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A journal of sorts to record Jonathan Sturm's (and others') thoughts and observations on things worth thinking about. Feedback welcome, but be aware that unless you prominently say you want your communication kept private, I may publish it.
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Monday 29 July 2002
A century after the birth of Karl Popper, The Git's thoughts turn once more to epistemology. The recently deceased Stephen Jay Gould was one of my favourite scientific essayists. One of his contentions was that science and religion occupy two separate domains, but is this true? The aim of both disciplines after all is explanation of the universe we occupy. Fritjof Capra wrote in The Tao of Physics:
The purpose or this book is to explore this relationship between the concepts of modern physics and the basic ideas in the philosophical and religious traditions of the Far East. We shall see how the two foundations of twentieth-century physics quantum theory and relativity theory both force us to see the world very much in the way a Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist sees it, and how this similarity strengthens when we look at the recent attempts to combine these two theories in order to describe the phenomena of the submicroscopic world: the properties and interactions of the subatomic particles of which all matter is made. Here the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism are most striking, and we shall often encounter statements where it is almost impossible to say whether they have been made by physicists or Eastern mystics.
Eastern mysticism of course is dramatically different to the conventional religions of the West: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. While the emphasis in the Eastern mystical religions (and physics) is on a flexible method, the emphasis in Western religious thought is on dogma: a fixed doctrine or code of beliefs accepted as authoritative. You can reinterpret the the meaning, but not question the basic precepts.
Dr Michael Seeds wrote:
True science is a method of studying nature. It is a set of rules that prevents scientists from lying to each other or to themselves. Hypotheses must be open to testing and must be revised in the face of contradictory evidence. All evidence must be considered and all alternative hypotheses must be explored. The rules of good science are nothing more than the rules of good thinking that is, the rules of intellectual honesty.
While this is how science is portrayed, is it how science is really done?
Karl Popper wrote that observations are theory-laden: "Sense-data, untheoretical items of observation, simply do not exist..." which leads us into somewhat murky waters. If observations are matters of interpretation, then we have theories being theories about other theories. Thomas Kuhn's way out of this impasse was to declare: "a proposition is scientific if it is sanctioned by the scientific establishment". Presumably this means that the scientific establishment could, if it so wished, declare that there are fairies at the bottom of my garden.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn coined that most overused of terms, paradigm. Paradigm is just a fancy word for the generally accepted perspective of a particular discipline at a given time. Adherents to the discipline will accept anything consistent with the dogma, but reject anything inconsistent with it. Eventually, when sufficient contradictory evidence has accumulated, a revolution occurs and new dogma replaces the old.
Paul Davies wrote:
When the Big Bang theory became popular in the 1950s, many people used it to support the belief that the universe was created by God at some specific moment in the past. And some still regard the Big Bang as "the creation" a divine act to be left beyond the scope of science... Cosmologist regard the Big Bang as marking the origin of space and time, as well as of matter and energy... This more sophisticated, but abstract, idea of God adapts well to the scientific picture of a universe subject to timeless eternal laws... If time itself began with the Big Bang, then the question "What caused the Big Bang?" is rendered meaningless... New and exciting theories of quantum cosmology seek to explain the origin of the universe within the framework of scientific law. Their central feature is Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which permits genuine spontaneity in nature. As a result, the tight linkage between cause and effect so characteristic of classical physics is loosened. Quantum events do not need well-defined prior causes; they can be regarded as spontaneous fluctuations. It is then possible to imagine the universe coming into being from nothing entirely spontaneously, without violating any laws.
The idea of the universe "the universe coming into being from nothing entirely spontaneously" sounds perilously similar to the cosmogony of Western religion to me. What's the evidence?
The big bang theory states that at some time in the distant past there was nothing. A process known as vacuum fluctuation created what astrophysicists call a singularity. From that singularity, which was about the size of a dime, our Universe was born.
