Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

2 + 2 = 5 for very large values of 2

One of the questions on Feeling Listless (see preceding post) was:

What do you feel provides the human race with answers closest to the truth, Science or Religion?

Stuart came down on the side of science, as did most of his commenters. (See here.)

I personally thought the question posed a false dichotomy, and said so. And as I wrote my extensive comment, I thought I might as well stick it on EKN and invite my own readers to submit their tuppenceworth. Here we are, then.


Um. If one takes the question as being a valid one then I think Stuart's answer is the only one possible. But is it a valid question, or is it like asking "Which provides answers closer to the truth, cookery or football?" However much the creationists might wish otherwise, science and religion were never intended to provide alternative answers to the same questions. If you want to know why your arm feels cold when it gets wet, you don't ask a priest. But if you want to know whether my feeling of "cold" is the same as Stuart's, you wouldn't ask a scientist either. You'd ask a philosopher, and in my book there's pretty much a continuum between philosophy and religion, with the differences coming down to branding. Some brands place more value on individual thought than on group conformity, others don't. It has often been said that there is nothing intrinsic to Buddhism, for example, which makes it a religion rather than a philosophy. Belief in a god, for example, is optional.

Philosophy, in my opinion, can answer questions that by definition fall outwith the purview of science but which are interesting for all that. If our universe came into existence at the instant of the big bang, was there nothing at all prior to that (in any sense) or merely nothing - obviously - in our universe? Might our universe be part of a greater "universe2"? If our universe is open and thus does not recollapse, what implications might this have for any underlying "universe2"? What does it mean to be conscious? What does it mean to be intelligent? Are the two questions the same, related, or completely independent? If we created a machine, how could we establish whether or not it was conscious? If it was, would we have created a form of life, regardless of its replicative power?

Questions like these are by their nature not amenable to scientific answers. Scientists are quite capable of making the distinction: when I was a (chemistry) undergaraduate my physicist buddies had classes on The Interpretation Of Quantum Mechanics. These didn't discuss the (universally true in gia's terms) equations which are the heart of QM, but discussed the various ways in which physicists have attempted to give meaning to what those equations represent, whether by means of "hidden variables" (Einstein/Rosen/Podolsky) or "parallel worlds" (Everett/Wheeler/Graham) or whatever. A purist would say that it's the equations that perfectly describe reality, with the various interpretative paradigms just enabling us to make sense of it, like the shadows in Plato's cave. And that, surely, is what the whole (false) science/religion dichotomy comes down to. Science tells us more or less perfectly how the world works, and even (up to a point what it IS. Religion tells us what it means, and boldly treads beyond any point science could reach even if it wanted to, in suggesting what it is in a (warning: loaded language coming) more fundamental sense.

Let me finish by pointing out that Plato identified more kinds of knowledge (and hence truth) than just scientific and religious, or even philosophical. His system made room for aesthetic truth (opening a whole other can of worms: why is it that one work of art comes closer to universal appeal than another? can you disentangle cultural conditioning from intrinsic value? aaargh....) but perhaps more interestingly he distinguished between mathematical truth and scientific truth. And of course he was absolutely right about that: a mathematical truth can be proved true. A scientific truth can simply withstand disproof. It's like the difference (which once caused a lot of excitement) between formal proof of correctness of computer programs, and rigorous and thorough testing thereof. One can imagine worlds where the laws of physics are different from our own: think of George Gamow and his Mr Tompkins stories, where the values of h and c are tweaked. It's difficult, though, to imagine worlds where 2 + 2 is not 4. (Though less basic concepts can bend: think of the sum of the angles of a triangle on surfaces of varying curvature.) And since Godel's Theorem, we have had to admit that even mathematical truth has limits. And is that fact (a mathematical truth) significant? Bring on the philosophers, priests and shamen to answer that.


At 28 June, 2007 11:00, Blogger Stuart Ian Burns said...

Thanks so much for such a long and considered opinion. I think the original post is pretty much a semi-colon on what I might say, but in reaction to what you've written ...

As far as I can see, philosophy is almost a discussion room for ideas which may eventually come under the consideration of science. In other words, the philosophical questions you list related to what happened before the big bang simply aren't necessarily scientific questions -- yet.

But at some point in the future, when technology or human reason has developed to the degree that it can deal with it in empirical terms it will become a matter for scientists.

I might be wayward in this, but I'd suggest astronomy as an example where the shape of the heavens was a matter of philosophical discussion before Ptolemy took a crack at it (although he used some guess work) and then Galileo then onwards -- and it wasn't until thought and technology were available that the sky could be mapped much more constructively.

So in the end, everything is a scientific question, just not all at once.



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