Mod+ Science and metaphysics

#1
There follows a section from the excellent New Dawn Magazine article by Bernardo Kastrup to be found here:

http://www.newdawnmagazine.com/arti...erialism-how-fundamentalists-hijacked-science

[O]ur ability to model the patterns and regularities of reality tells us little about the underlying nature of things. Scientific modelling is useful for informing us how one thing or phenomenon relates to another thing or phenomenon – this being precisely what mathematical equations do – but it cannot tell us what these things or phenomena fundamentally are in and by themselves. The reason is simple: science can only explain one thing in terms of another thing; it can only characterise a certain phenomenon in terms of its relative differences with respect to another phenomenon.3 For instance, it only makes sense to characterise a positive electric charge relative to a negative electric charge; positive charges are defined in terms of their differences of behaviour when compared to the behaviour of negative charges, and the other way around. Another example: science can explain a body in terms of tissues; tissues in terms of cells; cells in terms of molecules; molecules in terms of atoms; and atoms in terms of subatomic particles. But then it can only explain one subatomic particle in terms of another, by highlighting their relative differences. Science cannot explain the fundamental nature of what a subatomic particle is in itself, since all scientific explanations need a frame of reference to provide contrasts.4

Capturing the observable patterns and regularities of the elements of reality, relative to each other, is an empirical and scientific question. But pondering about the fundamental nature of these elements is not; it is a metaphysical question. The problem is that, in recent decades, scientists who have little or no understanding of philosophy have begun to believe that science can be a metaphysics.5 This dangerous combination of ignorance and hubris has done our culture an enormous disservice. Childishly emboldened by the technological success achieved by our civilisation, many scientists have begun to believe that the scientific method suffices to provide us with a complete account of the nature of existence. In doing so, they have failed to see that they are simply assuming a certain metaphysics – namely, materialism – without giving it due thought. They have failed to see that the ability to predict how things behave with respect to one another says little about what things fundamentally are.

The notion that technological prowess is proof of some deep scientific understanding of the underlying nature of reality is simply equivocated. Let us put this in context with an analogy: one needs to know nothing about computer architecture or software in order to play a computer game well and even win; just watch a five-year-old kid. Playing a computer game only requires an ability to understand and predict how the elements of the game behave relative to one another: if your character shoots that spot, it scores points; if your character touches that wall, it dies; etc. It requires no understanding whatsoever of the underlying machine and code upon which the game runs. You can be a champion player without having a clue about Central Processing Units (CPU), Random-Access Memories (RAM), Universal Serial Buses (USB), or any of the esoteric computer engineering that makes the game possible. All this engineering transcends the “reality” accessible empirically from within the game. Yet, the scientific method limits itself to what is empirically and ordinarily observed from within the “game” of reality. Scientific modelling requires little or no understanding of the underlying nature of reality in exactly the same way that a gamer needs little or no understanding of the computer’s underlying architecture in order to win the game. It only requires an understanding of how the elements of the “game,” accessed empirically from within the “game” itself, unfold relative to one another.

On the other hand, to infer things about what underlies the “game” – in other words, to construct a metaphysics about the fundamental nature of reality – demands more than the empirical methods of science. Indeed, it demands a kind of disciplined introspection that critically assesses not only the elements observed, but also the observer, the process of observation, and the interplay between the three in a holistic manner; an introspection that, as such, seeks to see through the “game.”

True science is metaphysically neutral and agnostic. Mistaking it for a particular metaphysical position is a profound disservice to science, because it makes it vulnerable to straw-man attacks. For instance, the materialist metaphysics is often peddled today as synonymous with science; a tragic disfigurement of the latter. Yet, as I will argue shortly, materialism is extraordinarily vulnerable to attack, which is construed by a growing number of people as evidence that science itself is failing. But this isn’t true. An attack on materialism as a metaphysical interpretation of science is not an attack on true science.

I liked this section because of its clarity about science vs metaphysics. This thread is about that, not so much about Bernardo's whirlpool model, which is more the focus of the Why materialism is baloney thread: so please, if you'd like to contribute, confine this thread as far as possible to the specific issue of science and metaphysics.
 
