The scientific method
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29-01-2012, 08:44 AM (This post was last modified: 29-01-2012 08:57 AM by Zat.)
The scientific method
****VERY LONG POST WARNING****

This is an atheist website, with the whole range of atheism represented: from novice to experts.

Atheism boils down to critical thinking and being aware of the epistemological method of finding truth: the scientific method.

We talk about it all the time but quite often it is obvious that not everyone knows exactly what it means.

So I decided to include that chapter from my book for those who are not intimately familiar with the concept. This post may help to clarify it for them.

Those of you who are, can safely ignore it.

Here it comes:

The scientific method

Years ago, the chief engineer who hired me for a job told me the following joke:

“During the French Revolution a priest, a politician and an engineer are sentenced to be executed by guillotine. Each is given a chance to make a statement before the execution is carried out. The priest makes a moving speech about God, rotherhood, love and peace. Then his neck is placed on the block and a string is pulled. The blade stops an inch above his neck. The crowd goes wild: a miracle happened, they let him go. Same story with the politician: fiery speech about equality, justice, etc., etc. – neck on block, string pulled, blade stops an inch short. Another miracle – they let him go as well. When it is the engineer’s turn, instead of the speech he says: “Unless you undo the knot in the rope, this damn thing will never work!”

The point my boss was trying to make was that he expected integrity from me: an attitude of wanting to get the job done, even if I could be hurt doing it.

Rule number one in science: worship truth above all else!

The “Scientific Method” we scientists keep talking about has many ingredients, but this is the most important: intellectual integrity. Some call it objectivity: look at all the relevant data and go where the evidence takes you, whether you like it or not. Kepler discarded the results of years of very hard work because his theory did not quite agree with the observations. Einstein once published a paper documenting the colossal failure of research that had taken him two years, “to save another fool two years should he wander down the same path”.

You might say that I am talking about plain honesty, not something special reserved for science and scientists. Yes and no. The difference is that scientists must take it seriously, because without it the whole endeavour is pointless. No ‘white lies’ are possible in science. We cannot make an exception and suspend our objectivity, even for a second, because we are forging chains of logic and if even one link is missing or ‘weak’, the whole thing falls apart. We might fool ourselves, but we can not fool Mother Nature, who doesn’t care whether we manage to uncover her secrets (actually, this is not entirely true, as we shall see later when discussing Quantum Mechanics).

Of course, lucky and amusing exceptions happen once in a while: when working on his second planetary law, Kepler made several serious mistakes in his calculation, but the mistakes cancelled each other out and he still ended up with the right conclusion (See Koestler pg 325).

Honesty and integrity are only prerequisites for science. They are not the method itself. The method starts with observations. Not just looking but seeing.

If you look at a the stars on a clear night, your first impression is randomness. Thousands and thousands of pinpricks of light scattered all over the sky. After a while, you begin to see structure. The bright band of the Milky Way should be the first thing you notice. Then, if you have lots of time and imagination, you might look for some way to remember the shape of star-groups.

Maybe they remind you of something: a cart, a bear, a cross…. in time, you might notice that the pattern of stars within a group and the pattern of the groups among themselves never change -- except for half a dozen ‘stars’ that seem to wander all over the place: moving forward for a while, than stopping and moving backwards, then forward again.

It takes time to observe Nature and find patterns not immediately obvious. Once you have observed something, you have to be able to describe it to others, which means you have to be able to describe it to yourself first. You give names to what you observed to save time in both thought and communication. The fixed lights you call stars, the wandering few you call planets (‘planetes’ means ‘wanderer’ in Greek). Inventing names and explaining what they mean is called ‘definition’.

And that is where mere curiosity turns into science. Of course scientists don’t just sit down and make up definitions before doing anything else – it doesn’t work that way. We must have some ideas about the attributes of matter and processes that we want to study. Often we understand something intuitively before we are able to give precise definitions. ‘Force’ and ‘mass’ in Newtonian mechanics were described before they were defined. Some concepts, like ‘space’ and ‘time’, we can never define precisely.

Science is not a linear progress, leading from ‘A’ to ‘B’. It can be best described as ‘iterative’: getting closer and closer with every pass we make at it. We gain depth in the process and our definitions and statements will be more and more precise. A common error made by undergraduate students is the attempt to treat Physics like Mathematics. You can’t because it isn’t!

Mathematics is a logical, self-consistent creation of the human mind. It does not need to be tested against messy, approximate reality. Physics, by necessity, is imprecise. How do we know where an object’s boundaries are when, with enough magnification, everything dissolves into whirling, colliding particles (atoms and molecules) moving in and out of macroscopic objects?

