Tag Archives: philosophy of science

Book Review: On Space and Time by various authors

When I first saw this book it instantly appealed to me and my sense of the pursuit of cutting edge science. Some of the writers I was familiar with, such as Roger Penrose, Alain Connes and John Polikinghorne. The other writers were less known to me, but the inclusion of the above names on the topic of Space & Time meant that this wasn’t one to be missed.

In truth, the book is dominated by Shahn Mahjid. He writes the introduction and his chapter is by far the longest in the book.

Andrew Taylor – The dark Universe

This first essay introduces some of the big issues in cosmology, including dark matter and dark energy. However, the chapter doesn’t shy away from the details. In this respect it is extremely hard going. It may have something to do with the fact that I was a theoretician, rather than an experimentalist, but it struck me as being far too technical for the non-expert reader.

Shahn Majid – Quantum spacetime and physical reality

With Taylor having laid the groundwork in experimental evidence, Majid picks up the mantle and takes us back into theoretical physics. Again, though, he goes down a very narrow road where few can follow him. I have heard it said than expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing. In this case, you have to know an awful lot about very little in order to fully follow Majid. I think I got stuck in the passageway about a third of the way down it.

The general thrust of the essay is on the potential solutions to how we might think about quantum spacetime and the implications that may have on how we think of the rest of reality. For example, while calculus has been an enormously helpful tool in physics, we may have to ditch it as a tool if we are to penetrate to the heart of reality.

Roger Penrose – Causality, quantum theory and cosmology

Of all the writers in this compilation, Penrose is by far and away the best communicator. In his essay, he gives an outline of some of the problems that thermodynamics poses to the issue of space and time, particular with relation to causal structure. He then goes on to give a description of his theory of Conformal Cyclic Cosmology (CCC). If you have read his Cycles of Time, then much here will be familiar, even if it remains at the very cutting edge of science.

Alain Connes – On the fine structure of spacetime

Connes is most famous for his work on noncommutative geometry, so it is no surprise that this is the subject of his essay. He starts off easily enough and does scare the reader somewhat by giving a complete Lagrangian of the standard model displayed on a slide, which is a gargantuan formula. This is merely to demonstrate that perhaps another approach is needed. Connes’ outline of noncommutative geometry starts off accessible enough, but quickly goes out of sight of the non-expert reader, much as Majid’s essay did.

Michael Heller – Where physics meets metaphysics

Heller is a catholic philosopher whose essay marks a radical change in the tone of the book. Instead of focusing on the physics, the emphasis is on the metaphysical implications of the theories discussed. For someone picking this up off the shelf, imagining it to be a book purely on physics, then Heller’s essay may be a disappointment. I, however, found it a welcome break from the intensity of the preceding chapters, as it was eminently readable and understandable to non-expert like me.

He gives a helpful, though not devastating, critique of the idea of “God of the gaps” which is an idea I have personally grown out of. He also looks at the idea of non-locality (an idea discussed in detail elsewhere in the book, and is mooted as a potential answer to the problem of action at a distance) and how that might then go on to inform and reform our understanding of philosophy and theology.

John Polkinghorne – The nature of time

Christian theologian, and former particle physicist, Polkinghorne gets the shortest essay tucked at the back of the book, which is just 6 pages long. As such, there is very little here, apart from an advertisement for Exploring Reality which Polkinghorne had published in 2005. The core of his argument may be found at the end, where he proposes that when it comes to studying time, physics, metaphysics and theology all have a role to play. This may be seen as a provocative statement by some positivists, though that would be testament to their lack of understanding of metaphysics.

Conclusion

The last 2 essays are very distinct from the rest of the book, which could be perceived by a purist physicist as spoiling it slightly. Instead, I think it adds a different dimension to the book which is quite welcome. The extremely hypothetical nature of the book is what appeals, though to get to grips with it all, you will need a PhD in theoretical physics. Where it is accessible, it is highly thought-provoking and will be interesting to return to it in the years and decades to come to see what, if any, becomes mainstream science and what may be discarded as hypotheses that failed to get off the ground.

Book Review: The Limits of Science by Peter Medawar

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The Limits of Science

I can’t remember where it was that I first saw this referenced. It took a little bit of finding, as I could not find it print in any major bookstore either on the high street or online. Eventually, I managed to get my hands on a second hand book. The cover is a bit, well, utilitarian. I’ll include a photo, so you make of it what you will:

As soon as you see it, you’ll realise it’s a tiny book. The book is comprised of 3 essays and in totality it is less than 100 pages. The first is entitled “An essay on scians” where the author has used an alternative, archaic spelling of ‘science’ to make his point. It is a very general essay on the nature of science. There is some detail in there but it is only there to make a point rather than educate the reader in any particular point. It is greatly enjoyable; I would describe its style as an Englishman attempting to write like Richard Feynman. After all, where else would you find a subsection entitled ‘Science and cricket’? In a short essay he manages to cover issues of sociology, politics, history and the public perception of science.

