How does science work?

How does science work? And what's all this about quantum mechanics?

Moderators: AMod, iMod

User avatar
Greta
Posts: 4389
Joined: Sat Aug 08, 2015 8:10 am

Re: How does science work?

Post by Greta » Sat May 05, 2018 12:56 am

Like Doc, I think your work is outstanding.

If you are digging this deep, ideally there'd be more talk of fractal geometry and self-similarity.

Less conventionally, it seems to me that reality - the universe/s and its/their components - are all in various stages of eversion.

uwot
Posts: 4394
Joined: Mon Jul 23, 2012 7:21 am

Re: How does science work?

Post by uwot » Fri May 11, 2018 4:54 pm

Here's a draft of the first bit.

Rationalism/Empiricism/Pragmatism.

Which of these three propositions do you most agree with?
1. A scientific theory must be:
A Logically coherent explanation.
Supported by evidence.
Effective.

What about these two?
2. Scientists are:

Standing on the shoulders of giants.
Held back by authorities.

As far as practice is concerned, question 2 can be rephrased as:
3. The most productive course of action is to:

Accept a theory and try to develop it to its full potential.
Challenge the theory and test it to destruction.

These are some of the most important questions that philosophers of science have to tackle. To a large extent, it is the shifting emphasis placed on each of these that distinguishes one philosopher from another and there is a philosopher for almost every conceivable combination. But before you make up your mind, assuming you haven’t already done so, let’s look at a case history.

2. The example of gravity.

If longevity were any measure, then by far the most successful theory of gravity is Aristotle’s. For two thousand years, his explanation that the heavy elements, earth and water, sought their natural place at the centre of the universe was authoritative. The celestial bodies move round the Earth because they are made of aether, which being heavenly moved in perfect circles. This model was developed by Ptolemy into a mathematical description that was remarkably successful at predicting the position of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars.

On 28 November 1660, a group of twelve well connected scientists announced the formation of a "College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning”. Hearing of the plan, King Charles II gave his approval and within two years a charter was signed creating the "Royal Society of London” of which every monarch since has been the patron. The motto of the Royal Society is 'Nullius in verba’ which, according to its own website “is taken to mean 'take nobody's word for it'. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.”

In 1687 the Royal Society published the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by one of its fellows, Isaac Newton. In the preface to the first edition, Newton makes his commitment to the ethos of the Royal Society plain: “For the whole difficulty of philosophy seems to be to discover the forces of nature from the phenomena of motions and then to demonstrate the other phenomena from these forces.”

Analysis of the motions of the Moon and planets led Newton to deduce his inverse square law describing the force of gravity. While even Newton recognised that a lot of evidence was needed to corroborate his law, as time progressed, it became clear that it was extremely successful in accounting for the position of the known planets, which at the time only went so far as Saturn. Almost a century later, in 1781, William Herschel recognised that a point of light which earlier astronomers had mistaken it for a star, was the planet Uranus. In 1845, by which time Uranus had completed most of an orbit, it was clear that it was not behaving as Newton’s law demanded. By then, such was the confidence in Newton’s law that mathematicians in Paris and Cambridge began calculating the mass and position of a body that could account for the anomalies. Using the results of Urbain Le Verrier as his guide, Johann Gottfried Galle identified the planet Neptune which, like Uranus had been previously mistaken for a star. Newton’s idea of a ‘force of gravity’
explained the motion of the planets, it was supported by a wealth of evidence and it had been effectively applied in the discovery of a ‘new’ planet.

It also allowed us to predict the tides with much greater accuracy. Very useful for a seafaring nation. However, the ink was barely dry on the first edition before people started objecting that Newton had introduced a force without a mechanism; for all the explanatory power of ‘the force of gravity’, there is no explanation for how gravity works. Much of the challenge came from followers of Rene Descartes. He had also been interested in the movement of the planets, but his main concern was to give a mechanical explanation of the orbit of planets. This he did by invoking the idea of vortices, according to which, space is composed of infinitesimal ‘corpuscles’ that behave like a fluid. These are swept around the Sun, a little like water is dragged around the plughole, and they in turn pull the planets along with them. Among the most prominent of Descartes' supporters was Gottfried Leibniz, who it is now generally accepted invented calculus independently, but at the time was bitterly accused of plagiarism by Newton. Two years after the publication of the Principia, Leibniz published his own version of a vortex theory.

When in 1713 Newton published a second edition, he felt compelled to add an essay called the General Scholium in which he directly challenged the idea of vortices. Newton pointed out that the orbits of comets, although regular, are too eccentric to fit the model and that they cut across planetary vortices with no apparent effect, “And therefore the celestial spaces, through which the globes of the planets and comets move continually in all directions freely and without any sensible diminution of motion, are devoid of any corporeal fluid…”

Having dismissed that hypothesis, Newton included a passage known by a phrase that occurs in it: hypotheses non fingo, traditionally translated as ‘I frame no hypotheses’.

But hitherto I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phaenomena, and I frame no hypotheses. For whatever is not deduc’d from the phaenomena, is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.

To Newton, the explanation of how something works isn’t essential to science; as long as the mathematical model gave us the power to predict and manipulate our environment, the job of physics was done. As the passage concludes: And to us it is enough, that gravity does really exist, and act according to the laws which we have explained, and abundantly serves to account for all the motions of the celestial bodies, and of our sea.

