Monday, 7 November 2011

"Reality": how can we be so sure?

Hypothesis: Bears are capable of performing mathematical calculations written in hieroglyphs.

"It's reality." "Be realistic." "The real world." We assert "reality" with a sense of finality: as though no matter what else you have to say, the bottom line is that there is a solid, objective, and frequently nasty truth to our world that does not like you. It's there because it's there, needs no reason or justification, and you can't change it, so just stop complaining and accept it.

But is this realistic?

The natural sciences attempt to understand reality. Through scientific method, we dig for "laws of nature" that can explain the universe and how it behaves: fundamental principles, valid in all places and times, accessible to everyone equally, unbreakable even by gods. Some of these are convincing: we've built many creations to improve our lives on such principles as universal gravitation, or that springs extend in proportion to the load placed on them, and these principles' reliability thus far is 100%. There is, we can be next to certain, such a thing as reality.

Whether we're in one tenth of a position to speak of it as though we are certain of what it is, is another matter.

Scientific method has evolved to demand impartiality and rigour. This is good. But we should never forget that, although science itself may be objective, we human scientists are not.

Let's consider some perspective. We humans are two hundred thousand years old. For the length of our journey we have been rooted to the Earth, never standing further than our moon. That is an infinitessimally microscopic portion of reality's time and space that our perspectives are anchored to. We also look through the sensory framework we happen to have – sight, sound, touch, and so on – which give us not a perfect representation of our reality, but bits and pieces of it which our brains arrange into models. And though we've always been a scientific race, science was only formalized in the last few hundred years: and it was formalized in a context.

A context loaded with very unobjective values and social frameworks. A Euro-centric context: why does the historiography of science still emphasize its development in Europe, notwithstanding the contributions of, for example, scientists from the Muslim world, whose work was absolutely seminal? A gendered context: how many of the great scientists you can think of – even the great philosophers before them – were women? And perhaps the most weighty circumstance of all: the millennium and a half of broken spiriuality in Europe which sought to wring the neck of modern science from the outset, and which science's development, at least in part, was a reaction to.

Nor has science been free from normative context since. Political and commercial agendas influence what research gets done, how likely you are to get funding for it, and at worst, the conclusions you reach. So do social values and corrupted impulses: it has been but a century since eugenics was considered scientific, with all its suggestions that you could rank the worth of people by their ethnicities and the size of their skulls – in Victorian Britain as much as anywhere, and we dare not forget what insanities that brought forth. And then there are the great challenges we face, which drive our application of science in particular directions: directly (such as medicine for disease), or indirectly (such as the Cold War arms race driving developments in space exploration).

Imagine a hundred indepedent planets, each with a single intelligent species (or more, if we like) with unique histories, value discourses, and organs of sense, interpretation and response; and each having developed its own take on scientific method. Would the components of that method – observation, hypothesis formation, experimentation and so on – have turned out the same in each species's case? Would they have to have, to be "correct" science? And would the results for that race's development journeys be the same?

For the last question at least, surely the answer is no: different values and agendas, different challenges, and differences in the beautiful chaos of creative thought – the Einsteins, the Teslas, the Feynmans, the Hawkings, who at times seem to deal in magic as much as science, and whose role in advancing science is so formidable.

Human science is on a journey. It is not, has never been, and would not claim to be, the perfect impartial mechanism by which we can learn of reality as it is, because:
a) We have so minuscule a portion of all reality within our perspectives thus far, that whatever we learn, we cannot be anywhere near sure of its universality. Most of reality is still beyond our reach.
b) We are normative creatures whose values, beliefs, needs, agendas, experiences, challenges and personal explorations of our world influence everything we do: including our operation of the toolbox of science.

This is not an argument against the toolbox. There is, to a significant extent, something called reality, and the toolbox has served us well in getting to grips with that part which surrounds our place in it. No, this is an argument for greater humility and rigour in the toolbox's use. Scientific method is rigorous enough; but our rigorous use of it has a frightfully poor record.

'Gelbin took a shaky breath and staggered to the side, catching his shoulder against the metal wall with a dull thump. So many dead. So many!
'Steeling himself, he clenched his fists and exhaled. He closed his eyes and counted prime numbers until the feelings retreated, once again, to that distant corner of his mind. Safe, reliable prime numbers. You could always depend on them. Trust them.'
-Cameron Dayton: Cut Short (A World of Warcraft short story, 2011)

It feels good to sense a solid reality around you. Something you can rely on in all times and places. If friends betray you, animals bite you or lightning strikes you twice, you can if nothing else count on the fact that two plus two still equals four, or that a body's acceleration is proportional to the force applied and inversely proportional to its mass. The laws of nature will always be there for you, won't forsake you no matter how downtrodden or miserable or poor you are. You are equal before the law with everyone in the universe – equal to gods. Scientific laws have obvious appeal.

Except when they don't.

We humans use "law" in another sense too: legality. Law in human societies is coercively imposed, and maintained through fear, usually until that fear drives sufficient hatred to destroy the social order built on that law. Human law can be broken; often is broken; and when it's barbarous, should be broken.