But, eventually things are defined and theories are developed and tested against reality. Theories will have to be built on top of a self-consistent network of known facts and proven theories that are connected to basic experiments, axioms and principles. This is the existing body of science that, to the best of our current knowledge, does not contain contradictions.

This knowledge-base is the result of thousands of years of curiosity, passion, determination. It contains knowledge gained in every era and location through history: the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Arabs, the Europeans, the Russians, the Americans all added data that became ‘integrated’ along the way.

Integration is a process that constantly compares statements in the knowledge base for consistency and agreement. Whenever a contradiction is found, all hell breaks loose and every effort is made to resolve it. Contradiction in science is like poison in the human body – it has to be expelled for the body to survive. Even if all the experiments performed so far are in agreement with the theory, scientists must be prepared to discard or modify the theory at any future time, should a contradictory evidence surface in further research.

Once we have this knowledge-base, we need the tools to expand it by meticulous observations. The primary tools used by science for learning new things about the physical world is experimentation. With these experiments we collect facts, identify the exact nature of what we know and how we know it. Experiments must be repeatable and consistent, publicly demonstrated and the resultant data freely available to anyone.

An integral part of scientific experiments is called ‘reduction’. We try to determine which parameters play a role in a process we want to study. Once we have an idea about those attributes which affect the process, we have to set up an experimental situation wherein we can change any one parameter and see what happens to the rest.

A good example is studying the relationship between pressure, volume and temperature of a gas. After many experiments performed by Robert Boyle in 1661 and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac in 1802, the “Ideal Gas Law” was discovered: the relationship between temperature (T), pressure (P) and volume (V) of a body of gas is such that the magnitude of P*V/T remains constant (values determined by the kind of gas we use). Which means that:

· If we keep the temperature unchanged and decrease the volume then the pressure has to increase (V and P are inversely proportional)

· If we keep the pressure unchanged, and increase the temperature, then the volume has to increase as well (T and V are directly proportional)

· If we keep the volume unchanged and increase the temperature, then the pressure has to increase as well. (T and P are directly proportional)

Setting up suitable experiments is not always easy: Nature does not always co-operate. But, by and large, we eventually find a way and get our experimental results.

While collecting data on a given subject, scientists use both pattern-recognition techniques and imagination to find relationships and cause-and-effect links among these facts. This is usually done by trying out different models (hypotheses, theories) that would explain the experimental results and not contradict anything we know.

Once Richard Feynman was asked how on Earth he came up with an idea that he did not have a clue for. His answer: “I pretended I was an electron and asked myself how I would behave under the circumstances”. Of course Feynman was a rare genius with incredible imagination!

Then the scientist is ready to try to develop a theory that would explain the collected data, based on the existing knowledge-base of science. The theory is usually built on an assumption or hypothesis that appears reasonable, in view of all the known facts. Quite often it states this assumption as a hypothetical law or laws. Some of the best known theories in Physics are:

· The Heliocentric Universe theory, suggested first by Aristarchus in ancient Greece, followed by Copernicus in 1514 and then embraced by Kepler, Galileo and Newton. Galileo got into trouble with the church because he had stated it as a proven theory instead of as a hypothesis.

· Newton’s three Laws of Mechanics, coupled with the new mathematical tools he invented, could be used to deduce results in perfect agreement with all known facts at the time.

· Maxwell’s Electromagnetic Field Theory offered a set of equations that could be used to calculate all known electromagnetic phenomena. It also suggested experimental results (like radio waves) that were only confirmed later.

· Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity was based on a few philosophical assumptions that explained many unresolved problems and unexplained experiments. Its predictions have been experimentally confirmed since.

· Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity stated a number of equations that explained anomalies in Mercury’s orbit, suggested a new view of gravity and correctly predicted the Sun’s gravitational field bending light.

· Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that in the world of atoms, we can never measure everything to arbitrary precision. For example, the more precise we are in measuring the location of an electron, the less precisely we will be able to measure its momentum (mass times speed) and vice versa (is it possible that Nature does care how much we find out and does not want us to go beyond a certain limit? – we will discuss this possibility later).

Actually, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr spent over 25 years arguing about the Uncertainty Principle. Einstein would dream up thought-experiments to prove that the theory was incorrect and Bohr would prove Einstein wrong every time. Until, one day, at the 1930 Solvay conference, Einstein managed to come up with one example that completely baffled Bohr, who went to bed and spent a sleepless night trying to find a way to prove Einstein wrong, yet one more time.

