Tag: Science

“Life” Is Not a Scientific Concept

Life is not a class of physical processes as defined by science. Sure, it’s useful to define life in such terms for the purposes of biology, or even necrology, but the term and concept of “life” came about way before science was invented. Given a variety of possible ways to physically define life, how would we know which one or ones are valid? We’d select based on what’s obviously, intuitively alive or not, which is essentially what we’ve done. So, life as something intangible and not strictly defined takes precedence over life as something physically defined. Yet for some people the scientific definition of life is somehow taken to supersede the natural one.

Yes, the physical makeup of something is a function of, or correlates with, whether it’s alive or not. If a rock could transmogrify into a cellular organism, it might become alive; if a person turned into a rock, he would apparently have passed on. This merely shows that physical-life patterns/processes correlate with the presence of life qua life. Or more specifically, that the recognition of the presence of life correlates with specific material patterns/processes. It makes sense that we would recognize life only in its expression through certain kinds of material mechanisms, given that the senses we are using to recognize it are our sensate organs—senses of the material. Furthermore, it so happens that those material mechanisms we are willing to call “life” are those that significantly parallel ours—things with DNA, cells, an energy cycle, etc. Plants are alive, we say, but not as alive as organisms that have brains. So, apparently, the further away from being what we are something is, the less alive it is considered to be.

But who knows, maybe a rock is actually a very passive, peaceful type of being? At the very least, though, it could be assumed that, in order for life to have a physical experience, it must express itself through a suitably complex, dynamical and self-sustaining physical mechanism. In other words, bodies and plants could merely be vessels for actual life—hence the aforementioned correlations. In my view, life is a fundamentally magical, non-mechanistic, ineffable, cosmic, and ubiquitous phenomenon—if we could even classify it as a phenomenon.

What the fundamental characteristics are of the physical processes needed to constitute/catalyze life (or, in my view, merely make it apparent) is an interesting subject. A book called The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, by Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, has some sophisticated and interesting things to say about that.

On Scientific Falsifiability

It’s said that a scientific theory can only be proven false, never true. This is basically so: for example, all the experiments in the world performed thus far can confirm (or rather, corroborate?) general relativity, but for one to show otherwise is all it takes for it to be proven false. But why is this so; why are scientific theories not like other facts, which can be confirmed as being either true or false?  Take for example the fact that there is chocolate on my desk. That can easily be either proven or disproven, with certainty.  And what if I postulated that fact as a scientific theory? Then could it no longer be proven true? No, because the principle of falsifiability is not on account of science decreeing that a theory cannot be confirmed true; it’s because of the nature of what a scientific theory is.

While physical principles are thought to be immutable “laws,” they’re actually the products of inductive reasoning. That is, from a few examples we infer a general rule. The postulate that there is chocolate on my desk only applies to my desk and right now–not everyone else’s desks, not every time the wind blows east–right now. General relativity applies to a whole class of phenomena. It makes predictions about what will happen in spaces we’ve never ventured toward, in specific scenarios we’ve never encountered. For every possible combination of values you can plug into the equations of general relativity, there’s a unique potential scenario that the theory could be being applied to. (Actually, for every combination of values you can plug into the equations, there are as many scenarios that results could be applied to as would render those particular values as measurements—measurements of, for example, velocities, positions, and masses. Everything else about a given scenario that could vary is irrelevant for the purposes of the calculations.)

How could we know for sure that the results of such equations hold true for every possible scenario that the equations could be applied to? All we have certain evidence for is that certain things behave in certain ways in certain situations—not even that, but that things once behaved that way under observation. We can’t prove that it will happen the same way under the same conditions in the future, let alone in the same general way under different conditions and maybe at another place or at another time.

So how would we make a theory certifiable? We could limit it to a statement about things having occurred that we actually observed happening, but that would make it useless as a theory. It would make it and its certification little more than a reiteration of the evidence that we had originally gathered, or most an insightful relationship applying only to a handful of particular scenarios, yet that evidence was presumably gathered for the purpose of intuiting more general rules.

