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Professor Steven Goldman
What Scientists Know
and How They Know It
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The question of what’s real and how we know it’s real, since high-school days, has been central to my quest for knowledge.
And so, when I discovered Dr. Goldman’s lectures among The Great Courses, I was cautiously optimistic for some good information. I needn’t have been wary. His treatment of the subject is first-rate, hence my compulsion to include it among treasured findings.
The following is a survey and condensation of Professor Goldman’s lectures; plus, at no extra charge, comments of my own.
Are scientific theories true because they correspond to reality?
How can we know that they do, given that we have no access to reality except through experience, offered by the five senses, which can be unreliable guides.
How would we know if a scientific theory corresponds to ultimate reality when we have no direct access to the deeper levels of what's real?
Are theories true because they account for experience and make correct predictions?
our success-record isn't so wonderful
This sounds plausible, but theories we now consider wrong once were considered true because they seemed to account for our experience and did make successful predictions.
Editor’s note: Consider these statements within a religious context. We say we’ve had a mystical encounter, a surreal experience, an answer to prayer. Why? – because outcomes conformed to what we expected to receive. Is this circular reasoning? But even the churches, known for being "certain," have changed their "infallible" doctrines over the centuries. Scientists, in principle, might commit the same sin against clear thinking. The results of the famous Michelson-Morley “ether” experiments were initially rejected by Michelson and Morley themselves because they were certain the ether had to exist. Strangely, this same sense of self-fulfilling prophecy afflicted me. I speak of this on the “Galatians Commentary” page. My research lasted 15 years when 1 or 2 would have sufficed. As I explain in that writing, I was learning things I could not accept, and this mental intransigence skewed the whole inquiry process.
Should we not assume that as new experiences accumulate, current theories will be replaced, as all previous theories have been?
the experience-validated tentative conclusion
But, in that case, theories are not really knowledge or truth, in the strict sense of these words, but a special case of the experience-validated educated opinion.
knowledge and truth are age-old problems
Do these exist? – as opposed to opinion and belief? If so, who possesses substantive knowledge, and how do they get it, and what power does it give them?
Modern science began as a method for solving one form of the problem of knowledge, knowledge of nature, but soon promoted itself as the only rational response to experience, alone capable of producing knowledge based upon experience.
This “imperialism” pitted science against all other claimants to knowledge, truth, rationality, triggering the “science wars” which marked much of the twentieth century and to this day. This conflict arrayed humanist intellectuals, religionists, and many social scientists against natural scientists over the very possibility of determining objective knowledge.
a monopoly on disclosing reality
Natural scientists conceived of science as having a monopoly on knowledge and truth, a monopoly on disclosing reality.
debates over the meaning of knowledge
The post-1960 science wars were an expression of a conflict internal to modern science that is best understood as a deep clashing views within Western philosophy.
We need to understand what scientists mean when they use the word “know” before we can assess the truth of scientific knowledge claims.
Western philosophy, with the early Greeks, essentially begins with a “war” over the definition of “reason,” over the claim that there is such a thing as knowledge, certain and universal, superior to belief and opinion.
Plato and Aristotle defended the existence of immutable knowledge against the Sophists, relativists and skeptics, who argued that there were only more or less probable beliefs and opinions, but no absolute knowledge.
The battle over the definition of “reason” in Plato’s dialogue, “The Sophist,” thus is the original science war.
Editor’s note: Since the days of my early research as a teen and young man, I’ve been inclined to want to discover “the truth,” knowledge bordering on certainty. However, as I consider just now Professor Goldman’s framing of the debate between Plato and the Sophists, I realize that I’m more of a Sophist than I’ve known: I’m the one who preaches, “hold present concepts of truth lightly in one’s hands, pending further light, as there’s always more to come.” This admission of the tentative nature of knowledge, in terms of our limited perceptions, takes me perilously close to a world laden with belief and opinion, which I’m inclined to decry but am now forced to embrace.
the gods vs the earth giants
Plato refers to knowledge acquisition as a “battle” between the gods, representing immutable knowledge - universal, necessary, and certain – and the earth giants, the sophists, who viewed knowledge as a version of belief and opinion – particular, contingent, and changing.
For the sophists, knowledge was particular in that it was linked to the doubtful individual experience; contingent because it was tied to unproved or unprovable underlying assumptions about the nature of the world; and changing which is the result, of course, of these former.
sailing murky waters
Dr.Goldman points out that this conflict, in 2500 years since Plato, has never been adequately resolved. Modern science wants to have it both ways. It believes in empiricism, fact gathering, experience-based knowledge acquisition. And yet, at the end, it hopes to define “laws,” unchanging precepts of the natural world which will hold steady everywhere in the universe. The problem becomes this: How do you get to immutable knowledge, universal, necessary, and certain, when it’s based on the particular, contingent, and changing?
