Friday, March 4, 2011

When science isn't enough

I'd like to begin with an example.

When we teach children mathematics, we start at the very bottom: simple addition and subtraction, 2+2 and 5-3. We move on to multiplication and division and describing geometry in simple, qualitative terms (circle, triangle, parallelogram). The next step is to make easy abstractions: instead of 2+2 = x, we move the unknown to the left hand side of the equation and make 2+x=4 instead. With increasing difficulty in algebra and trigonometry, we increase the level of abstraction: 5.9x+y = 14, tan(z) = 0.24. Soon, we reach pre-calc (also known as infinite series and limits), calculus, then perhaps (if we continue) multidimensional calculus, multi-variable calculus, complex math (you know - square root of -1), and finally topologies, gauge theories and group theories, with their beautifully simple – but completely abstract – symmetries. Once we've reached this point, we suddenly realize that the basic algebra we began with was merely a specific, small-scale example of the larger group theory we've come to know. In essence, we begin with the specific and concrete, and end with the general and abstract.
Once we've learned the abstraction, the powerful general theory, it's not unreasonable to ask: why don't we start with this? I've argued this before – that we should start teaching children group theory, and then specialize (this is how we teach college/graduate level physics, after all – what's more specialized than your thesis project?) to algebra. It's not too difficult for children to be taught group theory. We just think so because we're accustomed to being taught group theory at a very, very high academic level. But that's just cultural ingraining.
But there is a reason that children are taught math this way, and it's because this – the progression from specific, concrete example to general, abstract theory – is how the human brain works. At a very fundamental level, humans are "built" to abstract from specific, real-world, experiential examples. And this fact can be found built-in at the deepest level to the "scientific method."
The scientific method, that invention above all inventions, that way which is supposed to be the most logical, reasonable, unbiased and objective means of observing the world, has at its core this fundamental "flaw" (if you will) – it's based on us humans. Because we think from example to general theory, we have built science to follow this rule. Experiment, holding everything constant but one variable. Repeat. After enough repetition, we can start to make generalizations. After even more repetition, we can build a theory. And this isn't a bad thing. We need to be rigorous and structured and specific when we're doing science. But here’s the catch. Science isn't enough.

Consider two of the most incredible strides forward in physics in the last century – so important that even non-scientists have heard of them – the discoveries of general relativity and quantum mechanics. When Einstein proposed his theory of general relativity, it shook the Newtonian ground beneath his feet: Newton's universal law of gravitation had held for so long, hundreds of years, that to even think to question it was beyond many scientists. But experiment later (and that's the important point) bore out Einstein's suppositions. General relativity was right, and it had started as something tremendously abstract (mathematics), only to be verified by specific examples later (general relativity was so abstract, in fact, that people are still coming up with particular solutions to its equations). Similarly, the idea of quantum mechanics (thanks to Feynman, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Planck, Bohr, Pauli, Dirac, etc) was born out of a mathematical oddity – when matter and energy was thought of as continuous, why should a quantized (hence the term "quantum" mechanics) equation better describe it at the atomic level? The theory grew much faster than the specific experiments could keep up. We're still "testing" quantum mechanics, but again, so far, it's been completely correct. But neither of these two discoveries came about via the "traditional" scientific method. They involved – nay, required – a view which surpassed and complemented the scientific method. Don't get me wrong; of course, these theories eventually need to be experimentally tested, but that requirement doesn't preclude a top-down approach to building the theory in the first place.
In today's society, I'm beginning to believe that we might never again see the likes of Einstein or Feynman, because we are taught (in science) that the scientific method is the be-all-end-all of thought and inquiry (a fact which in and of itself causes all manner of problems, this one notwithstanding). Even those we think of as greats, such as Stephen Hawking, declare the scientific method as the only solution... even going so far as calling philosophy "dead" (in fact, Hawking has on several instances over the last few decades proclaimed the imminent end of theoretical physics, only to rescind his announcement at the news of yet another breakthrough in theoretical physics). But if philosophy is dead, science is dead with it! If we have no other method of thought, nothing which supersedes our "specific example to general theory," concrete-to-abstract way of viewing the universe, then we are nothing more than just bean counters and stamp collectors. Science will have lost one of its most important attributes: novelty (part of the success of general relativity and quantum mechanics both was the ability to break out of the traditional mode of thinking to create something different, yet even better). We will have killed science by demanding that science conform to the scientific method. (I believe this is why there is such hostility to string theory within the scientific community, even as it is greeted with amazement by the general public.)

In other words, science simply isn't enough.

We have put on these blinders by choice, but now we've gone so far that we don't even recognize the view of the world once the blinders are off. We have to learn to see the world from both the specific and concrete and the general and abstract points of view, or else we will never have a complete view of the world.

As the famous physicist Max Planck said, "Science [ie, the scientific method] cannot solve the ultimate mystery of Nature. And it is because in the last analysis we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve." We have to acknowledge that the scientific method isn't everything - we have to acknowledge that our view of the universe and existence is ultimately, and unfailingly, subjective.