So well in fact that it was good enough for NASA to successfully send men to the moon and back. During one of the long periods when the Apollo 8 capsule was coasting through space, one of the crew, Bill Anders, was asked who was in control at the time: “That's a good question. I think Isaac Newton is doing most of the driving right now.” Newton’s law of gravitation is literally rocket science. But there is no explanation.

Back in the 18th century, with calculus their new toy to play with, mathematicians made huge leaps. Jacob, Johann and Daniel Bernoulli, Euler, Lagrange, Laplace are just some of the most prominent, but apart from their mathematical genius, the thing that they have in common is that none of them are English. Jacob Bernoulli had been quick to adopt Leibnizian calculus and most of continental Europe followed suit. In England, however, such was the authority of Newton that mathematicians there persisted with his use of fluxions. The fact is that Leibniz’s method is better; England’s mathematicians and physicists were hampered by their respect for Newton. It wasn’t until Charles Babbage founded The Analytical Society specifically to promote the use of Leibnizian calculus that England started to catch up.

Uranus was not the only planet that appeared to be breaking Newton’s law. In fact Le Verrier had been working on anomalies in Mercury’s orbit since 1840. His results were tested by observations of the transit of Mercury in 1843, which failed to match predictions. So, with the success of Neptune behind him, Le Verrier returned to the problem of Mercury, again calculating the mass and position of a planet that could explain the behaviour. So confident was he, that he even gave it a name, Vulcan. Sharing his optimism, astronomers began looking for the new planet, some claimed to have found it, one, Edmond Modeste Lescarbault, was even awarded the Legion D’Honneur for doing so, but on closer inspection, all the claims proved to be unfounded. There is no planet Vulcan; Newton’s law had been tested to destruction. Something else was causing the discrepancy.

In 1865, the Royal Society published James Clerk Maxwell’s A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field. In it Maxwell showed that electromagnetism can be described mathematically as a wave that travels through space at the speed of light. But waves, as a rule, require a medium; after all, a wave on the ocean isn’t a wave if there is no ocean. Unlike Newton, Maxwell was prepared to frame an hypothesis,"light and magnetism are affections of the same substance, and that light is an electromagnetic disturbance propagated through the field according to electromagnetic laws.”

The hypothetical substance, the explanation, was called the lumininferous aether. Unlike the swirling corpuscular medium proposed by Descartes, this was believed to be static, something that the Earth and all other celestial bodies were moving relative to. Given that the speed of light through the aether was calculated to be constant, it’s speed relative to an observer should vary according to whether the observer is moving towards the source, or away from it, much as the relative speed of waves depends on whether you are running into the ocean, or onto the beach. Were that so, it should be possible to detect the difference in relative velocity. The most famous experiment was conducted by the American physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley in 1887, but they found no such relative motion.

For a while, physicists scratched their heads and sought explanations for how the luminiferous aether could produce the baffling results. Then, in 1905, Albert Einstein put forward his special theory of relativity. In a way he did a Newton. Much as Newton dispensed with any explanation, Einstein jettisoned the luminiferous aether and created a mathematical description that accurately describes what will be observed.

However, when in 1915 Einstein published his theory of general relativity, he took a different view. A feature of Einstein’s theory of general relativity is that it explains gravity by imaging that rather than being a vacuum, as assumed in special relativity, space is instead a medium which is warped by the presence of matter. There is no explanation for how matter warps spacetime, any more than there is an hypothesis about how gravity works in Newton; ‘warped spacetime’ is an explanation without an explanation, but again, in order to be effective, that doesn’t matter. As the evidence shows, the field equations Einstein deduced are more accurate than Newton’s Law.

Well done if you made it this far. The next bit is even longer.

uwot
Posts: 4394
Joined: Mon Jul 23, 2012 7:21 am

Re: How does science work?

Post by uwot » Fri May 11, 2018 5:08 pm

Greta wrote:
Sat May 05, 2018 12:56 am
Like Doc, I think your work is outstanding.
Thank you.
Greta wrote:
Sat May 05, 2018 12:56 am
If you are digging this deep, ideally there'd be more talk of fractal geometry and self-similarity.
Well I kinda used a fractal image in A Portrait of Reality, p15-16 of the blog: http://willijbouwman.blogspot.co.uk/201 ... st_16.html
Greta wrote:
Sat May 05, 2018 12:56 am
Less conventionally, it seems to me that reality - the universe/s and its/their components - are all in various stages of eversion.
Can you give an example?

thedoc
Posts: 6473
Joined: Thu Aug 30, 2012 4:18 pm

Re: How does science work?

Post by thedoc » Sat May 12, 2018 4:04 am

uwot wrote:
Fri May 11, 2018 4:54 pm
Here's a draft of the first bit.

Well done if you made it this far. The next bit is even longer.
Now I'm tired, but one observation, authority has one good point it makes a new idea provide enough evidence to prove it's point.

uwot
Posts: 4394
Joined: Mon Jul 23, 2012 7:21 am

Re: How does science work?

Post by uwot » Sat May 12, 2018 8:00 am

thedoc wrote:
Sat May 12, 2018 4:04 am
Now I'm tired...
Sorry.
thedoc wrote:
Sat May 12, 2018 4:04 am
...but one observation, authority has one good point it makes a new idea provide enough evidence to prove it's point.
Thanks, that's a point worth making (and one I hadn't thought of.)

User avatar
Greta
Posts: 4389
Joined: Sat Aug 08, 2015 8:10 am

Re: How does science work?