Editor’s note: This conflict is discussed in the “Evolution” writing. Materialistic science desires to decree universal laws regarding the origin and development of species, but its pronouncements are built upon unproven, and discredited, metaphysical assumptions.
Scientists are human, too, and have egos to contend with as everyone else. When we examine, along with Dr. Goldman, the question “What does Science know and how does it know it?” we need to be aware that some conclusions of materialistic science represent “face saving” attempts, a “Joker is wild” philosophy. It’s what they want to believe, and need to believe, in order to lend seeming coherence to a checkered materialistic theory. This is not objective science but cultish belief-system.
the scientific method is not a monolith; there are competing visions of this process: inductive and deductive
A mathematical-experimental approach to the study of nature first emerged in the thirteenth century in Western Europe and was applied aggressively in the sixteenth.
By the seventeen century, technological advancement in the West was already displaying exponential growth. Works by two thinkers, Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, on the possibility of knowledge of nature and on how to get it were perceived at the time, and after, as heralding the birth of “modern” science.
the enduring problem of scientific knowledge
Editor's note: also see the article on David Hume's "causation and induction"
They also heralded what would be the enduring problem of scientific knowledge.
Bacon championed an experiment-intensive, inductive approach to knowledge of nature that minimized both mathematics and an active role for the mind.
Descartes opted for a mathematics-intensive, deductive approach that assigned a central role to mind and only a marginal role to experiment.
Editor’s note: To help myself remember the difference between “inductive” and “deductive,” I allowed the prefix “in” concerning “inductive” to represent “to gather in,” that is, the facts of a question. Bacon liked this fact-gathering, which, he believed, would lead to a generalized principle or theory. A deductive method is the opposite: the starting point is an accepted general principle taking one to a specific conclusion. The Sherlock Holmes stories often used the word “deductive” or “deduce,” which meant that Sherlock would take general principles of human nature to arrive at specific facts of the case.
"brilliant deduction, Holmes" - not induction
Are there 'laws' of science?
In his lectures on the history of psychology, Dr. Daniel N. Robinson of Oxford spoke of the tortured definitions of scientific method.
During the early part of the twentieth century, the views of Dr. Carl Hempel and his “nomological-deductive” model was widely respected.
Editor’s note: Concerning “nomological,” we saw the root Greek word “nomos,” meaning law, custom, or convention, in the writing on Herodotus and “nomos,” how every culture takes its own standard as normal and dispositive.
Hempel essentially said that if a science is to be worthy of the term, it needs, as much as possible, to have “laws” in the Newtonian fashion. These certainties, he declared, are to be the bedrock of said purported science. With these "laws" in place, we deduce as we like.
This went well - until it all fell apart when a patent clerk by the name of Einstein unwound Newton’s clockwork universe. Now fallen from high pedestal, Newtonianism was shown to be mere subset of a larger reality - and its vaunted “laws” demoted to ad hoc importance.
“Laws” of science, nevertheless, today are still talked about in high school and college textbooks. But Nobel laureate in physics Dr. Richard Feynman blasted the idea of any notion of solid “law” because our knowledge, on any subject, is always rather skimpy.
natural philosophy, natural philosophers
"Natural philosophy" is a term common in the history of science. Before we called it “science,” prior to the 1800s, it was “natural philosophy,” that is, a philosophy of the natural world.
Will Durant called science the captured territory of philosophy. Before a measure of certainty, there’s speculative thought. All science begins with philosophy; some would argue that a blurred demarcation will persist.
In some circles, science and math are considered most important, with other areas, such as philosophy and the fine arts, deemed to be unnecessary or frivolous.
Albert Einstein disagreed:
“A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is - in my opinion - the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”
Adler concurs with Einstein: the "mere artisan" is the technician, one who performs tasks, is not truly or widely educated, not having gained a depth of understanding of how things work. See discussion on the "About" page.
four legacy ideas upon which modern science rests
These four ideas were in place before the seventeenth century, before Bacon and Descartes:
(1) The task of natural philosophy is to explain natural phenomena in terms of causes
(2) In explaining natural phenomena, nature must be treated as a closed system epistemologically; that is, natural phenomena can be explained only as the effects of natural, not supernatural, causal agents. This rule is first found in the twelfth century treatise Natural Questions by the English monk Adelard of Bath. In the thirteenth century, this precept was extended to include nature as also closed ontologically; meaning, after the biblical creation, nothing fundamental can be added to nature or destroyed.
