Reality, Part 3 – Navel Contemplation

            For a new scientific idea to become established it not only has to explain new phenomena that have been observed, it also has to include the old ideas to explain why they worked so well up to the point of the new observations.

            Once people realized the earth was round, they also understood that over small distances it works just fine to assume it’s flat, because the curvature is so small. Once we realized that gravity is Einsteinian rather than Newtonian, we also realized that Newtonian laws work well at smaller distances (and at lower velocities and gravitational field strengths), because the necessary corrections are minuscule.

            It’s the same with the center of the universe viewpoints. (See “You are the Center of the Universe” following this.) With each new explanation, it was easy to see how the earlier explanation still existed in a limited sense.

            This nested progression creates the impression that we are increasing our understanding of the objective world, improving our mapping at each step, rather than creating new mappings. It’s a compelling argument. Why else would scientific mapping so consistently defeat competing mappings if it were not closer to objective reality?

            There are many possible reasons, but the one I am advocating is this: scientific mapping follows our consensus reality and affects that consensus. But doesn’t that mapping have to have come originally from science?

            No, it doesn’t. In fact, it couldn’t have.

            Science simply describes what it finds. Science didn’t decree that water runs downhill. That’s what scientists (and everyone else) observed. Science just extends the observation to general rules of the behavior of things in the universe, and it works for now.

            However, if we collectively create our world, then when science ventures into areas on which there is no consensus because humans have never encountered them before, then something else is at work. I submit that it is possible that scientists have a role in creating their own discoveries. New observations are rationalized in the light of existing knowledge, and existing knowledge colors those new observations in the first place.

            From this point of view, it is not surprising that new explanations include the older ones. That is a stated requirement of science. Anything that doesn’t is rejected. The familiar consensus reality is carried along as it grows into new areas of observation. Scientists explain to us how new—often weird—discoveries fit into the world we are familiar with. They fit because, for all their weirdness, the discoveries are rational extrapolations of that familiar world. Science functions as a religion, and scientists are the priests and priestesses (gods and goddesses?) explaining the reality they have created to the rest of us. Our belief in them sustains it.

            We find what we are looking for, defined by the structure of our own existing knowledge. This may not go on endlessly. At some point, we may be changing reality in real time as we observe it, so that nothing is pinned down long enough to be studied. Maybe we’re there now with Quantum Mechanics.

            The most powerful structural limitation we impose on our observations is that of rationality, of logical consistency. In the mid-20th century, a fundamental flaw in rational thought itself was discovered.

            Next: From Gödel to Turing.

 

Hugh Moffatt

Santa Clarita, California

August 12, 2019