Next morning they met at breakfast, each with a huge grin on his face. Einstein was convinced that he finally defeated Bohr. Bohr, on the other hand, had found the mistake Einstein had made - Albert forgot to take only one thing into consideration: the effect of his own General Theory of Relativity. There was much merriment around the table that morning!

All the experiments performed since then seem to decide in Bohr’s favour. The Uncertainty Principle Theory (at this moment) is considered to be proven beyond any doubt.

Many other theories have been proposed by Physicists during the last 400 years, some fundamental, others minor; some proved correct, many turned out to be wrong.

To prove a theory, we need deductive logic: by applying mathematical tools to logically deduce the consequences of the new theory and make predictions.
We can test these predictions against existing experimental data, or perform new experiments to verify the results of the calculation. Once these deductions are tested and their accuracy demonstrated, the theory is considered to be proven.

For example, the “Kinetic Theory of Gases” assumes that gases are made up of atoms (or molecules) in random motion inside a container. The pressure of the gas is due to the force exerted by the molecules hitting the walls of the container and the temperature is due to the kinetic energy of the molecules. If we apply Newton’s Laws to this model, then we can deduce the experimentally obtained “Ideal Gas Law”, so the theory is proven within its limits.

Luckily, we don’t always have to do a lot of math before realizing that a theory is incorrect. A common mistake many young physicists make is taking mathematical deductions too seriously. I don’t mean that math can be sloppy and incorrect, far from it. However, as experienced physicists will tell you, it is possible to think in terms of critical and determining variables, and see how they stand up in the new theory. A lot of deductive work can be saved if one can spot a show-stopper right at the beginning, by thinking ‘physically’ before thinking ‘mathematically’.

The theories we make up will be judged by what is called: “Ockham’s razor”. William of Ockham (1280-1349) laid down the rule that “entities must not needlessly be multiplied”. Asimov’s “Biographic Encyclopedia of Science and Technology” explains it as:

“This has been interpreted in modern times to mean that of two theories equally fitting all observed facts, the theory requiring the fewer or simpler assumptions is to be accepted as more nearly valid. The rule, now called “Ockham’s razor” is of vital importance in the philosophy of science”

Somehow, Nature decided to make things simple for us. Actually, it is a ‘chicken and egg’ question: do we find Nature comprehensible and beautiful because Nature ‘decided’ to be like that for our sakes, or have our faculties of logic and aesthetics evolved over millions of years as a response to what Nature is like? I suspect it is the latter case.

The famous quote from Albert Einstein is appropriate here: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible”.

Physicists like this elegance and simplicity of Nature. They like it so much that they have been pursuing the ‘Holy Grail of Physics’ for over a century: the “Unified Field Theory”. They would like to come up with one theory that explains absolutely everything! A tall order indeed, but there is cause for optimism: as the science of Physics progressed over the decades, more and more phenomena, that seemed to have nothing in common, were proven to be manifestations of the same thing. For example electricity and magnetism, considered totally different areas of Physics, were unified by James Maxwell in 1873 under the “Electromagnetic Field Theory”. Many advances on the ‘unification front’ have been made since then and Physicists still hope that one day, Nature willing, they will have one equation that explains the Universe!
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29-01-2012, 09:52 AM
RE: The scientific method
I have no comment currently other than I am grateful that you aren't abdelz. I was worried for a second there, with the thread title and all.

"I think of myself as an intelligent, sensitive human being with the soul of a clown which always forces me to blow it at the most important moments." -Jim Morrison
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29-01-2012, 10:04 AM (This post was last modified: 29-01-2012 10:07 AM by Zat.)
RE: The scientific method
...continuing with singing the praise of science and the scientific method (even though I find many scientists' contribution to the 'mess' we are in, inexcusable), I do love science and almost worship some of the scientists who are my greatest heroes.

Science is a wonderful tool.

We get home from a busy day at the office, or in the shop, and flick the light switch on as we enter our home, instantly turning night to day. Yet most of us, most of the time, don’t think about what a miracle this is.

With that casual flick of our fingertip, we set into motion a very long chain of causes and effects, covering an entire continent, maintained by thousands of people who make sure every single component is where it’s supposed to be. Should a connection be severed anywhere in that grid, our light may not have turned on. Then we would have found our way (in the dark) to the telephone (another miracle) to report an outage.

