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Thread: Philosophical musings of science, reality, blind men and elephants

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    Philosophical musings of science, reality, blind men and elephants

    More and more, I become aware of how the parable of the blind men touching the elephant applies to science.

    I naively once used to think that science also searched for reality in addition to expaining/predicting how things work. Now I realize that we are like the blind men touching different parts of the elephant. We have managed to extend our probing of the physical world with telescopes, electron microscopes, particle colliders, etc. Somewhat as if, blind men had access to increasingly longer sticks to better poke and probe the elephant. Yet probe as they might, nothing can change the fact that they are blind.

    Using abstract mathematical models, we have refined our knowledge to better understand and predict how things work. We have based models on 0-dimensional points (quantum mechanics), 1-dimensional, vibrating strings (string theory), and in an iterative process improved our understanding of the universe (even if string theory has yet to be physical verified). Cosmology has evolved from the simple Big Bang theory, to complexer theories of multiverses, multidimensional universes, etc. But what is really true?

    Our current theories breakdown at the fringes. Einstein's theory of gravity breaks down on approaching a singularity, delivering infinity as a result. Quantum mechanics stops at the Planck length. String theory tries to solve this problem by modeling strings whose length is the Planck length. Yet this is yet another mathematical approximation.

    If searching for reality is a philosophical question, it is very frustrating to realize that, like the blind men, we are restricted in what we can really probe, and consequently are doomed never to know...
    Last edited by gzhpcu; 2013-Dec-08 at 06:37 AM.

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    Truth is a subjective non-measurable philosophical concept. Science is based on predictions. measurements and models. Different domains of applicability. Trying to force science to deliver 'truth' is a purely belief based thing, no different from demanding that 'truth' be found by reading portents, astrology or religion. You can choose to believe in the models science uses, but you have to remember that there are almost always alternative interpretations of the models and often alternative formulations of the model. In QM is the Copenhagen, Many World or Decoherence interpretation 'true'? They are scientifically the same, they lead to the same predictions, so in scientific terms they are all true.

    Searching for 'reality' is not a scientific thing and honestly I think when scientists realise that they suddenly find that they can spend less time worrying about what is 'really actually real' and get on with doing good work. All these pretty pictures we wrap around mathematical models help us to progress by providing insight into the most probable ways to extend the model based on a sort of physical intuition - but at the end of the day the models don't need them and they don't represent more than attempts to understand a model by converting its mathematical framework into more easily conceptualised mental building blocks.

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    True. The problem is that many people who have not delved deeply into physics take the mathematical models literally.

    Reality is elusive, since we are also bound by what our sense deliver, and how our brain processes the images. Yet, I still find the search for "reality" fascinating, even though impossible to achieve. I am intrigued when attempts are made (even though doomed a priori), simply because the search is akin to when one asked Edmund Hilary why he climbed Mt. Everest, he replied something to the effect of "because it is there". Human minds are curious to know things...

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    The Bohr-Rutherford model of electrons circling the nucleus similar to our solar system, while helpful, evokes a false picture of "reality". Rather than be led astray, purely mathematical models which can not be depicted as familiar objects, I find better...

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    Here we have an old theme. Mathematics is powerful but if you want to talk about reality, it is a world within itself. If we imagine the blind man waiting for the elephant but still reaching out, why, "because it is not there" It seems at the smallest scales which we will never see, reality is very different from we can see, feel and image inwardly. There was a discussion here about unknowables, some felt uncomfortable or even denied there are unknowables. The mind of the elephant is unknowable. However that leaves such a lot still to discover within our grasp that we will never reach the end.
    sicut vis videre esto
    When we realize that patterns don't exist in the universe, they are a template that we hold to the universe to make sense of it, it all makes a lot more sense.
    Originally Posted by Ken G

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    What we are doing as blind men is feeling, say the trunk, and then extrapolating further on that model, unaware that a legs, tail, etc. exist. It is somewhat like futuristic visions: one bases a future vision on todays's world, forgetting that many unexpected discoveries might crop up of which we today totally unaware.