Editor’s note: Ontology versus Epistemology: Dr. Danial Robinson of Oxford, in his lectures on the history of philosophy, speaks of the classical definitions: ontology asks the question “what is real?” and epistemology goes on to query, “how do we know it’s real?” In the paragraph above, we see nature purported to be a closed system ontologically, which is to say, “whatever is real is with us right now and nothing can be added.” In a similar vein, to say that nature is a closed system epistemologically signifies, “we must look for evidence for what’s real within nature itself,” as opposed to religious doctrine/revelation.
(3) Knowledge of nature must be based on direct experience or repeatable experiments, not textual statements by self-appointed authorities (usually, of the religious sort).
(4) Mathematics is a language for describing natural phenomena.
the year 1543 is called a “miracle year” in terms of the publication of three seminal books concerning natural philosophy
(1) Copernicus’s “On The Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres” laid the foundation of astronomy, dismissing Ptolemaic and Aristotelian concepts.
(2) Vesalius’s “On the Structure of the Human Body” created basis for modern anatomy and medical science, overthrowing the time-honored ancient Roman Galen’s teachings.
(3) The publication in Latin of three texts by the Greek mathematician Archimedes which influenced the rise of modern mathematical physics, especially as Galileo approached it.
Francis Bacon’s 1620 book “The New Organon” offered a method for acquiring knowledge
Editor's note: The "Organon" (Greek meaning, "instrument, tool, organ") refers to Aristotle's six works on logic. By naming his book “New Organon,” Bacon was saying “I propose a new method, a new way of thinking in terms of acquiring knowledge.”
Bacon argued that the key to knowledge of nature was not genius or mystical revelation but a “mechanical” method that revealed laws of nature in empirical data.
Startlingly, Bacon argued that the human mind itself was an obstacle to knowledge of nature – it is the problem, not the solution.
Editor’s note: He was on the right track. Today we would say that if one’s thinking is based upon the “false self,” one’s experience will be colored by perceptions of “I am not enough.”
Bacon’s famous “idols of the mind”
He identified four “idols” which the [unenlightened] mind serves:
idols of the tribe: following peer-group pressure, denying your own judgment
idols of the cave: following only self-interest, neglecting the greater good
idols of the theatre: following the dogmatism of the popular culture, the canned answers taught in school as "the truth"
idols of the marketplace: allowing materialism, consumerism, to direct one's thinking
These are four ways in which the mind is led, or subverted. These base influences center about family prejudices, base cravings, popular culture, accepted norms, and the like.
Strictly controlled induction – a rigorous fact-gathering process – Bacon argued, was the solution to the problem of acquiring knowledge of nature.
Editor's note: A systemic problem, however, for Bacon: If the mind is to be rejected as unreliable guide to knowledge-production, how then can the mind be trusted to evaluate the results of inductive experiment?
not to be outdone, Descartes offered his own 1630 book on “method” of acquiring knowledge
Independently of Bacon, Rene Descartes proposed a deductive-rational, as opposed to Bacon’s inductive-empirical, approach to acquiring knowledge of nature. Ten years after Bacon published “New Organon,” Descartes published “Discourse On Method” and “Rules For The Direction Of The Mind,” which argued for deductive reasoning as the only way to achieve universal, necessary, and certain knowledge of nature.
For Descartes, the mind is the solution, not the problem, as it was for Bacon and his “idols.” Descartes would insist that Truth, including knowledge of the world “out there,” is in the mind, and only deductive reasoning can generate that knowledge.
Mathematics, for Descartes, is the key to scientific knowledge, while experiment, he thought, is a tool of limited value, to be used cautiously because its results are equivocal. Was Descartes correct in this view? Can logically fertile hypothesis and the mind’s inner “eye” give us knowledge of that which is outside the mind? How would we know we were right?
Editor's note: See the article on "Certainty" for discussion of mathematics as avenue to the undisputed.
The founders of modern science, searching for universal truths of nature, were well aware of a problem with using experiments to validate universal knowledge claims.
Editor’s note: In this regard, we are reminded of Einstein’s warning: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong." The universal statement “all swans are white” cannot be confirmed, even with a thousand white swans, but a single black swan will falsify it.
It follows that the truth of what is claimed to be a universal theory or law of nature cannot be deductively certain or affirmed.