Post by Greta » Mon May 14, 2018 12:24 am

uwot wrote:
Fri May 11, 2018 5:08 pm
Greta wrote:
Sat May 05, 2018 12:56 am
Like Doc, I think your work is outstanding.
Thank you.
Greta wrote:
Sat May 05, 2018 12:56 am
If you are digging this deep, ideally there'd be more talk of fractal geometry and self-similarity.
Well I kinda used a fractal image in A Portrait of Reality, p15-16 of the blog: http://willijbouwman.blogspot.co.uk/201 ... st_16.html
Yes, I saw that and enjoyed. Still, that's only a pat on the head for an idea that deserves to be taken for a walk IMO.
uwot wrote:
Greta wrote:
Sat May 05, 2018 12:56 am
Less conventionally, it seems to me that reality - the universe/s and its/their components - are all in various stages of eversion.
Can you give an example?
As I said, everything, or at least anything with feedback dynamics.

The notion came to me after reading up and looking at hypercubes. As I watched the tesseract turning itself inside out I wondered what a hypersphere would look like and realised that that would basically be a planet with an atmosphere. But the Earth doesn't entirely turn itself inside out - at least not until perhaps engulfed by the Sun, which obviously dramatically hastens the process of returning the resources the Earth has gathered back to space.

Supernovas and blastulas are obvious examples. Another inside-out trigger to me was Dawkins's account of gastrulation, noting that, unlike other internal organs, brains originate as part of a gastrula's outer layer - the ectoderm. So brains and consciousness are literally and physically "the outside brought inside" - always cycling, feeding back, everting.

Then I considered life. We start as a single cell, basically an information-rich biological point that draws in energy from the environment (ie. Mum, until birth). The cell multiplies and grows as it draws in considerably more material than it excretes and exudes. All things going well, this continues to a maximal level in maturity, after which increasingly more energy (and information) is released to the environment than is drawn in. In time there is death. If left undisturbed, each of the original cells at the moment of death will be returned to the environment until there is just one, or a small group, and then the eversion is complete.

So basically I see complete, incomplete and interrupted eversions in all of reality.

uwot
Posts: 4394
Joined: Mon Jul 23, 2012 7:21 am

Re: How does science work?

Post by uwot » Mon May 14, 2018 1:15 pm

Greta wrote:
Mon May 14, 2018 12:24 am
...Still, that's only a pat on the head for an idea that deserves to be taken for a walk IMO.
Yeah, but if you do that, you have to clean up after it.
Greta wrote:
Sat May 05, 2018 12:56 am
So basically I see complete, incomplete and interrupted eversions in all of reality.
It's an interesting thought. You could throw a blanket over it and describe the history of the universe as entropy turning itself inside out and back again. You could also imagine history as the arrow of time's passage through a fractal universe and suppose that the big bang just happens to be as far as we can currently see. Did you ever read 'Horton hears a Who?'

User avatar
Greta
Posts: 4389
Joined: Sat Aug 08, 2015 8:10 am

Re: How does science work?

Post by Greta » Tue May 15, 2018 1:22 am

uwot wrote:
Mon May 14, 2018 1:15 pm
Greta wrote:
Mon May 14, 2018 12:24 am
...Still, that's only a pat on the head for an idea that deserves to be taken for a walk IMO.
Yeah, but if you do that, you have to clean up after it.
Oh, I think you could slip just a bit out - because it really is an important feature - and then find a stick to flick it under the bushes. I guess the hard part is shifting from particle physics to fractal geometry and then back again (ie. the the bush is not very close by).
uwot wrote:
Mon May 14, 2018 1:15 pm
Greta wrote:
Sat May 05, 2018 12:56 am
So basically I see complete, incomplete and interrupted eversions in all of reality.
It's an interesting thought. You could throw a blanket over it and describe the history of the universe as entropy turning itself inside out and back again. You could also imagine history as the arrow of time's passage through a fractal universe and suppose that the big bang just happens to be as far as we can currently see. Did you ever read 'Horton hears a Who?'
I like it - combining the fractal and eversion dynamics, with eversion seemingly the mechanism behind fractal emergence. I imagine all these things coiling through themselves, each eversion/inversion adding complexity. Orbits and rotations would be critical concepts in this angle. Then emergence happens when thresholds are broken and something "breaks".

The continued "banging" at ever smaller scales, each born and dying star (or black hole, which is basically an inverted star), each planet burnt through by its star, evolving ecosystems, each conception of life ...

I haven't read Horton, I must have missed that one back in the day. What's the concept?

This line of thought is how it calls to mind both the 4D "life snake" and Flatlanders observing a 3D object passing though their limited dimensions, from point to maximal and back to point.

I wrote a bit of spiel on it a while ago which you will hopefully find more interesting than annoying - very open to criticism on it, especially after re-reading it now :)
The current accepted models posit three spatial dimensions -height, width and breadth. The fourth dimension is posited as time, and any possible fourth spatial dimension is considered a mathematical construct.

I’d like to propose another spatial dimension, inspired in part by watching an animated tesseract moving through time. The object constantly turns inside-out and outside-in. In a sense, that is what everything in nature does, including life and consciousness.

For example, one life is one inversion or eversion, a single iteration of turning inside out. All organisms start out as a single celled zygote, effectively a “biological point”. The zygote grows by bringing what is outside of it - its environment – into itself. Everting by increments.

