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Scope of the Scientific Method and What Remains Beyond
Jul 1, 2008

Once Newton published his Principia in 1687, the world was never the same again. In a mere 750 pages a brand new world was presented where the same law governed both the falling of an apple and a galaxy cluster. The world was henceforth describable; science introduced a new way of comprehending the world. In the past 300 years, the research within the paradigm of the scientific method has proven to be unbelievably successful; this is a fact which no one will dispute. But, can one claim that it grasps everything?

The way scientific prediction generally tends to approach matters is as follows: “do this and you’ll see that”. The discovery of the planet Neptune in 1846, one of the early successes of physics, still remaining fresh even today, is a particularly nice example: In the nineteenth century, by observing the trajectories of the planetary motion of Uranus, the most remote planet in the Solar system at that time, astronomers discovered that its trajectory was not exactly the way it should have been. Taking into account the gravitational action of nearby planets did not help either. By that time, however, Newtonian mechanics had already gained enough authority so as not to be immediately abandoned. To circumvent the problem, instead of abandoning gravity altogether, scientists proposed that there must be a celestial body, hitherto unseen, that was disturbing the trajectory. After elaborate calculations were made, the astronomers were told to direct their telescopes at a specific time at a specific region of the sky and they would see a shiny dot. They did as instructed, and the dot was present exactly as calculated. Significantly, it does not matter who was actually sitting by the telescope. Under the same conditions, a famous scientist or a lay person should be able to see the same. This is an example of what is called “objective reality,” the shining star in this case. In general, objective reality may be defined as anything which exists independent of the observer, implying that if something objectively real is encountered by observer 1, then reproducing the conditions of the first experiment, observer 2 should see it as well.

“Objective reality” is the scope of science and the science is unbelievably successful when dealing with it. The agreement between theory and experiment in the case of the so-called “anomalous magnetic moment of the electron,” for instance, is to the order of 1 to 100,000,000,000. To give a sense of this truly mind-blowing degree of precision, one can say that it is like sending a rocket to the Moon and predicting its landing coordinates up to the nearest millimeter.

This shows us the might of science, but what makes science so effective also sets the limits for the range of its applicability. The key factor for the conventional scientific method is the reproducibility or the regularity of the event. Whatever does not fit this condition finds itself outside the circle of phenomena that are conventionally called “scientific.” For example, ghosts are not scientific, although there are many more people who claim to have seen them than there are those who routinely observe, for example, the fractional quantum Hall effect, which is absolutely real, despite its exoticism. The number does not matter in this case. There is a certain prescription of how the quantum Hall effect should be observed, whereas there is no such thing for spiritual contacts. One has to be careful to distinguish non-scientific phenomena from non-existent phenomena. The concept of reality and existence itself is a subtle question and has traditionally been a philosophical battlefield that is heavily dependent on definitions; in any case, whatever the truth is, the fact that there is no 100% guaranteed technique of, for instance, summoning the spirit of the long-deceased Genghis Khan does not present sufficient evidence to rule out its possibility.

To illustrate what has been said up to this point, and to look on the subject from a different perspective, the following story might be of some use.

The pond story

Imagine Mr. Smith is sitting by the pond. To study its content our researcher has a sieve that he can use to scoop the water and see what is left inside. After some time he is certain that there is ooze in the pond. Later that evening, by the fireplace, he tells his wife, Mrs. Smith, about what he’d seen during the day at the pond. On the next day, to make sure her husband had actually spent his day the way he said he had, she takes the sieve and goes to the pond. With the first scoop, she gets some ooze and on the evening of the second day the ooze is elevated to the level of an objective reality. It is unimportant who is scooping the water, Mr. or Mrs. Smith. From now on whenever they want to watch the ooze, they just scoop the water with the sieve, and they are guaranteed to get some. In addition to this important discovery, Mrs. Smith also tells Mr. Smith about some rapidly moving shiny longish objects that she saw from time to time in the muddy waters of the pond. However, none of these, unfortunately, have ever made their way into the colander. That evening Mr. Smith has trouble believing the confusing story of his wife, as she doesn’t have much evidence to support it. At the end of the day, the self-confident ooze pioneer has convinced the excessively susceptible scooper that she has had a hard day, and shiny objects won’t bother her anymore. And so they lived a long and happy life. Actually long after, Mr. and Mrs. Smith Jr. discovered that the silver objects also existed objectively, for that, however, a sieve had to be upgraded to a net. These are called fish. But that’s a whole other story.

The moral is obvious: the fish here symbolizes some phenomena that are unobservable with the available accessible technology, but which do actually exist in the pond, which represents the universe; it is solely the problem of the master of the colander, who is of course identified with a researcher, that his gear is not advanced enough. At this point, one should avoid falling into another extremity, that is, denying science altogether, for Mr. Smith was right to a certain extent. At that point the fish, or to be more precise, a fish dinner which would be the manifestation of the fish, was not real for him at all. And this being so there wasn’t much point in talking about it. He preferred to talk constructively of what he could do at anytime with, to some extent, guaranteed success, that is, of what was real for him. Though, again, one should keep in mind that they should not be so opinionated to deny the existence of anything they cannot trap or measure. These ideas should always be kept in mind when thinking about the compatibility of metaphysics with the conventional, quantifiable material world.