#2
The comparison between the materialist's view of reality and the game world, is particularly well made. It's also born out by many other skeptic enthusiasms - at least in my experience - that provide a readily comprehensible diegesis he can access, comprehend and experience mastery of, without troubling about questions outside the paradigm. The rest of Bernado's piece, I'll have to ponder.
 
#3
I enjoyed the article. One point by Bernardo that I think is key is:
...true science is neutral and agnostic about which metaphysical interpretation is true.
If this was more widely understood, then scientism would be more often challenged.

Many people want certainty in their lives. If they understood that true science does not address metaphysics, then perhaps they would not attempt to pretend that science gives absolute truth.
 
#4
If this was more widely understood, then scientism would be more often challenged.
The tendency is in the opposite direction. High profile skeptics like Dennett and Dawkins are becoming bolder about what can be deduced politically and socially from the materialist model. The chasm they want to bridge is entirely metaphysical, but you'd never know it from their claims.
 
#5
Childishly emboldened by the technological success achieved by our civilisation, many scientists have begun to believe that the scientific method suffices to provide us with a complete account of the nature of existence.
I agree with his point. Also the "scientific method" is a standard that is hardly ever completely applied. That's because the standard speaks to an ideal of a human that can perceive completely independent of opinions and/or preconceptions- something that, if not impossible, is rare indeed.
 
#6
I agree with his point. Also the "scientific method" is a standard that is hardly ever completely applied. That's because the standard speaks to an ideal of a human that can perceive completely independent of opinions and/or preconceptions- something that, if not impossible, is rare indeed.
There are often attempts through grammatical style to pretend that the human being isn't a participant, something like "the test-tube was heated and a change in colour was observed", rather than what actually happened, "I heated the test-tube and I saw the colour change". Certainly in the teaching of science in schools this has been an issue, for several reasons, not least that it can make the whole idea of science appear dull and uninspiring rather than something vibrant and interesting. Though that is perhaps leading into a separate topic.
 
#8
For my part, I've never come across anything that more cogently and concisely explains what metaphysics actually is, and why the underpinning of materialism is metaphysical. As long as one is elucidating relationships between observable entities, one is engaged in science. Here we have the earth, and there, the moon, and we note that the latter revolves around the former and so we seek to come up with an explanation for that: which is doing science. We postulate the attractive force of gravity, which Newton, followed by Einstein, modelled mathematically; and that's fine and dandy. But of course, the model isn't actual reality. As soon as you say it is, you're indulging in metaphysics.

I suppose that the great accuracy of QM is something that seems to bolster the mistaking of mathematics for actual reality. It's just that mathematics is an extraordinarily good descriptive tool for QM, but it doesn't tell us anything about what's actually going on in, say, the two-slit experiment. Talk of collapsing probability waves and the mathematics of those, for example, offers a way of describing and predicting outcomes, but that doesn't mean that probability waves literally exist. It's more saying that something is going on that can be very accurately described in those terms.

I find it interesting that the impressively accurate QM applies at the level of the behaviour of what we call elementary particles, or not much bigger. Such particles don't have many properties: one might say, they have restricted degrees of freedom, and so there's a comparatively limited set of ways that they can behave. Maybe that's why they can be so well described in mathematical terms. Maybe sometimes the behaviour of much larger and more complex things, where circumstances dictate their degrees of freedom are restricted, can also be accurately described.

Maths is perfect in an abstract sense. Given the axioms and rules of the game, its outcomes are inevitable. However, when pure maths is applied to the world, it's never perfect: just more or less accurate, perhaps dependent on the degrees of freedom of the object it's being applied to. It's metaphysics to say that in some way the behaviour of the universe is mathematical. It's science to say that it's been empirically discovered that mathematics is often a good way to describe the behaviour of the universe.