It is hard to imagine the very beginning of the Universe. Physical laws as we know them did not exist due to the presence of incredibly large amounts of energy, in the form of photons. Some of the photons became quarks, and then the quarks formed neutrons and protons. Eventually huge numbers of Hydrogen, Helium and Lithium nuclei formed. The process of forming all these nuclei is called big bang nucleosynthesis. Theoretical predictions about the amounts and types of elements formed during the big bang have been made and seem to agree with observation. Furthermore, the cosmic microwave background (CMB), a theoretical prediction about photons left over from the big bang, was discovered in the 1960's and mapped out by a team at Berkeley in the early 1990's.
After some period of time following the big bang, gravity condensed clumps of matter together. The clumps were gravitationally pulled towards other clumps and eventually formed galaxies. It is extremely difficult to model how this clumping may have occurred, but most models agree that it occurred faster than it should have. A possible explanation is that right after the big bang the Universe began a period of exaggerated outward expansion, with particles flying outward faster than the current speed of light. This explanation is known as inflation theory, and has widespread advocacy within the astrophysics community because it reconciles theory with observation. It should be noted, however, that inflation theory is not directly verifiable.
While Paul Davies glibly asserts that the universe came into being "spontaneously, without violating any laws", current Big Bang theory has the early universe expanding faster than the speed of light. This clearly violates Einstein's Relativity theories by having matter moving apart at faster than the speed of light. Compounding this, gravity signalling between the matter to reduce the rate of expansion of the universe, also contradicts Relativity. For more problems with Big Bang, see Bill Mitchel's paper published in Physics Essays here.
We appear to be in a situation where if Relativity is true, then Big Bang is impossible. What then of Relativity itself? I was taught that Relativity solved the problems caused by earlier theories of the necessity for an aether to convey electromagnetic radiation. Dr. Abraham Pais in Subtle is the Lord... The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein quotes Einstein:
The aether of the general theory of relativity is a medium without mechanical and kinematic properties, but which codetermines mechanical and electromagnetic events.
The aether that I was taught did not exist seems to have been there all along! Again from Pais:
I consider it quite possible that physics cannot be based on the field concept, i.e., on continuous structures. In that case, nothing remains of my entire castle in the air, gravitation theory included, [and of] the rest of modern physics.
Now The Pompous Git is very confused. The authority that most modern science appeals to for its dogma didn't do what we are taught that he said he did! Nor did he believe in the absolute validity of those ideas that form the foundation of modern physics. That being so, why then is it so difficult for papers demonstrating the validity of Einstein's surmise that he was wrong to be published? Such as those by Bryan G. Wallace on the measurement of the speed of light. (The Git borrowed quite freely for this piece from Bryan's The Farce of Physics).
Dr. Robert R. Wilson, the 1985 president of the American Physical Society:
Just suppose, even though it is probably a logical impossibility, some smart aleck came up with a simple, self- evident, closed theory of everything. I and so many others have had a perfectly wonderful life pursuing the will-o'-the-wisp of unification. I have dreamed of my children, their children and their children's children all having this same beautiful experience. All that would end.
APS membership would drop precipitously. Fellow members, could we afford this catastrophe? We must prepare a crisis-management plan for this eventuality, however remote. First we must voice a hearty denial. Then we should ostracize the culprit and hold up for years any publication by the use of our well-practiced referees.
While clearly Wilson intended this as tongue in cheek, is it so far from the truth? Hannes Alfvén, winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physics always had problems being published in Anglo-American journals. Frequently, it took 30 years for the rest of the world of physics to catch up to his ideas. Dr. Chet Raymo makes the following arguments:
Science has evolved an elaborate system of social organization, communication, and peer review to ensure a high degree of conformity with existing orthodoxy... In a recent article titled "When Do Anomalies Begin?" (Science, February 7th), Alan Lightman of MIT and Owen Gingerich of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics describe the conservation of science. They acknowledge that scientist may be reluctant to face change for the purely psychological reason that the familiar is more comfortable than the unfamiliar...
Usually, say Lightman and Gingerich, such anomalies are recognized only in retrospect. Only when a new theory gives a compelling explanation of previously unexplained facts does it become "safe" to recognize anomalies for what they are. In the meantime scientist often simply ignore what doesn't fit...
