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Thread: On Science.

  1. #1
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    On Science.

    So here we go, a thread devoted to everyones beleifs and opinions of this thing we call science. What follows is an essay I wrote for a class entitled the Philosophy of Science, now I should mention that after this class I had a great deal less respect for most of the scientific community, and my teacher had a small deal more respect for the meditative community. Anyways here goes, by the way, the footnotes to A&R are from peter kosso's book Appearence and Reality which was the core text for the aforementioned class. Without furth adiu, here goes.

    Quantum Mechanics and the Objective Description of Nature
    Paper #4, Topic #2, by Eric Grant, 03/05/03

    In a statement quite contrary to what our class has read from the works of Peter Kosso, Fritjof Capra wrote about quantum physics that, “the properties of any atomic object can only be understood in terms of the object’s interaction with the observer. This means that the classical ideal of an objective description of nature is no longer valid.”(Capra, The Tao of Physics) Some might consider this statement inflammatory skepticism, and indeed it is capable of angering many traditionalists in the scientific community, but any statement so contested deserves a close, introspective look into the truth of the matter. Therefore in order to elaborate on Capra’s statement in the context of quantum mechanics, I shall start by breaking it down into its first and second sentence and addressing them both in turn.

    In the aforementioned passage from The Tao of Physics, Capra first states that, “the properties of any atomic object can only be understood in terms of the object’s interaction with the observer.” This is a fairly solid statement and, as I will show in the next few paragraphs, everything the scientific community knows about the topic of quantum mechanics has been derived from interactions between the scientific observers and the subject of study. By constructing various experimental apparatus’ and noting the interaction between electrons (or other atomic objects) and the experimental instruments scientific observers have noted several distinct phenomenon which resulted from these interactions and in turn have led us to our current understanding of quantum physics. These phenomenon include such things as the complementary yet incompatible properties of particles and waves, and the “spin” of electrons relative to one another.

    The first major step in quantum mechanics was undoubtedly the realization from multiple experiments under different laboratory conditions that light interacting with the experimental apparatus could exhibit the properties of waves or particles depending upon the type of experiment. This was groundbreaking because it was believed that light must be either particles or waves, and could not be both. In “double-slit mask” experiments scientists observed light behaving with the properties of a wave, but in experiments which examined the photo-electric effect the interaction between light and various metals indicated that light had the properties of a stream of particles called photons. This anomaly was further elaborated upon in 1923, when a theory proposed by Louis de Broglie paved the way into the study of quantum physics. De Broglie theorized that if light, which was thought to consist of waves, had the properties of both waves and particles in different experimental settings, than perhaps electrons and other material objects believed to be particles could also exhibit wavelike properties under the right conditions. Though de Broglie could not test his theory at the time he proposed it, we now know that using an experiment nearly identical to the double-slit mask experiment (with the exceptions being that a crystal is used for the slotted mask and the beam of light is replaced by a stream of electrons) matter does indeed exhibit strong wavelike properties under the right experimental conditions. This being the foundation for quantum theories, we can easily see that the very heart of quantum mechanics is built upon the observed interactions of light and electrons within an experimental apparatus. The core of the theory of quantum physics is simply that “quanta” (infinitesimally small indivisible objects whether photons, electrons, or otherwise) can and must be described “in terms of incompatible properties that cannot be observed together at the same time but that together give a complete model of the behavior of (quanta).”(Kosso, A&R, pg. 124) Quantum mechanics further elaborates on this when citing other observed complementary yet incompatible properties derived from particles and waves, such as exact position and exact momentum as well as others too numerous to list. This is just one example of how our understanding of quantum mechanics hails from the observable interactions between the objects being studied and the experimental apparatus.

