You Don't Know Jack

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This page last updated on 01/26/2019.

Copyright 2001-2019 by Russ Meyer

Science has really advanced man's perception of the world around him.  We have equations that describe gravitation and electromagnetic radiation.  We have quantum mechanics, relativity, and black holes.  We have plate tectonics, ocean dynamics, and geophysics.  Why, we know a lot, don't we?  Well, before we get all smug-like, maybe we should take a close look at the nature of that knowledge.

Consider gravitation.  What do we really know about it?  It produces an acceleration between two masses, its intensity decreases with the square of the distance between the masses, we think it is produced by graviton particles exchanged between the masses, it propagates through space at the speed of light, it appears to warp the metric of space, we have tons of equations that accurately predict its effects, etc.  Pretty impressive, eh?  Well that's all well and good, but these are merely descriptions of what it does.  That doesn't mean we know what gravity is, it just means we know what it does, and that's a lot different!

Basically, science has all these observations about what gravity does.  Scientists then dream up clever ways to think about the effects of gravity.  These ideas form a theory, that is, a compact, codified description of what gravity does, including equations, references to gravitons, etc.  The accuracy of this description determines the merit of the theory.  Science keeps rethinking these descriptions, tweaking them to make them better.  Eventually, the theory becomes reasonably successful at predicting a wide range of gravitational effects.  So, after all that, what do we have?  An elaborate description of what gravity does.  It's like saying, "When I drop this hammer, it falls down," only more refined.  As to the true identity of gravity, we've made no headway.  We have no clue what it really is.  It may actually be little gnomes pushing masses around space, a dream in the mind of God, or whatever.  It's true nature is totally obscured and, I suspect, ultimately unknowable.  It just is what it is.

At this point, it may be useful to point out what science is, and what it is not.  Science is a systematic way of investigating nature.  It relies on observations to develop and refine descriptions of nature.  These descriptions help us form a clearer picture of how the world around us works.  With that clearer view, we develop cars, telephones, weather prediction, etc.  Science does not concern itself with what things are or why they are that way.  For example, the question "Why does gravity attract two masses," is an irrelevant question in science.  It simply does; that is the observation.  We also have gravitational theory to provide an elaborate description of that attractive force.  But as to why the world works this clue!  The observation is just accepted without question, because that is what happens.  Eventually, science will dig down a bit further and say, "Well, it's the exchange of gravitons between the two masses that causes the attractive force."  However, that just transforms the original, unanswerable question into another unanswerable question, like "Why do gravitons cause two masses to be attracted?"  Science keeps peeling back these layers, but the fundamental question of why it works that way remains unanswerable.  It just does...that's all!

I had a friend in college named Larry Neal, a mechanical engineering major.  He and I were great pals and used to discuss science and technology.  We had this on-and-off debate surrounding Maxwell's equations.  Maxwell's equations describe electromagnetic radiation and how it propagates through space.  Larry insisted that the equations themselves were the reality of electromagnetic radiation.  I held that they were just a description of how electromagnetic radiation behaved; but that the radiation existed apart from the description; that the description and the actual, natural phenomenon were two separate things.  Larry would often say, "Yeah, but even if you say the equations aren't the radiation itself, if the equations describe the behavior of the radiation exactly, then the equations are, in essence, the radiation."  A good point, but the equations are just lines and symbols drawn on a piece of paper...real radiation roams space-time free and wild, doing whatever it wants.  It's the difference between having a really great photo of a lion and actually meeting one face to face on the savannah.  I'm telling you, those are two different things!  I asked a number of my science and engineering buddies about this topic and found, to my dismay, that every one of them could not make the distinction between Maxwell's equations and electromagnetic radiation itself.  They thought they were the same.  I found this very disturbing, as it belies a fundamental misconception about the nature of scientific knowledge.

I suppose, as an engineer, you could skate along for years with this misconception and not develop any unsafe constructions because of it.  Most day to day engineering is based on simple principles, straight forward calculations, and rules of thumb.  A subtle misconception like this just doesn't become least most of the time.  However, my science buddies had no excuse!  They should have known this, and it is a pathetic testimony of the education system that they did not.  Heck, I was not taught this in any of my science or engineering classes.  I think I am more up on philosophy than most engineering types and that somewhat sensitized me to issues like this.  Then I spent some time thinking about it for myself and was able to see the situation for what it was.  I gather from additional reading that this nature-of-scientific-knowledge thing is generally recognized in human society, just not at the plebeian collegiate level.  At it's root is a long-running debate about the foundations of mathematics.

Science can only provide descriptions of the world around us for one very good relies on observation.  You look, you see an event, you write a description of it.  That's science in a nutshell.  It cannot describe or comment on things that are not observable.  This is the dividing line between science and philosophy.  Philosophy picks up where science leaves off; philosophy attempts to address what reality actually is.  Science can make predictions, but that is not the same as understanding what reality is, it's simply extending a string of unbroken observations slightly further.  For example, what do you think comes next in this sequence:

                       ●              ●●          ●●●           ●●●●               ?    

If you guessed five dots, you win!  Here you made an observation, formed a theory as to what was going on, and predicted the next one in the sequence.  Hey, you're a scientist man!  So, what do the dots mean, how did they get there, why are they round and not square?  If something like this occurred in nature, there would be no explanation, you would only know that this is how things had been hardwired and would have no choice but to accept it.  The mystery of what the universe actually is or why it works that way cannot be addressed by science.  It is a complete mystery.  Only philosophy and theology attempt to make sense of it.  By definition, the conclusions of these disciplines cannot be proven in a conventional way, because they can make no observable predictions; the conclusions are not testable.  If they could be observed or tested they would be science. 

We are an "appliance operator" of the universe.  We load our dirty clothes into the washing machine, add some detergent, and set the dial.  After a lot of clicking, whirring, and time, the sounds stop.  Out come clean clothes.  We have no clue why the washing machine works that way or what's inside that white enameled box.  We couldn't make one, if our life depended on it.  However, after careful observation, we've figured out how to operate it and get clean clothes out.  Our understanding of the universe is precisely on that same level.

I think man tends to get a little cock-sure of himself, thinking he's got the world figured out.  His science and the application of that science in the form of miraculous technologies make him feel confident and in control.  So, what do we really understand about the universe and reality?  May I suggest this irreverent yet relevant video opine.