For some people outside mainstream science, the path toward truth seems frustratingly strewn with obstacles. Like everyone else, scientists can be arrogant and closed-minded...
There are, it seems, at least as many mutual contradictions in modern science as there are in The Bible. Just as fundamentalist Christians assert the inerrancy of that book, modern scientists assert the inerrancy of science through the medium of peer review. Conflicting evidence largely remains unpublished until a new generation less brainwashed into conformity discovers that the emperor has no clothes.
For an interesting insight into the inculcation of the mythology behind science, Bill Beaty is worth reading:
The complex and abstract nature of Science makes the subject difficult to understand. But complexity is not the only barrier to our understanding Science. The subject is made much more difficult by the presence of numerous misleading "Science Myths" which circulate in the popular culture, which are handed down from parents to children, and which have become so common and widespread that they even appear in science textbooks and are taught as facts in elementary school.
The Git has fond memories of attempting to recombine light split by a prism with a second prism as illustrated in his textbooks. It proved as difficult as reconciling Big Bang with Relativity! He also remembers less fondly his abortive university career where he was penalised for writing down his own observations, rather than those in the textbooks. Scepticism requires cultivation of constant doubt, in one's own observations and thoughts, as well as others' -- not faith!
Finally, Popper wrote in Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics:
The Copenhagen interpretation -- or, more precisely, the view of the status of quantum mechanics which Bohr and Heisenberg defended -- was, quite simply, that quantum mechanics was the last, the final, the never-to-be-surpassed revolution in physics... These were claimed to show that physics has reached the end of the road... this epistemological claim I regarded, and still regard, as outrageous.
According to Popper in Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics, Kant wrote:
Causality is the basis of all scientific work. Causality is the condition that renders science possible.
Heisenberg in Physics and Philosophy, the Revolution in Modern Science states clearly:
The law of causality is no longer applied in quantum theory.
And that, The Git believes, sums up modern science: causality is [everything/nothing] delete whichever is inapplicable.
The Git's radio interview broadcast yesterday will presumably end up here sooner or later.
Thought for the day:
Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.
Laurie Anderson -- Big Science
Tuesday 30 July 2002
The Git having succeeded in getting the antenna for the radio tuner to work properly has been thoroughly enjoying listening to ABC Radio National again. It's been a while. Back at the cottage, we used an old portable cassette/radio, but that has disappeared somewhere during the move into The House of Steel. Both The Git and Mrs Git vastly prefer radio to television. Television limits what you can do -- you can't read, or cook and watch at the same time. Radio allows one to do multiple things, "tuning" in, or out as things catch one's attention. Be warned that if you tune in via the Internet, it's a source of challenging ideas! Or at least it used to be...
The Git has particularly missed The Science Show and Ockham's Razor.
Anonymous Idiot writes: "How can you believe all that shit you write?"
Well, the short answer is I don't! Not in the sense you apparently mean it. There are two sorts of people in this world: The True Believers and Sceptics. The Git is of the latter persuasion. Almost any hypothesis, or theory can be assigned a probability of being True, or False. For instance, the probability of The Git becoming a concert pianist is very low, but not impossible. After all, Florence Foster Jenkins made it to Carnegie Hall! The probability that the sun will rise tomorrow is very high, but cannot be taken as certain. There is a small, but finite possibility that the sun will go nova. If you find that hard to believe, it's easier for me than believing the universe was created ex nihilo and that space continues to be created ex nihilo -- the two primary tenets of Big Bang theory. I'm not saying this isn't happening, just that currently I assign it a low probability. And that's because I assign a high probability to one of the tenets of science: something does not arise from nothing!
Being a True Believer means surrendering one's will, whether it's to God the Father, or Currently Accepted Theory. The assumption is that everything (important) is known. The problem with this is that there's always far more information out there waiting to be connected together in new and meaningful ways. Worse, there's information out there not being considered because it's disturbing to the True Believers. An even worse assumption is that you need to be a "professional" to do the thinking required to create new and meaningful theories. Hint: physics was revolutionised by a student of divinity and a patents clerk.
