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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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What’s Best in Science: Experience or Thought?

– By Byron Jennings, Theorist and Project Coordinator

Pure logical thinking can give us no knowledge whatsoever of the world of experience; all knowledge about reality begins with experience and terminates in it.  Before you accuse me of scientism[1] let me point out that the previous sentence is a direct quote from Albert Einstein. Poincaré agreed: Experiment is the sole source of truth. It alone can teach us something new; it alone can give certainty. These are two points that cannot be questioned. Wow, tell us what you really think, don’t hold anything back. I might note that both Einstein and Poincaré were theorists.

Cannot be questioned? It certainly has been questioned. The so-called continental rationalists, people like Descartes (1596 – 1650, I think therefore I am), Leibnitz (1646 – 1716, Newton’s rival in inventing calculus), and Kant (1724 – 1804, of synthetic a priori knowledge), based their epistemology on pure thought. Take Descartes—he developed an extensive physics based on pure thought with planetary motion due to vortices. You never heard of it? Shows the folly of trusting pure thought; it sunk without a trace under Newton’s empiricism. Kant developed the idea of synthetic a priori knowledge; knowledge that came from pure thought and not observation. Unfortunately his examples, Euclidean geometry and Newton’s laws, turned out not to be true. Oops. At the risk (or pleasure[2]) of offending some people, I add proofs of God’s existence or non-existence to the list of failed attempts to obtain knowledge by pure thought.

But the lure of obtaining knowledge by pure thought is tempting: certainty and a free lunch. No need to talk to those annoying experimentalists who keep shooting my theories down. One of the people who succumbed to the temptation was David Hume (1711 – 1776). This is more surprising since he was a phenomenologist to the core. But he did not like miracles and tried to eliminate miracles by arguments based on pure thought. Well, if Einstein and Poincaré are correct, Hume is wrong. And in my opinion, wrong he is. It all hangs on the question: What is a miracle?

But before addressing that, let us tackle a simpler question: What is the distinction between natural and supernatural? Consider thunder and lightning. The Vikings believed that thunder was the noise made by the wheels of Thor’s chariot being pulled across the heavens by goats. This view was reinforced by the sparks made from the chariot wheels hitting rocks; sparks otherwise known as lightning. Groves of trees—which are the prime target for lightning—became sacred. Today we have a more prosaic view of thunder and lightning—just electromagnetism. The phenomena have not changed but the meaning has. Observations are given meaning based on the on the model or paradigm (Kuhn’s nomenclature) used to describe them.

We have an apparent collision between Kuhn on the one hand and Einstein and Poincaré on the other:  models giving meaning vs observation being paramount. But it is more in appearance then reality. Observations are used to help build and constrain models, while the models then give meaning to the observations. This is self-consistent, not circular. The wiggles in the data seen recently at the LHC are only meaningful within the context of a model for high-energy physics and the detector.  Would finding the Higgs boson be a miracle? Probably not. But super symmetry… that is another matter.

More seriously: What is a miracle? According to Hume, a miracle is something that violates the laws of nature. That would be fine if we had a definitive list of the laws of nature. We don’t. We have, at best, something that may approximate them, something obtained by observations. If miracles occur, they would be observed and therefore built into in the observationally derived laws, rendering Hume’s definition meaningless. Rather, we define miracle as something that is supernatural. By the argument above, it then depends on the model: the model that is constrained by observation. In the end, the existence of miracles and all other questions of how the universe operates, has to be settled empirically by observations and the models built on them. The medium may be the message, but the meaning is in the (observationally-constrained) model.

[1] I will defend scientism in another blog.
[2] I have a firm policy of never accidentally offending anyone.

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