Then again, there's nothing to prevent people from postulating things that don't actually exist and applying mathematics to them. Noticing that the speed of rotation of galaxies can't be explained by the gravity of matter as we know it has led some to postulate that there's some other kind of matter that we can't detect, and they can determine how much of it there would have to be to explain the observed speed of rotation. As a piece of pure, abstract maths, it works, but does dark matter actually exist? Not until someone actually detects it in an unambiguous way, which so far hasn't happened.

An alternative hypothesis exists: the idea that cosmic-scale electrical fields are much more influential than gravity in the universe. But supposing that eventually cosmologists recognise they've underestimated cosmic electrical fields, the maths that is based on the dark matter model will still exist and might still account fairly accurately for galactic rotation speeds. There is a precedent for this. Ptolemaic astronomy with its postulation of epicycles to explain the apparently retrograde motion of planets in a geocentric universe was for a time actually more accurate in predicting such motion than calculations based on the heliocentric model, which we now know to be correct.

IOW, pure maths is always correct and perfect, but applied maths is just a way of describing reality based on our hypotheses of how reality works. The applied maths might accurately describe and predict certain phenomena, but be completely inappropriate. To me, this undermines the claim that the universe somehow embodies mathematics.

Another thing that undermines it is the fact that at any given time, we tend to think we've got it cracked. One of at least two things might then happen. First, some new hypothesis might be formulated that has greater explanatory power (e.g. Einsteinian vs. Newtonian mechanics). Second, some new empirical observation (or an old one that is finally given credence) might upset the applecart. In either case, the mathematical or logical description (or other descriptive rationale) may have to amended or even completely replaced.

That we can always find some plausible way of describing empirical observations and making predictions about them (be that using maths or some other rationale), is not being questioned: and in its own way that's quite remarkable. It confirms that the universe contains regularities that are describable in ways that can be consensually agreed upon by different subjective consciousnesses, and that to greater or lesser extents possess a degree of explanatory power. Putting it that way is the business of science, I'd say, and it's a very good thing.

It's only when people cross the line and claim that they're no longer talking about consensually agreed descriptions of reality, but reality itself, that I would take issue with them and say that they're venturing into metaphysics. Not that there's anything wrong with metaphysics, but if one calls "science" what makes claims of absolute truth (e.g that only matter exists) and says that that's not metaphysics, one is no longer doing science, and IMO it's a kind of self-deceptive hubris.
 
#9
I read an article today that actually fits into this conversation:
http://www.spiritoday.com/interview...the-society-for-psychical-research/#more-5411

What do you think about Johns answers? I thought he laid it out very well and it makes sense. I just wish more scientists thought like him.
I think you might find a more comprehensive view of Poynton's views in this podcast:

http://webtalkradio.net/internet-ta...gion-the-iron-rule-of-the-mechanistic-regime/

I agree that he's very much in sync with Bernardo and Rupert Sheldrake re: science and metaphysics.
 
#10
There's another podcast by the same presenter, Philip Mereton, also at Webtalk radio, about Jim Baggot's book "Fairy Tale Physics", which touches on the subject of this thread:

http://webtalkradio.net/internet-ta...-religion-jim-baggott-and-fairy-tale-physics/

While Baggot recognises fairy tale physics in things like String and M-theory, he's bought into the Big Bang and Inflation because he thinks it's evidence-based; but I think it's just consistent with a mathematical model. Nonetheless, Baggot is aware of the difference between metaphysics and science: he just draws the line in a different place than I do.
 
#11
Here's a third podcast by Mereton, and the most relevant perhaps to what Bernardo said: Mereton even uses the same analogy of a computer game, and Alexandar Unzicker, the author of the new book, The Higgs Fake: How Particle Physicists Fooled the Nobel Committee also uses the epicycle idea I used. If you only listen to one of the Mereton Webtalk radio podcasts, listen to this one!

http://webtalkradio.net/internet-ta...cience-and-religion-is-the-god-particle-real/
 
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#12
A consistent form of scientific hubris, is the premature solution. This has always been the case, rose to absurd levels in Victorian times, and is still much in evidence. Lacking a full explanation, or an interest in underlying mechanisms, the scientist fudges the gap in knowledge and makes a vainglorious pronouncement. In a competitive commercial world such claims are at least understandable ("the only vacuum cleaner you'll ever need"), in a discipline that pretends to disinterest, it's disingenuous. The gap is usually a metaphysical one, the difference between an interesting discovery and a general panacea.