  1. Hi, Kelly-

    You've got me befuddled with this post. Where do general theories come from? I don't think they drop from the sky. They require inductive imagination, hypotheses, and verfication. And evidence.

    "But experiment later (and that's the important point) bore out Einstein's suppositions."

    This isn't fair. Einstein was trying to explain experimental anamalies.. the Michelson–Morley experiment and others showing the constancy of the speed of light. It started as an empirical problem that the current theories couldn't meet, and involved alot of casting around for new ideas, most of which were doubtless wrong and now unheard of.

    "But neither of these two discoveries came about via the "traditional" scientific method. They involved – nay, required – a view which surpassed and complemented the scientific method. "

    When I went to school, induction and hypothesis making was part of the scientific method. Is that no longer the case? Perhaps the word you were looking for was "imagination"? As in.. successful induction and hypothesis creation requires imagination?

    I would agree that philosophy is mostly dead. Certainly from what I am reading on Eric's blog, it is seriously lacking in rigor these days. And that is not because it is lacking in imagination and grand theories, but because any piece of it worth pursuing with the possibility of finding an answer has migrated to other fields, like psychology, cognitive science, physics, etc. All that is left is the history of philosophy and theism in its many guises, hiding behind the grand protective banner of Plato.

    You might enjoy Matt Stewart's book.

    And if we are the ultimate mystery of nature, then biology is where it's at, not to say depth psychology!

  2. I enjoyed the post. I hope that in an age of extreme specialization, many people can still take a step back and imagine the next paradigm shift.

    On "philosophy is dead" - I sometimes wonder if there is some equivocation here. Perhaps those who espouse this view mean that FURTHER philosophy is dead, since philosophy has done such a good job of grounding us in the scientific method. Now it can take a backseat.

    Perhaps those who are up in arms read the statement as meaning that all philosophy of all time is dead?

    I don't think philosophy of any kind is dead, because to me it is simply about testing our thinking to make sure it is as correct as possible.

    I love the last quote - we are absolutely swimming in this giant ocean we are trying to measure.

  3. Burk - sure, relativity and quantum both set out to explain existing experimental anomalies, but they didn't do so by performing more experiments or building up a theory piece-by-piece. They both started from an entirely different mode of thought (a mostly mathematical, and thus abstract, one), which, as you've said, requires imagination. I don't think that students of science are really taught to be creative anymore. They're taught to use other people's code and repeat mind-numbing tabletop experiments over and over (I can remember a friend in the solid state group who daily would adjust a tiny fraction of a percent of the amount of dopant in his CdTe solar cell and then measure its effect on the efficiency - while this is necessary, it's not the only thing that makes up science). String theory (superstring theory) is a huge and obvious example of this top-down approach, which, because it starts with such abstraction, requires creativity in a way that the "scientific method" doesn't. But in any case, I intend to check out the book suggestion!
    Steven - I think you're right. The quote from Hawking gave the impression that he (and Mlodinow) felt that philosophy was dead from now on, because science had taken the torch. But this statement can't possibly be true unless we include within science this creative, holistic, wide-angle-view method of thinking which philosophy originally comprised. So in that sense, philosophy can't be dead. It's simply known by another name.

  4. Brilliant, Kelly.
    I don't really have a fun response this time. (A.k.a., Let's get into a debate!) I just really DO wish we could effectively better teach creativity from the beginning of schooling. The specific to general method you outlined has very nearly brought me up against a wall in my mathematical progression. I'm really good at the specific, concrete stuff. But the general and abstract? Yikes. Group theory overwhelms me. The abstractness in graduate level mathematics is really difficult for me to process. Perhaps it's partly genetic that I'm so strong at the concrete and so weak at the abstract, but I'd like to be able to figure out how to teach creativity in the sciences, especially math, because I think that would make it more relevant, more interesting, more applicable, across the board to so many more people.

    "We have to learn to see the world from both the specific and concrete and the general and abstract points of view, or else we will never have a complete view of the world."


  5. ...that would make it more relevant, more interesting, more applicable, across the board to so many more people. Meghan, I can't agree more. Not so long ago, people would flock to see public lectures given by people like Feynman, even if they could hardly understand what he was discussing! Similarly, I just recently attended a public lecture by string theorist Brian Greene, which had to be moved last minute to a venue with more than twice the seating capacity of the original. People who are charismatic and capable of communicating in creative ways with regard to their work in science are immensely important. Greene's books are made into PBS miniseries. Copies of the Feynman lectures sell for hundreds of dollars. But for someone like Dawkins, Howard Jacobsen over at The Independent says it all: "Never mind that you are right. Never mind that you have science and reason on your side. Something else there is that human beings crave, not dreamed of in your philosophy, some other way of grasping meaning, some other sort of elegance and harmony your deafness and blindness to which leave you stranded in the universe like a stranger."


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