    Another example is related to the phenomenon of electron spin. Quantum mechanics describes how the electromagnetic field generated by each electron causes it to rotate (this can also be described as the movement and spinning of the electron being the cause of the electromagnetic field) on the axis which runs from its north magnetic pole to its south magnetic pole, and furthermore it describes the properties and applications of this spinning. In experiments using apparatus which sort electrons into groups based upon the orientation of their axis of rotation we have found that electrons will all spin upon parallel axes, but that they can only be oriented with their magnetic poles facing either end of this axis. Thus the interaction of electrons with specialized experimental equipment has demonstrated that “each electron comes out either as spin-up or as spin-down, regardless of what direction we specified for our coordinate system. No electron comes out at any orientation in between.”(Kosso, A& R, pg. 134) From what we can perceive about the interactions of these electrons, there are only two possible ways in which their spin can be oriented. The current method of measuring the orientation of an electron’s spin is a Stern-Gerlach device. This electromagnetic apparatus generates an electromotive force (EMF) which forces “spin-up” electrons towards a detector at one end of the field and similarly sends “spin-down” electrons to a detector at the opposite end of the field. The detectors are used to measure the spin orientation of the electrons in order to further quantum mechanical research. Though this seems like a very concise method of measuring these properties of electrons, there are some glaring issues with the apparatus. When culminating his explanation of this type of experimental measurement Kosso writes that, “for each individual particle we can measure the spin orientation only once, since measuring is a kind of interaction that affects the correlation between the two particles. Each measurement, in other words, records the information only by altering the specimen so it no longer has the information.”(Kosso, A& R, pg. 140) While the particles begin in a system of electron pairs whose opposite spin orientations “conserve spin” by maintaining oppositely oriented magnetic fields that yield no net spin, the apparatus used to measure their orientation exerts an EMF which completely disrupts the system of the electron pair in order to measure it. This raises the question as to whether the measured spin is actually a natural property of the electron pair system or merely a property of that system when subjected to the Stern-Gerlach device’s EMF.

    These two examples should do well to demonstrate that our understanding of quantum physics is gleamed from the observable interactions between the subjects of study and the experimental apparatus. Our knowledge of quantum theories is not drawn from how the natural world necessarily functions but instead it is taken from the perceivable phenomenon relating to the interaction of subject and experimental instruments and conditions. Indeed, “the properties of any atomic object can only be understood in terms of the object’s interaction with the observer.”(Capra, The Tao of Physics)

    Now that this first point has been clarified I shall move onto the second part of Capra’s statement in which he writes that, “This means that the classical ideal of an objective description of nature is no longer valid.”(Capra, The Tao of Physics) To begin with, I must say that I would not consider it an objective description of an object if someone were to place a label on that object, such that the properties of said label deny the existence of other less popular properties of said object. I also would not consider an experimental measurement to be objective if the process of measurement applies a force to the experimental subject which is so strong that the subject is stripped of the property being measured. These are points which Peter Kosso touches on but never fully explains, and certainly does not fully refute, in his zest to justify the objectivity of science and his own position of scientific realism. But these are only some of the more minor problems associated with asserting that a human being (or group of human beings) can actually put forth an objective description of nature. Though they are valid points, they are shadowed o’er by the simple frightening fact that the term “objective description” is a fallacy, a paradox at best.

    Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines the term “Objective” as meaning something which is, “existing independent of mind: relating to an object as it is in itself or as distinguished from consciousness.” This same dictionary defines the term “Description” as referring to a, “composition intended primarily to present to the mind, or imagination, graphically and in detail a unit of objective or subjective experience.” Though the authors of this dictionary were careful to write the objective/subjective dichotomy into this second definition as if a description could be either-or, a closer read of the definitions of both terms shows that it is inherently impossible for a description to be truly objective. An account constructed by one mind about what that mind thinks it knows, constructed for the purpose of presenting the finished account to another mind, such an account could not possibly exist independent of the human mind. Though the scientific community is well-intentioned with its striving for objectivity they seem to prefer ignoring the simple fact that we are all frail, fallible, confused human beings. To truly construct an objective description of nature a scientist would have to transcend his own humanity to the extent that he could observe reality from a point of no-reference, he would have to be able to perceive the totality of existence and non-existence from a perspective beyond any human thought process. Furthermore, in order to truly objectively describe nature that same scientist would need to communicate his enlightened observations to other human beings without being limited by the mental construct of human language. While bearing all this in mind we can find it much easier to see that for Capra to say that the “classical ideal of an objective description of nature is no longer valid” is a most drastic understatement.

