Scientific Perspective

AtomTo many, science is not/should not be a described in terms of a subjective worldview, but rather as an a investigative process that seeks to verify the facts about the workings of the universe. Whether this is, or always has been, the case will be examined as a precursor to the main section on science. However, even if we simply accept the creed of science to be the pursuit of truth, the fact is that there are some who reject many of the findings of the scientific worldview, either because its complexity cannot be understood or more simply because science directly conflicts with a deeply held religious belief. Therefore, in this context, the theological and scientific worldviews are often seen to be in conflict, which begs the question:

Is the collective worldview defined by the majority or by a powerful minority?

If the latter, the notion of a collective worldview may be a misnomer for a process that may be better described in terms of the 'survival of the fittest'. However, possibly we should start this discussion by first saying that the scientific perspective may take issue with the numerous philosophical definitions of the truth, e.g. rational truth, absolute truth, gospel truth, subjective truth, established truth, as science normally works on the premise that truth is based on facts and facts that have been empirically verified.  However, science also proceeds from speculation to fact via a process that ranges from hypothesis to experimental verification. However, verification can sometimes itself be subjective or mistaken and through the passage of time, theory can sometimes assume the authority of fact, as Einstein himself once pointed out:

"Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things can easily attain an authority over us such that we forget their worldly origin and take them as immutably truths. They are then rubber-stamped as a "sine-qua-non of thinking" and an "a priori given". Such errors often make the road of scientific progress impassable for a long time."

If this is indeed the case, it might be a mistake to assume that science cannot be subject to non-truths in the form of mistakes, false assumptions, conformational bias and possibly even lies. Therefore, the scientific perspective must also be subject to Clifford's 3 lines of argument:

  • Duty of Inquiry:
  • Weight of Authority
  • Limits of Inference

While Clifford's essay was not written in the context of scientific debate, there is no reason why these principles should not apply to science. However, for anybody to come to any reasonable judgement about the validity of any scientific perspective requires a broad spectrum of understanding of the many fields within science and its historical development. Unfortunately, the acquisition of this knowledge can be both time consuming and often shrouded in mathematical hieroglyphs apparently carrying the authoritative stamp of QED, i.e. `quod erat demonstrandum`, a Latin phrase implying that something has been proved. However, it is important at this point to make the distinction between a mathematical proof and a physical proof, because the verification of the mathematics may only be valid within the assumptions of a given  model, which itself may be little more than an approximation of the physical reality under observation. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves the following question:

If the assumption of a scientific model is wrong, what does the mathematics prove?

As has been pointed out, history shows us that science is not carried out in isolation, as it is often subject to the incumbent worldview of a given society or culture. In addition, the majority of scientists will have been 'educated' to accept this worldview from childhood. So while, as individuals, we tend to think we are personally immune from such effects, we need only ask ourselves a few simple questions to see that this might not be so:

Are you so different from the people who surround you?
Comparing yourself to people from other cultures; are there any obvious differences?
Do these differences suggest conformity to your own culture?

Our path to adulthood requires us to assimilate a lot of information, most of which we must take on trust. This is not a criticism, simply a necessity of life, but it can be a limitation if we allow our current worldview to become entrenched in dogma. In this context, dogma is not constrained to any religious views, but also extends to any philosophical and scientific views, which may be categorized as follows:

  • Belief: A truth that can be accepted without proof or logic.
  • Logic: A truth based on deduction without recourse to empirical verification.
  • Fact: A truth assumed to have been verified.

However, as Einstein's quote suggests, there is much in science that has attained `authority`, which still needs to be challenged. At this point, it might be useful to put our collective experience of the universe into some initial perspective. By way of analogy, the spectrum of visible light is only a very small portion of the overall electromagnetic spectrum, which extends well beyond normal human senses. As such, we are blind to much of the wider universe, which may even contain additional `dimensions` for which we have no senses to perceive and limited intelligence to even understand.

  • The microscopic universe: <10-6
  • The human universe: 10-6 <>10+6
  • The macroscopic universe: >10+6

The list above is a crude division of the perceived totality of our universe from the microscopically small quantum universe to the macroscopically large cosmos. From an evolutionary perspective our senses and intelligence have only adapted to meet the demands of the human universe and we have no direct or intuitive experience of these other 'realms'. For example, if we base a human unit of distance on 1 metre, then 10-3 metres corresponds to 1 millimetre, typically the smallest measure on a ruler. In comparison, the radius of a hydrogen atom has been estimated to be 8-orders of magnitude smaller, e.g. 10-11 metres. Likewise in the macroscopic universe, the estimated radius of just the visible universe has been estimated to be in excess of 1026 metres. While we cannot easily comprehend the speed of light at 3*108 metres per second, we may get some idea of the size of the visible universe when we realize that light from some of the stars in our night sky will have required billions of years to get here. However, such obstacles of scale has not stopped science from constructing models of the cosmic universe for millennia, although many of these models were more philosophical or theological in nature, which have only been superseded by scientific observation within the last 100 years.

So, how has humanity come to perceive the world and wider universe?

20th century developments within science have completely overturn many previous models of 'science' and, in so doing, rewritten much of what was thought to be established fact along the way. This might suggest that some scientific truths can be just as transitory as any other form of truth. Equally, we occasionally have to remind ourselves that our direct experience of the wider universe is still virtually non-existent and many of the latest models are little more than hypothesis. Most of the accepted models of the universe are based on the standard model of particle physics, which in-turn is built on two foundation stones, which we have come to know as relativity and quantum mechanics. Unfortunately, these two models do not always sit comfortably with each other, suggesting to some that there may be more than a few `blank pages` in our understanding of the quantum and cosmic universes.