I would recommend this to anyone considering taking an undergraduate degree in any science. It is a real gem; concise, clear, passionate and well thought-through.

The second essay has as its title a very straightforward question: “Can scientific discovery be premeditated?” This is an even shorter essay, at just 8 pages. Medawar uses 3 examples to demonstrate his argument that the answer to the question is “no.” His main target seems to be the industrialisation of science in modern academia where research is often only funded if an application of the science is foreseen. This goes very much against the spirit of science that prevailed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

His final essay is the culmination of these, where the main question posed is that of whether or not there are questions that science cannot answer. Specifically he has in mind “childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things – questions such as “How did everything begin?” “What are we here for?” “What is the point of living?””

It would be very easy to heap praise on Medawar because his views line up roughly with my own. That is to say, he thinks there are questions that cannot be answered by scientific means though he rejects the school of positivism as put forth by AJ Ayer and the Vienna Circle, by accepting that such questions do make sense. Probably the most interesting part of the essay which I had not previously considered was his consideration of ‘The Law of Conservation of Information’ which is stated thus:

“No process of logical reasoning – no mere act of mind or computer-programmable operation – can enlarge the information content of the axioms and premises or observation statements from which it proceeds.”

He finishes the essay with a consideration of ‘The Question of the Existence of God’ – a subject that tends to divide opinions like few others. I shan’t tell you what his conclusion is on this. I would heartily recommend that you read it for yourself. You can get a second-hand copy from Amazon (as I did) for a couple of quid, as it seems to be out of print now. But it is well worth it; eloquently written, sharp, witty and not overflowing with superfluous words.

Book Review: The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper

I bought this book back in the spring, but had hesitated to read it. The reason for that is I found it quite intimidating, given the thickness of the spine. I will admit that the philosophy of science is something I have dabbled in only as an interested amateur though, of course, years of scientific training and discussions as a student have enabled me to reach (if you will allow me a moment of immodesty) a reasonably sophisticated understanding of my own view of science. Now, though, it seemed appropriate that I ought to look at what others have said.

Before reading this, I was aware that Popper’s views are not universally accepted and that he shared something of a professional rivalry with Bertrand Russell. Also, as a Christian, I find it interesting that I have seen Popper referenced far more by Christian scientists, whereas Russell tends to be more favoured by atheistic scientists. Of course, this is only a trend and there are exceptions. While Russell was a well-known opponent of Christianity, I was keen to learn more about what it is in their competing philosophies that has appealed to the different sets of scientists. So, of course, I will be following this up with some reading from Russell at some point, though if you have any good suggestions as to where to begin, I would be very grateful.

The book begins in a surprisingly accessible manner. I was expected some very high level philosophy that would be difficult to understand, but the translation is very easy to follow. Where he gets a little more obscure, he brings it back down-to-earth with examples that help to put his argument in context. I would describe the argument that Popper creates as being cumulative; that is, there are lots of references to earlier sections and, in particular, definitions. So you have to concentrate or else you can find yourself reading about “singular statements” and not know what he’s talking about if you haven’t followed it earlier.

For this reason, I would not recommend reading this book over a long period of time. I think it demands to be read quite intensively in as short a time as possible in order to ensure that one may follow it all.

The main thrust of Popper’s argument is to say that theories are never verified, they can only be falsified. He dismantles the positivist point of view which led to empiricism and shows that empiricism reduces to mere psychologism. From here, he then needs to discuss the degree of falsifiability. He considers a theory to be less likely the more ways it can possibly falsified. From here, what I think he should have done would then be to talk about corroboration and how a theory stands up to attempts to falsify it. Unfortunately, he leaves this to the end and instead goes off on a rather long and tortuous tangent talking about probability.

This quite long section was the downside for me, as his discussion (and in particular, notation) was quite obscurantist, making it difficult to follow and quite oblique. From here, he moves on to talk about quantum mechanics and in particular the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It has to be noted that this was written during the years that quantum theory was still being formed and, having a background in quantum mechanics myself, I found many of his ideas to be simply wrong. They are a noble attempt at getting to grips with quantum mechanics but ultimately, they have not stood up to subsequent theory and experiments. So in a weird twist, you could say that his argument in this aspect has been falsified.

This brings me to my last point. If his theory is to be thought of as a scientific theory at all, then it must play by its own rules. That is to say, there must be a set of singular statements from this theory that can, in principle at least, be subject to testing to see if they can be falsified. Such a set of statements is not presented to the reader, so I could only conclude that while Popper’s contribution is to be valued and considered, it doesn’t constitute a scientific theory. It remains an application of metaphysics.