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.
2 days ago