The Nature of Things | On Beyond Darwin - Chapter 14


The Nature of Things

In this book, I have been trying to outline my view of the universe. Sometimes this idea of a world view is called a Weltanschauung, after the German. Most scientists would not admit to having a world view, but I believe that they really do. And, what is more, I believe that the world view of many scientists is largely influenced by famous scientists like Newton, Bohr, and Einstein. These men were very vocal in expressing their philosophical positions. Newton clearly built a system. His most famous work is called Principia . Einstein longed to discover—or invent—a unified field theory. I suppose when you build a world view you are building a system. At the beginning of this book there are two quotations, the first by Ernst Mach:

It is the object of science to replace, or save, experiences, by the reproduction and anticipation of facts in thought. Memory is handier than experience. [1]

The second is a remark made to me over lunch one day by Professor Robert Finch:

When you build a system it is either a ragbag or a bed of Procrustes.

My son Stephen was not familiar with the story of Procrustes so I told him that he was a legendary ancient Greek robber who forced victims to sleep in his bed. If they were too short, he stretched them to fit—if too tall, he chopped them off. Finch was saying that attempts to devise a system in order to “save experience” could result in one of two extremes: no system at all, where things were just collected randomly like rags in a bag, or a far too rigid system where everything was forced to fit.

As long as we are aware of the perils of the activity of organizing our experiences so as to form a world view—a systematization—we can perhaps steer clear of the pitfalls. I am afraid that the systems of Newton and Einstein are, to me, examples of a “bed of Procrustes.”

Bohr on the other hand doubted that there was a system into which all our information about the physical world could be fitted. He was influenced by the philosopher Hoffding who said:

An absolute systemization of our knowledge is not possible…[great systems are only useful as] projection, search-lights, with whose help we try to explore the dark… [but] no verification is possible. [2]

Nevertheless, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics fostered by Bohr has many of the aspects of a system that is a “bed of Procrustes.”

Reichenbach says of the kinds of systems that Newton and Einstein held:

The ideal of the complete mathematization of knowledge, of a physics which is of the same type as geometry and arithmetic, springs from the desire to find absolute certainty for the laws of nature. [3]

Bohr was convinced, I think, that a more mysterious system existed and that our knowledge of it would consist of complementarities and probabilities rather than certainties. Einstein rejected this point of view—“God does not play dice.” Here he speaks in Out of My Later Years :

Rather, it [research activity] is similar to that of a man engaged in solving a well-designed word puzzle. He may, it is true, propose any word as the solution; but there is only one word which really solves the puzzle in all its forms. It is an outcome of faith that nature—as she is perceptible to our five senses—takes the character of such a well formulated puzzle. The successes reaped up to now by science do, it is true, give a certain encouragement for this faith. [4]

Einstein assumes that nature is like “a well formulated puzzle.” He, like Newton, believed that a system exists and that man may be able to discover the system.

Whether you accept the Newton-Einstein view of a mathematical system or the Bohr view of a somewhat mystical system, you are still stuck with trying to fit everything into a system. And that system becomes a “bed of Procrustes” even though you originally saw it only as a searchlight “to explore the dark.” But what is the alternative? Is it a ragbag? What if it were—this is not a disaster. Even a ragbag can be organized—but the organization is up to you, and is arbitrary. For instance, you could separate your rags into ones that are patterned and ones that are plain, then you could divide them further into different color ranges. This is a system, but it is your system, and you know it can be changed if you want. You could instead sort your ragbag out into categories by fiber content of the rags: cotton in one pile, silk in another, and wool in a third.

One of the things that started me on this book is that I had a ragbag of my own. Over the years I had collected quotations from books and articles, quotations that were especially meaningful to me. I decided that my ragbag needed organizing, so I sorted the quotations into various categories. The categories were based on the fact that there was a similarity of theme in certain quotations. All the quotations together in some sense represented my view of the world, some because they agreed with it, some because they were diametrically opposed.

My idea was to write a book so that I would be forced to think through a lot of disorganized notions that I had. The key to my systematization came to me one day when I realized that if there were a real system behind the universe—a design—that it should not be accessible by scientific investigation. If we could discern a system by scientific investigation there would be a firm basis for natural theology. And somehow I reject natural theology.

In Computer Science, there are many applications of computers in the area of artificial intelligence where there is no direct method of solving a problem. Many such problems involve searching for a particular solution among many, many possible solutions. It is like looking for a needle in a haystack. We can never reach a solution by a direct method that exhaustively looks at every possibility. For these problems we use a heuristic method where some guiding principle is used to guess where to look, rather than looking everywhere. These heuristic principles are devised by computer scientists to help them discover solutions. The heuristic principle I devised is that “whether or not there is a design in the physical universe is an undecidable question.” This has given me a different viewpoint, the one from which I started to organize my own system. As an information scientist my purpose in looking critically at the body of physical theory is to see whether all of the notions we now use to describe our collected knowledge of the physical universe are really essential. As I expressed it in my textbook on Physics:

The object of scientific activity is to gather information about the physical world and to try to summarize it as clearly and succinctly as possible. In that way we think we understand. By understanding electromagnetic interaction we do not mean that we know what causes it, merely that we can describe exactly how two charged particles behave when they interact. We know the nature of charged particles. [5]

As a computer scientist I have become concerned with the enormous problem of information retrieval. Vast quantities of facts can be stored in a computer memory and, if properly indexed and filed, can be rapidly retrieved. But, the more facts we have in our information banks the more complex the retrieval problem becomes. It is important that we keep housecleaning our files, to eliminate duplicate information and to discard detailed information in favor of summaries when summaries are all we ever refer to. In most cases, the details are forever lost unless it is possible to regenerate the details from the summaries. This, in fact, is the case with summaries of physical information which we often call laws or principles. It is, in many cases, possible from a summary to retrieve the details of individual instances. By keeping these summaries and transmitting them from one generation to the next, scientists are able to build on the work of the past. Computers have been very helpful in the business of data reduction—vast quantities of experimental measurements have been reduced to summary form. Computers are also very useful in working out the results in particular cases, described, in general, by our physical laws. This is constantly necessary in the design of structures such as molecules or bridges.