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    Quote Originally Posted by gzhpcu View Post
    What we are doing as blind men is feeling, say the trunk, and then extrapolating further on that model, unaware that a legs, tail, etc. exist. It is somewhat like futuristic visions: one bases a future vision on todays's world, forgetting that many unexpected discoveries might crop up of which we today totally unaware.
    The more we examine the elephant, the more accurate our model of the elephant will become. We can never know everything about it, but we can always learn more than we currently know.

    What would you have us do differently?
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    Nothing. Just saying we will never know.

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    Quote Originally Posted by gzhpcu View Post
    Nothing. Just saying we will never know.
    "Never"? If you can see the future, how about a winning lottery number?
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    Well, to get down to the Planck length we need an accelerator the length of the Milky Way.... Seems like a safe bet...

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    It is more fundamental than that. Even if we had a physics model that worked to the Planck length or smaller. Even if we could probe every aspect of the observable universe. All that would give us are scientific models with strong predictive power, abstractions that capture some (possibly not all - we cannot know) of the behavioural characteristics of the system they are applied to. You may chose to equate this with a base reality but that is a belief, not science. Science allows us to predict the outcomes of measurements we make via a series of predictive models. Reality, Truth, Beauty - they are outside science.

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    I agree with Shaula, even if in principle we could approach asymptotically the fundamental mechanisms of phenomena that still gets us no closer to describing scientifically (and by scientifically, I mean empirical verification of the predictive model) what may exist outside of phenomena and never will - empirical investigations operate on phenomena and it is only within our reality of phenomena that they are scientifically valid. If you wish to extrapolate these scientific models to a reality that lay outside of possible verification (i.e. outside of our reality of phenomena) then one has to adopt a particular flavour of realism as a philosophical stance and then the model becomes a belief concerning the nature of mind independent reality (because it is not possible to verify this belief as being true or false within a reality that exists outside of the possible means of verification). Alternatively you could opt for idealism which (philosophically) says that there is no reality outside of phenomena. Take your pick none of it anyhow impacts on how physics is practiced, it just means that physics will never be able to tell us what lay behind the phenomena. But it's doing a pretty good job at describing and predicting the effects of phenomena objectively.

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    Certainly, don't get me wrong, I am not griping about physics. I am just saying that since we will never be able to reach the extremes, we can only have approximations. Constantly getting preciser, but still approximations. Outside of our minds, the universe is there. It just seems an impossible undertaking to try find out what it really is.

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    P.S., I must confess to having had similar discussions here years ago....

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    Quote Originally Posted by gzhpcu View Post
    Well, to get down to the Planck length we need an accelerator the length of the Milky Way.... Seems like a safe bet...
    Who knows, if some of our distant post-human descendants get distant enough, they might be able to do something of that unimaginable scale.

    Quote Originally Posted by Shaula View Post
    It is more fundamental than that. Even if we had a physics model that worked to the Planck length or smaller. Even if we could probe every aspect of the observable universe. All that would give us are scientific models with strong predictive power, abstractions that capture some (possibly not all - we cannot know) of the behavioural characteristics of the system they are applied to. You may chose to equate this with a base reality but that is a belief, not science. Science allows us to predict the outcomes of measurements we make via a series of predictive models. Reality, Truth, Beauty - they are outside science.

    I never equated science with base reality. I said we can gain increasingly accurate models. I specifically used the words "We can never know everything about it" (meaning the elephant) just to make sure others knew I was not talking about base reality.
    Last edited by Noclevername; 2013-Dec-08 at 09:52 PM. Reason: corrected wording
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    Quote Originally Posted by gzhpcu View Post
    Constantly getting preciser, but still approximations. Outside of our minds, the universe is there. It just seems an impossible undertaking to try find out what it really is.
    Then perhaps we should move the goalposts as to what we are trying to "find out" in the first place. What if all we are trying to understand is our own conversation with nature, or more aptly, our conversation with ourselves involving nature? What if that's all there is to understand in the first place? And finally: what if there is just no such thing as what is "really true"? After all, "really" and "true" are words, so they are part of our conversation with ourselves, and hence don't actually have any place outside of that conversation. Once you get that, you realize that what we do get to know is all that the word "know" really applies to anyway.

