Monday, 19 November 2012

How Science Has Outdone, Undone, and Redone Itself

The pursuit of scientific knowledge has been perhaps the most successful venture in the history of human civilization.  The very fact that you are reading these words the way you are reading them is a testament to the success of this pursuit.  Many of the things you value about your lifestyle, your music, your makeup, your magic, your whipped-merry-goo, are a testament to this pursuit.  We call this pursuit science, and it is truly extraordinary. 

Now, I would like to propose to you the following: two-hundred years ago, science outdid itself; one-hundred years ago, it undid itself; and right now, it is in a hurried business of redoing itself.

To explore this proposition, let us take up our strategic but perhaps stochastic starting position around the beginning of the 17th century.  At about this time, a man named Francis Bacon had begun to assert among his fellows the mostly abhorred but somewhat celebrated position that the only knowledge one could truly trust was knowledge obtained from experience.  Not from a book, but from experience.  That is, knowledge about the universe should be strictly experimental.  Strictly a manner of evidence.  Strictly empirical.

Needless to say, this approach caught on big time.  Gallileo had been using it to reach new conclusions about the position of our planet in the solar system.  Newton used it to deduce that apples fall by the same force that holds the moon around the Earth.  James Watt used it to ignite the industrial revolution.  Maxwell and Gauss used it to make mathematics the most powerful tool in the Human tool kit.  And Nikola Tesla used it to show that we could do just about anything.

Around this time, having observed and contributed greatly to the truly supreme and unparalleled successes of science, Pierre Simon Laplace proposed what is now known as Laplace's Determinism:  given complete information about the configuration of the universe at a particular instant, scientific methods permit one to compute the configuration of the universe at any future instant.  That is, the universe is deterministic, and science allows you to determine it.

These developments had enormous implications for human society and for ecological systems.  The pace of evolution on the planet was considerably accelerated.  Human populations exploded.  Quality of life exploded with it.  Science, a once humble pursuit to study and understand the marvelous magic of Nature and her habits, had just about outdone itself.  In response, she proceeded to undo herself.

You see, things had been going so well for scientists, so rapidly, that they suddenly found themselves face to face with the smallest particles they could fathom, in the form of the atom.  And what did they do with them?  They blew them apart.  Into the most cosmic sort of smitherenes they could imagine.  And by the time the dust started to settle and anyone could really get a handle on what was going on, it was 2012, we were all still very confused about the atom, and there was a lot of commotion about a thing called a Higgs.

Of course, in the intervening years, quite a good deal of havoc was let loose.  Physicsists confronted the hard, cold truth that uncertainty was actually built into the fabric of the universe.  Mathematicians failed to produce a framework that could actually stand within and of itself, in completeness.  A little later, biologists stumbled about in the murky waters of genetic bits and biochemical blobs, producing a fascinating wealth of information, having little but a clue of what to do with it.  Everyone wanted there to be a bit for everything: an atom, a gene, a cell, an individual.  Little bit balls that could be rolled around from particular position to particular position.  Deterministic delirium.  Most of the time, most of the people overlooked the waves.

By the time the late 20s rolled around, the leading physicists of the time had come to the conclusion that, actually, we were not dealing with particles, but with waves, which present themselves, at least sometimes, in a manner that is so clearly particulate-like that you would bet your very own bottom that this was a billiard ball universe.  Nope.  No particles.  Just a bunch of waves.

Of course, this was fascinating stuff, and it began to be taught to the next generation and slowly disseminated into the public, but suddenly a war caught on, and everyone working on these problems turned their attention instead to blowing other peoples things up, and to enhancing production.  Naturally, such tasks are deeply concerned with the particulate nature of things.

Indeed, science was so successful that its method was suddenly adopted by governments all over the world, in order to better understand, control, and in some cases help, their citizens.  This was, of course, a horrendous turn of events, and has contributed significantly to science's undoing.

You see, the issue is something like this.  The Universe is just too complex.  Straight up.  There's just absolutely no way around it.  No matter how much you come to know, there will always be an infinite unknown. The physicists encountered this problem in the twenties.  The biologists tried desperately to ignore it, but with the failures of the Human Genome Project, have found themselves diving more and more often into what is now called 'complexity theory.'  And of course, the politicians, who surmised that reason was the ultimate tool in political strategy and economic planning, are failing left, right, and center to do anything truly rational, and, if anything, their rational decision making is only hastening the degradation of our systems.

So where does that leave us?  Science was so successful, it outdid itself.  The universe is so complicated, that science has undone itself.  How, if at all, can science redo itself?  How can we emerge from this mess of complexity with any sense of hope in Human knowledge or understanding about the universe, and about our capacity to plan for the future?

Well, this is where complexity theory, and a whole lot of statistics, comes into play.  We absolutely must acknowledge our ignorance of things.  So long as we continue to strive forth in science and policy with the assumption that we completely understand the inner workings of a system, and can manipulate and regulate that system according to such a 'perfect' understanding, we are doomed to fail.  Our medicines will make people more sick, our policies will hasten environmental and financial degradation.  There is no such thing as a perfect understanding.

Instead, we must come to understand that we ourselves are actually embedded in the systems we are studying.  This was the great discovery of the physicists that sort of fell by the way side when the war started.  We shouldn't think of controlling our environment - we are our environment.  We shouldn't think of controlling our bodies - we are our bodies.  The emerging science is beginning to understand this, and to contextualize itself in this manner.  Such an approach can only lead to greater understanding and awareness of the processes in our universe and our role in them.  We shouldn't think of controlling our economy - we are our economy.  And so the only way to heal is to do things naturally, openly, freely, cooperatively, in harmony with each other and our surroundings. Our rationality must become integral, and holistic.

