Thursday, September 21, 2006

Extreme Real Worlds

The comment by John about how Godel proved that there must always be inconsistency in certain large-enough logical systems, reminds me of an observation I had which must have been had by others since it seems obvious. When thinking or experiencing or perceiving to extremes, things become radically different or the opposite of what they appear when one perceives and thinks normally, yet the world or reality so perceived can be as convincing as our normal everyday life.

In physics when you analyze the very small, subatomic world the reality there is radically different from our normal reality and actually doesn’t follow our physical laws. When you look at the very large in cosmology, you get mind-boggling proportions difficult to conceive and mysteries like the big bang and the nature of space, time and the universe.

When you look intensively inward, using a rigorously neutral introspective practice like Buddhism, you experience everything as impermanent and you observe the arising and passing away of your own self. The nature of one’s self, the world and existence appear totally different.

When you examine rationally our beliefs and the important concepts we use – knowledge, morality, reality, good/bad, right/wrong, true/false – you come to no rational agreement about what they mean and skepticism is still a problem after more than 2000 years of thinking. Our everyday certainty is in contrast to continuing, radical, philosophical uncertainty about the facts of life.

The world of dreams is odd and extraordinary in its creativity, craziness and profundity and it’s a “normal” part of every person’s daily experience. In psychoanalysis, we can experience how we act out patterns that we have no intention or awareness of acting out. While we live out one life we are simultaneously living out another, unconsciously.

Finally, our lives are bounded by the two mysterious events of birth and death. When we intimately experience these facts of life that everyone is subject to, they pull us out of our normal reality and can be the most profound experiences of our lives.

It’s as if our everyday world is bordered on all sides by extreme worlds that turn our normal, everyday reality upside down. When we push experience, perception, analysis to extremes, things become radically different, yet entirely convincing.


John said...

Based on the work of R.G. Wooley of Trent Polytechnic (UK), I would say that your idea is correct. That is, that scientific theories (generalizations) break down outside a limited range. Wooley argues that this need not discourage their use and that insisting on a consistent logical structure that connects all theories is counterproductive.

Interpolating between data points is always safer than extrapolating beyond the range of your data (experience). That is, your predictions are more reliable.

Einstein and most other scientists are (or were) opposed to this idea and prefer to believe in some over-arching grand synthesis. Einstein's work seems to confirm his assertion, since relativity holds at the quantum level and the astronomical level (so far). Maxwell's equations are likewise universal.

Who’s right? We seem to have another contradiction.

John said...

The reason I love science is because it is full of surprises. It seems like every really profound theory manages to dismiss some well established aspect of common sense. To me this is the reason that higher awareness and even mystical insight are worth pursuing. Why strive for greater knowledge if it's just going to confirm what we already know? I don't like to say that we're uncovering a different reality but neither is my intent to mince words. However, I'd prefer to say that it's all about uncovering different aspects of a common reality and finding the limitations of generalized principles.
For instance, Einstein's equations reduce to the Newtonian formulation for speeds much slower than the speed of light. Even in the quantum world, Lavoisier's conservation of mass holds when one assumes that "energy has mass" according the eqn. E=MC^2.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

I wasn't saying that scientific theories break down. I thought quantum mechanics was a very successful theory even though it's objects of study don't behave like the objects in our middle-sized world.

So would this Wooley fellow not like the physicists and Einstein's search for a physical theory of everything?

I get the impression that they feel it's in reach.

John said...

Tart defines scientism as the role of science as a dogmatic religion. It's a bit like a Simon-says game. If a rigorous scientist says that he believes something is true or false, without testing it, that's an example of scientism. If rigorous science is used and exhausted to determine validity, that's science.
I think Wooley wants to use what works for him. He's not opposed to a theory of everything but does not want to be constrained by having to avoid contradictions.
I admire him because he seems to sense how scientism is an obstacle to progress. This seems to be a main theme in Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." That is, that untested biases of individual scientists (scientism) block the acceptance of a new scientific paradigm.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

I think it depends on the situation whether we should be "constrained by contradictions". I think contradictions tell us a lot about problems with our theories and ideas. Anomalies contradict what we believe and should be explored. But their are some contradictions which could be irresolvable.

I think Kuhn's argument is larger than that. He's not saying that scientism as you define it - scientist's clinging to untested beliefs - is holding back science. He's offering an explanation of how science changes in which non-scientistic science - i.e. tested-science not scientism - becomes normalized and scientists withing "normal science" solve problems within the reigning normal paradigm. Any paradigm will have anomalies that just don't fit. It takes an Einstein or a creative thinker to look to the right anomaly that contradicts the reigning theory and help overturn the reigning paradigm.

John said...

In the terms I’m using; the reigning paradigm can usually be interpolated safely. When the reigning paradigm is extrapolated beyond the range of the data (experience), it becomes scientism. Anomalies are an indication of an extrapolation of the reigning paradigm that is unreliable. Whereas contradictions most often arise when paradigms are turned back upon themselves in a feeback loop (Hofstadter), or when rival paradigms clash.