Laws of nature, as far as we know, are not imposed, not motivated, and not broken. The universe follows not because it has a will, but because it is the simplest and most comfortable order from which it could originate, or into which it has settled. But are these laws necessarily the same everywhere, elsewhere in our universe or outside of it? How do we know there is not a place where two plus two equals nine, where the fundamental variables and constants are different, or matter and energy interact in different ways? With lifespans like these, we can't exactly travel around All Reality to check.

And perhaps the laws are not as unbreakable as we think. It's possible we have already broken them. There are things we have wrought on this planet, on each other, so incomprehensibly dire, so inconceivable anywhere near the concept of "nature", that we, or something connected to us, might have fractured reality itself: must wonder whether the natural universe could possibly give rise to nightmares like ours.

We humans associate law with Order: neatness, predictability, stability, logic. We enjoy it; prefer it to Chaos, which we fear. This is unfounded. Chaos connotes uncertainty, mess, and often violence; but also freedom, diversity, tolerance and emotion, some of the deepest founts of joy in the human experience. Meanwhile Order can be the stuff of the conformity obsession, of prejudice against those who are different, of stereotypes, repression and bloodthirsty laws, and is quite capable of inflicting just as much anguish as Chaos's worst. Order and Chaos both benefit us, but either in excess will obliterate us and drink in our screams. Neither should be an end in itself. What society needs is Balance.

(Once again, I am indebted to a video game for once upon a time giving me the insights to see past humanity's profoundest mistakes. See here for a fictional value system built on the balance between Order and Chaos. It is a complicated but beautifully elegant system which identifies and pairs up forces of both; as well as what forces result when a pairing is unbalanced in either direction, or achieves harmony. Incidentally, the story goes that the civilization lost that balance, fell to a war between the proponents of Order and Chaos, and annihilated itself. )

Could "reality" be in any way similar? What if Laws of Nature exist in counterbalance with some manner of Freedom of Nature? Even from our diminutive perspective in the universe, we witness such diversity and eccentriticy in the world as to struggle to classify it, to see it through rational frameworks, and to understand how it all fits together. From the vastest black holes to the smallest elementary particles, our pursuit of laws is challenged to its limit; but its greatest challenge of all is right here in front of us.

It is ourselves.

On the frontier between natural science and social science, there is acrimony. We want to understand not only the universe but our own place in it, and the toolbox of science seems insufficient for us to do so.

Are there fundamental laws, which determine all human behaviour? Some of us believe it: but those who pursue them in social science become not scientists but priests. We have found no such law on which there is consensus; no law which can absolutely, utterly never be broken. To believe in such laws, as present, is only possible as an institution of faith, not of science: we cannot prove or disprove them on anywhere close to a pan-human scale.

Might it be possible that human agency is not founded on laws at all? Or that if laws exist, they are so numerous, so conditional and contextual and complex in their interdependent outcomes that it is nigh impossible to tame them into a framework of order? Do we find manifested on Earth the freedom of nature – and have we any idea of that freedom's limits or proper use?

But we have agendas. Some social science disciplines have gravitated around "laws" of human behaviour whether they exist or not. Hobbes's "state of nature". International anarchy. "Rational choice" theory. These all establish "laws" about human nature that are broken by millions of people every day, but nonetheless have enough political leverage and populist appeal to dominate their fields, and to set the terms of discourse so as to throw out all challenges as irrelevant or invalid. Often their proponents have taken upon themselves the language and lab coats of natural science not because they necessarily believe these are apt, but rather to benefit from science's sense of solidity, the aura of certainty surrounding scientific laws that cannot be broken: so they can establish their opinions as facts, and through that added weight wield social or political influence.

And there is the problem. As if it were not enough that we are incredibly complex creatures with a range of rationalities and emotions, experiences and priorities and beliefs and ambitions and values, we must also contend with the inconvenience that we are studying ourselves.

In an cricket match, would we entrust one of the players from either team to serve as umpire? Would we entrust a war's conflicting factions to arbitrate in ceasefire negotiatons, or turn instead to a nicer and more impartial party such as Norway? Do we deem it sensible to invite the defendent in a courtroom to be his or her own judge? When it comes to the study of the human race, we have no choice in the matter: we don't know any impartial aliens we can ask to do it for us.

Now look at our history. Look at the avalanche of value-loaded trials and tribulations and calamities and catastrophes we've loosed upon ourselves down the ages. Never mind what's caused it for a moment. The question here is: do we honestly trust such a species to be reliable in the study of itself?

Sure we can get close to impartiality when we really try; close enough to accumulate one heck of a splendid mass of understanding about our objective surroundings, enough to build a journey for our species upon – regardless of how universal or permanent that knowledge may or may not be. But when it comes to something already so confounding and convoluted as the human being? No: we have too abysmal a record with arrogance, pride and vested interests, and must resolve those first before we even think about searching for laws of nature which may or may not underlie us.

So the next time someone invokes "reality" as something solid, obvious, and favouring of their opinions over yours: remember that the most important realities are not discovered, but chosen.

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