Even those of us who are aware of these things almost never think of the very, very few people whose curiosity, thirst for knowledge, fascination with, and awe of, Nature compelled them to tinker, experiment, try to figure out how the world is put together.

When we turn on the light, we don’t think of Faraday, 178 years ago, wondering about Oersted’s experiment showing how an electric current effected a magnetic needle. He wanted to know if the reverse was also true: did magnets have anything to do with electric currents? So Faraday twisted a piece of electric wire into a loop, connecting the two ends through an instrument that detects the flow of electric current.

That was the whole experimental setup that lead to the light switch and made all our conveniences possible: power tools, the MRI, television, the microwave oven, the VCR. Everything that uses electricity became possible at the moment when Faraday picked up a bar magnet and waved it over the loop of wire… and the needle of the galvanometer moved.

The incredible implication of this story is that the Greeks could have had electricity 2000 years earlier, if the idea of experimenting had been more popular then. They had all the requirements: wire (used for making jewellery for example) and magnet (the loadstone was studied by Thales around 585 BC). What they lacked was a Faraday with his obsession for finding out.

It may take a genius to discover and understand the laws of Nature and interpret the often very subtle signs we are given, but, once explained, it can be easily understood by anyone who makes the effort.

The Scientific Method I talked about in the OP is our best tool in understanding, and coping with, reality -- be it physical, sociological or political.
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29-01-2012, 10:11 PM
RE: The scientific method
The "scientific method" has allowed us to think beyond our individual abilities.
The fact that multiple minds can act as one "thinking thing" to solve problems too complex for any one mind, is the power of the process.

The old gods are dead, let's invent some new ones before something really bad happens.
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30-01-2012, 12:01 AM (This post was last modified: 30-01-2012 12:10 AM by GirlyMan.)
RE: The scientific method
(29-01-2012 10:04 AM)Zat Wrote:  The Scientific Method I talked about in the OP is our best tool in understanding, and coping with, reality -- be it physical, sociological or political.

That feels indisputable, but I remain vigilant so as not to mistake my tools for something more than what they are. Wink

As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
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30-01-2012, 06:29 AM
RE: The scientific method
(30-01-2012 12:01 AM)GirlyMan Wrote:  
(29-01-2012 10:04 AM)Zat Wrote:  The Scientific Method I talked about in the OP is our best tool in understanding, and coping with, reality -- be it physical, sociological or political.

That feels indisputable, but I remain vigilant so as not to mistake my tools for something more than what they are. Wink

You mean: "Let's not make a religion out of it?"

Big Grin
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31-01-2012, 03:03 PM (This post was last modified: 31-01-2012 03:38 PM by Luminon.)
RE: The scientific method
**warning, even longer post ahead**

I actually do have something to say about the scientific method, having thought of the subject before. I can't just shout "Praise be! Praise be!" and not contribute some constructive criticism.

The most obvious about the scientific method is the reliance on body of objective knowledge. If it's not objective, it's not science. That is figuratively, if it can't be proven to anyone anywhere anytime, it's not science.
It's the best instrument of knowledge we have.

Which means, it's the best we have, but it's not a perfect (infallible) instrument and it's not the only one. The word "positivistic" comes to my mind, if science positively detects something, it's almost always really there, or at least something else that caused it. It says nothing of what was missed during the process.

Just what the universe is like, that we are trying to discover with scientific method? It's big, much bigger than our body of scientific knowledge. It's unknown. And it's quite different from what we already know. It's weird. Or rather, our reality is a kind of anomaly on top this standard but totally strange universe. The quantum level is strange. The dark matter world is strange. The dark energy is something pretty damn mysterious.
The problem is, we use our reality to make an opinion on something that is not like our reality.

Scientific method is our best instrument, but it's not perfect, universal or infallible. I must repeat, it relies heavily on what we already have, which is probably not a representative sample of reality. For the sake of positivism and not being called fools, we must assume that X does not exist, unless scientifically proven otherwise, that is, unless X is totally under our control and is repeatable in front of the whole world. Or so would some scientific purists like to estabilish.
The problem is, we don't really know if X is or isn't there. There will always be some kind of X, Y or Z, that we don't know about yet. And whether we know about it or not has nothing to do with whether it influences us or not. The vast unknown majority of the universe will not stop influencing us just because we don't know it or don't believe in it.