Editor’s note: As we look closely as inductive versus deductive reasoning, the lines of demarcation begin to severely blur. Here are some examples of deductive reasoning (beginning with a general statement, leading to specifics):
All birds have feathers. All robins are birds. Therefore, robins have feathers.
All noble gases are stable. Helium is a noble gas, so helium is stable.
All horses have manes. The Arabian is a horse; therefore, Arabians have manes.
It all sounds reasonable – until we ask, how do we know, or come to know, that all birds have feathers, all noble gases are stable, and all horses have manes? The first person who knew these statements to be true, or believed them to be true, did not read it in a book or receive it from Mount Sinai. These so-called universal statements, subject to future falsification by the advent of one "black swan," were affirmed to be so after long years of observation and gathering of fact – which is deductive reasoning.
Which came first, the deductive chicken or the inductive egg? Why not use both systems as need arises?
Galileo, the Catholic Church, and Truth
What did Galileo (1564-1642) actually know about nature? Did he, for example, know that the Earth moved on its axis and around the Sun? Did his telescope give him that knowledge? Did his immensely influential Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems prove that Copernicus (1473-1543) was right? Did Galileo know, as he claimed he did, that four moons orbited Jupiter, that sunspots were on or near the surface of the Sun, that the Moon’s surface was uneven, that the tides were caused by the Earth’s rotation?
The Catholic Church typically has been cast by historians as a villain in the condemnation of Galileo, but a great deal hinges on whether Galileo possessed knowledge and was defending truth or was promoting personal opinions based on his beliefs.
Galileo employed a method of reasoning that was different both from Bacon’s and Descartes’ and was more influential than either. He was, arguably, the first modern mathematical physicist, deeply committed to the idea of nature as being intrinsically mathematical. He employed a rigorously objective and empirical method of reasoning that used experiment selectively to confirm the validity of idealized mathematical models of natural phenomena.
He used thought experiments (as did Einstein) to reach scientific conclusions and, on occasion, extended the logical consequences of his idealized reasoning to nature as if he had actually observed experimentally what could not have been observed.
Galileo did not doubt that we can have universal, necessary, and certain knowledge, for example, in mathematics and in mathematical physics.
Galileo’s method for generating knowledge of nature is based on Archimedes’ style of mathematical physics. Three treatises by Archimedes (287 BC – 212 BC) were published in Latin translations in 1543 and widely studied in Italy, stimulating an active school of Italian mathematics and mathematical physics in the last third of the century when Galileo was a student.
Archimedes applied mathematics to material phenomena, such as water pressure and the design of machines, in addition to optics and astronomy.
Galileo extended this to matter in motion generally, stating that mathematics is the very language of the “book of nature” and that mathematical forms are the “alphabet” of this language.
Demonstration, a name for deductive reasoning in the manner of Euclidean geometry, when applied to natural phenomena, gives us certain knowledge of nature. This knowledge is identical with God’s knowledge qualitatively, but not quantitatively.
The key to Galileo’s method is idealization from the concrete physical phenomenon being studied, which presumes knowing what in an experimental situation is essential and what is not.
Editor’s note: No method of enquiry is perfect, and this presumption of knowing what is essential can be a grave flaw in the process. It can easily honor and elevate prejudice to a level of “law.” We see this error paraded by materialistic scientists who presume to know what is important when they do not know. See more discussion on the “Scientific Evidence for the Afterlife” and “Evolution” pages.
Galileo made use of thought experiments and sometimes preferred these to actual experiments (as did Einstein), whose results could be misleading (or deemed to be so).
His study of falling bodies and pendulum motion illustrate his approach to idealized mathematical modeling of natural phenomena.
They also illustrate his equivocal attitude to experiment and his sometimes uncritical extension of conceptual analysis to nature.
Galileo is, of course, best known as the champion of Copernicus’ astronomical theory based on his pioneering application of the telescope.
It was Galileo’s conception of knowledge that put him in direct conflict with the Catholic Church.
In his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo states that qualitatively (though not quantitatively) knowledge is the same for us and for God.
It was only for his insistence that Copernicus’ theory was physically true, and that any reasonable person would conclude that it was true, that Galileo was called into account.
Had Galileo claimed that Copernicus’ theory was the most effective means of making astronomical calculations, ignoring the question of physical reality, there would have been no conflict at all with the Church!
Galileo’s argument in the Dialogue is rhetorical/persuasive, selectively omitting information well known to Galileo [designed to] lead the reader.
