Sunday, June 25, 2006


Does Science Truly Dismiss the Big Question, “Why”?

Well now to begin where I left off I made a sweeping statement that modern science not only avoids the “why” questions but goes further to profess that such questions are not appropriate within the discipline. It goes even further to proclaim that such questions will not expand the quest for human understanding of the natural world. Many may say this is a outlandish statement and further where would I get such an idea. Well you don’t have to go far to find support for this.

As a example I quote Lisa Randall from a interview that appeared in this month’s Discover magazine. Professor Randall is a leading theoretical physicist and expert in particle physics, string theory, and cosmology. Her current research is focused on a aspect of string theory that suggests that our three dimensional universe may be only a part of a larger multi-dimensional one. This is all in pursuit of what is commonly and might I add improperly referred to as “The Theory of Everything”. Ms. Randall is currently the most quoted and cross referenced physicist in the world. I would contend that this qualifies her as being a representative of modern science, its thinking and its views. When Professor Randall was asked:
“Will physics ever be able to tackle the biggest questions—for instance, why does the universe even bother to exist?”
She responds with:
”Science is not religion. We're not going to be able to answer the "why" questions. But when you put together all of what we know about the universe, it fits together amazingly well. The fact that inflationary theory [the current model of the Big Bang] can be tested by looking at the cosmic microwave background is remarkable to me. That's not to say we can't go further. I'd like to ask: Do we live in a pocket of three-dimensional space and time? We're asking how this universe began, but maybe we should be asking how a larger, 10-dimensional universe began and how we got here from there.”
She then is asked:
“This sounds like your formula for keeping science and religion from fighting with each other.
She then responds:
“A lot of scientists take the Stephen Jay Gould approach: Religion asks questions about morals, whereas science just asks questions about the natural world. But when people try to use religion to address the natural world, science pushes back on it, and religion has to accommodate the results. Beliefs can be permanent, but beliefs can also be flexible. Personally, if I find out my belief is wrong, I change my mind. I think that's a good way to live.”
So as you can see the lines have been drawn. First, Professor Randall admits that science does not even attempt to answer the “why” questions and then proclaims such questions are not relevant to understanding the natural world. She considers such questions the purview of religion. Now as we know religion can be seen and considered within the wider view as philosophy. I think if we pushed Professor Randall further she would agree with this extension. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Professor Randal’s ideas are silly for I respect and admire what she does and how she strives to further our understanding of the natural world. I’ve read her new book - Warped Passages- and even attended a recent public lecture she gave. I’m simply making the point the this is what the general view is. So then, is it true that the “why” questions are beyond what one can expect of human understanding? It appears this is what science thinks. But how has science arrived at this? More importantly is it correct? Also, have all modern scientists thought this way? Well this is what we will continue to explore.

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As you can see I'm working through your excellent blog one article at a time Phil, in order.

I agree that the Why? must be asked, and too few scientists today do so.

Here are some thoughts on possible reasons. First up, The Scientific Method.

While there is no precise or generally accepted definition of TSM, I have come up with my own succinct version, and it is:

1) Observe (answer the question: What?)
2) Hypothesize (answer the question: How?)
3) Test (see if YOUR How? is the REAL How?)
4) Conclude (Interpret the results)

And Interpretation, as I see it, is answering the question: Why?

Too often though, some just spit back the Hypothesis in step 4), which is dangerous. It's dangerous if the Hypothesis was wrong and the scientist for whatever reason doesn't wish to admit it.

I think Einstein and Bohr thought Why? plenty. The best scientists do. Your thoughts that we've gotten away from that are indeed intriguing. Culture shift? Has Physics become a victim of its own success?

The problem with Physics today in my opinion is that we are saturated with Speculation. That means such Physicists can only do 1) and 2) above. In short they can't get to Why? because they cannot test their "How?".

Your thoughts on my thoughts?
Hi Steven,

I’m flattered that you might find my battering as interesting and at the same time have struck a chord with your own thoughts in regard to the matter. I also like your points as to what the scientific method should intail and as you read on further you will find I highlight both Bacon and Descartes in respect to this. In some respect you could say that today Bacon represents the dominant view, while Descartes the one where the why is included as to be important.

It’s also interesting how you see both Bohr and Einstein in the latter camp. However, I have always seen it differently, with Bohr in the Bacon camp as to ultimately find the why not to exist and therefore irrelevant, while Einstein being in the Descartes camp, where the why is what drove them to discovery. I find the dividing line rests with if nature is to be considered a logical construct or not in its entirety, one where things like uncertainty and probability are mere clues to the underlying truths, rather then barriers to further discovery. There is also a paradox to this as Bohr insisting that Einstein is wrong to tell nature what to do, while himself insisting nature is an illusion as it being only a creation in the minds of the observer. So rather than insist what nature should do as to be, he rather would have it be nothing other than an illusion. I find this to be a dangerous concept when it comes to fini=ding truth as it has it only become what one chooses it to be, rather thenwhat it necessarily is.


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I'm not 100% in the Bohr camp, Phil. Lots of these guys get squirrelly ideas later in life.

Well with Bohr, as you point out he was a Bacon, but I also think changed from a Descartes to a Bacon as he aged. Also, I'd rather not get into Copenhagen Interpretations at this moment, as that's a never-ending speculative subject, although it is a fine example of a "Why?" left unexplained (with no shortage of opinions). When we get to the point instrument-wise that we can see and test this stuff, we'll talk more on the Interpretation of QM stuff.

Bohr's "attitude" to not dig further was poor, I hear you. The "illusion" stuff? Don't seem to recall that. He was one pushy guy about his ideas though. Must have been a later attitude.

No wait is this what you mean?: That "position" of a fundamental particle is not "real" (and therefore an "illusion") since the best we can know is it's probability? Well, OK I remember that now, if so.

He was technically correct, but over-hypothesizing with "unreality." Just because we don't know the exact position doesn't mean it doesn't have one, of a sort....

But it wouldn't appear have one, would it, if the fundies as I call them are bundled up waves, hmm?

Perhaps I should go back to Indeterminancy school.
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