The growth process continues until adulthood. In maturity physical growth and activity slow. During this time, growth still occurs, but as informational development, reflected in broader awareness and more self-control. During this time the eversion is at its height.

So zygote’s eversion would be almost zero and a healthy adult’s eversion could be measured as one unit. The states between will be fractions.

Then, as we age and decline, the eversion score reduces as we start losing more of our mass to the environment than we gain, and also our memory, capacity to learn and speed of thinking reduce¹. Eventually the body systems break down to the point where they cannot sustain life.

At this point the eversion measure drops markedly, but not to zero. Once we die, the body lacks the systems and capacity to ingest energy that resists entropy and is thus at the mercy of the elements. The eversion measure drops as the body is increasingly consumed. Theoretically, when there is only one unconsumed molecule remaining, the eversion is complete and there is a measure of zero.

Everything that exists is not only in a particular state of eversion at any one time, but has an eversion direction – growing or declining.

If we plot an object in three dimensions, the next dimension is represented as its overall level of synthesis – its degree of integration or disaggregation, basically a measure of stability.

Height measures the position in the up/down direction. Width measures the position from side to side, left to right. Depth measures the position from the front to the back. Synthesis measures how securely or tenuously something is embedded in reality, and it would be represented by a degree of faintness or strength. Over time, the “solidity” of a point with x, y, z and Δ (for want of an original term) will change, along with movements on the other axis ...


Complex systems such as life have numerous subsidiary cycles – respiratory, digestive, circulatory, and so forth.
That's as far as I managed before running out of steam.

Dubious
Posts: 2210
Joined: Tue May 19, 2015 7:40 am

Re: How does science work?

Post by Dubious » Tue May 15, 2018 3:44 am

uwot wrote:
Fri May 11, 2018 4:54 pm
Here's a draft of the first bit...
>
>
Well done if you made it this far. The next bit is even longer.
You have an exceptional talent to explain science and its concepts clearly!

Looking forward to the hopefully much longer next part! :)

User avatar
Greta
Posts: 4389
Joined: Sat Aug 08, 2015 8:10 am

Re: How does science work?

Post by Greta » Tue May 15, 2018 5:46 am

Dubious wrote:
Tue May 15, 2018 3:44 am
uwot wrote:
Fri May 11, 2018 4:54 pm
Here's a draft of the first bit...
>
>
Well done if you made it this far. The next bit is even longer.
You have an exceptional talent to explain science and its concepts clearly!
Agreed. He has explained some things that tend to be glossed over and in an original and clear way. Definitely been helpful for me.

uwot
Posts: 4394
Joined: Mon Jul 23, 2012 7:21 am

Re: How does science work?

Post by uwot » Wed May 16, 2018 6:13 am

Greta wrote:
Tue May 15, 2018 5:46 am
Dubious wrote:
Tue May 15, 2018 3:44 am
uwot wrote:
Fri May 11, 2018 4:54 pm
Here's a draft of the first bit...
>
>
Well done if you made it this far. The next bit is even longer.
You have an exceptional talent to explain science and its concepts clearly!
Agreed. He has explained some things that tend to be glossed over and in an original and clear way. Definitely been helpful for me.
Well, the next bit is an overview of 20th century philosophy of science and its morphing into STS (Science and Technology Studies). Sort of positivism to post modernism and the science wars. I'm trying to stitch the two together without it ending up a Frankenstein*, but thanks for the encouragement.


*Frankenstein's monster, for purists.

uwot
Posts: 4394
Joined: Mon Jul 23, 2012 7:21 am

Re: How does science work?

Post by uwot » Fri Jun 08, 2018 2:37 pm

Well, it's a bit later than promised and still a bit rough, but this is the latest draft, which I'll send to the Mag to see if they think it worth developing.
Any comments, gratefully received.


What really matters?
Which of these three propositions do you most agree with?
1. A scientific theory must be:
A Logically coherent explanation.
Supported by evidence.
Useful.

These three choices have always been available. Respectively they loosely equate to the main interests of the Pre-Socratic schools of Elea, Miletus and depending on what you mean by useful, Pythagoreans or Sophists. (see PN 104) In modern philosophy, the different motivations are embodied in rationalism, empiricism and pragmatism. More recently, Peter Galison has identified these basic interests as theoretical, experimental and instrumental.
To a large extent, it is the shifting emphasis placed on the three choices that distinguishes one philosopher of science from another and there is an advocate for almost every conceivable blend; the result of which is a bewildering tableau of ‘isms’. To lessen the confusion, I will (mostly) stick to explanation, demonstration and usefulness. Keep in mind though, that ‘useful’ becomes complicated when you ask ‘To whom?’ and ‘For what?’ We’ll come back to that, but for now: don’t ask.

On top of that, there is a further question. Again, it’s as old as philosophy. To illustrate his method, Socrates used two analogies, one of which was of himself as a midwife. In this mode, Socrates saw his role as collaborative, prompting his interlocutor, challenging them to analyse their concepts to eliminate weaknesses and contradictions, so that the idea they were incubating might be born strong and fully formed. At other times Socrates compared himself to a gadfly; as such his role was combative and he directly challenged and tormented anyone and everyone who claimed to ‘know’ something.

So are scientists standing on the shoulders of giants? Or held back by too much respect for people and ideas that have had their day? To put it another way: are ‘scientists’ more productive when they collaborate in order to develop a theory to its fullest potential; or when they test it to destruction?