The Git remembers being told that organic farming was "impossible" because it conflicted with Currently Accepted Theory. The Git became an organic farmer. No wonder he's Pompous :-)
Thought for the day:
Necessity is not a fact, it's an interpretation.
Bob Dylan -- Planet Waves
Wednesday 31 July 2002
I hate the term "paradigm shift"! It's used by people who avoid paradigm shifts like the plague! Every day is different: different weather, different ideas, different linkages between ideas... All the things that make up The Git's world-view are in constant flux. The only way to avoid this is to ignore what's happening around you, ignore other people's ideas, ignore your own ideas, be ignore-ant...
If you have a practical as well as sceptical bent, go here and follow the instructions. This might take a few days, what with obtaining a laser and some mirrors and actually performing some interesting experiments. At the end though, you will have falsified some of the predictions of Quantum Theory. As far as I can tell, the results remain unpublished, but then there are over 4,000 scientific journals published each year. While you might think that it's earth-shattering news that "the most successful theory ever devised" is so readily falsified, the truth is almost nobody wants to know.
Chances are that if you try to publish, the first obstacle is going to be the fact that "you are not qualified". What this has to do with the successful performance of experiments, I don't know, but that's the way it is. If you are qualified, you have to run the risk of what happens to heretics everywhere -- like Halton Arp. Halton Arp was a successful astronomer until he started seeing things that weren't supposed to be there. What's worse, he wanted to explain why they were there. Like Arp, you will need to find a book publisher who is willing to publish your ideas. Scientists don't read those books. Nor for that matter do they read all that many of the 4,000+ scientific journals, but then that's not their purpose.
"What then," The Git hears you asking, "are all those journals for?" The measure of your importance in the world of modern science is the number of papers you have published. Their content isn't of any great importance, so long as they fall within Current Accepted Theory. That is, they must be designed to do the opposite of what science is all about -- justify, rather than attempt to falsify the theory. Preferably, they will convey little meaning to any outsider, including people within your own field who specialise in another sub-discipline.
While the newspapers breathlessly report endless "scientific breakthroughs", the truth is there have been precious few really good new ideas in many areas of science for the last fifty years or more. While this is touted as showing how wonderful Current Accepted Theory is, it's equally arguable that it's because nobody in the priesthood wants to go through the bother of having to relearn everything.
Thought for the day:
Every religion seems like a fantasy to outsiders, but as holy truth to those of the faith.
Stomu Yamashta -- Freedom is Frightening
Thursday 1 August 2002
My son Thomas's computer is acting up badly. For some time it has refused to reboot without a ten minute "rest". The drive lights come on, but the video card doesn't send any info to the monitor. We know it's not the video card, or AGP slot as replacing the AGP video card and using a PCI video card results in the same symptoms. The motherboard is an A-Open AK72. And yet another 17 GB Seagate hard disk has died. Fortunately, it's still under warranty. That means after 27 months we have a 100% failure rate on Seagate hard disks -- two 5400 rpm and two 7200 rpm. This is not good, especially given that we have had a 0% failure rate on Quantum hard disks after 5 years! In fact, out of 24 hard disks, the only previous failure was a brand new 40 MB Conner IDE drive back in 1991.
The Git had a job interview today. It went extremely well and there's not a huge amount of competition for the position. The location is about 150 metres from the bus stop and The Victoria Tavern is about halfway between. The decision on who has the position will be made known on Tuesday, so Mrs Git will be on tenterhooks until then.
As usual at the end of the month, I look at visitor numbers (actually page reads) to this website. The total since October 2000 is now over 70,000 and the average per day is currently running at 109, about double the rate early on.
