form of hidden patterns, often indeed symmetrical patterns, .. "

.. and always has been! What about (e.g.) the Periodic Table? What about the taxonomic affiliations of similar-looking and similarly-behaving animals and plants?

(I could go on; those 2 examples just hit me immediately!)

>"that explain observed phenomena and can be rationalised in some way."

Well, actually explained would be the desideratum within the real sciences.

One leaves the rationalisation to the psychoanalysts, the stock market "analysts", the politicians and the church moralists to spout their supine (and typically self-deceiving) bullshit; these idiots are seldom merely cynical!. Real science is definitely in the real explanation business. (That's why it's so controversial!) I'm sorry, I just can't accept such glib assertions. No offence intended.

>"I don't know how you think that dimensional analysis helps. What does it say about Feynman diagrams in quantum electrodynamics for example?"

The variables which appear within all and every theory of physics -- and indeed also the highly mathematical field of, say, reaction kinetics within physical chemistry -- are expressible (and, indeed, algebraically inter-convertible) in terms of measurables, each of which is in a logical, extensional sense orthogonal to all the rest!

>"Or the topology of string theories?"

It is at least logically possible that some day or other the 10^600 or so (!!!) currently envisaged flavours of string theory might turn out to form part of real physics in the sense that QM and the relativity theories currently do, for example ..

.. but not yet! ( .. And, I suspect, never.)

>"And at the elementary level how does it deal with the equivalence of time and space in the sense of special relativity?”

x, y, z, t are dimensions, Peter!

(Wish I could find a "flabbergasted Smiley" amongst this highly limited repertoire toward which this Meetup software sadly inescapably confines us!)

A former member
Post #: 73
Hi Ian,

x, y, z, t are dimensions, Peter!

They certainly are. But there are two (related but clearly different) meanings of the word "dimensions" at play here and my understanding of the term "dimensional analysis" refers to the other one.

A former member
Post #: 88
Again, Ian, I'm really sorry for any offence caused by my remarks to you and Camilla, and also for the waste of your time now in demonstrating that you do understand science. Like Peter I wasn't sure what the several references to dimensional analysis were about but when you clarified I immediately assumed it was some piece of philosophy teaching and so I attacked without further thought, like a bull to a red rag. Maybe I have run out of patience with philosophy here but that is no excuse and I am really annoyed with myself.

What I should have said is this: I don't get it, you say that the experience of colour red cannot be measured in any way and so it is beyond the possibility of physics to deal with it. You imply that physics is fundamentally to do with measurement. That does not seem right. 

In quantum physics the Schrodinger wave equation does not have any dimensional aspects does it? The measurables appear at 'wave collapse'. 

Some ways of merging gravity into quantum physics are founded on a relational theory of physics in which there is at base no measure of distance or time.

 Mass is not fundamental if it emerges from the Higgs field.  

The standard model of particle physics is based on the mathematical structures known as symmetry groups, which structures do not ( i think) possess measurable parameters along dimensions.

So it seems to me that measurement along some kind of dimensions is not fundamental in physics; at the most fundamental levels different and less rigid concepts can be found. 

And in biology where is the dimensional analysis of DNA genetics or protein function? 

 So I don't get the point. If science can and does work in terms of shape and pattern relationships  without involving physical measurables then, it seems to me, it is of no consequence that the colour red cannot be measured. This might be a case which science will explain without  measurement. Then, since the comment about dimensional analysis has been mentioned several times, and seems important in your argument, I wonder if your argument is open to the criticism that you might have excluded potential explanations for consciousness simply on the grounds that they don't involve measurement along a dimension.

That is what I should have said, instead of firing off again in the philosophy direction without consideration of people's sensibilities. I hope you understand and  can put me right!
A former member
Post #: 75

I know this is exactly the sort of formal set of definitions that Camilla says she is not comfortable with.

But it seems so neat.

Please note that the terms are underlined and so should be read as defined terms. This entire suggestion takes the form of a set of definitions and axioms.

1. Scientists are seekers after Pure Truth in the domain of Science.

2. The Methodology of Science is the principles, procedures or techniques that guide, or are employed by, Scientists in their search for Pure Truth.

3. The Domain of Science is the set of all objective events taken together with the systems exhibiting those events and the causal networks that determine the behaviour of those systems.

4. Objective events are anything that can be objectively measured, or whose effects can be objectively measured, yielding repeatable, sharable results.

5. The Truth is any explanation or procedure that at any given point in time yields better (i.e. diverging less from the actual observed behaviour of the system) results than any other available explanation or procedure.

6. Pure Truth is any Truth better than that which preceded it.

A former member
Post #: 89
I have to smile Peter, I set up this thread to give myself a break from the philosophy and you and Ian are now in my very own 'chat room' having a great discussion on the philosophy of science. Lol or what?!

Anyway I will join you with a couple of quick comments. My hero Einstein, surely the world's pre-eminent philosopher, said that he followed whichever school of philosophical approach (or whatever the right term is) according to how he felt on the day. Or something like that. You know, he would be like you one day and like Ian the next. Well it worked for him, so I would say follow Einstein, that's the way to find the truth!

Secondly I suggest that your definitions do not do justice to quantum physics.

PS I haven't been using lol or smileys as you do. I do hope you accepted my sea slug comments as a vague attempt at humour!
A former member
Post #: 76
Dear Andrew,

But this is the thread started by Ian about the Methodology of Science.

Or are you referring to the other thread?

However, Quantum Physics consists of a-conscious events: I don't think my definitions in any way exclude it.

I've changed the definitions slightly to give them a slightly greater feeling of that quasi-religious fervour that does drive some scientists, and also to capture the feeling of continuing improvement in our state of knowledge while still never quite attaining the Holy Grail of Perfect Truth.

I think I have used maybe 2 smileys in the whole of this board lol. I use "lol" to indicate that I'm saying things with a smile on my face, enjoying the discussion, relishing the juxtaposition of ideas, taking no offense, and hoping to give none.

Finally, fear not: I am 100% content with the description of myself as a SeaSlug with an extra neurone and a slightly terraformed body. Actually... the continuum extends back to entities devoid of either neurones or awareness... so in all probability I am no more than a super-intelligent shade of the colour blue.

A former member
Post #: 90
Maybe I assumed I would retain my authority as supreme dictator over the spin-off thread, but instead this thread has been liberated. I don't know if it will really help to discuss philosophy of science here, it wasn't my intention and I really do agree with Einstein's approach. Speaking of quasi religious scientists, isn't there some sort of faith associated with believing in reductionism, emergence or whatever? Isn't it slightly unscientific to limit one's world view to only one approach? ( but I'm not going to discuss this!)
A former member
Post #: 77
Actually, Andrew, I feel my set of definitions do capture the essential idea of "whatever works" you attribute to Einstein.

It is of course important that "whatever works" really means "whatever works properly" - you don't (as Ian observes) just chuck out centuries of positive results in the light one one incorrect prediction - you look for the specific circumstances that caused the failure and try to improve the theory; nor are you permitted to select between competing theories after you know what the answer is, and claim that is prediction (that's simply rank opportunism); but you are allowed to observe that a particular theory works well in certain circumstances and seek to identify those circumstances more precisely and find out why.

However, I do feel the idea of continually seeking for a better truth by whatever means are available, where we are talking here about objective, repeatable, shared, measurable scientific truth, does capture all the fundamental aspects of the scientific method.

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