The greater rules the lesser. The hidden rules the seen. The unseen world influences us so much, that it must practically define the fundamentals of our reality. It is the status quo, the basis that we don't notice, because it was always there. We live in the world of outer effects and phenomena, not causes. Which is a poor sample of reality.
But let's turn back to the scientific worldview. The body of scientific knowledge is our terra firma. Thanks to positivistic philosophy, we get more and more certain about the nature of reality, with each pass we see more and more clear whatever it was we glimpsed in the previous pass. The scientific method provides results so regularly, that we get more and more sure about our world. Of course, quantum physicists may express their puzzlement. But they all know that there are no ghosts, no telepathy, no clairvoyance, no flying people and so on.

When standing on this terra firma of ours, the true nature of reality, the unseen world is for all practical purposes ignored. We admit it's there, but we can't try to grasp it, that would be irrational. We shouldn't seriously imagine ways it might influence our seemingly representative sample of reality, that is not representative at all, but it's firmly ours. Or should we?

If you're interested about the nature of reality and scientific method, you should ask yourself. How would it look like, if there really is this greater unseen part of the universe AND it somehow interacts with the visible world? And it interacted for all the history of universe, including the evolution of life and history of mankind? Try to get rid of cultural presumptions, including what is or isn't bullshit, superstition, fairy tale, legend or woo. Focus strictly on what is or isn't logical, consistent and non-contradictory with what we know. For example, if something contradicts the existence of electricity, it's bullshit, we positively know that electricity exists. But if something says that our consciousness stems from a soul, then we can't reject it, because we can't tell if the brain is the source of consciousness or rather it's specialized outpost for the soul to perceive and work with physical reality. You get the idea, I mean non-contradictory.

And where do we get concepts like the soul? Well, at some point we must make an assumption, otherwise there will be nothing to act upon and nothing to test. We can assume for example, that the unseen world indeed interacts with the seen, and most of all within the usual suspect: the human being. There are the ingredients of mystery and anomaly, the life, consciousness, self-awareness, abstract thought, unpredictable creativity and inspiration with sometimes no visible causality or algorithmic behavior. That is our object of observations and our instrument and our curse of distrust towards non-objectivity of that ludicrous idea. So that's where we begin, with the non-scientific, subjective method.

Just because you must already think I'm crazy, doesn't mean you can't follow my logic, or my train of thought. And just because it's a subjective "method", doesn't mean there aren't rules. We assume, that the universe is logical, consistent and objective, that means, a rose by any other name smells the same. (sometimes you philosopher types get obsessed with language and names) We assume that we have a potential to perceive the unseen reality and that at least some human cultural traditions or notable individuals reflect this perception in various degrees of intensity and ability to describe things. We assume, that we have the potential to interact with the unseen, under right circumstances. We assume, that there are many other rules and laws to complicate it all, until someone discovers general underlying principle. So again, we must think, how would such a principle look like?

A world where the unseen universe interacts with the seen would possibly look exactly like the world we live in. The only difference is the interpretation of its events, mainly the articles of human subjective cultures. The question is, how much of that is a natural effect of the seen world, how much is really the effect of the unseen world and how much did we miss as an unwitting sacrifice to pin down something we didn't miss.

It may be a surprise for you, but if you can think like that, it will not destroy your rationality. It is merely a worldview or philosophy, another set of glasses to look at the world and to see what the other glasses don't show, even if they show more of the stuff. I admire scientific method as the instrument of general case inquiry, but as I said, it has its specifics and limitations due to which it may fail under some circumstances that I already described. But instead of ditching this best instrument, I do the more reasonable thing, I seek to patch it with another specialized instrument of thought or philosophy to compensate for its blind spots.

And there are the blind spots, that I tried to describe. I always felt somehow uneasy about the whole scientific and skeptical business, despite of how awesome electronic devices it brings. (maybe because it totally fails to explain my daily reality) Several years ago I was nudged in the right direction by John Heron of the South Pacific Research Center. His philosophy of "Heron's beard" as the opposite counterpart of the glorified Occam's razor really inspired me. I actually think that growing Heron's beard is as important as using Occam's razor, if the beard is grown with participation, actively, personally, right at the place of action and with all laws of consistency. I frown upon armchair skepticism and on armchair growing Heron's beard as well.I also recommend this article, In defense of Heron's beard.

So what was my goal all along? To reconcile the differences, to meet the opposites, to make the fierce skeptics understand my logic and justification. Many people don't understand, how can I disbelieve in religions, and yet give free pass to any woo that comes along, as it may look sometimes? There also often used to be a confusion over theist and atheist badges. So I want to get a point across, this is another way of thinking, another philosophy combined with and necessitated by another quality of observation. If you would perceive the world as my nerve system allows, you would not stop unless you would develop a similar philosophy to make sense of it, yet you would not abandon the scientific method.


