Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Science illiteracy, philosophical illiteracy, allows for shouters, woo-merchants

I think the problem, ultimately, with Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Myers is that their position inherently trivializes much of what we do know about philosophy, linguistics, and even physics, and that is why when they posit a metaphysics of "nothing beyond what we observe," I have to take issue because "what we observe" will always be in question - there's that "we" part and that "observe" part in there, and cogent arguments can be made by us Buddhists that "we" is a construct of our minds.  And New Atheists often (Sam Harris being an exception) present a limited menu of choices.

That's of course the extent of my quibbles with Dawkins and Myers (I leave Hitchens out because despite what seem like standard boilerplate atheist arguments, his arguments for the Iraq war were highly disingenuous.

But enough of that, except to say that a lack of understanding of certain areas tends to bring distortion to one's views, and we should always be checking for our lack of understanding, regardless of from where in our awareness we think it arises.

Another purpose of this post, and example of to what I'm referring, is in the way of a reply to a comment - a really odd comment - by Barbara O' Brien to me on her blog.

First, a bit of background: Way back when I was a freshman in at Polytech (Bernie Glassman's alma mater, or one of them, at any rate, so don't hold it against me) I asked Professor Wainfan how electrical charge is inhered in matter.  Now there was active research in theoretical physics at the time (and still is) but even at the sub-atomic particle level, charge is still inhered.  It is accepted as axiomatic as a property of whatever matter is in question.   I had, in fact, asked a metaphysical question - a question beyond the bounds of measurability and observability.   That is why my professor responded, “I’m not a philosopher, I’m just a plumber.”

I could say inherent from the presumption of Barbara's answer, 

There’s bench science, which is like cooking, and then there’s theoretical or analytical science, which is nothing like cooking. Your physics professor was speaking for bench scientists, but we’re talking about the other kind.

is a lack of understanding of what scientists and physicists actually do.   Now let me open up this discussion with one caveat: Everything scientists and physicists do that is science is because the theory and analysis they perform is subject to observation and experimentation.   We are pretty damn well sure we know there are exoplanets because of the myriad of other experiments done that verify Einstein's laws of Relativity, and other aspects of modern physics. Now, it is true that regarding certain aspects of String Theory are said not to be able to be verified experimentally. Too, we engineers take a far more practical take on this sort of thing: if you have to build a particle accelerator 1/2 the length of the universe to verify a theory, then for all intents and purposes, the theory is unverifiable (until some practical method of experimental verification arises.)

But Barbara wasn't talking about this; the subject in question was quantum physics, for which there is a plethora of experimental results consistent with observed phenomena.  The "hard" part of quantum physics for the lay person to understand is the fact that many of its phenomena are probablistic in nature.  Strictly speaking quantum mechanics is not my specialty (though I passed the course with flying colors back in the day), but I do know quite a thing or two about Probability Theory, which is a bedrock discipline of quantum mechanics, as well as Communication Theory.  

And a lot of people (especially creationists and woo merchants) like to exploit the ignorance of the themselves and/or the public of Probability Theory for their own purposes.  But the core of Probability Theory - a bounded form of Measure Theory - is actually quite compact, self-contained, and, unlike what the public might think about "randomness" is (here's that word again!) inherently predictable.  And that's why it's useful

Probability Theory deals with 3 objects, and functions defined therefrom:

Ω, an abstract space, also known as a "sample space"

S: a σ - algebra defined on Ω (i.e., a collection of subsets of  such that meaningful, consistent probabilities may be calculated), and

P a probability measure defined on S.

Probabilities may then be calculated based on functions which map  Ω into some other useful space, such as the real line, the complex plane, or Euclidean n-dimensional space, or charge, etc.  The "nature" of Ω may never be known; its "fundamental nature" is irrelevant to the subsequent calculations.  We just take it as axiomatic that there is a space Ω, and that there is an S from which meaningful probabilities may be calculated. The introduction of  Ω and S only serves to provide a consistent, logical framework from which to develop probability theory rigorously; it's an artifice, in much the same way an alphabet is an artifice for writing down spoken words.

Probability theory is defined this way because there is no other coherent way to talk about stochastic phenomena, and when "random" phenomena are expressed this way, meaningful predictions and regressions and inferences may be calculated.

In other words, the whole point of Probability Theory is to extract order from the seemingly disordered, and for what we can talk about (including quantum theory) it works.  That is, we can construct meaningful analysis that are amenable to experimental observation and verification.  

So, to me, the whole premise of the question on her blog post,  based on a religion article in the Ottawa Citizen entitled "Do you think quantum physics lends itself to religious belief?" is related to the Argument from Ignorance: in effect the question is asking, "Who can say whether or not quantum physics is true?" Well, dammit, if you have doubts, or are sincerely interested, educate yourself.  And note that whenever scientists or engineers say something is "true" we are talking about phenomena only.  We don't do metaphysics in our day jobs.

If you are not interested enough to attempt to educate yourself (and there's some excellent primers on the subject in the layman's scientific literature, I'm sure) then it is insincere to attempt to equate what is science with what is unverifiable religious positions. 

As my father, a very conservative Catholic, said about his engineering profession: we do science, not faith.  Now I do science mindfully, and practice as I do science, engineering, and management.  But if it's not science, engineering, and management I'm doing then I'm just not engaging in right livelihood.

One other thing: when we scientists and engineers do analysis, we are envisioning possible ways in which things could be, function, or exist based on an abstract view of question in possible in the same way in which a musician might compose a fugue, or a poet might compose a poem according to a certain form.  For example, if I want to design a set of reference signals to aid in the demodulation of a received communication signal, I would envision the set as being a subset of an larger space of signals, and then determine the subset of interest based on properties desired for those signals; from that I would then verify experimentally (via simulation, which tracks "lab bench" results ridiculously accurately these days) to show  that the properties of the reference signals are indeed met. 

There is no gross separation between "lab bench" and analysis; they're one and the same more or less these days, except for the "vision" part.  And that's just training, just as it's just training to write a fugue or think of how sauteed mushrooms might taste when cooked in garlic and olive oil.

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