Finally, is it realistic to expect a single method to be efficacious in every case? There’s only five variables. How hard can it be? But before you make up your mind, assuming you haven’t already done so, let’s see how the different options have snaked their way through history by looking at the example of gravity.

Keeping our feet on the ground.

There is a simple narrative to explain the history of our understanding of gravity up to the 20th century according to which, it’s a hop, skip and a jump from Aristotle to Galileo to Newton; from an explanation to demonstration to a useful equation. In the process Galileo destroyed Aristotle’s model, whereas Newton developed Galileo’s. It’s basically true, but there’s a bit more to it.

If longevity were any measure, then by far the most successful theory of gravity is Aristotle’s explanation. The theory is that the heavy ‘elements’, earth and water, move in straight lines towards their natural place at the centre of the universe. The celestial bodies on the other hand move round the Earth because they are hot spots caused by friction in a series of concentric spheres that are sliding over each other up in Heaven. Since Heaven is perfect and eternal, the stuff it is made of, aether, moves in perfect and endless circles. It’s a logically coherent explanation, if you accept the premises. This model was developed by Ptolemy into a mathematical description that was reasonably successful at predicting the position of the heavenly bodies. So it was supported by the available evidence and if the position of the stars is important to you, say for divination or religious observance, it’s useful.

Putting Earth in the centre of the universe is also handy if you want to persuade people that this small lump of rock is the focus of some god’s attention. Two thousand years later, this was the use to which the Vatican put the model and any challenge to the authority of Aristotle, might be seen as a challenge to the church. One version of the Copernican revolution has it that the church was hostile to Copernicus’ heliocentric model and because Galileo supported the idea, he was thrown in jail. Which explains Galileo’s house arrest, and it’s useful if you have some beef with religion, but it ignores a lot of evidence. Trying to extract the motives of men long dead is tricky, but here are some ‘facts’.

Copernicus was a canon and was well aware of any controversy that his ideas might stir. When he eventually published his work, he included a dedication to Pope Paul III in which he pointed out that the encouragement from a Cardinal, a Bishop and “Not a few other very eminent and scholarly men…” had persuaded him to overcome “the contempt which I had to fear because of the novelty and apparent absurdity of my view…” So if Copernicus is to be believed, it was his fear of ridicule rather than any concern for the sensibilities of the Vatican that worried him. Which is understandable, because although Catholics could react to dissent with violence, as various inquisitions show, far from being dogmatic on scientific matters, the Catholic Church was in effect a giant Socratic midwife that had been collaborating over the previous thousand years to develop a coherent explanation. They were used to accommodating new ideas and awkward facts and had few reservations about encouraging ‘science’; knowledge, after all, is power. It was this tradition that the Catholic Church claimed as its authority in scientific matters.

But not everyone was happy with all the power being concentrated in Rome and there had been efforts to reform the church. In 1517, when Copernicus was 34, Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses which are generally held to be the catalyst that caused the church to split.

Responsibility for the publication of Copernicus’ book was given to Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran theologian, so probably not too concerned about upsetting the Pope. Even so, and apparently without Copernicus’ consent, Osiander added a preface in which he argued that different explanations can be supported by the same evidence. It doesn’t matter to the truth if people choose the explanation they find most plausible, or useful to work with. As Osiander said, “If they provide a calculus consistent with the observations, that alone is enough."


The reformers made a point of distancing themselves from the Catholic tradition and instead insisted that scripture alone, sola scriptura, is the source of authority. They also made that scripture accessible to anyone by publishing the bible in languages the congregation actually spoke; they could see for themselves that according to the Bible, God set the Earth firmly in its place. With no infrastructure, there was no way to maintain a hierarchy; instead protestants affirmed universal priesthood according to which, any baptised person is spiritual in the eyes of God. A complacent establishment was faced by a conservative populist uprising. Or it was a democratic movement to overthrow a despotic theocracy. Take your pick, either way the power struggle between Catholics and Protestants culminated in The Thirty Years War of 1618 to 1648, that killed 8 million people.

In 1610, Galileo had published the results of what he had seen through his telescope which showed that things were not as described in the bible. Whether inspired or alarmed by the challenge from literalist protestants, by 1616 the Vatican decreed heliocentrism heretical and ordered Galileo to neither promote nor even believe it. Over the next 16 years, Galileo pushed his luck from time to time, but then in 1632 he published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, heliocentrism and geocentrism. If it wasn’t clear from the argument which system Galileo was advancing, the character promoting geocentrism was called Simplicio. As the word suggests simpleton in Italian, Galileo felt he had to explain that the character was named after the philosopher Simplicius, but no one was fooled. Just when the Aristotelian model, that could easily be reconciled with scripture was most useful, Galileo was calling the Pope an idiot for believing it and in 1633 Galileo was convicted of breaking the terms of the original trial. Legend has it that in response to the verdict Galileo muttered “And yet it moves.” What is certain is that since then, ‘science’ has been defined much more by the evidence that supports an explanation, rather than the explanation itself.

In 1620 Francis Bacon published The Novum Organum. It is a description of a method that emphasised the importance of well designed experiments and painstaking observation, so that there is a gradual accumulation of evidence. Careful analysis of which would allow scientists to generalise and so create theories to account for what they had seen. The name, New Organon, was a reference to the old Organon of Aristotle, in which Aristotle explains the rules of logic, which if followed correctly will create valid explanations. Bacon’s mission was to sweep aside Aristotle’s idea that science is about explanations and replace it with a method supported by evidence.