At the end, I'd like to mention an interesting literary example of quasi-scientific thought and worldview. There's this writer Lev Grossman and he wrote two urban fantasy novels, The Magicians and the Magician King. In the second book, a group of gifted but amateur magicians set up a secret house in a French village to inquire deeper into the true nature of magic. Because it looks like they hit the bottom, all the basic elements and spells that combine together everything else. Having exhausted all other scientific choices, with a great reluctance they decide to try the religious rituals of divine invocation, with altars, incense, animal sacrifices and so on, what if something of it would work. There are some minor but powerful results, in form of gifts from an invoked deity. So they search more and find this ancient ritual that should totally manifest the good deity they're after. The experiment is succesful, it works, only there is no generous goddess, but a bloodthirsty trickster god, that kills most of the magicians in a bloody slaughter with a great pleasure.
I think the underlying moral story of this is, that when communing with the unseen world we must not even make the assumption that this is just another Petri dish or far away star that we can just observe and nothing happens. In the unseen world, we are part of the experiment. We bring our proverbial hide to the game, in which we are not the only players and by far, not the best ones. This is a field work, not a lab experiment and street smarts may help you more than sheltered reductionism of a clean lab glass. To anyone street-wise it would be a huge red flag, an offer of something for free or thinking you should be given all the precious secrets just because you're on this noble quest of wanting to know for no specific reason. Such thinking only makes you an easy prey for those who are already there.
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31-01-2012, 04:24 PM (This post was last modified: 31-01-2012 04:35 PM by Zat.)
RE: The scientific method
Luminon, you almost convinced me.

Your post is intelligent, erudite, thought-provoking.

However, it lacks focus.

Yes, you are right, there is an unseen universe.

Yes, you are right – in an infinite (for all practical purposes) universe, everything is possible.

There may be a god. There may be any number of gods.

The scientific method gives us a tiny stepping stone from where we are now.

However, we are pathetically powerless tiny biological life forms, thrown into this infinite universe by god or evolution and all we are dong is trying to survive.

We may pray to the gods or we may try to observe, discern pattern, predict outcomes and hope for the best.

We are still here, hundred thousands years since the first Cro-Magnon ancestor made its first flint-stone spear.

We are not gods, we are not the pinnacle of creation – we are a life form cursed with genetic and historical inheritances, trying to make sense of it all.

The scientific method is the best tool we got to deal with our immediate environment.

The unseen universe is out there with its multiple universes, with its quantum fluctuations, with its dark energy and dark matter and black holes – so what?

If we get over the next crisis facing us down the road: global warming, pandemics, nuclear winter, we will be a happy campers because HERE AND NOW IS ALL THAT IS for us, unless we want to surrender our minds to superstition and pointless speculation.

I read a really cool sci-fi story once. A mining town was destroyed by an explosion in the night, yet the next morning people woke up as usual, went to work as usual and lived their lives as usual. They noticed one change: commercials and billboards and all forms of advertising became so ubiquitous that there was no escape from it. At the end of the story they discover that they are nothing but replicas of themselves. A big PR company had bought all the DNA of the dead people, cloned them in miniature form, put them into a miniature replica of their town on a laboratory bench to use as a testing ground for advertising techniques. Imagine their shock when they made it to the edge of the table and looked down!

I can’t help thinking of that story whenever I hear someone being so sure about what the world is and isn’t like.

EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE!
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31-01-2012, 09:05 PM
RE: The scientific method
(30-01-2012 06:29 AM)Zat Wrote:  
(30-01-2012 12:01 AM)GirlyMan Wrote:  
(29-01-2012 10:04 AM)Zat Wrote:  The Scientific Method I talked about in the OP is our best tool in understanding, and coping with, reality -- be it physical, sociological or political.

That feels indisputable, but I remain vigilant so as not to mistake my tools for something more than what they are. Wink

You mean: "Let's not make a religion out of it?"

Big Grin

Yes, that's precisely what I mean. Smile

As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
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31-01-2012, 09:37 PM
RE: The scientific method
(31-01-2012 03:03 PM)Luminon Wrote:  The most obvious about the scientific method is the reliance on body of objective knowledge. If it's not objective, it's not science. That is figuratively, if it can't be proven to anyone anywhere anytime, it's not science.

The scientific method does not rely on a body of knowledge; it's a methodology.

Quote:It's the best instrument of knowledge we have.

