Too Much Credit?
In modern developed cultures, the words “beyond human knowledge” conjure all manner of nasty connotations and categorizations, such as “aberrant”, “pointless”, “why bother”, “just do the math and you’ll get the right answer”, “not normal”, “unscientific”, etc…
Perhaps we give science a little too much credit? Please do not misunderstand, I am not suggesting that science is not a valuable tool, only that people (including scientists) have a tendency to believe, and thus also tend to hold science in good faith. Big Bang theory is a fine example of this phenomenon. Nobody can honestly say that they understand it, but mostly it fits reasonably well the knowledge we have acquired via observation and measurement, about the physical universe. In some cases it fits extremely well. Where it did not fit well, we tailored it so that it does fit, quite well. So now, we modern rational folk can look-on admiringly at our intelligent accomplishment. It’s not perfect, but it is really very good! It must be good, after all it is high science.
Our knowledge of physical reality, of psychology, of mind, even of life, contains huge gaps and has very fuzzy boundaries. Indeed, what we think we know about these subjects is riddled with inconsistencies of logic, ambiguities, assumptions, outright errors (known and unknown), and vast regions of philosophical difficulty. Ironically, the fact that we can identify very fuzzy boundaries may be a sign that we are close to seeing the TRUTH. Or it may not be, there’s simply no way to tell.
A clear and fundamental example of what we think we know is the boundary separating objective facts from subjective experiences. Another example, though much better hidden under the auspices of science, is the standardized value of an electron which is defined theoretically by renormalization(1). Briefly, as I understand it, renormalization involves truncating the infinite but real electromagnetic cloud of high energies associated with an electron at extremely short distances, so that in calculations a finite albeit arbitrary value may be used. This renormalized value comprises a consolidation of measured mass and charge values for the electron. In effect, cleverly hiding from view an infinite nuisance.
The Feynman diagram on the left shows an electron-photon interaction. On the right, the same interaction comprises more complicated interactions, including an infinite loop.
– image by Matt McIrvin
Very few people bother to question the validity of renormalization in physics, or of Big Bang theory(2), though the former was meant only as a temporary solution to keep infinite values from popping up to make a mess of the mathematics, and the latter as a joke(3).
Fred Hoyle coined the term big bang during a BBC radio interview in 1949, he meant it sarcastically. “[to assume that the universe had a beginning is pseudoscientific, resembling arguments for a creator] it’s an irrational process, and can’t be described in scientific terms”(4).
A quarter of a century later, in 1975, Paul Dirac whom you may remember from an earlier episode, criticized renormalization, saying “Most physicists are very satisfied with the situation. They say: ‘Quantum electrodynamics is a good theory and we do not have to worry about it any more.’ I must say that I am very dissatisfied with the situation, because this so-called ‘good theory’ does involve neglecting infinities which appear in its equations, neglecting them in an arbitrary way. This is just not sensible mathematics. Sensible mathematics involves neglecting a quantity when it is small – not neglecting it just because it is infinitely great and you do not want it!”.(5)
– Oh! I just really like this guy! Too bad he is dead.
Thinking critically about the intractable conditions at the boundary of human knowledge has historically been politically problematic, sometimes just unacceptable, but on occasion deadly. By the 1970’s good science had become almost entirely lost to the politics of research funding, the marketing of science(6) and various problems of the peer review process(7).
Both Big Bang theory and renormalization are examples of the many unquestioned, or forgotten, assumptions upon which scientific knowledge of physical reality is based. Consequently, our knowledge does not conform with physical reality, but with a model of reality. Currently that is the Standard Model of particle physics(8).
What is Science?
If you are a physicist, or a scientist in any other field, you may buck and snort in contempt at what I am about to say; I urge you to think critically.
Big bang theory is not a scientific theory, nor is it a scientific hypothesis. There is a very simple reason for this: scientific theories and the hypotheses which build them must be empirically testable. The same is true for string theory(9) in all it’s various flavors, none are empirically testable. These examples represent extrapolations of scientific knowledge, but are in no way themselves scientific. The indoctrinated may attempt a defense by saying something like modern science studies many phenomena that are not obvious or visible. Flatly, this is incorrect. If the subject of study is not obviously measurable (with a reasonable margin of error), then it can not be studied scientifically. Clearly then, big bang and string “theories” are pseudoscientific.
We may correctly categorize them as philosophy and as creation myths. They are plausible stories told by the priests of the high order of the Church of Reason(10), “creation myths speak to deeply meaningful questions held by the society that shares them, revealing of their central worldview and the framework for the self-identity of the culture and individual in a universal context”(11). The authority of the high priests of the Church of Reason is respected and their stories are believed, generally. But critically, no one, not even the high priests themselves, holds any physically verifiable knowledge about the stories.
The products of the Church of Reason (good or bad) are theories; tentative explanations which may never be interpreted as truths. Presumably, truth exists only in the domain of God, whatever that is(12). Down here we are left to guess, measure and argue.
Value judgments ranging from negativism pessimism and skepticism, to devotion optimism and positivism, are forms of bias. Bias does not play a roll in the execution of scientific methodology, though people do tend to drag it along. It is precisely bias that leads to the negative connotations and categorizations (skepticism) of criticisms directed at the stories produced by the Church of Reason, and God forbid criticism of the Church itself!
Two good reasons why criticism may appear to be skepticism
1) Objectively, the environment (world) is generally antagonistic, if not outright hostile to the set of intricate networks of complex highly specific electro-chemical interactions which we call life. The ultimate antagonist being entropy. In order to reduce environmental entropy, and so allow for a local environment that is more conducive to directed self-organization, life invariably exists in association with one or more physical boundaries, which are each composed of a variety of selective semi-permiable materials. In the parlance of Star Trek, and also in fact, life may be defined as: a low-entropy improbability bubble in space-time.
– life is fundamentally a doubtful prospect.
2) Subjectively, more people are less critical about more. It would seem that we generally use our brains less now than we did pre WWII, and specifically since about the mid-1950’s when lifestyle and consumerism became central themes in our popular culture. We now consume agents of instant gratification rather than think about what it means to do so, and what consequences may emerge as a result. As a contemporary meme, analysis is nearly as ugly as criticism, the former having a scientific flavor, while the latter seems more connected to the arts. Unfortunately, both analysis and criticism are commonly mistaken for skepticism, or pessimism, or even hostility.
– has doubtfulness become impolite? – politically incorrect?
When we hear about development and progress, precisely what is it that is supposed to be developing and progressing? More importantly, what meanings do we hang onto the words development and progress? Equally importantly, what is wrong with the state of affairs as they are now, that urges us to strive for development and progress?
A very interesting and telling example is the progress and development of medicines for incurable diseases. Recently I was granted the privilege of hearing presentations given at a joint congress of medical and microbiological associations.
Several talks were given regarding novel treatments for various cancers. One of these was particularly interesting and quite elegant. Briefly, the self-destruct mechanism in cancer cells has failed, so an artificial molecule is engineered to specifically target and tag the cancer cells, which are then visible to, and attacked by, killer cells of the host’s immune system. Apparently there were good experimental results with mice.
One single talk was given regarding antibiotics, and it described a development in informatics. Upon enquiry, I learned that the markets for novel antibiotics are not large enough for large institutions and corporations to risk the necessary cost of investment. Some say that we are in transition to a “post-antibiotic era”(13).
The distribution of resources and funds for research in these two fields is vastly disproportionate to common sense. Why does our system of development and progress find great new ways to treat cancer in mice, while ignoring our near-future antibiotic crisis?