Impressed by Bacon’s efforts, on 28 November 1660 in London, a group of scientists announced the formation of a "College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning”. Hearing of the plan, King Charles II gave his approval and within two years a charter was signed creating the "Royal Society of London”. The motto of the Royal Society is 'Nullius in verba’ which, according to its own website “is taken to mean 'take nobody's word for it'. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.”

In 1687 the Royal Society published the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by one of its fellows, Isaac Newton. In the preface to the first edition, Newton makes his commitment to the ethos of the Royal Society plain: “For the whole difficulty of philosophy seems to be to discover the forces of nature from the phenomena of motions and then to demonstrate the other phenomena from these forces.”

Analysis of the motions of the Moon and planets led Newton to deduce his inverse square law describing the force of gravity. While even Newton recognised that a lot of evidence was needed to corroborate his law, as time progressed, it became clear that it was extremely successful in accounting for the position of the known planets, which at the time only went so far as Saturn. Almost a century later, in 1781, William Herschel recognised that a point of light which earlier astronomers had mistaken for a star, was the planet Uranus. In 1845, by which time Uranus had completed most of an orbit, it was clear that it was not behaving as Newton’s law demanded. By then, such was the confidence in Newton’s law that mathematicians in Paris and Cambridge began calculating the mass and position of a body that could account for the anomalies. Using the results of Urbain Le Verrier as his guide, Johann Gottfried Galle identified the planet Neptune which, like Uranus had been previously mistaken for a star. Newton’s idea of a ‘force of gravity’ explained the motion of the planets, it was supported by a wealth of evidence and it had been usefully applied in the discovery of a ‘new’ planet.

However, the ink was barely dry on the first edition before people started objecting that Newton had introduced a force without a mechanism; for all the explanatory power of ‘the force of gravity’, there is no explanation for how gravity works. Much of the challenge came from followers of Rene Descartes. He had also been interested in the movement of the planets, but his main concern was to give a logical explanation of the orbit of planets. This he did by invoking the idea of vortices, according to which, space is composed of infinitesimal ‘corpuscles’ that behave like a fluid. These are swept around the Sun, a little like water is dragged around the plughole, and they in turn pull the planets along with them. Among the most prominent of Descartes' supporters was Gottfried Leibniz, who it is now accepted invented calculus independently, but at the time was bitterly accused of plagiarism by Newton. Two years after the publication of the Principia, Leibniz published his own version of a vortex theory.

When in 1713 Newton published a second edition, he felt compelled to add an essay called the General Scholium in which he directly challenged the idea of vortices. Newton pointed out that the orbits of comets, although regular, are too eccentric to fit the model and that they cut across planetary vortices with no apparent effect, “And therefore the celestial spaces, through which the globes of the planets and comets move continually in all directions freely and without any sensible diminution of motion, are devoid of any corporeal fluid…”

Having dismissed that explanation, Newton included a passage known by a phrase that occurs in it: hypotheses non fingo, traditionally translated as ‘I frame no hypotheses’. “But hitherto I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phaenomena, and I frame no hypotheses. For whatever is not deduc’d from the phaenomena, is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.”

Never mind that space being empty is an hypothesis, to Newton, the explanation of how something works isn’t essential to science; as long as the mathematical model gave us the power to predict and manipulate our environment, the job of physics was done. As the passage concludes: “And to us it is enough, that gravity does really exist, and act according to the laws which we have explained, and abundantly serves to account for all the motions of the celestial bodies, and of our sea.” The explanation isn’t that important. As Osiander had said, what matters is, can you use it?

As European scientists adopted many of the principles of British empiricism the 18th century became the Age of Enlightenment. With calculus their new toy to play with, mathematicians of the period made huge leaps. Jacob, Johann and Daniel Bernoulli, Euler, Lagrange, Laplace are just some of the most prominent, but apart from their mathematical genius, the thing that they have in common is that none of them are English. Jacob Bernoulli had been quick to adopt Leibnizian calculus and most of continental Europe followed suit. In England, however, such was the authority of Newton that mathematicians there persisted with his use of fluxions. The fact is that Leibniz’s method is better to work with; England’s mathematicians and physicists were hampered by their respect for Newton. It wasn’t until Charles Babbage founded The Analytical Society specifically to promote the use of Leibnizian calculus that England started to catch up.

Uranus was not the only planet that appeared to be breaking Newton’s law. In fact Le Verrier had been working on anomalies in Mercury’s orbit since 1840. His results were tested by observations of the transit of Mercury in 1843, which failed to match predictions. So, with the success of Neptune behind him, Le Verrier returned to the problem of Mercury, again calculating the mass and position of a planet that could explain the behaviour. So confident was he, that he even gave it a name, Vulcan. Sharing his optimism, astronomers began looking for the new planet, some claimed to have found it, one, Edmond Modeste Lescarbault, was even awarded the Legion D’Honneur for doing so, but on closer inspection, all the claims proved to be unfounded. There is no planet Vulcan; Newton’s law had been tested to destruction. Something else was causing the discrepancy.

There is another simple explanation of how Einstein discovered relativity.
In 1865, the Royal Society published James Clerk Maxwell’s A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field. In it Maxwell showed that electromagnetism can be described mathematically as a wave that travels through space at the speed of light. But waves, as a rule, require a medium; after all, a wave on the ocean isn’t a wave if there is no ocean. Unlike Newton, Maxwell was prepared to frame an hypothesis,"light and magnetism are affections of the same substance, and that light is an electromagnetic disturbance propagated through the field according to electromagnetic laws.”