Which means, it's the best we have, but it's not a perfect (infallible) instrument and it's not the only one. The word "positivistic" comes to my mind, if science positively detects something, it's almost always really there, or at least something else that caused it. It says nothing of what was missed during the process.

How could it inform us of 'what was missed'? The process follows evidence; if there is no evidence, it is not known that anything was missed. One can make no assumption that anything was or was not missed. It gives no reason to think anything was missed.

Quote:Just what the universe is like, that we are trying to discover with scientific method? It's big, much bigger than our body of scientific knowledge. It's unknown. And it's quite different from what we already know. It's weird. Or rather, our reality is a kind of anomaly on top this standard but totally strange universe.

Now you're going off the rails. your statements are assuming facts not in evidence. The universe may be bigger, may be stranger, may be weirder.

Quote: The quantum level is strange. The dark matter world is strange. The dark energy is something pretty damn mysterious.

More assumptions; the attributes and even the existence of dark matter and dark energy are unknown. There existence is conjectured indirectly.

Quote:The problem is, we use our reality to make an opinion on something that is not like our reality.

No, many discoveries from the 19th and 20th centuries were unlike anything that came before.

Quote:Scientific method is our best instrument, but it's not perfect, universal or infallible. I must repeat, it relies heavily on what we already have, which is probably not a representative sample of reality.

No - see above.

Quote: For the sake of positivism and not being called fools, we must assume that X does not exist, unless scientifically proven otherwise, that is, unless X is totally under our control and is repeatable in front of the whole world. Or so would some scientific purists like to estabilish.

No, we don't assume something doesn't exist unless proven otherwise. That's not science. We can't say something does exist unless there is evidence. Science always admits of unknown unknowns.

Quote:The problem is, we don't really know if X is or isn't there. There will always be some kind of X, Y or Z, that we don't know about yet. And whether we know about it or not has nothing to do with whether it influences us or not. The vast unknown majority of the universe will not stop influencing us just because we don't know it or don't believe in it.

Again, the current understanding of galactic rotation says there is more matter than we can currently detect. And that is all that it says. Maybe it's non-baryonic matter, maybe our instruments aren't sensitive enough, maybe our measurements of galactic rotation are wrong, maybe there are much more massive black holes at the hearts of galaxies. The existence of dark energy is even more speculative.

Quote:The greater rules the lesser. The hidden rules the seen. The unseen world influences us so much, that it must practically define the fundamentals of our reality. It is the status quo, the basis that we don't notice, because it was always there. We live in the world of outer effects and phenomena, not causes. Which is a poor sample of reality.

But let's turn back to the scientific worldview. The body of scientific knowledge is our terra firma. Thanks to positivistic philosophy, we get more and more certain about the nature of reality, with each pass we see more and more clear whatever it was we glimpsed in the previous pass. The scientific method provides results so regularly, that we get more and more sure about our world. Of course, quantum physicists may express their puzzlement. But they all know that there are no ghosts, no telepathy, no clairvoyance, no flying people and so on.

When standing on this terra firma of ours, the true nature of reality, the unseen world is for all practical purposes ignored. We admit it's there, but we can't try to grasp it, that would be irrational. We shouldn't seriously imagine ways it might influence our seemingly representative sample of reality, that is not representative at all, but it's firmly ours. Or should we?

More speculation of some unseen world of which there is no evidence.

Quote:If you're interested about the nature of reality and scientific method, you should ask yourself. How would it look like, if there really is this greater unseen part of the universe AND it somehow interacts with the visible world? And it interacted for all the history of universe, including the evolution of life and history of mankind? Try to get rid of cultural presumptions, including what is or isn't bullshit, superstition, fairy tale, legend or woo. Focus strictly on what is or isn't logical, consistent and non-contradictory with what we know. For example, if something contradicts the existence of electricity, it's bullshit, we positively know that electricity exists. But if something says that our consciousness stems from a soul, then we can't reject it, because we can't tell if the brain is the source of consciousness or rather it's specialized outpost for the soul to perceive and work with physical reality. You get the idea, I mean non-contradictory.

Good, back to earth. This is the kind of speculation that can advance our knowledge and understanding - the kind of vision that does drive scientific inquiry.

Quote:And where do we get concepts like the soul? Well, at some point we must make an assumption, otherwise there will be nothing to act upon and nothing to test. We can assume for example, that the unseen world indeed interacts with the seen, and most of all within the usual suspect: the human being.

This is the act of forming and testing hypotheses.