We could limit it to a statement that something that happened in a specific way under the specific conditions observed would happen again in the same way under the same exact conditions in the future, but even that would be uncertifiable, as we cannot make inferences about the future with certainty (as show by Hume), as well as being nearly as useless as the previous formulation for the same reason: while the scope of extrapolation is somewhat wider, it’s still so small as to be not generally applicable, and the degree to which the scope of its application is wider is the degree to which its truth is uncertain.

All this considered, it seems odd that the laws of physics are supposed to be immutable, absolute, or all-encompassing.  General relativity (which is the arbitrary example of an “any-theory” I’m using here), being inferred via inductive reasoning, is analytically on the same grounds as the statement that “all swans are white”.  In other words, we have no idea when, why, how or under what conditions the principles of general relativity might spontaneously, or systematically, be infracted, though the theory has stood up relatively well to the tests of time thus far.

I think I’ve read that there are now contending theories to general relativity that predict certain phenomena with a little more accuracy. I think that if any infraction is to be found against the general theory of relativity, it’ll be one of subtle differences in measurements that are predictable and detectable under a determinable subset of possible conditions­, as opposed to the infraction inexplicably applying only to the kitchen sink. Basically, it would be the same way in which classical mechanics was usurped by relativity. Why is it like that? I don’t know. Maybe the means by which we determine the meaning of a theory, as far they determine the theory’s scope of applicability and what constitutes or doesn’t constitute an infraction to the theory, somehow categorically exclude types of anomalies other than those characterized above from or comprising infractions to the theory. I don’t know. Probably not.

Some pertinent questions:

  • Can a single anomaly constitute an infraction to a theory? Why or why not, or for which theories can it be so, and why?
  • Can a class of anomalies, predictable in their anomality but unpredictable in their individual details, constitute an infraction to a theory? Why or why not, or for which theories can it be so, and why?
  • What kinds of differences between predicted results and actual results indicate the effects of an interfering entity, rather than a falsification of the theory? How does this differ depending on the theory itself?
  • What kinds of differences between predicted results and actual results indicate the effects of a class of interfering entities, rather than a falsification of the theory? How does this differ depending on the theory itself?
  • What kinds of differences between predicted results and actual results indicate the interfering effects of a hitherto unknown principle, rather than an imperfection in the theory itself?
  • What kinds of differences between predicted results and actual results indicate the interfering effects of a hitherto unknown principle, which could be added alongside all current theories, rather than an imperfection in one or more of the current theories themselves?
  • When or how do we conclude that a theory, or a collection of theories, fully accounts for all universal phenomena?

And additionally…

  • What avenues exist for restricting the scope of an induction (of the theoretic variety) to something less than all-encompassing but more than a mere restatement of the observed data?
  • If such a gradient exists between the two extrema, by what means do we intuit the formula of, and the scope of, its upper bound?
  • What benefits might we accrue by explicitly specifying, and/or consciously relegating, the scope of applicability of any given theory?

So, just a few things to consider.  Because­ science without Philosophy of Science is like driving without a license, or perhaps knowledge without understanding.  Or a theory without interpretation — or worse, a theory with a totally wrong interpretation..

Are Spirituality and Science in Conflict?

This is in response to tit’s question on kiwi.qa, “For religious/spiritual folks: How compatible are scientific principles/theories with your beliefs? How have you struggled with any conflicts between the two?”

Good question, and the answer is there’s no contradiction, and I’ve never struggled with a conflict. Unfortunately, most people who care about science buy into science’s (ultimately unfounded) scientistic and physicalist precepts and their implications, such as the idea that there is no such thing as a soul, but none of that is proven or even provable by science. There is no experiment to show that there’s no soul, afterlife or reincarnation, there’s no such thing as an aura, the universe isn’t a living thing, there is no God, astrology is nonsense, chakras aren’t real, magic doesn’t exist, we’re not all fundamentally connected in some profound way, or many other such ideas. (Re magic and astrology, see also, respectively, this and this part of one of my essays.)