Even though it's still winter here in Tasmania, it's time to start preparing the garden. Long time readers will be aware that this time last year, The Git was busy with The House of Steel, so gardening was a low priority. Nevertheless, peas and broad beans went in and made some fine meals. However, by late spring, the rabbits were eating more than we were! Earlier this week, The Git put down plastic weed mat and discarded carpet over most of where the garden is to go. By the end of this month, last year's weeds should be well decomposed and be ready for sowing peas, beans and early potatoes. The grass is starting to move and I will need to mow some time this week.
One of my favourite writers is Fred Reed and I was rereading one of my favourite Fred Reed rants this morning. Here's the most important bit:
The popular understanding, probably shared in unguarded moments by academic evolutionists though they know better, is that Evolution is a force propelling life toward greater perfection. We speak of ourselves as Higher Primates, for example, though in terms of adaptation to environment we are inferior to tape worms and roaches. Popular evolution is suffused with a progress toward desired ends here that cannot be derived from the physics: Bang, gas, planets, trilobites, Los Angeles.
In short, evolution writ large tells us where we came from, how we got where we are, where we are going, and what the guiding principle is. This is what religions do.
The religious nature of this view becomes manifest in the intense hostility toward skepticism. If I questioned the value of pi, asserted that the earth was flat, or objected to the ideal gas law, I would be regarded as eccentric, but would not be savaged or loathed. People are confident of the value of pi. In any event it poses no threat to their sense of place in a dark and inhospitable universe.
But question evolution and the response will be anger, martial condescension, and rabid denial -- usually from people who wouldn't know icthyostegids from the citric-acid cycle. (You don't have to know anything about evolution to be fierce about it.) They will be terrified that you might communicate this heresy to children. Further, with painful monotony they will accuse of Christianity. That is, their quick assumption is that you must represent a competing faith.
A difficulty with using physics as a religion (and all the sciences are elaborations of physics) is that you cannot get to things of transcendent importance to humans -- beauty, consciousness, love and hatred, good and evil. These are no more contained in, or derivable from, physics than mass is derivable from plane geometry. Yet evolutionists are conscious in most instances, appreciate the lovely, love their dogs and children, and are good people.
They are careful not to notice this, which requires a philosophical jejuneness suited to a sophomore Marxist on his second volume of Sartre. They are much worse if they have heard of logical positivism.
It's a religion.
There are many other parallels between science and religion that we are not supposed to notice. Both ask us to accept things on blind faith. For instance, the universe is supposedly composed of 90% "dark matter", completely undetectable, like the mediaeval angels that were invoked to explain the motion of the planets. Rewriting history. The Big Bang Theory is supposed to have accurately predicted the background temperature of the universe. It predicted that temperature to be 30°K when the measured temperature is 3°K. Sir Arthur Eddington, without the benefit of Big Bang Theory, predicted the correct temperature. Persecution of heretics. Bjorn Lomborg is the latest in a very long line stretching back to Galileo and earlier. "But wasn't Galileo persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church?" I hear you ask. Well, yes, but it was at the behest of the scientific establishment of the day. Without pressure from the many scientists who were insulted by Galileo, or had their ideas stolen and claimed as his, the church would likely have done nothing.
Thought for the day:
Every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority.
Thomas Huxley (1825-1895)
Brian Eno -- Before and After Science
Friday 2 August 2002
The Git invites you to take a closer look at that most sacred of scientific (cash) cows: Evolution. His thoughts here have earned him the derision and loathing of both the scientists and the creationists! Most of evolutionary theory pose no problem. There are few writers in the field of science more entertaining and informative than Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. BUT, and it's a BIG but, there's a dark little corner you are not supposed to attempt to shine the light of inquiry. How and when did it start?
The Currently Accepted Theory is that several billions of years ago, when Earth was but a tadpole so-to-speak, it was covered in Primordial Soup. The Primordial Soup kinda-sorta experimented various with ways of rearranging itself until it became an amoeba that decided to evolve into Adolf Hitler, George Bush, Bill Gates, Saddam Hussein, Elvis Presley, lawyers and so forth. There's no problem with imagining an amorphous blob of jelly being an ancestor of these modern impediments to leading a simple and satisfying life. But what about the Primordial Soup?
