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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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    Quote Originally Posted by Shaula View Post
    Truth is a subjective non-measurable philosophical concept. Science is based on predictions. measurements and models.
    I'm glad someone finally admitted it was not based on anything real like observations.

    Let's not forget Einstein said "imagination is more important than knowledge."

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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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    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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    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 Ė 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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    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 Shaula View Post
    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.
    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.
    Quote Originally Posted by starcanuck64 View Post
    I don't disagree, I had an idea it would be a bit of a rabbit hole when I first wandered in here, but there are some interesting ideas to me being presented about the nature of science.

    I also find that the two sides repeatedly answering in defence of their beliefs does create a self-sustaining process, kind of like a magnetic and electric field producing light. Except I'm not sure this is revealing much more besides the fact that people do have different beliefs.

    That's why I ended up finding this was more of a religious discussion at its core than a philosophical or scientific one.
    Just looked back at the beginning of the thread, since others have been referencing it. I think Shaula nailed it all on page 1 (bold added). And starcanuck's concerns are well-founded.

    I also agree with recent calls to move the thread to OTB, and out of S&T, due to the above. Nothing wrong with OTB for this stuff, nor with the thread itself, but it is increasingly inappropriate for S&T, especially for new members or perusing students.
    Last edited by Hlafordlaes; 2014-May-25 at 05:12 PM. Reason: Second, later, better thoughts.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Hlafordlaes View Post
    Just looked back at the beginning of the thread, since others have been referencing it. I think Shaula nailed it all on page 1 (bold added). And starcanuck's concerns are well-founded.

    I also agree with recent calls to move the thread to OTB, and out of S&T, due to the above. Nothing wrong with OTB for this stuff, nor with the thread itself, but it is increasingly inappropriate for S&T, especially for new members or perusing students.
    Thank you, that's what struck me when profloater suggested I start at the beginning of the thread to understand what was being discussed.


    Quote Originally Posted by Shaula
    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.
    Considering that qualitatively the thread is still at the point of debating(maybe arguing is a better word) whether or not MIR or MDR is "real" what have the last 58 pages produced?

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    Quote Originally Posted by starcanuck64 View Post
    Thank you, that's what struck me when profloater suggested I start at the beginning of the thread to understand what was being discussed.




    Considering that qualitatively the thread is still at the point of debating(maybe arguing is a better word) whether or not MIR or MDR is "real" what have the last 58 pages produced?
    The difference between belief and objective knowledge within science.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Len Moran View Post
    The difference between belief and objective knowledge within science.
    Which rapidly devolved into "are we living in a MIR or MDR universe?".

    I'm guessing the answer to that is always going to be, "who knows" as was stated by Shaula in post #2.

    From what I can see given it's pattern this thread will persist indefinitely if given any input, I agree now that it has no place in S&T after seeing that in scientific terms it was answered almost immediately.

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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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    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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    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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    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
    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 Ken G View Post
    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.
    If it is not detectable by my senses or measuring equipment directly or indirectly, then I am not including it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by gzhpcu View Post
    If it is not detectable by my senses or measuring equipment directly or indirectly, then I am not including it.
    That is kind of tricky. We have strong evidence for gluons and quarks - but what is it we actually observe? Not these particles. We observe things like particle jets, confinement and so on. How do we use these to deduce what is causing them? Well, a model. Even with a photon - we detect it by assuming that certain electronic changes in a material are due to its interaction with a EM related particle which we define as a photon. There is no way to prove that the eye and a scintillation counter are detecting the same particles - we could just as easily propose that there are multiple particles linked by some strange force of entanglement, and an eye and a scintillation counter actually detect different things. Photons are simply the more parsimonious answer.

    Contrary to popular belief theory and experiment are very hard to draw lines between. Most of the Standard Model was theory, then we developed tests for it. But the interpretation of those tests are dependent on the model used to put them into a framework for comprehension. It is highly likely you can come up with more complex but identical (in predictions) theories - when there isn't any way to test them to tell them apart we tend to go for parsimony, the simplest theory. This is not because that is the way the universe 'really' works but a convenience for us, who have to use the theories to make predictions.

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    Quote Originally Posted by gzhpcu View Post
    If it is not detectable by my senses or measuring equipment directly or indirectly, then I am not including it.
    Sure, but have you considered enough what you mean by "detectable by your senses?" When you answer what you mean by that phrase, I'm going to point out where you invoke the mental pictures you form, as they are inseparable from any decent meaning of "detect." So your own words are talking about what your senses detect, that means your own words are talking about your mental constructs, that means your own words are invoking a kind of conversation with reality that very much has you in it. So you are not talking about reality at all, you are talking about what reality means to you. Hence, physics is about learning what reality means to us, hence, it will always be subject to us, we will never learn about reality independent of us, nor would it have any meaning to try and do such a thing. We never see reality, we see a mirror of reality with us in the reflection. Given this, we should not bemoan that we cannot know reality independently of the limitations of our minds, instead we should marvel that our minds' limitations have still allowed us to understand atoms and cosmologies. It's downright astonishing, we should revel and rejoice in that accomplishment, never bemoan that we don't get to know something else that simply has no meaning.

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