Monday, 6 February 2017

Hold on to the Truth, not the Theory of Everything

While there is life there is hope...
The film Theory of Everything sounds as though it was inspirational. It ought to be since Hawking is admirable for his will power in overcoming the limitations of his illness and using his powerful, creative mind to explore the limits of human knowledge. However, one has to bear in mind that a human being can only go so far. Recent science and philosophy shows that a real theory of everything is untenable - mainly because the 'everything' that such a theory would need to describe would include itself - a logical impossibility.  

I understand that Hawking himself has come to accept this since writing A Brief History of Time. Having abandoned this quest he seems to have become less than rational in his understanding of reality, as I hope to demonstrate below. He is not alone and I contend that the approaches of some theoreticians to the limits we are now coming across in trying to explain properties of the cosmos like fine tuning for life and the emergence of space-time (Big Bang) from existential nothingness are bizarre and unscientific, and arise from an understandable but needless fear of resorting to a god of the gaps.

Science is precious not only as a voyage of discovery but as the source of the prosperity of western civilisation through engineering, agriculture, transport, hygiene, and medicine, and more recently of other parts of the world which have followed its methods. But it needs guarding, especially with the notions of a 'post-truth' society and 'fake news' being talked about in the media without, I maintain, any general acknowledgement of the catastrophic implications for science, democracy and civilization.

A few years ago I read a timely criticism of the way science is reported in the popular press and interpreted by society at large (Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre). The cover blurb lists scaremongering journalists, pill pushing nutritionists, flaky statistics and evil pharmaceutical corporations.  Most of these distortions of objective truth come from outside the scientific establishment, threatening it with commercial or grant-related pressures.

Yet there is another enemy of academic research, in my view more insidious. It comes from the academics themselves.

In the 14th century the priest William of Occam proposed a concept which has been religiously followed by scientists to this day and is a cornerstone on which the exponential ascent of Western science has been built: Occam’s razor : a new scientific theory should explain the greatest number of phenomena for the least number of assumptions.  A theory which satisfies this criterion and which can be experimentally verified is deemed one step closer to an objective truth for which scientists strive, knowing that they will never reach it, but that what counts is the constant search for it.

There has also been a belief in the sacredness of truth. Professor James Lovelock, who professes not to be a religious man, recently referred to it as the ‘Holy Ghost’ of truth. In a BBC Beautiful Minds documentary Lovelock related how a prominent neo-Darwinist (Richard Dawkins) had bullied the editor of Nature into suppressing Lovelock's now widely acclaimed ideas on earth systems science, later known as Gaia. In March 1995 Dawkins also purportedly pressurised the editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement into not publishing a commissioned article, already trailored to appear in the next edition, since it attacked neo-Darwinism. See the Open Society and its Enemies. Such practices risk turning the foundation of science into sand and undermining the  power of peer reviewed academic publishing.

At the time the Big Bang theory of cosmology was first proposed Fred Hoyle (a leading astrophysicist and cosmologist at the time) opposed it in the face of mounting evidence, simply because he thought it implied the existence of a Creator. Instead he proposed a steady state model in which the universe was eternal and atoms just spontaneously appeared in the vacuum. A definite case of letting one's beliefs get in the way of truth. (Hoyle later appeared  to abandon scientific materialism and in the last book he wrote before his death, Cosmic Life Force, concluded that the universe had a mind.)

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (2010) is a well written guided tour of modern elementary particle physics and cosmology which I found absorbing, if taxing in parts. I can certainly recommend this as a way of understanding how modern physicists attempt to interpret reality.

However, it resorts to post modern metaphysics, namely the abandonment of objective reality, the basis on which physics, chemistry, biology and engineering is built:

'Though realism may be a tempting viewpoint, as we'll see later, what we know about modern physics makes it a difficult one to defend.'

[22% through the book on my  old iPhone Kindle app]

Even special relativity theory acknowledges an objective reality and works out by mathematics (the Lorentz transformations)  how time, space and mass will seem to observers moving at different relative speeds. All its equations are verified by experiment. Quantum phenomena are difficult to pin down and very odd; e.g. in the famous double-slit experiment a pattern appears on a screen hit by particles according to whether one determines or does not determine the paths by which they arrive (NB: the experiment is so designed that measuring the path does not physically disturb the particle). This is no basis for abandoning belief in an objective reality: the challenge is to modify our models of reality, i.e. get a bit closer to the ultimate reality,  until we get some powerful model which incorporates those happenings which at present do not appear to make sense. Lightning did not make sense before the concept of electricity was devised and if you have ever had an electric shock you will know that the concept of electricity corresponds to something real.