Simply put, there's not a scintilla of evidence for Primordial Soup. There's no fossilised Primal Soup. Despite nearly half a century of cooking various ersatz Primal Soups, nobody has yet managed to produce anything remotely resembling George Bush's putative ancestor, or The Git's for that matter! Scientists excitedly point at a few molecules that are associated with life, but cheerfully ignore the fact that such lifeless bits and pieces have demonstrably been carried on lumps of rock from outer space. More disturbing still for the Primordial Soup kitchen is the recent discovery of bacteria where they weren't supposed to be. From New Scientist:
Are they aliens or just humble earthlings?
Is anybody out there?
Funnily enough, mainstream science has dealt very harshly with scientists who proposed that life might have arrived on Earth from elsewhere: Sir Fred Hoyle, James Crick, Chandra Wickramasinghe, Anaxagoras... Anaxagoras? Yes, that's the guy who was was arrested on a charge of contravening the established dogmas of religion around 434 BCE.
Thought for the day:
A college is a place where pebbles are polished and diamonds dimmed.
Robert G. Ingersoll
Incredible String Band -- I Looked Up
Saturday 3 August 2002
The Git has a bit of a passion for history, which probably explains why he enjoys Frank Herbert's Dune series so much. Fictional history is fine when you know it's fiction, but as you might have guessed from this week's theme, fictionalising real history is anathema to The Git.
Let's start with the famous Michelson-Morley experiment (Albert A. Michelson, Edward W. Morley, "On the Relative Motion of the Earth and the Luminiferous Ether", American Journal of Science, Third Series, Vol. XXXIV (203), Nov. 1887). This is popularly supposed to have done two things: the first is to have produced a null result demonstrating the absence of a Luminiferous Ether and the second, to have confirmed Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. Well, this is fiction on a grand scale. Firstly, the Michelson-Morley experiment stated: "...the relative velocity of the earth and the ether is probably less than one-sixth the earth's orbital velocity, and certainly less than one-fourth. ... The experiment will therefore be repeated at intervals of three months, and thus all uncertainty will be avoided." It wasn't, not by Michelson and Morley, but I will return to that shortly.
The second point flies clearly in the face of accepted science. The first of Einstein's papers was published in Annalen der Physik on September 27, 1905. Look at the dates! An experiment cannot falsify, or confirm a theory unless it's performed after the theory is formulated! And that particular paper produces problems of its own, again with dates. The American Physical Society News, Vol. 9, No. 8, August/September 2000, p. 2, the "This Month in Physics History" column was entitled "September 1905: Einstein's Most Famous Formula", and it stated:
But it was later that year , in a paper received by the Annalen der Physik on September 27, applying his equations to study the motion of a body, that Einstein showed that mass and energy were equivalent, a startling new insight he expressed in a simple formula that became synonymous with his name: E=mc2. However, full confirmation of his theory was slow in coming. It was not until 1933, in Paris, when Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie took a photograph showing the conversion of energy into mass.
Unfortunately, Einstein's "startling new insight" was already five years old!
The 100 Years Ago item in the 6 April 2000 issue of Nature (Vol. 404, p. 553) taken from the 5 April 1900 issue states:
The calculations of M. Henri Becquerel show that this energy is of the order of one ten-millionth of a watt per second. Hence a loss of weight of about a milligram in a thousand million years would suffice to account for the observed effects, assuming the energy of the radiation to be derived from the actual loss of material.
Rather than take the estimable Albert to task, I'd rather go back to the supposed "null" result of the Michelson-Morley experiment that Albert Michelson and Edward Morley failed to follow up, despite their promise. From 1906 through the 1930s, Dayton Miller (a graduate of physics from Princeton University, President of the American Physical Society and Acoustical Society of America, Chairman of the Division of Physical Sciences of the National Research Council, Chairman of the Physics Department of Case School of Applied Science and Member of the National Academy of Sciences) conducted many experiments with the expectation of bringing forth the null result that Michelson and Morley had failed to produce. Instead, Miller's extensive and carefully designed experiments consistently showed an ether-effect. Full story here.
