The idea for this article came to me when I was listening to some Gorecki on my iPad while heading home on the train. I opened the writer and started jotting down my thoughts just as they occurred to me.
It just has always been my position that Philosophy and Science are not in competition to uncover the secret of reality, and that the attempts by Physicists to paint this dichotomy was self-destructive and not worthy of their time. It is almost as if they are leaving their old enemy of “Religion” alone and picking on a group they don’t think will fight back.
Well we will Physicists, we will. It starts here.
To the physicist reality is explained in terms of a mathematical framework, chosen for its ability to reproduce results. Calculations are seen to be of two types. Those regarding billiard balls (as it was said of Newton’s laws that his rules for the actions of billiard balls were so right, so settled, that any argument over the matter is futile) and those regarding the mysteries of the universe at large (of which we are unsure).
It seems to me that the physicist has invested in an attractive conceit that they cannot bare to face: the presumption that the rules for one are the same as the rules for another. It must necessarily be a presumption because human theories, human understandings, account for 3% or less of the Universe (i.e. the bit light reflects off).
Moreover, the physicist’s theory of reality also includes a presumption, or series of presumptions, regarding the nature of dimensions. That is, how many do we have and how do they work? work on these questions are not separate from the general question (that we call “what is reality?”) that we are trying to answer. This may yet actually completely change the entire question so that any answer not taking dimensions into account is meaningless. To put this in perspective, consider this masterpiece from the great Carl Sagan:
Imagine that Flatland is where we live and our drawings (theories) about flatland are mathematically perfect. Indeed, we could eventually understand that this flatland is huge, millions of miles along each side, and our drawings equally apply all the way from one end of the paper to the other. Even with all this confidence, even with all this mathematical explanation, we are still in Flatland. Our explanation does not explain the nature of reality correctly, or even well, it just works from our perspective.
So, to announce that theories are almost complete and that they have something approaching a grand theory of everything is surely an outlandish exaggeration, as if the missing matter in the universe is a simple, solid and singular unknown. Like the missing matter was all one block of the same stuff, simply explained by the label we give it, “dark matter”. Like, one day, they will find it like a discarded lump of black coal in the bottom of a sack. That it only needs pulling into the light.
Dark matter may yet prove to be something, that is a tangible “thing”, but such a definite label could well be very misleading. Indeed dark matter may not actually be any “thing” at all, merely an aberration and the result of faulty calculations, faulty premises and faulty reasoning from the very ground up.
I used to say to people that any understanding involving the idea of “infinity” was the result of faulty premises. It could equally apply to sentence with “dark matter” in it. If it does exist, and for some reason is exactly what we expected, can we seriously say that the search for the meaning of the order in the Universe is over? What does any of that stuff mean anyway? It has no point to it. The explanation is all the “how”, but what about the real question; that of the “why”?
I have also often remarked that philosophy is not so much to do with having all the answers, but rather about having a better understanding of the questions. For the question is all to the Philosopher, the question means all. With the right question the answer becomes simple and the real answer means something. “Dark matter” is not an answer it is only a cool name for a mystery pretending to be a question. With such a mystery on the table, and in the equation, one cannot but agree that the question is lacking in encompassing the necessary values needed for a correct answer. Such an answer will remain ever beyond our reach as long as the question is “how?” and not “why?”.
Higgs or no Higgs
While that label exists, it fools us into thinking it is a “thing”. “Dark matter” could be a new and different operation of the Universe, a new force, and could suggest the necessity for a paradigm shift in science.
Given such quicksand as the ground under our scientific feet, it is really a bit rich to point at Philosophy and call it “worthless” and “dead”.
Such claims ignore the simple world around us. I listened to a physicist being challenged regarding whether he thought that this damming applied to all branches of Philosophy. Surely, Political Philosophy isn’t dead? Economic Philosophy? Ethical Philosophy? Surely, no one could claim that Religious Philosophy has no relevance in today’s world? Or the Philosophy of Art?
Well no, admitted the scientist, those are still relevant.
It soon turned into a Monty python sketch entitled, “What has Philosophy ever done for us? Well, apart from ethics, morals, politics, economics and the arts?”
What is left?
I almost felt sorry for that Physicist, but I knew exactly which Philosophy he meant, he was talking about “metaphysics”. Again, we immediately find another Physicist conceit: The philosophical study of the nature of reality can go two ways, we are told:
Firstly, one can look out at the world. There one counts and measures, weighs and tallies by type. From this weighing and measuring, the Philosopher involved comes up with a neat theory to explain the results. This he forms into an experiment with a testable hypothesis. He repeats a number of such experiments and the results either fit his hypothesis (and he rejoices) or doesn’t (and he changes the theory and tests again). That is the scientific method and these Philosophers are called Scientists.
Secondly, the searcher for the nature of reality can look within. He can say to himself that reality is a matter of perspective in his mind; indeed all our realities exist only in this mind. He will then try to deduce from introspection, observation and logical analysis if there is something that can be known about this reality. That is metaphysics. From that a theory of knowledge will be created and tested.
Both are very similar, only one is written in the precise language of mathematics and the other in written in English. This is for good reasons as English (or whatever word-based language) is the way that the results are able to mean something. Writing in English is imprecise, precisely because reality itself is imprecise.
Of course, the conceit is that people only work in one of the above two ways without crossing over. Like there is some sort of wall separating them. Could it be a large part of the problem that philosophers ignore those fake boundaries and work in any way that they want? Is the Philosopher stepping on toes?