So long as we ignorantly suppose that we understand a complex system well enough to make rational decisions, we will suffer unpredictable consequences.  But once we take as our starting premise that these systems are above rationality, because they are too complex, there are too many variables, and our simple, singular, sequential logistical thinking can not properly or effectively capture all their nuances, then we will begin to make real progress again, to lift ourselves out of the medical and societal messes we are in, and perhaps to evolve towards a new and glorious era in Human History.

So often we concern ourselves with discerning the parts that things are made of.  If we understand the parts, so it goes, we will understand the whole.  But often, there are too many parts, and the parts aren't well defined, and they flow freely into and out of one other.  In other words, our strict particulate rationality fails.  This is abundantly clear in medicine, where we attack organismal level problems by targeting specific individual molecules, effecting the entire system in ways we cant even begin to predict accurately.  And so the side effects of medication make people sicker than they were when they started out.  We need to put the parts aside, at first, and consider the activity of the whole.  This universe is a whole system.  Apparently, as far as our absolute best physics is concerned, it isn't actually made of parts.

This is not to say that there is no place for rational thinking anymore.  Only that it must be checked by the participatory reality of the universe we are embedded in.  Nothing is certain.  Everything is statistical.  And most certainly, the real world does not always conform to our simplified approximations of it.  So we must be real here, and practice statistics with great care, to study risk effectively, to humble ourselves, to work at the holistic level, and to plan for the unpredictable, because it is always the case that something novel may occur.

In fact, the very evolution of the cosmos depends on it.


  1. I'm surprised by your interpretation that things are waves, and not particles. I am not a physicist, but I recall a video of Feynman at Auckland in the late 70s during a Q&A, where people were asking him about the duality, and he was saying "no, no, it's not waves. Sometimes it's nice to think of light or what-have-you as waves for mathematical reasons, but they aren't".

    His words surprised me at the time, as yours do now, and I hold you both in high regard (though, sorry, Feynman has to take the cake!) -- It's possible he was just expressing his "our job is prediction, not interpretation" opinion. Regardless, if you know of a good read about the duality and the present orthodoxy and history of the question, I'd love to take a look.

    On other notes, your post made for a good read, thanks for writing it :)

    I wonder if a fractured sort of holism might be useful. In a manner of speaking, if the universe is at all levels mirrors of mirrors of itself, then it's possible that patterns of its structure could be prodded, or that the system writ large might also exist on the small. Changing the way small things work or are lined up could yield dramatic effects!

    My questions to you, ethan, are how to study a system holistically? Do you believe that uncertainty and stochasticism will really yield deeper understanding? By nature, holism makes pinning things down to test difficult, so what form might a continuing science take?

  2. Fascinating. I don't doubt Feynman was a particle guy. So was Newton. The truth is that to really say it's one or the other is preposterous, because everything is a model. And from a pragmatic standpoint, I prefer waves, because it eliminates the tragedies of needing to find the bits in biology and other things, which don't really exist, and which lead us to abrasive medical practices, etc. It also opens up nice connections with eastern philosophy, which I find important. And waves have much more interesting properties...

    As for studying the systems holistically - we're looking for patterns, and in particular for scale invariant patterns, kinda like you say. And we find them all the time in fractal designs and the so called "power law scaling" of so many natural phenomena. I think these are the 'bits' the universe is made out of, the fractal patterns, not the particles. I think science has got its head way too far up its own ass, and has forgotten that there is a single universe out there, not an assembly of parts, which is very important if we are going to approach big problems, and especially if we are going to run a healthy society.

    I guess I'm sort of promoting a risk averse rather than reward pursuant approach. That's more the parlance of finance and government, but that's where these ideas apply most significantly - we can't assume that the economy behaves like our models do, because we totally underestimate the risks we're exposing ourselves to. In science it is similar, especially with medicine. But even in physics - we've become extraordinarily gung ho about the smallest piece of the puzzle - and we're still looking for pieces. But I think that blinds us, because all there really are, are patterns, and the really important patterns are the scale invariant ones, because why should the universe care about size? So instead of assuming the universe is built out of tiny particles, and sticking our necks out into giant particle accelerators with billions of dollars to find the next smallest particle, perhaps we should step back and do some more fundamental mathematics that will allow us to better understand the patterns of the universe, at all scales, and how they are weaved into an experience of things called particles.

    You are right that it makes testing somewhat difficult. But the important thing is not, for example, whether protein A interacts with protein B under stress conditions from the left side in a kidney cell grown on collagen rather than pronectin. And similarly it is not, really, whether the next particle weighs 167 GeV or 192, with spin up or spin down. Those are interesting problems, sometimes. But more important would be a thorough enough understanding of the patterns of interactivity themselves that we could recreate behaviours similar to the ones we observe. We have no idea how to build reliable, robust, high functioning complex systems like organisms. No clue at all. Its practically a failure of science, and I think it has everything to do with our 'bit mentality.' So the continuing science starts there, by trying to get a handle on high level complex systems, without decomposing them into bits, in order to understand patterns of interactivity, just like native and Eastern peoples have been doing for thousands of years...