Thought for the day:
Be daring, be different, be impractical; be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.
Kevin Ayers -- Sweet Deceiver
Sunday 4 August 2002
From John Vogt:
Jon, Sorry, I'm not located in Canada. I'm just to the East and South of Toronto, across Lake Ontario. Yup, I'm a Yank :> Just had a nice visit with my son, Bruce. Hope your day is as good, John
Sorry about that John. My days are almost invariably good, even when my venting makes it seem otherwise. I'd rather be here than not :-)
From new visitor, Ross Rudge:
Dear Mr Git,
I have recently discovered the Internet, and your site (through the RN interview). I enjoyed your piece on the irrationality of science on Monday 29-7-02, and your response to the “Anonymous Idiot”; however, I feel the need to offer the following critical comments:
Kuhn did not “coin” the term paradigm. He borrowed it (from Grammatical discourse). What might be said, instead, is that he developed the not necessarily original idea that people (scientists) operate within a bounded field of knowledge that contains certain assumptions, and within which all occurrences in the world find their explanation.
Kuhn’s notion of a paradigm marries nicely with Evans-Pritchard’s notion of “secondary elaborations” (briefly referred to in Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic). An example of a secondary elaboration is the Creationist response to the evidence of fossilised bones of extinct creatures found embedded in stratified rock, which apparently contradict the story of creation found in Genesis, and the incredibly foreshortened timeframe of the Bible. The Creationist secondary elaboration is, essentially: “When he created the world, God put those fossils there as a generating the appearance of evolutionary type development of life and the planet”. That is, for those whose faith is strong enough, the Creation paradigm, with its central notion of God the omnipotent creator, contains within it a defence against whatever Evolutionism can put up against it.
Kuhn was concerned with the development of Western knowledge, and demonstrates, without using the term, that scientists will fall back on secondary elaborations as quickly and easily as anybody. However, as the above example, and Evans-Pritchard’s African material illustrates, Kuhn’s notion of a paradigm applies across the expanse of human existence. That is, in arguing logically from a set of paradigmatic assumptions, there is no difference between the rationality of a scientist, a Christian zealot, or a so-called African “Primitive”. The boundary between science and religion blurs and merges: Like biblical claims, the Big Bang theory is just that, a theory, or a story whose validity can only be disproved, but never proved.
However, I’m not sure of the validity of the disproofs you offer. For example, there is a particular difference between Big Bang creationism and biblical creationism. Namely, biblical creationism assumes the prior existence of a being, or force, or something, that acts with purpose and intent. This requires an extra leap of faith beyond the parsimony of a Big Bang, and poses the extra question of where or how or in what form did this being/force/something exist when there was nihilo to exist in?
Also, by definition, there is a difference between scientific knowledge and other systems of knowledge: Scientific endeavour is a cumulative process in which assumptions are subject to critique and modification (although, as Kuhn shows, it lurches and resists, rather than runs smoothly onward). To suggest that Kuhn implies that “the scientific establishment could … declare that there are fairies at the bottom of the my garden”, if it so wished, is to misrepresent Kuhn. Some hundreds of years ago fairies may have been possible, however, scientific knowledge has moved past this point, and short of a world-wide Orwellean revision of documentary evidence, our gardens will remain fairy free.
Also, I think you over-extend the speed of light contradiction. The possibility of something travelling faster than the speed of light does not contradict Relativity theory. That nothing can travel faster than the speed of light is a Relativity assumption, and Relativity theory predicts what will happen given that this assumption applies. This does not of itself preclude the possibility of conditions or a time in history when the speed of light could be exceeded, and the need for an expanded or alternate story to be proposed to deal with such conditions. Such is the nature of the shift from Newton to Einstein.
Also, although a scientist, even of the ilk of Einstein, may make statements that contradict his/her own theoretical work and predictions, this does not necessarily invalidate that work. Its validity is independent of its creator.