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    I am probably dense, but philosophical discussions don't do it for me. I wish to avoid getting into a quagmire of semantics. From my simplistic point of view, there is a universe out there, and I am part of it. What does it really consist of? How did it start? I really have not gotten any further than years ago when I initiated similar threads on this forum...

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    My point is, you say there is a universe out there. What do you mean? None of those words are the actual universe, they are all ways that you conceptualize. So when you ask a question in words like "what is out there", it is automatically the case that you are seeking an answer, also in words. Don't you see what that implies? It implies that all you want to know is your own language about things, you want to know a good language to talk about things that you already have some language about but want more. It's language and concepts all the way down, it's never the actual universe, nor is it ever supposed to be-- after all, you are asking something, are you not? If you want to know the universe without the language and the concepts, then don't ask about it, just go experience it. If you ask, then you want something different.

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    With all due respect Ken, I don't follow you (guess I am thick...). When I say the universe is out there, I mean what my senses detect. I can dissect my car into components, and down to nuts and bolts. A picture is worth a thousand words. I would like to zoom in and matter and see what happens, travel and see if the universe is unbounded, or warps around itself, etc.

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    Quote Originally Posted by gzhpcu View Post
    What does it really consist of? How did it start?
    In non-physics terms these are easy questions. Just culturally and temporally dependent.

    In physics terms you have a problem - physics will not tell you what it is 'really' made of or how it 'really' started. The best we will ever get is a theory that predicts our current observations in terms of a larger model. We 'know' that the universe is made of matter, dark matter, dark energy. We 'know' that it evolved from a hot dense state. So they are the answers to your questions. Right now. They may, and probably will, change. And change again. And again. Physics will not deliver something and see some sort of cosmic sign light up saying "This is the TRUTH and now you KNOW IT", it is simply not how science works. Even if we got to a model that could never be improved and was as complete as possible we would not necessarily know that. And it could probably be interpreted in several ways and have alternative formulations.

    All physics will ever give you is the current best fitting theory. In a way that makes it even more amazing than it would be if it was a way to discover the 'truth'. Look around at what we have modelled, predicted and built based on these abstractions we build to describe how things interact. All this from mathematical constructs. It is pretty breath taking.

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    Shaula, I am well aware that physics will not provide the answer. This is the point I have been trying to make, guess I wasn't clear about it. I am not belittling physics either. The predictions based on models physics takes are fantastic. Am just saying it does not correspond to what is out there... And something is out there. Experimental physics is making small steps in this direction.

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    Quote Originally Posted by gzhpcu View Post
    ... Am just saying it does not correspond to what is out there... And something is out there. Experimental physics is making small steps in this direction.
    Just exactly what is this supposed to mean?

    Is the OP in this thread intended to be an exercise in writing a prelude to some new sci-fi movie ... or some kind of prose to entertain oneself?

    Just exactly how do you distinguish 'experimental physics' from 'physics'???

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    To quote Wikipedia

    Theoretical physics is a branch of physics which employs mathematical models and abstractions of physical objects and systems to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena. This is in contrast to experimental physics, which uses experimental tools to probe these phenomena.

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    The unblind man can examine an elephant in a narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum we call visible light. He thinks that thereby he knows the elephant in the way thoroughly and the blind man whose visble light detectors do not work cannot.

    Maybe if we lived in a world where we all used sonar to travel around, like bats do, we would think we knew an elephant thoroughly through its sonar reflection. It would not perhaps occur to us that we were disabled in our knowledge of other animals by not having electromagnetic sensors. How much are we missing by thinking that that narrow part of the electromagnetic spectrum gives us most of what we need?

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    Yes Ivan, but regardless of whether we have electromagnetic sensors or sonar, we still bump into the elephant. The parable of the blind man is perhaps unfortunate. Expand it to the entire physical world. How much can a single blind man be aware of to make sense of the world?