Galileo’s realist truth-claim conflicted with Church teaching at a time when the Church was waging a brutal war with the Protestants who were challenging its authority as a source of truth.
Editor’s note: Professor Goldman is referring to the Northern-Europe Protestant revolt against the RCC. See my article “Weaponized Art” for more discussion. The beleaguered Roman Church met with this challenge by doubling down on its ostentatious and meretricious ways. This was the time of Bernini’s Papal Rome and a visual-propaganda pomposity. As historian Kenneth Clark called it, “the most grandiose piece of town planning ever attempted.” All of this Protestant dissent put the Church in a very bad mood; as such, it was not inclined to allow Galileo to mount one more challenge.
What does Copernicus’ theory require us to believe if we accept it as physically true (which Copernicus himself thought was the case)? What evidence is there that the theory is correct?
Galileo’s Dialogue (promoting two world systems) ignored a third “world system,” that of Tycho Brahe, which was the most widely supported astronomical theory in the early seventeenth century. Why Galileo ignored it is very revealing.
Can seeing by itself, uninterpreted seeing, be knowing?
Brahe’s theory and Copernicus’ theory are indistinguishable empirically, given the instruments available to Galileo.
More generally, Galileo’s telescope was incapable of proving either that the Earth rotated on its axis or that it revolved around the Sun.
The telescope revealed that Venus had phases, which may be said to prove that it orbits the Sun, but Brahe’s theory predicted that, too.
Galileo emerges as a polemicist for the Copernican world view.
Editor’s note: The question becomes, as per Dr. Goldman, was Galileo warranted in doing so?
Galileo ignored Brahe because he did not believe Brahe’s theory was correct. Including Brahe’s theory, which is just as well supported by the telescope as Copernicus’, would have undermined the contrast between Copernicus’ theory and the clearly false Ptolemaic theory as the only options for a true theory of the heavens.
Galileo also ignored his fellow Copernican advocate Kepler’s arguments that the planets move at non-uniform speeds and in elliptical, not circular, orbits. (Kepler was correct in this, Galileo was wrong, believed the orbits to be circular.)
Galileo’s physics clearly reveals both that experience/experiment-based science of nature requires that we accept conclusions that contradict experience and that scientific reasoning is complex.
Studying Galileo’s work in the light of the subsequent history of physics reveals the inevitability of assumptions in scientific reasoning.
One of Galileo’s assumptions was that circular motion was natural. (He was wrong about this.) A decade after Galileo died, the Dutch mathematician-physicist Christian Huyghens (1629-1695) successfully demonstrated that circular motion is forced motion, thereby altering the course of mathematical physics.
Did Galileo discover facts, as an archeologist discovers buried artifacts, uncovering them, or did he construe experience in ways that “made” new facts?
Editor’s note: Galileo is one of the greatest scientists of history, and we do not wish to diminish his accomplishments here. However, as Dr. Goldman points out, he may have been a little ambitious in promoting his views vis-à-vis official doctrine of the Catholic Church. As it turned it out, Galileo was on the winning side of what’s real, but there is less here than meets the eye concerning Galileo’s intellectual right to make declaration. The Church, the Mother of the Inquisition, was no champion of truth discovery, but it may have accidentally gotten a few points for itself in terms of slowing Galileo down. Galileo’s grand pronouncement seems more and more like “doing the right thing for the wrong reason.” Scientific discovery cannot be programmed in any formulaic manner. We are constantly moving from the known and pushing against the boundaries of what is not known. In so doing, we must make tentative advances – we call these “hypotheses” and “theories,” pending further light. Nothing wrong with this. However, it can all go very wrong if we forget where we are in the process, take ourselves, along with unsubstantiated claims, too seriously, promoting them as God’s final word on the subject. The Church is famously wrong in this area, but scientists commit the same sins.
Isaac Newton’s Theory of the Universe
For more than 200 years, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) epitomized the genius of modern science. Newton’s universal theory of gravity, with its proof of the Kepler-Copernicus hypothesis and explanation of the Earth’s tides; his comprehensive mathematical theory of matter in motion; particle theory of light; invention of the calculus and reflecting telescope; among many other achievements, made Newton, and reason he employed, exemplars of the possibility of knowledge of reality.
His approach to reasoning about nature dominated physical science for 200 years. He employed a method that was putatively Baconian and anti-Cartesian but, in fact, was neither and owed a great deal to Galileo.
Do we discover or construct images of nature?
Newton’s physics, however, was based on very different assumptions from Galileo’s, and the very success of Newtonianism, inside and outside of physics, raises again the question of whether scientists discover truths about nature, in the manner of archeologists, or construct interpretations of experience that are judged according to standards of effectiveness formulated by scientists themselves.