The hypothetical substance, the explanation, became known as the lumininferous aether. Unlike the swirling corpuscular medium proposed by Descartes, this was believed to be static, something that the Earth and all other celestial bodies were moving through. More like a fog than a whirlpool. Given that the speed of light through the aether was calculated to be constant, it’s speed relative to an observer should vary according to whether the observer is moving towards the source, or away from it, much as the relative speed of waves depends on whether you are running into the ocean, or onto the beach. Were that so, it should be possible to detect the difference in relative velocity. The most famous experiment was conducted by the American physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley in 1887, but they found no such relative motion.
For a while, physicists scratched their heads and sought explanations for how the luminiferous aether could produce the baffling results. Then, in 1905, Albert Einstein put forward his special theory of relativity. Much as Newton had done to corpuscles, Einstein jettisoned the luminiferous aether and, again like Newton, hypothesised completely empty space to create a mathematical description that accurately describes what will be observed.

However, when in 1915 Einstein published his theory of general relativity, he took a different view. A feature of Einstein’s theory of general relativity is that it explains gravity by imagining that rather than being a vacuum, as assumed in special relativity, space is instead a medium which is warped by the presence of matter. There is no explanation for how matter warps spacetime, any more than there is an hypothesis about how gravity works in Newton; ‘warped spacetime’ is an explanation without an explanation, but again, in order to be useful, that doesn’t matter. As the evidence shows, the field equations Einstein deduced are more accurate than Newton’s Law.

Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend.

In 1919, British physicist and astronomer Arthur Eddington led an expedition to Principe, off the coast of Africa, to photograph a total eclipse of the Sun. The aim was to test general relativity by measuring how much the light from stars was bent by the Sun’s gravity. The results showed that it was twice what Newtonian gravity could account for and much closer to Einstein’s predictions. When the results were published it made headlines around the world and turned Einstein into the scientific poster boy he remains to this day.

At the time, a young Karl Popper was attending the University of Vienna as a guest student and Vienna, being the home of Sigmund Freud, was the focal point of psychoanalysis. The main claim that psychoanalysis has to be a science, is that it aims to create a coherent explanation of the psychological condition of people, based on a few simple principles. The trouble is, not everyone could agree on the principles. Alfred Adler and Carl Jung had already split from Freud to develop their owns theories based on different principles. Karl Popper in fact worked at one of Adler’s clinics for a while, so was well placed to see psychoanalysis in practice. The differences he perceived between Einstein’s relativity and the claims of psychoanalysts inspired the development of his philosophy of science.

What impressed Popper about relativity was that it made definite predictions, such as that light would be bent in a particular way by gravity. It was a bold strategy, because if the evidence didn’t support it, the theory would be shown to be wrong. By contrast, the principles asserted by different psychoanalysts could always be defended by appealing to some other factor. Jung and Freud had fallen out partly because neither thought the other capable of admitting their conflicting theories could be wrong. Popper, agreeing with Francis Bacon’s dictum that “Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion” decided that the acceptance that an explanation could be wrong is a defining feature of a truly scientific theory.

At the same time as Popper was trying to get psychoanalysis thrown out of the legitimate science club, some scientists in other fields were pointing out that, actually, the way their science worked wasn’t so very different.
Ludwik Fleck, a biologist introduced the idea of a ‘thought collective’, a group of scientists who share a ‘thought style’, some common theory and working practices, their own ‘scientific method’, and collaborate to develop that structure to its fullest potential. He also argued that there can be different thought collectives trying to understand the same phenomena, and that the different theories and working practices can make them incommensurable; some theories are so at odds that no meaningful dialogue can be had between practitioners. What can astrology for example, add to a theory that personality is based on brain structure or experience?

Michael Polanyi a professor of chemistry made a similar point. Science, in his experience, was not an objective method that could simply be described and followed. Rather it is scientists putting into practice the philosophy and methods they have been taught by particular scientists. Essentially once they have been initiated into a thought collective, they contribute to that collective thought. While this might sound alarmingly like ‘groupthink’, Polanyi argued that this was necessary for the advance of science. The alternative, as he saw it, was to prescribe a philosophy and code of practice, a ‘scientific method’ which would inevitably inhibit innovation and could be disastrous, as Josef Stalin’s imposition of the ideas of Trofim Lysenko had been for Soviet wheat production.

The physicist Max Planck who, like Einstein never fully accepted the interpretations of quantum mechanics of scientists younger than himself, made the observation that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

A biologist, a chemist and a physicist were all saying that their sciences did not work as philosophers thought they should. A lot of their ideas, and even some of the same terms were brought together in a landmark publication. In 1962, Thomas Kuhn published a book that namechecked all of the writers above, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions made everyone pay attention to the growing conviction that science is not the pristine objective enterprise that philosophers had been trying to describe.

The structure referred to in the title has three parts. There is a ‘pre-science’ period when there is some feature of the world for which there is no explanation. People speculate and offer suggestions until one comes along in which a sufficient number of scientists see enough potential to commit time and resources to it. If experiments designed in the context of the explanation produce results that match the theory, rather than try to destroy the idea, as Popper recommended, scientists collaborate to enhance the new paradigm. If the paradigm is any good, this can be a very productive period, because the paradigm will give the scientists a conceptual framework to explore, which will raise questions that wouldn’t occur outside the paradigm; this “puzzle solving” is what Kuhn called ‘normal science’.