Quote:There are the ingredients of mystery and anomaly, the life, consciousness, self-awareness, abstract thought, unpredictable creativity and inspiration with sometimes no visible causality or algorithmic behavior. That is our object of observations and our instrument and our curse of distrust towards non-objectivity of that ludicrous idea. So that's where we begin, with the non-scientific, subjective method.

But that does not give us cause to think that there is something beyond what science will discover.

Quote:Just because you must already think I'm crazy, doesn't mean you can't follow my logic, or my train of thought. And just because it's a subjective "method", doesn't mean there aren't rules. We assume, that the universe is logical, consistent and objective, that means, a rose by any other name smells the same. (sometimes you philosopher types get obsessed with language and names) We assume that we have a potential to perceive the unseen reality and that at least some human cultural traditions or notable individuals reflect this perception in various degrees of intensity and ability to describe things. We assume, that we have the potential to interact with the unseen, under right circumstances. We assume, that there are many other rules and laws to complicate it all, until someone discovers general underlying principle. So again, we must think, how would such a principle look like?

A world where the unseen universe interacts with the seen would possibly look exactly like the world we live in. The only difference is the interpretation of its events, mainly the articles of human subjective cultures. The question is, how much of that is a natural effect of the seen world, how much is really the effect of the unseen world and how much did we miss as an unwitting sacrifice to pin down something we didn't miss.

It may be a surprise for you, but if you can think like that, it will not destroy your rationality. It is merely a worldview or philosophy, another set of glasses to look at the world and to see what the other glasses don't show, even if they show more of the stuff. I admire scientific method as the instrument of general case inquiry, but as I said, it has its specifics and limitations due to which it may fail under some circumstances that I already described. But instead of ditching this best instrument, I do the more reasonable thing, I seek to patch it with another specialized instrument of thought or philosophy to compensate for its blind spots.

And there are the blind spots, that I tried to describe. I always felt somehow uneasy about the whole scientific and skeptical business, despite of how awesome electronic devices it brings. (maybe because it totally fails to explain my daily reality) Several years ago I was nudged in the right direction by John Heron of the South Pacific Research Center. His philosophy of "Heron's beard" as the opposite counterpart of the glorified Occam's razor really inspired me. I actually think that growing Heron's beard is as important as using Occam's razor, if the beard is grown with participation, actively, personally, right at the place of action and with all laws of consistency. I frown upon armchair skepticism and on armchair growing Heron's beard as well.I also recommend this article, In defense of Heron's beard.

So what was my goal all along? To reconcile the differences, to meet the opposites, to make the fierce skeptics understand my logic and justification. Many people don't understand, how can I disbelieve in religions, and yet give free pass to any woo that comes along, as it may look sometimes? There also often used to be a confusion over theist and atheist badges. So I want to get a point across, this is another way of thinking, another philosophy combined with and necessitated by another quality of observation. If you would perceive the world as my nerve system allows, you would not stop unless you would develop a similar philosophy to make sense of it, yet you would not abandon the scientific method.


At the end, I'd like to mention an interesting literary example of quasi-scientific thought and worldview. There's this writer Lev Grossman and he wrote two urban fantasy novels, The Magicians and the Magician King. In the second book, a group of gifted but amateur magicians set up a secret house in a French village to inquire deeper into the true nature of magic. Because it looks like they hit the bottom, all the basic elements and spells that combine together everything else. Having exhausted all other scientific choices, with a great reluctance they decide to try the religious rituals of divine invocation, with altars, incense, animal sacrifices and so on, what if something of it would work. There are some minor but powerful results, in form of gifts from an invoked deity. So they search more and find this ancient ritual that should totally manifest the good deity they're after. The experiment is succesful, it works, only there is no generous goddess, but a bloodthirsty trickster god, that kills most of the magicians in a bloody slaughter with a great pleasure.
I think the underlying moral story of this is, that when communing with the unseen world we must not even make the assumption that this is just another Petri dish or far away star that we can just observe and nothing happens. In the unseen world, we are part of the experiment. We bring our proverbial hide to the game, in which we are not the only players and by far, not the best ones. This is a field work, not a lab experiment and street smarts may help you more than sheltered reductionism of a clean lab glass. To anyone street-wise it would be a huge red flag, an offer of something for free or thinking you should be given all the precious secrets just because you're on this noble quest of wanting to know for no specific reason. Such thinking only makes you an easy prey for those who are already there.

You have not made a convincing argument that there are any blind spots in the objective search for understanding. You feel there must be because of your unease with the scientific method.

Skepticism is not a position; it is an approach to claims.
Science is not a subject, but a method.
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