Phantasy has always been at the service of philosophy, and Plato was not ashamed to clothe his epistemology in the metaphor of the cave. Dr. J. Bronowski among others has pointed out that mathematics, which most of us see as the most factual of all sciences, constitutes the most colossal metaphor imaginable, and must be judged, aesthetically as well as intellectually, in terms of the success of this metaphor. Norbert Weiner - Human Use of Humans. 1948.I like the preceding quote. In 1948, they were just beginning to see the ramifications of what they were dealing with in that day's new physics. In my own contemporary view, I have felt that theoretical physics has actually gone off the rails. It appears to have celebrities who are bigger than life and people who actually bash two or more items together to puzzle out what they are. And there are theories... physics has plenty of those, each one adding a new aspect to a fantastic jigsaw puzzle whose pieces grow more numerable instead of fitting together.
In 1948, the public was dealing with a highly visible change to physics. One had only to look at what hitherto unimaginable things the scientists had done to see how fantastic it all was. Surely the explanations of scientists must be trusted even if we only understood them partially.
At the time, physicists themselves were sounding the warning bells about a technology out of control. The Bulletin of Atomic Physicists set up a Doomsday Clock counting down to possible global catastrophe. link Many knew in 1947 that science had resulted in the creation of too much power for our consistently warlike political systems to assimilate safely. Technology paired with science had not really created what we could all fully agree upon as definitely a good thing.
Think about the efforts of the government to soothe fears and turn this major new threat into a positive. There were all sorts of public education campaigns to teach us how "harnessing" this new technology could solve the problems of energy. This bias towards the unfettered development of technology was clearly in my own textbooks when I was in elementary school. Beneath the surface, it was quite militaristic in its sophisticated presentation of good nuclear PR considering the times. Nationalist leanings assume each nation must work to insure they are not falling behind in the arms race. Capitalism brings in the idea of competition for profit rated above cooperation for the good of all. If one thought about the failures, the meltdowns, the radioactive waste, the political standoffs at the edge of catastrophe that threatened the entire world's existence rather than just the hundreds of thousands of innocents who had already died horrendously, could one honestly say that here, as a result of research in nuclear physics, was created a technology that humanity was better off with rather than without? At best this technology was a roll of the dice with snake eyes being the entire destruction of humanity, and boxcars equaling one method of not so clean energy as opposed to many methods of clean energy only now being pursued in earnest. True there were advances in medicine, the dating of historic artifacts, the fueling of satellites and of course submarines designed to mobilize their threatening nuclear payloads so that they could not be found... but no accomplishment, to me is really worth the never-ending threat of rolling snake eyes.
Technology was not all that resulted from the heady days of atomic wizardry. The profound changes had created a faith in science, even though at the same time the ability to successfully explain the workings of the world in any simply understood way had become exponentially more improbable. Personally, I do not believe it is feasible that there will ever be a unifying string (or multiverse) theory now being sought. In fact, I see no reason why physics will be likely to discover the secrets of the universe within my lifetime, or even in the Earth's period of existence, an existence which is threatened by our incomplete knowledge and our capitalistic way of using technology for the profit of a few rather than to engender good works for the benefit of everyone.
My personal opinion is that physicists have painted themselves into a corner that will take an infinite period of time from which to extricate themselves. How much can you learn about a clock by throwing it against a brick wall and watching the trajectories of the unseen parts? Sometimes I ponder how people could desert all their logic to follow an assumption that leads them into less and less well defined areas while still calling their thoughts successful. This is one major reason why I see no reason to use physics (or science), as it now stands, as the emperor's clothes to warm the bodies of those who feel that they can absolutely "prove" there is no God. I ponder the same thing about people who think God saved their house from the tornado that killed their neighbors. Does either side see all the ramifications of their belief? They cannot.
Scientists have a doomsday clock to measure the progress of technological entropy that inevitably leads to the destruction of our world and the Bible has the predicted ambiguous and allegorical Apocalypse. I am not happy with adopting either idea.
In high school, I felt a little taken aback by chemistry, where I learned with much ado about how difficult it was to wrap my mind around basic ideas of physics. So I channeled that fake student (from an earlier entry) who just parrots what is laid before him to obtain good grades. The tables of valences were a bitch but still easy enough to study by rote if you did not constantly battle with the question of why you were learning them for your future practical existence. There were students arguing the merits of their education everywhere, but I was never one of them. My idea was to learn all I could, get grades, and move on. I never took physics as a formal subject in school. It seemed to be a very practical field in the way it was taught by the ROTC ex-military guy they had assigned it to. Yet, I do not believe I missed much from that particular class except things like figuring out the trajectory of cannon balls and bullets, because I remember nothing else from his classroom chalkboards when I was stationed there for a study hall.
Despite all the theater of the absurd that most of physics seemed to me, what sticks out in my mind as the perfect example (taught to me in chemistry class) was the inability of science to determine exactly where an electron was at ANY given point in time. Physical models of atoms, which are easy to understand metaphorically , showed an electron as a little ball. I could care less about the ball shape but I do think that if one is to believe a thing exists, one ought to be able to figure out where it is. I can believe in the Tower of Pisa without seeing it but I have seen pictures of people pretending to hold it up. I am convinced it is there. You can locate it on a map and you can physically go there and see it. However, I do not easily accept things on authority. It is like admitting the likelihood that there was a serpent that could speak to Eve about apples.