All this defence of the scientific Currently Accepted Theory goes against my anti-conservative nature. However, if attacks on the Right, from the Left, are flawed or based on fallacies, their most likely effect is to legitimate anti-Left prejudices, and to strengthen the position of the Right.
This is no less of an issue if the argument is allegorical.
1/ Is it not just as much an incredible, and difficult to explain, notion that matter/space/time has always existed?
2/ If you are looking for the soft underbelly of contemporary scientific theory, what about the notion of energy? It is a ubiquitous and indispensable basic assumption, but perhaps under-theorised. Energy is chemical, potential, kinetic, electrical, mass equivalent, and apparently absolute, as time once was, but is no more.
Thank you for your kind words and criticisms.
You are of course entirely correct that Kuhn adopted paradigm from grammar. Perhaps I should have said: "rescued from obscurity". While ideas may simmer in the mind some of my scientist friends say does not exist for some time, I do not spend very much time writing. One cannot properly proofread one's own work and the only proofreading I receive is from my readers.
While the original Big Bang Theory made several predictions and was therefore susceptible to disproof, the subsequent discovery that the predictions were incorrect and had falsified the theory led to the introduction of new parameters to "explain" the findings. Some writers even introduce red shift as a proof of BBT when BBT was of course introduced to explain red shift. Circular argument is not confined to Creationists!
I am not, as it happens, setting out at this point to disprove BBT. Rather, I think it's one of a not very large suite of theories that need to be considered. The presentation of BBT to the public as the solitary contender seems to me disingenuous. The work of Tom van Flandern, Halton Arp and Hannes Alfven is never mentioned in polite conversation, but in my not very humble opinion they provide at least as useful a model as BBT.
One of the problems of attempting to define science is that it is too broad a field for anything but relatively meaningless generalisations. While I am very much enamoured of science in general and Karl Popper's epistemology in particular, I find most scientists unwilling to confront some of the serious issues that arise. Of course scientists are most unlikely to introduce pixies at the bottom of my garden as serious science, but are pixies so very different to dark matter/angels [delete whichever is inapplicable]?
Is BBT so popular only because it fits in so well with our Christian/Judaic/Islamic mental furniture? The infinite electric universe would seem well suited to Hindu thought. Is this a battle between East and West?
Like Ian Stuart and Jack Cohen, I see much of the science we "know" as being "Lies-to-Children". For example, the Bernoulli explanation of how aeroplanes fly -- so they can't possibly fly upside down? Is there really only one science (physics) capable of explaining Everything? The reductionist argument that the properties of something can be deduced from the properties of its components breaks down as soon as context is considered. For instance, bridges can be made of rope, or steel, or concrete, or even a tunnel -- Darwinian Natural Selection cannot be derived from the knowledge of DNA. Does that mean bridges and Natural Selection are unscientific?
Regarding your final points, I don't see why because an alternative theory has as many, or possibly more difficulties than Currently Accepted Theory, that alternative theory should remain (relatively) untested and unpublished.
I am not really "looking for the soft underbelly of contemporary scientific theory" so much as poking a stick into Plato's cave and rattling it. Scientists really set themselves up for this whenever they pronounce The End of Science (know the mind of God), we are just filling in the details.
BTW, you didn't indicate that your email is not for publication, so in the absence of a response from you, I will be publishing your letter some time in the next 24 hours, or so. If you would prefer anonymity, let me know.
Thanks again Ross for helping me rearrange my thoughts :-)
It is popularly supposed that the distinguishing feature between religion and science is that the one requires suspension of disbelief (critical rationalism) and the other is grounded firmly in rationalism. The Twins paradox in Special Relativity requires me to believe that each twin can be alive and perceive the other as dead simultaneously. Quantum Theorists want me to believe that Schroedinger's Cat can be both dead and alive at the same time. Cosmologists want me to believe the universe consists 90% of undetectable Dark Matter.
And The Emperor wants us to believe that this particular suit of new clothes will never wear out.
Thought for the day:
For a doctrine which is able to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress...
Kraftwerk -- Radioactivity
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