Thursday, 9 July 2020

No, I don't Hate Science

Apples fall. That is to say, if we hold an apple, then release it, then it will fall to the ground.

Why does it? Why not just stay there in the air, or move upwards, or whatever?

Throughout history human beings have dreamt up explanations for this fact, not just for why apples fall, but why any unsupported object falls. Aristotle gave a teleological account; namely that objects have a goal-directed behaviour to move downwards to the ground. Isaac Newton dispensed with goal-directed behaviour and said that objects fall due to this thing called gravitational force, a thing only known via its effects. Albert Einstein then came along and said objects fall due to the warping of space-time, this warping again only known via its effects.

Throughout these differing explanations, apples still fall. The rate at which they fall i.e the acceleration, can be quantified. We can note that they fall at the same acceleration irrespective of their weight.

More generally the material world exhibits regularities and we can describe these regularities using mathematical equations. No matter what our explanations for these regularities, no more how regularly such explanations might change, reality still exhibits the same patterns.

Don't imagine I pooh pooh such scientific explanations though. They can be very useful! Look at the gif below:

How do we explain the movement of the black dots? We can hypothesis the existence of invisible triangles! Clearly, the apexes of these invisible triangles somehow give rise to the black dots. Such an explanation is useful, it allows us to confidently mathematically describe the path of the black dots. We have given a scientific explanation! All done and dusted. And anyone who denies the existence of these triangles is being unscientific and must hate science (I have often been accused of being anti-science and even hating science).

But hold on just a sec. We could equally hypothesize invisible squares too. Or invisible stars! Which is the real underlying explanation, the real mechanism? Perhaps, to be very radical, none of them are?

We don't know why reality behaves as it does. Yes, reality exhibits regular patterns that can be mathematically described. But we don't know why it exhibits those particular patterns, or why reality exhibits any patterns at all. Nor indeed do we know why the world/universe exists at all.

Science doesn't explain, it doesn't tell us why reality is as it is. It merely describes. Bear that in mind when someone next tells you that some phenomenon couldn't possibly be for real. They are assuming that our scientific explanations amount to more than mere descriptions. That their explanations depict how reality really is. That the triangles, or perhaps the squares, or perhaps the stars, have a literal existence.

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