It elephants all the way down! Russian dolls and separation of the disciplines
September 8, 2012 12:54pm CST
Bertrand Russell was once giving a public lecture. To illustrate the folly of infinite regression he described the notion of the world as a flat plate supported on the back of an elephant; pointing out that really explained nothing, since what supported the elephant. At this point an old lady at the back of the room interjected, "You may think you are very clever young man but it’s elephants all the way down! The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus first suggested that matter was made up of atoms, which he held to be the smallest indivisible constituent of matter. Although we have known for nearly a hundred years that the atom far from being indivisible and fundamental is made of smaller items, still this idea permeates scientific thinking in two ways. Firstly, that there is indeed some fundamental particle or particles or ‘string,’ (For string think loop) which in its various vibratory actions constitute those fundamental particles and secondly that gross material properties derive from the properties of such fundamental particles. So, surface tension of a liquid reduces to the attraction between particles, etc. Woven in to this way of thinking is the article of faith, to which we refer as causality. As Hume reveals, causality is merely a constant conjunction. No-one has ever seen one thing cause another; we see one event follow another on a number of occasions and decide that such repetition means that the first event causes the second. A pool ball arrives at a second ball and the second ball moves, we say the first ball caused the second to move but we never actually saw that cause. Of course, I don’t want to deny that it did cause it, I am happy to agree it did but and this is a big but, the concept of cause is not one that can be derived rationally from observation of the world, rather it is an a matter of faith, a precondition necessary to view the world from a scientific view point. And coupled with an atomic viewpoint, seemingly inevitably leads to a reductionist stance. But I digress, back to atoms, after the atom was split various models where proposed, from the Bohr model in which the atom rather resembled the solar system in miniature with the electrons as planets orbiting the nucleus as sun, to the rather more sophisticated quantum model. Although, relatively quickly the nucleus was split in to neutrons and protons and later these into quarks, the electron was considered by many to be a fundamental particle. However, like Russian dolls where one is never quite sure if this is the final doll or not, the electron itself has been split, apparently into three particles, the spinon, the orbiton and the wholon. Or at least this is what we are led to believe because science is heavily influenced by the remnants of Democritus’ atomic theory. As someone once said, even Occam’s razor is not sharp enough to shave Plato’s beard! This view has so permeated our thinking both scientific and every-day that it is hard to see how we might not hold this view. Well, science made progress as a separate discipline and there were good reasons for this but at the present level perhaps there is a need for cross discipline study, scientists like mathematicians can be naive ontologists and it is perhaps a mistake to posit existence of such esoteric particles rather than treat them instrumentally. For instance, some mathematicians have been seduced into believing that numbers a have some independent existence rather than being abstractions from the world. Similarly, physicists refer to sub-atomic particles yet such items do not possess the defining properties of particles so in what sense are they particles and it is perhaps this conceptualising of them as particles that has lead to confusions, such as wave/particle duality. Is there then a case for abandoning the separation of the disciplines? all the best urban
8 Sep 12
I'm sure there is (In fact, if you talk to some top scientists, you'll find that they have a strong interest in other disciplines), but I'm not sure whether we wouldn't be going round full circle. A retired doctor and church historian called Clive Gillies pointed out that what really got Galileo into trouble was his embracing of the atomic concept, because it destroyed the philosophical arguments for transubstantiation. You talked about surface tension. My old physics master used to explain it like this: You see a group of American GIs (these were soldiers in UK during the second world war) in a circle and you see them moving towards each other, so you assume they're attracted to each other, but what you didn't notice was the platinum blond in the centre (or should I spell it "center" in their honour, oops, honor?). In the same way, what we call surface tension is actually caused by forces drawing surface molecules into the liquid).
8 Sep 12
Wow. A very long and interesting post. Thanks for that. Coming to you question, I agree that many things in the universe are inter-related. In one episode of Sopranos (season 6), a scientist said that the 2 boxers in a boxing math are not separate individuals - they are one. Everything is interconnected. Still, I dont think we should separate the disciplines as if we unify them then studying anything will be impossible- the canvas will be too great. We have to isolate one field of study and explore all its possibilities, while recognizing the fact that it may be connected to many other studies.