The fact that science is based on positive knowledge is very inconvenient for proving the absence of something as opposed to proving the existence of it. To perform the latter involves locating the object or giving a concrete example of it. On the contrary, to prove the absence of something, the whole range of possibilities must be exposed. The task grows ever more difficult as the generality of the statement grows, ultimately becoming impossible.

While thinking of the universe and the role of science which is so successful in understanding it, one should be aware of the fact that science deals with the idealized models of phenomena, describing them with a certain degree of success, not the phenomena themselves. A good model has a small error, poor ones have greater error. A nice example illustrating this matter is the electrical model of a mechanical oscillator. For those who are not familiar with electronics, we can say that the capacitor and the coil act as a spring and the mass, respectively. The charge is to be associated with the expansion of the spring, the electrical current with the velocity of the block.

In the first approximation everything goes well: if we want to determine what the position of the block of the oscillator would be after 3 seconds, instead of oscillating the whole system, we can build a model circuit with the capacitance and inductance adjusted properly, and measure the charge accumulated on the capacitor after 3 seconds. However, once we begin to demand higher precision, we begin to encounter one problem after another. The capacitor might be leaking, hence it no longer ideally represents the spring; the coil has resistance and so on. Even if we somehow get ideal electronics, the oscillator has some air drag, and the spring does not ideally follow Hook’s law) [Hook’s law states that the force the spring produces is directly proportional to the degree it was stretched or compressed to]. Therefore, it is absolutely impossible to determine what the oscillator would do exactly without letting it run. However, there is no reason to fall into despair: generally we don’t need to know what it does exactly; depending on the particular case, a fairly good approximation is fine for most of the applications we might ever encounter.

This is how science works. No one has ever observed the “free bodies” moving on a “straight line with constant velocity” that are mentioned in Newton’s first law, the so-called “law of inertia.” What we actually do encounter are the almost free bodies, moving on an almost straight line, with almost constant velocity. But that doesn’t mean, of course, that Newton was wrong: as long as we don’t force his laws into the subatomic region where quantum physics dominates or try to use them nearby the black holes where Einstein’s general relativity takes over, they work unbelievably fine. The rockets we send using these very laws make it quite well to the Moon.

There is an interesting aphorism which is ascribed to Sir Arthur Eddington, a prominent British astronomer: “The law of inertia is true as long as we believe in it.” Newtonian mechanics states that “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force. An object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force.” However, since no one has ever seen bodies that are totally isolated from “an external and unbalanced force,” we just believe in this law. Now imagine that someone has nevertheless succeeded in shielding away all the external forces. Being given an initial velocity it is expected to maintain this; but what a disaster: the body doesn’t do so! What should be done in this case? One choice is to renounce Newton’s first law altogether, the other is to say “Hey, what if I did not eliminate the forces completely, what if there is some other force, unknown to me? Both ways are good, but in the latter one you save the ability to describe the world, whereas in the first you are left with nothing. We assume the law of inertia is true and the world becomes describable. Actually, this is what one has to do to understand anything. You have to begin somewhere. State an axiom and assume it is true. Infinite skepticism just doesn’t work. “Cogito ergo sum” was Descartes’ axiom which he had to accept to begin with.

This being so, modern science in the way it exists now does not provide the only model for the Universe; instead, it just realizes one of the possibilities. In the same way that one can use either electrical circuits or a special computer program to model a mechanical oscillator, there is more than one way to deal with the Universe. For example, how can we explain that the parameters of the planet Earth happened to meet the criteria needed to support organic life so ideally? One can say it just happened to be this way by coincidence and we are very lucky. We are very lucky, for instance, that the magnetic field of the Earth stops deadly solar winds, that the ozone layer stops destructive ultraviolet radiation, that the atmosphere is the most transparent for radiation in the yellow-green part of the spectrum, which just miraculously happens to coincide with the intensity peak of the Sun spectrum, which, in turn is the spectrum part plants use for photosynthesis and that to which the human eye is the most sensitive, etc, etc, etc. And though the probability is ridiculously low, low enough to rule it out in normal practice, it is still not impossible, although it is extremely improbable. Or one can say it was God Almighty who created the planet this way so that we can live here. And if it was God Who created the Sun, the Earth, the human eye and the plants then this set of coincidences does not seem so improbable any more. Is there a way to find out which approach is the truth? As long as both are self-consistent internally and do not contradict physical observations, the answer is no. There is no way to choose one version over the other using pure logic alone. However, there is an empirical rule usually called “Occam’s Razor” which states that in case there is more than one explanation for some phenomenon, the one which is the simplest is the true one. Well, the Universe with God in it is the simplest, isn’t it? 

Janibek Alpishev is PhD candidate at Stanford University.