At this moment what entered my life was the "Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle": "This ascribes the uncertainty in the measurable quantities to the jolt-like disturbance triggered by the act of observation." And incidentally, what entered into my mind was all the doubt that an ordinary high school student could muster. I would stay after class in vain trying to talk it out with the teacher. I would learn these things for the test but... I was not going to cede my logical opinions to authority. Basically my anti-authoritarian self was screaming "prove it to me or your model is a metaphor and nothing else" although I would not be able to express it so succinctly at that time. I'm proud of thinking in this way, though. I always questioned. It was to my father's detriment, because we constantly argued politics. Yet, perhaps he forgives me from some afterlife. My father gifted me my ability to question and argue. Only recently in life have I felt a more complete freedom to do so. I have honed a disrespect for taking things on authority throughout my life but only now do I realize that there is some certainty, at least as much as the metaphorical model of the atom, that no one really knows what they incessantly speak of.
Things probably exist, and it might be best to believe something exists, but we cannot prove important aspects of the existence of things as mere limited observers. That still sounds all too much like an appeal to authority along the same line as religion.
Keeping in mind that I believe atheists have an astounding 50/50 chance of being absolutely correct, let me relate the following anecdote. Once on Facebook, a discussion led to someone defending atheism with a statement like "Well, possibly I do not know everything there is to know about these things but I do know people who do, and I believe them." This actually happened and this is a very smart respected person in my book. I feel atheists are, as a group, more thoughtful. They are more likely to hold an intelligent discussion of ideas. My argument in the thread at the time was not with the quoted person but with another energetically convinced person, or I would have won right there by simply pointing out the obvious fallacy of appeal to authority. As it was, I did win, but the person later backed down from an equally ironic statement as if it had been parody. I let it pass. I noted to myself later how profoundly difficult it must be for someone to realize that their dream of truly knowing something in a concrete way was essentially resting upon the same principle as that of any person wanting to believe the opposite.
In fact, only recently have I reexamined how much my experiences in religion were directly as well as tangentially a large part of what created my anti-authoritarian leanings in life, the position I am proud of having at such a young age. There are two reasons for my individual and characteristic doubting of authority based on religion (as separate from my experiences with life which I will go into later in some other entry.) The first reason was that I doubted the religious authorities I came into contact with. I eventually did not believe the way the church I attended told people how to believe (and worse today, told how to vote). I recognized this influence throughout much of my life but only recently have known its full value in my life as a springboard of discontent. The second reason I doubted authority is almost entirely the opposite. In a sense, religion was my philosophy or the only philosophy I had learned. As I read Plato today and read other philosophers of those earlier times, I see that the written documentation of the remembered words of Christ were actually providing a fair representation of philosophical ideas that underpin most of the way the world works according to some fairly convincing philosophers. Its power often misused, religion is still powerful in this regard. The issues to be pondered are powerful.
Had I been limited by only my science class added to the economics of Adam Smith, to fill out my moral reasoning, I would be such a different man. I would, essentially, be thoroughly selfish. While today's religion does seem to be excessively tolerant of its more selfish adherents, it was religion that gave me a sense that the quest for moral values could be just as important as that of science or other knowledge. It was religion that gave me a different viewpoint, a different pathway to follow. For good or bad, I cannot imagine my life without following this pathway even had I come to a brick wall at the end of my journey.
What I did not know about quantum physics in high school was that the use of statistics was beginning to be a tool to substitute for real quantifiable numbers. I did not know what statistics were at the time, other than the results of studies in human behavior... of which I was quite fond. I do not really doubt that this strategy was a great way to progress in physics if only for the sake of advances in thought, advances that may well lead to great practical or impractical discoveries. Yet, there is the possibility that science has now made it richly clear that humans will never be able to substantially prove much of what comes after this point in time where statistics were substituted for quantifiable numbers. You may well come up with experiments to test, then statistically say that "100 experiments have jived with our predictions. Therefore, all experiments will likely jive with these experiments." But I think this is not identical to what we would call a fact.
To me (and I strive to continually limit my scope because I humbly admit my own handicap of being just a human being and not a particularly well educated one at that) .... TO ME because a coin is flipped and comes up heads a hundred times it does not necessarily mean that the coin is double-headed. It seems entirely logical and scientific. Nevertheless, the fact is that it could be an incredible freak of chance that it did so and as a normal coin that has not been switched, monkeyed with, or changed in some unknown way over time. Please let us not forget the infinitesimally small chances that science clings to in regard to the spontaneous life theory. The odds are incredibly small for a sudden sparking materialization of DNA, fully necessary to pass on variations and one of the most complex biological structures imaginable; yet science insists on those small odds, by logic.
Please also consider that we are not allowed to observe both sides of the coin, which science again says we cannot do without our observation somehow physically changing the coin, a la Heisenberg. Heaven forbid that the coin could have been surreptitiously switched by the flipping person before we are allowed to observe it closely. Luckily science assumes that nature does not actively try to fool us, that there is no God changing the outcomes to his liking, at least in opposition to "natural" laws. That would be disastrous for science and my brain as well.
In other words, if Plato was right in his allegory of the cave link... what of... science? Science seems to admit the truthfulness of the allegory as much as it is blatantly upfront about what we can observe and what we can only guess we might observe. When it comes down to the building blocks of all things, we can only see the shadows on the wall. We can only calculate the probabilities of what they are. We can only see the variations in the paths of the rock fragments that fly off after we smash two together, not the fragments themselves, nor, even at times, the rocks themselves. We are in a cave, looking at the shadows, but never seeing the source.
by Michael DeVore