QM is uniquely satisfying from a genuinely sceptical point of view, because it signals a fluidity in the process between object and subject that reflects how an individual perceives the world. A point of view is not objective in any true sense, but contingently so, a negotiated reality with useful axioms but none that are irreplaceable. Materialist science's central metaphysic is a belief in progress, or modernism, the idea that man has elevated himself by his wits to a point where he is self-supporting. I think man is still in the intellectual cradle, governed by instincts and controlled by motivations he rarely masters. Reducing those to an epiphenomenon is a fudge that allows him to bridge the gap between science and belief, or physics and metaphysics.
 
#13
I came across this delightful quote from Unzicker's book:

If physicists do not understand the what of their theories, they'll introduce a new particle. If they don't understand the when, then it must have happened right after the Big Bang. If they don't understand the where, then of course it took place in an extra dimension. And if they don't understand the how, they will postulate a new interaction. If they don't understand the how much, a symmetry breaking will soon appear. If they don't understand anything, they will propose strings and branes. And if they lose interest in all understanding, there is always the strong anthropic principle. Things have come to a pretty pass.
 
#14
A consistent form of scientific hubris, is the premature solution. This has always been the case, rose to absurd levels in Victorian times, and is still much in evidence. Lacking a full explanation, or an interest in underlying mechanisms, the scientist fudges the gap in knowledge and makes a vainglorious pronouncement. In a competitive commercial world such claims are at least understandable ("the only vacuum cleaner you'll ever need"), in a discipline that pretends to disinterest, it's disingenuous. The gap is usually a metaphysical one, the difference between an interesting discovery and a general panacea.

QM is uniquely satisfying from a genuinely sceptical point of view, because it signals a fluidity in the process between object and subject that reflects how an individual perceives the world. A point of view is not objective in any true sense, but contingently so, a negotiated reality with useful axioms but none that are irreplaceable. Materialist science's central metaphysic is a belief in progress, or modernism, the idea that man has elevated himself by his wits to a point where he is self-supporting. I think man is still in the intellectual cradle, governed by instincts and controlled by motivations he rarely masters. Reducing those to an epiphenomenon is a fudge that allows him to bridge the gap between science and belief, or physics and metaphysics.
I liked your post for its erudition and concision, Gabriel. Whilst I agree that there's an element of "competitive commerciality" and a belief in progress, I wonder if that's the main focus of the metaphysic of materialism. I'd say that's something like the marginalisation of the role of consciousness. The only way in which it can be accommodated is as an emergent phenomenon with little intrinsic value, despite the glaringly obvious fact that, were it not existent and important, materialists wouldn't be arguing the toss about it.
 
#15
I liked your post for its erudition and concision, Gabriel. Whilst I agree that there's an element of "competitive commerciality" and a belief in progress, I wonder if that's the main focus of the metaphysic of materialism. I'd say that's something like the marginalisation of the role of consciousness. The only way in which it can be accommodated is as an emergent phenomenon with little intrinsic value, despite the glaringly obvious fact that, were it not existent and important, materialists wouldn't be arguing the toss about it.
It's completely about relegating the role of consciousness to a sideshow in the search for the concrete and the plastic. Nevertheless, mind has a way of manifesting where it's least welcome, hence Dennett and Co.'s materialist spirituality to paper over the chasm in the two world views. If the brain is only a tool for problem solving, why does it conjure an excess of stories to tell itself? Mind favours abundance over parsimony and repletion over economy. It can certainly do concision, but defaults back to wonders (its true state IMO) once the donkey work is over. It just won't be put in its box and labelled for the museum. Consciousness is like those old ventriloquist acts where the dummy insists on browbeating the best efforts of its apparently rational and superior handler, and always finishes with the upper hand.
 
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