The underpinnings of the scientific view of the world that that are valid are what we think of as the laws of physics or the laws of nature. Physical laws, inferred from physical observation and experimentation and modeling, carve out specific relationships between cause and effect within the physical universe, but they don’t show or imply that those relationships are all that exist. They’re limited in their means of inference, and hence in their reach, to what’s observable by scientific instruments and is within the realm of testability and theorization. This implies they’re limited in a few other or more specific ways, such as (a) to very simple relationships between cause and effect, (b) to proximity in time and space (usually) between causes and effects (with some exceptions for exceedingly simple and obvious relationships, such as the effects of gravity), (c) to predictability based on mechanistic control rather than psychological principles, (d) to causes and effects that can be definitively, quantitatively measured, (e) to repeatable observations or events, etc.

Because of the immense efficacy of science in predicting and controlling the world, people eventually assumed that nature must be wholly mechanistic. But without being able to predict or control absolutely everything that happens, there’s no reason to assume this.

You could assert that the laws of physics leave no room for any other type of influence on events, but I’d say this is false. Again, the domains and contexts in which we surmise and verify physical theories are limited. Then there’s quantum mechanics to think about with its inherent unpredictability, which is where the mechanistic worldview of science bumps up against the open-endedness inherent in reality. If spirituality really means much, it should have some kind of influence in some way on our physical lives, and quantum “randomness” is probably an avenue for that influence.

It may sound like attributing spiritual influence on physical reality to the unpredictability inherent in quantum mechanics is a “god of the gaps” theory, but you have to remember that the idea that the world is made entirely of mechanical, non-living stuff was gratuitous in the first place. There never was a time when science predicted everything; it just assumed everything was inherently predictable and hence mechanistic and essentially lifeless as an extrapolation from the limited scope of phenomena it was able to predict and control. When quantum physics came around this inertia scientific thinking had gained lingered, and hence people assumed that either the inherent randomness of quantum mechanics either (a) just arises from mechanisms-as-such that we don’t understand yet, or (b) is “absolutely random” and meaningless. But instead it should have caused us to retract a little the entirely mechanistic and lifeless view of reality we’ve developed in the first place.

“How gibbering man becomes, when he is really clever, and thinks he is giving the ultimate and final description of the universe! Can’t he see that he is merely describing himself, and that the self he is describing is merely one of the more dead and dreary states that man can exist in?” —D. H. Lawrence

To be fair, after writing this post I was reminded by a particular conversation that it’s not entirely true that I’ve never struggled with a conflict. There is one thing in neuroscience that bugs me, and it’s that so many of the faculties or properties of what we consider to be “just us,” or natural abilities of consciousness, are actually shown by experiment to be associated with specific regions of the brain and can be acutely affected by damage to those regions.

We already knew, of course, that the function of the brain is closely tied to the mind or consciousness, though it’s not proven that this means that consciousness is produced by the brain, any more than a TV produces the television shows you watch on it.  (If one didn’t know better, one could be tempted to think that it does because if you damage the TV in certain ways the observed television show will also be affected or even blacked out, in the same manner that damaging the brain can impair or even appear to annihilate consciousness.)

But when you get into just how specifically myriad functions of our mind are associated with specific areas of the brain and potentially impairable this way, it’s somewhat hard to reconcile this with a belief that our minds survive pretty much the way they are in life after we die and are hence completely independent of our brains. I have no problem thinking of possible ways this can be reconciled, but the issue still irks me a little because those ways seem a bit reaching without having some other compelling reason to believe their attendant assumptions are true.

But I still believe what I believe, because I’ve had compelling enough reason to, so unless and until I understand the issue better I’ll have to chalk up  the apparent conflict to the fact that our puny analytical minds are largely ill-equipped to fathom the mysteries of the cosmos that lie beyond the aspects of it we’re able to experience as corporeal, sensorial humans and the modality we experience them in.