Editor’s note: What an interesting question by Prof. Goldman. We might imagine, as it should be, scientists discovering, in an objective manner, nature’s truths as an archeologist uncovers shards of an ancient culture; but, so often, the process is very much that of constructing. See the debate on the “Evolution” page which reveals a fiercely proactive constructing of a materialistic universe, sometimes, even in the face of contrary evidence offered by Nobel-prize winning researchers.
Insight into what Newton felt that he knew of reality, and what he believed about reality, is revealed in a series of letters exchanged between one of his followers and Leibniz.
70% of Newton’s writings, 7 million words, deal with areas of research concerning which he was wrong, topics which are discredited today
Newton’s multifaceted genius is revealed in 10 million words of manuscript, roughly 150 novel-length books. 7 million words discuss theology, biblical interpretation, ancient history, world chronology, and alchemy, and other topics; the rest, 3 million words, speak of physics, mathematics, and chemistry. His power lay not in unique abilities of deductive reasoning but in the creativity he brought to his reasoning.
Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687) defined the conceptual framework of mathematical physics for 250 years. It contained a new, definitive mathematical theory of matter in motion, a theory of universal gravitation and of the Solar System, and a methodology for modern science.
None of Newton’s three laws of motion could be deduced from experiment. They were explanatorily fertile presuppositions, creatively projected onto nature as principles of nature.
Editor’s note: This is not unusual, per se. Many of the great insights of history were not derived from experiment. See the extensive discussion on the “Creativity” page. There are a large number of examples of creative expression which were simply dropped into one’s head.
Newton’s laws of motion were, of course, consistent with experience, and they successfully predicted the behavior of material objects moving under a wide range of forces, which encouraged their acceptance as truths of nature.
The law of inertia, for example, never was, nor ever could be, confirmed experimentally. It stipulates as a universal law what early modern philosophers believed: that matter was inanimate, that is, that matter could not move itself (“inert”).
Editor’s note: No deductive principle, no purported universal law, can ever be fully substantiated by experiment. And now we’re back to what Einstein said: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong." The universal statement “all swans are white” cannot be confirmed, even with a thousand white swans, but a single black swan will falsify it.
The third law of motion, that, for every action on a material object there must be an equal and opposite reaction, also is effectively stipulative.
Editor’s note: In other words, this “law” is a creature of stipulation or pronouncement and cannot ever be fully verified by experimentation. This is true for all purportedly universal principles. Why? - because we never have access to universal information to affirm.
In effect, the conceptual elements of Newtonian mechanics (“mechanics” in the sense of how things “move in a machine-like way”) are Newton’s recognition of what must be accepted as true in order to have a mathematical theory of matter in motion.
Newton needed to define space and time, matter, motion, and force in ways that would make relatively simple predictive algebraic equations of motion possible.
He defined space and time in absolute terms (not in relativistic terms, as did Einstein), as “things” existing in their own right and with eternal, uniform natures. How could he know this?
Editor’s note: As others would bring to light, Newton did not know this. He was wrong. His particular versions of space and time were personally-defined constructs which he was required to believe in order to make sense of his overall theory. In the “Joker is Wild” principle, we discussed how people find themselves forced to believe and support certain notions which will maintain their world paradigm. If they do not believe them, then the element of doubt, or lack of support, becomes the thread of the sweater which we pull on to unravel the entire garment.
But it works!
The conceptual “ingredients” of Newtonian mechanics were, in effect, invented by Newton and were neither inductively nor deductively derivable from experience – but, Newtonian mechanics works, and so does Newton’s universal theory of gravitation.
It works! – but here is the problem with universal “laws”
How could Newton know that the same force of gravity applies throughout the Universe?
Editor’s note: He could not know this, and could never prove this to be true, given Einstein’s “black swan.”
