Saturday, August 11, 2007

What are we playing?

Are we filling out a cosmic crossword puzzle, or is it existential scrabble?

Does Science Lead to Truth?
As an aspiring scientist, I like to think that science leads to truth. But then I know that Newton's theory of gravity was, in a sense, completely conceptually overthrown by Einstein's theory of gravity. For Newton, gravity was a force that prevent the apple from its natural state of motion of remaining at rest, thus making it fall onto his noggin. For Einstein, the Newton's noggin was the force preventing the apple from its natural state of falling. In order to make this switch, Einstein described gravity not as a force, but as the curvature of space and time. At some point in the future, it is conceivable that Einstein's theory of gravity will go over a complete conceptual makeover. Do we ever have the truth?

Does Science Even Approach the Truth?
Perhaps the next best thing to having truth is getting closer and closer to the truth. Is that what science is doing? I always liked to think so, but after reading Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions this naive view was challenged. Kuhn was a physicist who was forced by his superiors to teach a course on the history of science. He found himself completely bored with it, until he studied the original texts so closely that he understood them as a gestalt switch. Is the picture a duck, or is it a bunny? Was Galileo right in describing the pendulum as friction ruining the ideal periodic motion, or was Aristotle right in describing the pendulum as a string ruining the ideal falling motion? Kuhn, at least in his earlier days, that neither was any more right than the other. In fact, we can't even compare what Galileo meant by "pendulum" with what Aristotle meant by the same word--the two are incommensurable. The switch from Aristotle's views to Galileo's views are not a switch from 'wrong' to 'less-wrong' is more like the switch from 'duck' to 'bunny'.

Does Science Construct the Truth?
My gut still tells me that science progress towards the truth in some sense. For a long time, I have imagined this as filling out a great, cosmic crossword puzzle. Perhaps our observations are the clues, and we figure out what to put in the boxes. We can never be completely sure we have put in the right word, but when it connects with more and more words we can become more and more sure that we have the right words in there. When the crossword puzzle is complete, we must have done something right! Maybe one or two words are wrong, but the gist of the puzzle has to be correct. You might call this a 'coherentist epistemology'.

The other day it occurred to me that perhaps we are not playing a cosmic crossword puzzle at all...maybe we are playing Scrabble. Maybe there are no clues and we are just making up the words and fitting them with other words we have made up. Does that have to make them less true??


Bobby said...

I've finished all the requirements for a philosophy minor (still have one more class to take though) and what I have learned from the courses is that human understanding of the world is limited . . . well it's not that we don't we don't know anything, but I think that we know less than we think we do in terms of science. Basically in the courses I took, we would learn the arguments of a philosopher (including some scientist philosophers) and learn the problems with their arguments and how other philosophers have countered them and then take a test. My previous comment is sarcastic, but I am just trying to say that we have become very skilled at analyzing the world and making complex claims; however, I have to ask sorta what you were asking; are we making progress in the grand crossword puzzle and moving forward or is this just simply an intellectual exercise.

I am convinced that God exists. One thing about this is that I cannot prove this statement to be true. I can provide compelling evidence (both scientific and non scientific) and personal experiences; however, this does not fulfill our notion of a proof. However, I do not believe that anyone can prove it to be false either. One can provide compelling evidence, but the end result is the same.

There are many benefits to science and I feel we should pursue it; but, I believe it all comes down to faith.

Brian said...

Luke, you have it all wrong. I think we are slowly (but surely) filling a massively clogged toilet with our shit.

astrobassist said...

Bobby...thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you on many levels. Kierkegaurd said something along the lines of 'arguments for or against the existence of God are misplaced, since believe in God is a matter of faith'. I tend to agree to a certain extent.

And even in science we see hints that there is no PURELY rational way to decide between theories...there is a (perhaps small) leap of faith that always comes in.

That is not to promote the stance that science dictates that you can believe ANYthing you want about the physical world. I like to believe (like Einstein) that the moon is there when nobody is looking. just need to jiggle the handle, and it'll go down.

Wendi said...

Good post.