No matter how good the paradigm is though, it is unlikely to be ‘The Truth’. Almost inevitably as paradigm appropriate technology develops and large quantities of increasingly accurate evidence becomes available, some of it will not fit the paradigm. At first there can be some tinkering to protect the paradigm, but the anomalies build up and eventually plunge the paradigm into crisis at which point a new paradigm is required, one which can account for everything the old paradigm could explain and the stuff it couldn’t, just as General Relativity explains behaviour that Newtonian gravity can’t. In this way, science ‘evolves’; better supported by the evidence and useful for a wider range of purposes.

But, as Kuhn saw, if a paradigm isn’t ‘The Truth’, there can be several explanations for the same ‘pre-scientific’ feature or crisis inducing anomalies. How then do scientists choose between one paradigm and another? To preserve his evolutionary model, Kuhn suggested that there are certain criteria: accuracy, simplicity, predictive power, for example, that scientists use to help them decide, but ultimately the relative importance placed on a theory being a logically coherent explanation, supported by evidence or useful is not based on any objective standards; it’s a personal choice. It is the different ways that this claim has been interpreted which make the book so influential.


Imre Lakatos, a colleague of Popper’s at the London School of Economics tried to defend an objective scientific method based on an enhanced model of paradigms. In effect he combined paradigms with Popper’s falsificationism. While acknowledging that scientists operate in groups committed to different explanations, Lakatos argued that it was only the hard core of a theory, the explanation itself, that is essential and that could be protected by auxiliary hypotheses which could account for any anomalies. But that is starting to sound like the behaviour of psychoanalysts that Popper objected to in the first place.
Lakatos planned to present and defend his ideas as half of a book he would write in collaboration with Paul Feyerabend. Tragically he died of a heart attack, aged 51; his half of the book in which he would argue for a scientific method was never written. The other half, Against Method, was.

Paul Feyerabend was one of four people personally thanked by Kuhn in the preface to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; he had also turned down an offer to be Popper’s research assistant and having started his academic career as a physicist, he was well qualified to make a judgement. As the history of gravity shows, explanation, demonstration and usefulness have all played a critical role at some point; any prescriptive scientific method would have suppressed some part of that history. The only possible prescription for science that could accommodate every stumble and leap is ‘anything goes’. He took the view that by far the most important criterion is that a theory should be useful. It didn’t matter to who or what for, insisting that there are objective criteria that everyone should agree to is oppressive. In everyday life no one likes being told what to think or do. Feyerabend gave an insight into what people are like, him in particular:

“Having listened to one of my anarchistic sermons, Professor Wigner exclaimed: ‘But surely, you do not read all the manuscripts which people send you, but you must throw most of them into the wastepaper basket.’ I most certainly do. ‘Anything goes’ does not mean that I shall read every single paper that has been written-God forbid!-it means that I make my selection in a highly individual and idiosyncratic way, partly because I can’t be bothered to read what doesn’t interest me-and my interests change from week to week and day to day-partly because I am convinced that humanity and even science will profit from everyone doing their own thing.”

He needn’t have worried; whatever anyone thinks should or shouldn’t qualify as science, the fact is that it is done by people, and no matter what rules are imposed, people break them.

User avatar
Necromancer
Posts: 405
Joined: Thu Jul 30, 2015 12:30 am
Location: Metropolitan-Oslo, Norway, Europe
Contact:

Re: How does science work?

Post by Necromancer » Fri Jun 08, 2018 7:07 pm

If we consider chemistry today and see all the right answers made throughout history, is that chemistry forever valid as scientific?

What in the World can change what we consider chemistry today in 2018? No, indeed, there seems to be no good answer to this. Thus, chemistry of today is truth?

uwot
Posts: 4394
Joined: Mon Jul 23, 2012 7:21 am

Re: How does science work?

Post by uwot » Sat Jun 09, 2018 7:52 am

Necromancer wrote:
Fri Jun 08, 2018 7:07 pm
If we consider chemistry today and see all the right answers made throughout history, is that chemistry forever valid as scientific?
The point of the article is that there is no clear definition of 'scientific'. I suppose a fairly good way to decide is if those 'right answers' will always be useful.
Necromancer wrote:
Fri Jun 08, 2018 7:07 pm
What in the World can change what we consider chemistry today in 2018? No, indeed, there seems to be no good answer to this.
Depends what you consider chemistry today. A common story is that chemistry became a science when Antoine Lavoisier applied the sort of mathematical analysis to alchemy that physicists had been using, particularly since Newton. Like every field of human endeavour, though, computer simulations are used in some circumstances instead of test tubes. Is that still chemistry?
Necromancer wrote:
Fri Jun 08, 2018 7:07 pm
Thus, chemistry of today is truth?
'Truth' is such a loaded term that no sensible person uses it lightly.

User avatar
Necromancer
Posts: 405
Joined: Thu Jul 30, 2015 12:30 am
Location: Metropolitan-Oslo, Norway, Europe
Contact:

Re: How does science work?

Post by Necromancer » Sat Jun 09, 2018 7:36 pm

uwot wrote:
Sat Jun 09, 2018 7:52 am
'Truth' is such a loaded term that no sensible person uses it lightly.
So you're saying that science isn't describing nature? I say that's counter-intuitive, not credible standing today, in 2018. 8)

Post Reply

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 4 guests