It works! – but only within a narrow slice of reality
Editor’s note: Newton’s laws of motion do work. They took us to the Moon and back. But, at speeds approaching that of light – the world of particles, underlying sub-atomic reality – these “laws” do not work. Newton’s “laws” are not universal laws at all and address but a small subset of reality. His explanations of the workings of gravity and the nature of time and space are “good" or "close enough” for certain projects – however, as Einstein would demonstrate, Newton’s explanations of gravity, time, and space, in fact, are fundamentally wrong.
just because a theory 'works' doesn't mean it's correct, because there could be other reasons in play making it 'work'
Editor’s note: This issue of “the theory is correct because it makes accurate predictions” is, what Dr. Goldman calls, “a deductively fallacious” argument. It’s “fallacious” because there could be many reasons why a theory “works.” In the “Evolution” article, “Not Enough Time, Part III,” I quote extensively from the work of Dr. Goldman – information not addressed in the present writing – and I think you’ll want to review it.
does a stone fall to the ground due to gravitational magnetic forces
As a young man, with my biblical studies at the time, I thrilled to certain realizations, sections of scripture which, it is clear to me even now, were inspired by the other side. One such opening panorama is found in the book of Proverbs. It employs a “mashal” style of teaching, implicit within such is the proposition that the world around us is not what it appears to be; surface meanings frequently offer a too-simplistic and skewed picture of reality. We have to go deeper.
In science, we often encounter this false reading of the apparently obvious: see my articles on "quantum mechanics" and the history of science. There are a great many of these illusions, for example, a common one, the sun seemingly rising in the east. But here’s another.
Isaac Newton’s discoveries about the interplay of force and matter rocked the world of the latter seventeenth century. His insights were considered to be so penetratingly perceptive that many considered his views to be the final voice of God on matters of science, with nothing more of import to be discovered.
But Newton, along with the common wisdom, was wrong. Here’s a classic example of how surface meanings can lead us astray:
is gravity a form of magnetism
Newton's "law of universal gravitation" seems to be a form of magnetism. It indicates that every particle in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centers.
The mathematical formula for this “works.” It very accurately predicts forces associated with this apparently magnetic gravitational attraction. It all “works” so well that it seemed to be the last word on the subject. Who could doubt it? – the math “works”!
it's all wonderful - except that none of it is true
However, 250 years later, it was shown that there was a problem. None of it is true. Well, it’s true enough on the surface of reality. The math does “work,” and we can, in fact, predict the seemingly gravitational forces between particles or planets or whatever. But what appears to be “magnetic forces” are nothing of the kind. The reality is, space itself, if it becomes “warped,” creates what seems to be “gravitational forces." Einstein’s 1915 General Theory pointed out the error.
There is no universal magnetism. There is no magnetic force creating what we call gravity. None of this is true. But, when you see a stone drop to the ground, it can certainly appear to be true; however, "surface" meanings can be quite deceiving. And the math “works,” as well.
However, even though the math can accurately predict what we once thought were “magnetic forces,” what the math is really demonstrating is not based in magnetic forces but something altogether different in kind.
the 'misinformation' attack
On the “deception” or “tyranny” pages, I present an inset-box which addresses today’s popular propaganda ploy by totalitarians, that of “misinformation.” This becomes excuse for Orwellian censorship, a stifling of debate, neo "book burning," concerning any idea which contradicts the totalitarian narrative. Think of the last time in history, in the twentieth century, that book-burning was considered right and proper, was given Dear Leader's approval.
The problem with the “misinformation” attack, apart from the fact that it’s anti-humanistic and draconian, is that there’s no way to tell if a statement is absolutely false. To do so would require a divine-like grasp of all facts of the universe, which the totalitarians, in their bloated arrogance, presume to possess.
Everyone needs to be allowed to speak, because, in an open forum of freely flowing ideas, we'll find out what's right and wrong - but not through a new Dark Age of "infallible" inquisition.
Boyle and Hooke and the air-pump
Hobbes questioned: How do you know that the phenomena that they're describing, the relationships between pressure and volume, how do you know that these are facts of nature as opposed to facts of the air-pump?
How do you know when the air-pump is working correctly? The air-pump as a very finicky machine. It was very difficult to keep the seals intact, they were using leather flaps with a kind of grease to make a seal. Leaks came easily and it was very difficult to keep the machine operating.
Hobbes said to Hooke and Boyle, how do you know that the machine is working right now? Maybe the machine is, in fact, working correctly when you say, oh, we’re not getting the results we expected. Hobbes had a brilliant insight here, which is, complicated machines already embody theories, so how can they test the theories that are used to build the machine? The expectation of what the machine is supposed to show you is already there, so how can you use that as confirmation of the expectation? This is "painting the bulls-eye around the arrow in the wall."
So, for Hobbes, the whole orientation of experimental science was a mistake – in this, he was like Descartes who thought experimentation to be unnecessary and problematic.