Another reason for wanting to summarize our information about the physical universe as succinctly as possible is so that it can be looked at all at one time. What we have now is an accumulation from the past and our hope is to add to this in the future. When we add a new piece to our science, it must be consistent with everything we now have, or we must discard some of what we have in order to add some new information. The parts we discard must not be necessary to the total picture or important information would be lost.

At any time, the body of fundamental law tends to be regarded as scientific truth although as scientists we are all prepared to recognize the tentative character of our approximations to scientific truth. Many believe that as scientific investigation goes on we approach closer and closer to the absolute scientific truth. This is why it is very difficult at any stage to abandon a particular formulation of the laws for something quite different. But, it has happened in the past, when Newton’s laws were replaced by Einstein’s relativity theory, and deterministic Newtonian or Einsteinian mechanics by quantum—or probabilistic—mechanics. We have made these radical changes, and we will without doubt make radical changes again.

The business of accumulating information about the universe has been the work of scientists for generations. But, the heroes of the story seem to be people who make startling discoveries. Sometimes we hear that a scientist has found a new “secret of nature.” But, not every scientist sees himself as looking for the secrets of nature. Here is a statement from a text written by Gamow and Cleveland in 1960:

Such relations, based on direct measurements, are known as the empirical laws of nature, and the progress of observational and experimental science leads to the accumulations of ever larger and larger numbers of such empirical laws. The role of theoretical science is to find the hidden interrelations between the empirical laws and to interpret them in terms of certain hypothetical assumptions concerning the internal structure of matter and various material objects which are not subject to direct observation. [6]

In this book I have been examining the idea that the “secrets of nature” are really facts about specific things like electrons, protons, and neutrons. And I have speculated that there may be things—like messenger bullets—that are not subject to direct observation but which may explain the way that the fundamental objects behave. This explanation is in contrast to one which says that there are general laws which govern—or describe—the behavior of all things. I believe that the idea of the existence of “general laws” is widely held by scientists and is for them a “bed of Procrustes.”

Scientists like Newton who really started the general law idea thought they were finding the nature of nature. I believe that all we can do is to find out about the nature of things—things like electrons, protons, and neutrons.

I found in physics many discrepancies that to me are intolerable. One of these was the assumption that a system of particles could be isolated from the rest of the universe. Mach says:

But, we must not forget that all things in the world are connected with one another and depend on one another. [7]

Another discrepancy was involved with all the double talk about wave-particle duality and the fact that atoms were not producing radiation in their ground states.

In examining the various discrepancies I have come up, I think, with a logically consistent view of the world which does not contain them. This view is a pastiche, made up of pieces from here and there — pieces I had saved in my ragbag. Most of the ideas that are unconventional were suggested by other scientists. As an example, the idea of explaining the electromagnetic interaction in terms of messenger bullets started with Page and was explored by Lowry. Mach originated most of the environment ideas, attributing inertia of a body to the rest of the universe. Many people have examined the stochastic atom idea. The shadow theory of gravity is very old.

But, I have made some suggestions that, as far as I know, are my own. I have not seen it suggested before that gravity is a result of the failure of the principle of superposition for electromagnetic interaction. Nor has anyone said that the only stationary state that an atom can be in is the ground state and that atoms in the ground state radiate a continuous spectrum. Or that the second law of thermodynamics is really a statement that microscopic conservation of energy cannot be valid. A few of the pieces are indeed my own. They are of course speculations but, I hope, worthy of some consideration.

There is no doubt that reading Darwin’s work inspired a lot of my thinking. His theory of evolution seemed to point to the fact that we could not tell from the animate world whether or not it happened by chance or by design. Darwin’s work also emphasized that the nature of animate things depended on their environment—and the environment for living things is provided by other living things as well as the inanimate world. Might not the nature of inanimate things, I said to myself, have evolved in a similar way.

Obviously, I have a different point of view but I certainly do not expect a massive realignment of committed scientists to my way of thinking. As Kuhn says:

The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is a conversion experience that cannot be forced. [8]

My writings contain speculations on the nature of things. I have gone counter to Newton’s advice of “hypotheses non fingo.” But so did Newton. Listen to him as he writes in his Second Paper on Light and Colours in 1675:

Perhaps the whole frame of nature may be nothing but various contextures of some certain aethereal spirits, or vapours, condensed as it were by precipitation. Much after the manner that vapours are condensed into water, or exhalations into grosser substances, though not so easily condensible; and after condensation wrought into various forms; at first by the immediate hand of the Creator; and ever since by the power of nature; which, by virtue of the command, increase and multiply, became a complete imitator of the copies set her by the protoplast. Thus, perhaps may all things be originated from aether. [9]

Sounds somewhat like evolution!

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