Our Physicist wants to prevent that as for him it is his understanding of math that he holds up the highest. Physicists honestly think they are better placed to find the nature of the universe because of their superior understanding of math. Philosophers, they say, cannot do this math anymore; it is too hard. Let us leave aside that math is not the sole property of one group of scientists, and consider that it too is grounded in what we call reality. It has been, for a long time now, correct in its predictions. Indeed, for most people the idea is that math is intrinsically correct (an idea invented by Philosophy called “a priori”). I.E. if humankind was to die out 2 + 2 would still equal 4.
However, would it really?
Math is an abstract; it models reality: it doesn’t direct it.
When the math doesn’t fit with the reality, we say that “we lack the math to describe” such and such event or happening. That’s commonly taken to be the humans fault, but really it’s the fact that new mathematical methods have to be invented to explain the occurrence. In other words, to be able to explain new occurrences into mathematical terms we are forced to invent new math. This simply means that math is entirely a human invention. It is “meta” and detached from the reality it is describing, not built into it. Math may explain the turning of the stars (from here in Flatland), but it doesn’t control that turning.
It is, I am sure, a sterling achievement to be able to predict the stars but it is not separate from the minds of the men that formulated it and for that very reason it is not a part of the universe that exists were it not for humans.
By way of example. Science created the iPad I am writing on. It built its plastics, put together its processors and worked out (using math) how to get the screen to light. What it didn’t do is create the reason for it. Apple did. One guy at apple had an idea, a cool idea, a vision and the science enabled that vision by converting it into this device. I am sure you can see that these two things, the idea (the philosophy) and the components (the science) worked hand in hand. They are in fact inseparable.
Remove one and the entire experience is removed. No idea = no iPad.
So said Steve Jobs:
It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing — and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.
But what if we removed the math?
We often say that if/when we meet alien life that math will be our common language. However, there is no reason that this will be so. I’m not suggesting that they will speak English like Star Trek characters, but I am suggesting that there is no reason that they will have math like ours.
I’ll give you an example to highlight what I mean. Our DNA splits, grows, and copies itself without conscious thought. There is something seemingly intrinsically built into DNA, into life, that gives rise to it having these powers. Nothing in our understanding explains why this works, we can only observe, record, predict and theorise. Imagine an alien species that do math like that. In other words, they don’t have a formularised language of math that requires theories, conscious attention and men with beards. Instead, it just happens. In the same way, our power to live just happens. We don’t try to explain it, we can’t control it: it just “happens”.
So, we meet these aliens…
We can’t even say “beings” or “race” as such concepts are entirely human centric. I mean, we will no doubt try to label them a “race” because that is how we think of our (so-called) “races”. This in itself may cause all sorts of problems as they may not see us in these terms, but I digress.
We meet these aliens and try to communicate in the form of maths. To them we are appearing as though we are doing something so natural so common, so inbuilt into their “being” that they don’t even recognise it.
They just are.
Our entire, confident, intellectual edifice is worthless in this case. The aliens can’t explain why they can do what they do as to them it is an unconscious and natural as DNA splitting is to us. They don’t use math as a language, they don’t speak in math. Math doesn’t exist to them.
We are pretty buggered then without philosophers! Wouldn’t the scientist simply say that the aliens weren’t alive at all? Would they recognise the life in these aliens?
Is this happening all the time already?
Being good at math is not going to unlock the heavens for us. We must be able to go beyond, to sublime this human built language, which for all its elegance, is no better than those of the poets.
Unlike the Physicist, The Philosopher can be a specialist or a generalist. Philosophers have developed an ability to be able to step back and ask “why?” Not in the way scientists ask “why?” which is actually, “how did that happen?” Philosophers ask, “Why do I ask why?” Philosophers take a concept or collection of concepts, pick them up and look at them from the outside not the inside. Philosophers ask what went into the question to which this “thing” is the answer. Philosophers are concerned with paradigm shifts and complete changes of presumptions. This is a skill set trained in philosophy to a very high level. Higher than in other subjects and it is a key skill in inventing new things and new ways of seeing.
It is part of humanity that makes us restless. Sure Philosophers are dreamers in a way, but then so are scientists. Sure Philosophers are not so good at math to be able to keep up with high-end Physics (again a presumption, some person may be able to who identifies himself as a philosopher), but math is not ever going to answer “why” only “how” and “when”.
Philosophy is human in every way, all-encompassing to all thoughts and theories and passionately in love with wisdom. History’s greatest accomplishments have all been tied to such innovative thinking from the dawn of time. Science uses these skills, uses this language developed by the Philosophers and so does politics, military theory and even maths. Philosophers know that they are on the outside asking the difficult questions and we understand that this frustrates some scientists, especially Physicists, but that doesn’t mean our contribution is lesser.
Indeed, scientists sometimes come out with the stupidest pronouncements, obvious to Philosophers, and we can’t help but stick our head in our hands in exasperation.
Philosophy is a part of science, part of math, part of politics, part of religion and a part of living on this planet. It is the question “why?” asked of our assumptions, asked of ourselves. It requires no evidential peer-reviewed papers to be considered right, it has no governing body and it is open to all. Indeed speculation over “why?” is practiced by everyone every day. Since it is so ingrained and ubiquitous to living, society and life, it is perhaps best that we have some experts in it? Some dedicated philosophers coming up with new tools, new skills and new ways to thinking?
Physicists want to be right and in their desperation, they have setup a dichotomy that doesn’t exist. Physics is not opposite to Philosophy, in the same way that the work of surgeons is not opposite to the work of GP’s. They are complementary and equally important. Physicists borrow from Philosophy to do their job, and visa versa. They are not in competition to find the nature of reality they are together- a team. I hope that one day a discovery will be made that requires the powers of both parties to understand, to comprehend, and we may then find that Philosophy and Physics together can come up with an answer truly worthy of inclusion in the list of humanities greatest achievements.