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    Quote Originally Posted by gzhpcu View Post
    I am probably dense, but philosophical discussions don't do it for me. I wish to avoid getting into a quagmire of semantics. From my simplistic point of view, there is a universe out there, and I am part of it. What does it really consist of? How did it start? I really have not gotten any further than years ago when I initiated similar threads on this forum...
    Quote Originally Posted by gzhpcu View Post
    Shaula, I am well aware that physics will not provide the answer. This is the point I have been trying to make, guess I wasn't clear about it. I am not belittling physics either. The predictions based on models physics takes are fantastic. Am just saying it does not correspond to what is out there... And something is out there. Experimental physics is making small steps in this direction.
    I don’t really know what you are wishing for really. On the one hand you don’t want to indulge with philosophical discussions, then you agree that physics does not provide the answer and finally you say that experimental physics is making small steps in matching our models to what is “out there”. You are almost certainly going to find this text long and philosophical, something you have indicated you dislike, but I honestly don't see how you can escape philosophical considerations given the wide ranging scope of your question.

    Personally, I find it important to try and understand what physics is providing us with and where that can in principle take us. Physics ultimately relies on empirical verification, so no matter how precise or how large our experiments get, whether they rely mostly on experimental techniques or require much theoretical input they still have to operate within our reality and they still require empirical verification if we are to describe it as physics. The problem is that physics itself can tell us nothing about the nature of that reality in terms of examining it from the “outside”. It can only inform us about the “inside” of our reality and the truths of physics (in terms of predictive models) are only applicable to the “inside” of our reality and within the domain of their applicability.

    Now you can legitimately speculate that there is no “inside” or “outside”, that our reality is absolute - the rock in front of you is the same rock as exists outside of any notion of life, mind, consciousness and sentient beings. You may say that stars (for example) were being born in the manner we envisage billions and billions of years before humans came on the scene.

    I maintain that our reality is phenomena and by phenomena I mean everything - our brains, our senses, our body, the rocks, the stars, the planets. For me the one thing that brings all this together as a whole is mind and consciousness. So outside of our reality of phenomena I don’t consider there to be stars being born in the manner we envisage - the historical time line of the birth of a star occurring before sentient beings evolved is a projection that we make based on a hypothetical human person being present at all times on that time line observing and measuring parameters of the star. Without that hypothetical human observer, we cannot scientifically say what that star is outside of phenomena. You may recoil at that suggestion, but your “common sense view” that the star exists with that historical time line independently of phenomena (our reality) is a philosophical premise you take up, we cannot prove that to be the case because we have no means in which to step outside of phenomena and “common sense” is simply a function of the only thing we can know.

    The important point to make concerning the two paragraphs above is that neither of these two differing viewpoints (that our reality is absolute verses our reality being phenomena that has an unknowable correspondence with mind independent reality) can be verified in the manner that we do physics, both stand outside of that form of enquiry and so we need to understand the nature of the “truths” that physics gives us when asking “what is out there” because the answers you get through physics are limited in their application, they do not have the legitimacy to be extrapolated to areas of enquiry that lay outside of the means by which they were formulated and verified.

    So when you ask (at least that's what I think you are asking) how we can discover the last “nut and bolt” of the physical world, from my perspective there will never be a last nut and bolt because we can never escape from the phenomena of the nut and bolt and look to see what underlay the phenomena, it is always going to involve mind and consciousness. To some extent we already see this with QM in that the fundamental building blocks of the microscopic are linked to how we set up the experiment. Of course one can argue as many do that QM is incomplete, but as of now nothing indicates that to be the case.

    If some “final nut and bolt” is discovered through bigger and bigger experiments then you might claim this to be the end of physics. Perhaps it would be – I’m not sure how you would ever be able to tell (and perhaps that’s the point you are making). All I would say is that if we could establish such a thing, then for me it would simply say that physics has reached its legitimate limit in terms of providing models of phenomena. To go any further we would have to invoke models that incorporate mind and consciousness and I have no idea how we could ever do that in an objective manner (how can we use our mind and consciousness to create an objective model of mind and consciousness?). If you were to insist that this “last nut and bolt” provides a final understanding of the physical world then I would say, fine, but just understand that this is not a viewpoint supported by physics, rather it is an extrapolation of that “last nut and bolt” to the “outside” of our reality and thus can only be a philosophical stance in which to take.