Instead, Hawking (who other physicists disagree with)   throws out objective reality, adopts unsound mathematics (e.g. subtracting infinities from infinities) and makes non sequitur extrapolations from bizarre pictorial interpretations of a mathematical tool (Feynman’s ‘sum over histories’ method) for calculating the probability of a quantum event and links this to cosmology on the grounds that our universe probably started as a quantum phenomenon. The authors give up on trying to explain rigorously what they call our ‘apparently’ miraculous universe, which they admit is fine tuned for life to an inexplicable degree, and think they avoid the need to do so by postulating an unimaginably large number of other universes (10 with 500 zeros after it; there are 'only' 10 with 80 zeros atoms in the whole universe) with laws loosely defined by a network of string theories collectively called M-Theory, and an arbitrary number of dimensions (11 instead of the 4 we know: 3 of space and 1 of time; why not 10, or 99, or 100, or 1000 or any number you can think of?) ), all as much beyond scientific testing as Santa Claus. How such a monster assembly ever came into being is not mentioned.  It certainly does not 'explain' why  or even how sentient truth-seeking, love-seeking, morally aware beings originated or evolved  here, or anywhere else in our universe.       

This approach explains nothing and everything. If we observe a new unexplained phenomenon there is no need to delve into it, invent a radical new approach  and laboriously come up with a rigorously peer reviewed, testable theory, as Einstein did. Just say it is there by chance and was bound to happen in some universe somewhere. Suppose someone found that viruses on earth were spontaneously assembling in synchronization with fluctuations observed from a black hole. No need to explain. It just happens to occur in our universe. No surprise! If it had not started we, having emerged from viruses by chance, perhaps,  would not be here to see it.

William of Occam must be spinning in his grave, as must Newton and Einstein.

Science has reached an  impasse. Quantum phenomena like the double slit experiment, quantum erasure and entanglement have been modelled in several different ways, none of them sufficiently established to serve as a consensus theory. Attempts to unify the 4 forces of nature (electromagnetic, gravity, weak nuclear and strong nuclear) are in disarray, as appears to be indicated by the Large Hadron  Collider results, despite the recent confirmation of the Higgs boson. Even if a Unified Theory is achieved it will only be a theory of certain aspects of reality, not a Theory of Everything.

Cosmology is also confronting questions over inflation, the holographic principle (by which  our 4D space-time world would be the encodement of a 2D world), dark energy, dark matter, vacuum energy and much else. Over 95% of the stuff of the universe is a complete mystery, as is the way both ordinary and dark matter is orchestrated. All we know is that something is there and that some phenomena occur which can be predicted and modelled.

 Neo-Darwinism, though still having something to offer in terms of micro-evolution, struggles to come to terms with increasingly sophisticated mechanisms of macro-evolution, e.g. epigenetics, horizontal gene transfer, emergent complexity, sudden leaps forward in speciation and evolutionary convergence, which do not fit well with  blind adherence to evolution by descent with random incremental modifications. On the actual origin of life it has nothing substantive to offer. For some reason these increasingly compelling new findings in evolutionary biology are not getting into BBC science shows such as Horizon yet they should be embraced, not brushed aside. I have not yet come across a major science programme which stresses the importance of the recent discovery that the 98% of DNA referred to as junk only a decade ago is now accepted as being crucially functional. Recent discoveries showing that evolutionary pathways repeat themselves indicate that the mechanism of evolution is not random. Again, barely a mention in the popular science media. What the situation is in school biology teaching I dread to think.

When confronted with the inexplicable it is surely the job of the scientist to find new more powerful models, not retreat in denial or in order to satisfy some favoured view or ethos or ideology or metaphysical view or theology, or just to get career advancement or funding or the approval of the press or one’s friends.

 It is of course impossible to eliminate these worldly influences but, whether one is a scientist, an interested layman (like me) who enjoys witnessing God's wondrous creation  or just one who wants the world to go on advancing in a benevolent way, one can at least try to hold on to scientific truth as an ideal.  Science is not, I maintain, the only answer to human fulfillment; but it is a God-given gift without which material human progress stops. We descend into chaos with no prospect of a peaceful, prosperous life in the material world.

 John Sears


2077:Knights of Peace
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