    In my opinion, Fritjof Capra is completely justified in his statement about quantum mechanics and objective description. Our understanding of quantum mechanics is quite obviously a derivative of the observable experimental interactions between atomic objects and the experimental equipment. And honestly, a truly objective description of the ways of nature is not a valid ideal. While it is true that such a thing is one of many unattainable ideals that many people strive for, I would not consider it a remotely realistic goal. But there is a deeper truth in the philosophy which inspired Capra’s book The Tao of Physics. Truly objective observation and harmony with nature is possible, if difficult to achieve. But such achievements cannot be taught or accurately described to another person. However, it’s still worth the effort to try. As you finish digesting the philosophical content of this dissertation I would ask you to forget every word I have written if only it meant that you would remember every word of the following poem, written by a far greater man than I will probably ever be. Remember these words and understand them, and perhaps you will realize what it is to truly objectively observe the ways of nature.

    "Truthful words are not beautiful.
    Beautiful words are not truthful.
    Good men seldom argue.
    Those that are argue are seldom good.
    Those who know are not learned.
    Those who are learned do not know.

    The sage never tries to store things up.
    The more he does for others, the more he has.
    The more he gives to others, the greater his abundance.
    The Way of heaven is pointed but does no harm.
    The Way of the sage is work without effort."

    (Lao Tzu, Tao tê Ching, literally meaning “Way Virtue Classic” or “Classic of the Virtue of the Way”, translated Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English)
    Show me a man who has forgotten words, so that I can have a word with him.

  2. #2
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    I'll have to come back to this...

    Thanks though.
    practice wu de

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    i got about halfway and got sick of reading about atoms..sorry

    so whats the ending like?

    amitabha
    "did you ask me to consider dick with you??" blooming tianshi lotus

  4. #4
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    I enjoyed reading this, thanks! I wrote something similar about 10 years ago on how human beings observe the world, from the basic building blocks of matter to how life itself is viewed in various places and at various points in history.

    "Is matter solid & connected or merely illusion, one manifestation of a larger order? On the quantum level matter seems to need our participation; a photon in a closed box could be anywhere or every where until we observe it, and then it acts as a particle in one experiment and waves in another. Matter appears to need our active observation of measurement to make it decide how to behave. This of course sounds like madness; solid is solid how could it change? To tribal people this is the very reality with which they live." -anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis.

    Often how things are viewed has to do with the social mindset of the time, & not just in physics:

    "The discovery that the universe is expanding was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the twentieth century. With hindsight, it is easy to wonder why no one had thought of it before.
    …This behavior of the universe could have been predicted from Newton's theory of gravity at any time in the nineteenth, the eighteenth, or even the late seventeenth century. Yet so strong was the belief in a static universe that it persisted into the early twentieth century. Even Einstein, when he formulated the general theory of relativity in 1915, was so sure that the universe had to be static that he modified his theory to make this possible, introducing a so-called cosmological constant into his equations."
    -Stephen W. Hawking, 'A Brief History Of Time.'

  5. #5
    And your point is?

    I'm not sure how this belittles the accomplishments of the scientific community.
    Experienced Community organizer. Yeah, let's choose him to run the free world. It will be historic. What could possibly go wrong...