    Thus my own view is that physics as an empirical science can never reach any kind of final answer because it cannot reach beyond phenomena. Even though you may not agree with this you cannot fall back onto physics in which to counter it, so you are left with having to understand what ultimately physics is able to tell us about nature in terms of the way we practice physics (which has to ultimately involve empirical verification, otherwise it ceases to be physics). The point is, your hypothetical “last nut and bolt” of physics can still only be a model of “something”. It is a model that only has legitimacy (in terms of how we practice physics) within the reality in which it operates. The “last nut and bolt” of physics tells us nothing scientific about the reality in which that “last nut and bolt” resides and so will always be incomplete as a scientific method of understanding causal mechanisms within our reality.

    The problem is that many see physics generally as a discipline in its own right. In terms of predictive mathematical models it is just that, but outside of that narrow window it operates within a philosophical framework that each of us is free to choose. So when you ask how and when physics will be able to provide answers to all of our questions relating to the physical world you firstly have to decide what your philosophical stance is, is it nave realism, mathematical realism, objectivist realism – any flavor you like really. You can also go for idealism which says that there is only mind and consciousness. Having chosen your philosophical stance, you are then free to speculate philosophically on the relationship between the verified predictive models and the nature of reality outside of the reality in which those models work.

    Most physicists don’t bother with this, why should they – none of it impacts on the proper job of the physicist which is to create and verify models that allow the rest of us to make use of. But once you go beyond this then I don’t see how you can avoid philosophical enquiry and I think this to be the case with yourself.
    Last edited by Len Moran; 2013-Dec-09 at 03:41 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by gzhpcu View Post
    With all due respect Ken, I don't follow you (guess I am thick...). When I say the universe is out there, I mean what my senses detect.
    Then you follow me just fine! You mean what your senses detect, exactly. And for your senses to "detect" anything, you need a brain to interpret those senses, correct? And so everything you detect is a kind of mental construct, does that not follow directly from your own words? So let's recap what you are saying: when you say the "universe is out there," what you mean is a mental construct you form in your head as you interact with whatever it is that is out there-- you do not mean what is actually out there, because that is simply not what you just said in your own words. Thus, to "know" what is "out there," all you can do is just what you are doing: replacing what is out there by your own best mental version, whatever fits in your head that you have evolved genetically, and learned experientially, to be able to do. You are talking about your conversation with reality, so of course what you will end up with is a conversation with reality. Thus, this is not a shortcoming of what you are doing, it is what you are doing. Nothing else could make any sense at all, it wouldn't be true to the words.

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    Quote Originally Posted by gzhpcu View Post
    Yes Ivan, but regardless of whether we have electromagnetic sensors or sonar, we still bump into the elephant. The parable of the blind man is perhaps unfortunate. Expand it to the entire physical world. How much can a single blind man be aware of to make sense of the world?
    Why just a single blind man? In the parable, there were many blind men looking at different aspects of the elephant.

    They all could put their heads together and come up with an abstraction of the elephant...and they'd be pretty close, no?

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    Quote Originally Posted by gzhpcu View Post
    What we are doing as blind men is feeling, say the trunk, and then extrapolating further on that model, unaware that a legs, tail, etc. exist.
    "...cosmologists are claiming that they can extrapolate backward in time to learn the conditions in the universe just one second after the beginning! If cosmologists are so smart, you might ask, why can't they predict the weather? The answer, I would argue, is not that cosmologists are so smart, but that the early universe is much simpler than the weather!" -- Alan Guth
    Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

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    Or to add to what Guth is saying, I would claim that what is actually different is that cosmologists are asking much simpler questions than meteorologists. It's not the cosmological universe that is simpler, it is what the physicist has chosen to care about that is simpler.

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