Hobbes had a theory of knowledge. But, starting with Bacon, it was thought that if you could have the right method, then you would be able to finesse to conclusion Plato’s “battle of the gods and the earth-giants,” and you could get knowledge of nature, and not be concerned with the wider problem of knowledge in philosophy.
the collective as self-fulfilling prophecy
In addition to his criticism of scientific machines, Hobbes had sharp words for the newly-organized Royal Society. What did he have against it (other than their rejection of him as a member)? Hobbes had some good objections: He thought, because the Royal Society was an exclusive group, self-selected, and the fact that experiments were done for them by invitation only, that, in effect, these people were reinforcing their own prejudices. The discoveries they were announcing were of the sort they were already committed to.
Editor’s note: See much more discussion on this error of logic in the “Not Enough Time, Part III” writing.
Here, Hobbes said, you had specialized interest, specialized training, specialized equipment which few could operate, specialized understanding in order to make sense of it all – and then you decide that your results are universal truths of all nature. He discerned that science was producing knowledge as a “collective” enterprise, as opposed to the lone and solitary thinker, who sees the truth in panorama, and does more than supply a small piece of the puzzle.
what's the criterion
A criterion is a principle or standard by which something might be judged. As a philosopher of science, Hobbes was asking, what is the criterion of knowledge, in the Platonic sense? – knowledge in the sense of that about which we cannot be wrong, that which corresponds to reality. How can you achieve that?
This issue of the criterion of truth, the criterion of knowledge, how can we know that a statement about knowledge that we cannot experience is true; i.e., Plato’s statements about the ideal world of forms, or scientists’ statements about what’s really happening in nature? For example, how can we know that the Sun is “stationary” and we’re the ones that are moving, when we cannot have a direct experience of that?
Again, let’s reference the Protestants’ contention against the RCC as a criterion of truth, knowledge, and authority, with respect to the revealed word of God. The general intellectual issue is, if you get rid of the RCC criterion, and you still believe that the Bible is the revealed word of God, what is your criterion? How do we know that you, the Protestants, know “the truth” about what God’s word really means? You say that the RCC is wrong, but what makes you right?
This is very similar to what we learned about Galileo who said that Ptolemy was wrong and Copernicus was right. But, on the basis of what? Especially since, neither Galileo nor Copernicus could explain the phenomena that “should have” followed from a moving Earth, which, in fact, did not follow – why birds did not get blown backwards in the sky by the enormous winds of the Earth moving so rapidly, or why stars didn’t look displaced between December and June.
And so, Protestant theologians had to deal with this issue of a criterion of truth and knowledge with regard to God’s revealed word, and the answer, initially, turned out to be, they said, that each human being is born with a natural, inner light that God grants all human beings, an internal capacity to see and recognize the truth. A later modification of criterion became a redefining of certainty: “certainty” came to mean “certain enough” in order to make faith-commitments.
What did the scientists of the 1600s really “know”? The luminaries of the time, all of them, didn’t know anything in an absolute sense, they didn’t know of the things that they thought they knew because we, looking back, can say they were wrong in such-and-such, and yet they thought they were generating knowledge – knowledge in the sense of the absolute, unchanging, and universal.
Editor’s note: Hobbes’s criticism of the Royal Society is applicable to many, or maybe all, collectives. Those who are true-believers, whether in a context of the religious, political, academic, or other belief-system, see themselves as criterion of truth. Think of the last time you unwisely argued with someone caught in doctrinaire beliefs of an oppressive church or political party, recall the lack of success on your part to convince the true-believer to adopt a more expansive view. It worked out so well. I’m reminded once again of the verse in the opening lines of the book of Revelation. John had to be taken into “the wilderness,” that is, well away from the hustle-and-bustle of society, in order to see the true hideous face of Evil in the world. When you’re in the middle of it, taken over by the forward momentum of the zeitgeist, it all seems natural, right, and good. And this is why Hobbes tended to favor the knowledge-worker laboring alone, not part of the hive-collective. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the great scientists of the 1600s, every one of them, fancied themselves producing knowledge in the Platonic sense – the universal, absolute, and unchanging; but compare this to the true-believer in other contexts: they all, all believe that their party is the answer, their church is the “one true” group, their scientific theory couldn’t possibly be wrong; in other words, it’s a mark of cultish true-believerism to fancy oneself in receipt of Platonic knowledge; worse, exclusive receipt. Better to realize, even a million years from now, we’re never going to rise to this level of final certainty and fullness, but only approximations. I like this from Dr. John Wheeler: "We live on an island of knowledge surrounded by an ocean of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance." Also from Professor Wheeler: "At the heart of everything is a question, not an answer." This takes us much closer to reality – better questions. There are no answers, none final, only a sharpening focus of the quest.
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