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    i am going to say what doc just said, in a much more long-winded, philosophical way:

    in the words of the kinda great (but mostly just really weird) singer/songwriter lori andersen, when you walk, you're really only falling forward and catching yourself, over and over again.

    now, many great philosophers have doubted the existence of, or at least the human capacity to truly understand, an objective reality. however, i am willing to bet that they continued to walk, even after the onset of this doubt.

    i am also willing to bet that at least most of them were reasonably sane. so, you have to ask yourself: how could any sane person, who doubted the existence of a floor outside of their own subjective experience, continue to risk their own health, and use that perceived floor to catch themselves from falling, over and over again?

    the answer is obvious. the floor has caught them from falling for their entire lives. so it's reasonable to believe that it will do so again.

    take the mystery out, and that's all science is. regardless of objective truth, a concept which can be demonstrated and reproduced - for instance, "what goes up, must come down" - is taken as a reasonable belief, until it can be replaced by a more accurate and complete explanation in the future, through further testing and analysis. the scientific method is just the best method we have of logically evaluating human experience so that we can come to the most accurate conclusions possible about the universe. it's proven itself to be the "best", because it has provided us with more specific and useful knowledge about ourselves and our universe than any other method in history.

    that's saying what doc said. now i have something to add to it:

    the unspoken message of your dissertation, given the fact that you are obviously very deeply involved with and in some agreement with TCM, is that, given these perceived flaws in the scientific method, traditional asian philosophies are a better or at least equally valid way of uncovering information that is useful in fields such as medicine.

    since you didn't actually say this, i won't make you back it up, but if you want to, feel free.

  7. #7
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    Doc, it doesn't belittle anyone's accomplishements. It merely points out that anyone who insists their knowledge is better than yours because they observe and describe the world "objectively" is full of bull****.

    Maestro, start reading near the bottom, with the paragraph that starts "Now that this first point has been clarified" read from there till the bottom and you'll get the good part of the paper without too much talk of atoms and quantum particles.

    Incidentally, I'm interested in hearing what zach has to say about empiricism.
    Show me a man who has forgotten words, so that I can have a word with him.

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    please see above.

    that's an example of simple empiricism.

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    Amen. So I'm not trying to say subjective learning rules and objective knowledge bites, I'm just saying both styles are equally valid.

    I read an article on the downfalls of scientific medicine (the basic premise of which was that science should be a tool for our use, not a system which enslaves our behaviour) in Acupunture Today recently (which by the way is a lovely medical journal, doc you should subscribe), which said the following.

    Scientific medicine seeks to eliminate all the variables in an equation to get at the heart of a problem, to discover the one damn molecule that is screwing everything up. This is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

    Chinese medicine seeks to incorporate all the variables into the picture, to describe a pattern of disharmony through everything that is affecting the patient. This is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

    Anyways, while trying to clean up my hard drive, I ran into another longwinded paper about the nature of the scientific enterprise as it exists today. Part of me wants to post it, and the rest of me thinks its a bit silly to be sharing my college philosophy papers overs this forum.

    Zach, have you ever heard of the phenomenon of zoopharmocognancy?
    Show me a man who has forgotten words, so that I can have a word with him.

  10. #10
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    do you mean "zoopharmacognasy", the practice of watching animals to find out what they eat when they're sick?

    no, i haven't.

    Originally posted by daodejing
    Amen. So I'm not trying to say subjective learning rules and objective knowledge bites, I'm just saying both styles are equally valid.
    i don't really understand what you mean. the scientific method is a kind of subjective learning, really, and objective knowledge is a philosophical principle...

    Scientific medicine seeks to eliminate all the variables in an equation to get at the heart of a problem, to discover the one damn molecule that is screwing everything up. This is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

    Chinese medicine seeks to incorporate all the variables into the picture, to describe a pattern of disharmony through everything that is affecting the patient. This is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
    this is confusing.... scientific medicine changes its methods as new variables come to light. it just disregards variables that haven't been shown empirically to have any effect on the problem in question. TCM often deals with variables that haven't been proven to have any effect on those problems, such as the placement of mirrors in the patient's house. is this what the author means?

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