Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Dimensions and Creativity: Part One

In his latest book Stephen Hawking says philosophy is dead, claiming that it’s scientists who now make all valuable discoveries. The comment prompted a debate on BBC Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage (available to download on iTunes) where Brian Cox showed his less often seen dismissive and impatient side, usually reserved for astrologers. Prof. Cox begins the discussion from the perspective that Hawking is right and goes on to challenge the usefulness of philosophy, saying that science is the best if not only means to deduce and reason our way through understanding of the universe. I disagree with them.
What do we mean by philosophy? Maybe “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence” (OED online), but I think that definition misses something. To me philosophy is thinking a problem through at a time when there’s no available empirical research, constructing thought experiments where no physical experiments can be performed. Until the raw thinking is done there’s often no clear starting point for research to begin, but thought experiments can provide them through logical, axiomatic reasoning unhindered by the limitations of the laboratory. Einstein’s daydreams about the subjective experience of a man falling from a building prompted his theories of Relativity, but they have no place in the world of objective demonstrable data as experiments involving interviews of people thrown off buildings isn’t exactly ethical.
In the study of human consciousness psychologists often talk about a “black box”, by which they mean the unknown inner workings of the mind. At this point science leaves the stage and takes a long walk into the gathering dusk, hands in pockets and whistling tunelessly. It takes a philosopher to step up and take over the challenge because philosophers deal with exactly this type of problem. Daniel Dennett digs deeper into the matter than most psychologists have been comfortable to go. He has assembled data and opinions from multiple scientific disciplines, each of which have criticised him for wasting his time with the others, and he suggests that the black box is in fact a very poor and misleading way to frame the problem as there’s nothing within the brain that equates to it. It’s bad thinking and a trap easily fallen into (see Dennett’s book ‘Consciousness Explained’). When scientists run aground it’s sometimes philosophers who push on. Unbounded creative thought can sometimes lead to entirely new ways of seeing things.
In response to Hawking’s dismissal I wrote a blog entry almost entirely without scientific research. The introduction to that blog entry took on a life of its own and became the one you’re reading now. To avoid overkill I’ve split them into two parts, the first to introduce the background and inspiration for the thought processes in the second. Also to explain why I’ve gone off on a total flight of fancy in an area about which I know almost nothing and without benefit of information or calculation. In my deliberate eschewing of the scientific method I used creative thought to find my direction and logic to steer by. I was especially encouraged by my discovery that about ten years ago Professor Sir Roger Penrose started working on a theory describing the Big Bang as following on from and being caused by the end of a previous universe. It’s now in the public domain:
And it happens that at around the same time I had come up with something that was essentially a scaled-down and maths-free version of the same thing. Go me! It all came about when NASA telescopes discovered that distant galaxies are increasing in velocity as they move further away from us, leading to the proposition of so-called ‘dark energy’, now thought to be the cause of the universe expanding at an increasing rate. You don’t need to be an astrophysicist to work out that if there’s a mysterious energy pushing everything apart then eventually all matter will dissipate; nor that once all matter cools to pure, massless energy, or even prior to that when all that’s left is a sea of photons, that the passing of time will no longer occur and the four dimensions of the universe will disappear, with Time going right alongside the other three spatial dimensions and leading, literally, to the end of all things. At that point time and distance become meaningless – all energy eventually becomes potential while mass and dimension are entirely absent from the universe. Imagining everything spread over near-infinite distance or concentrated into a single point are both errors. But it seems that even well-respected scientists have trouble getting to grips with this.
In the first episode of Wonders of the Universe Brian Cox describes the fascinating and awe-inspiring depths of time after the death of all stars and evaporation of the last black holes, but he trips up on his final point while stating that the arrow of time will cease to exist and the universe will continue in a perfect order of maximum entropy and total heat death “forever”. “Forever” is after all a direction in time which requires not only space but mass. A sea of photons has no mass and a dimensionless universe devoid of time removes itself from such pedestrian concerns as past, present and future, its here and now is indistinct from its beginning or its end. Roger Penrose takes this to be the clue to the birth of a new universe. I take it to be a clue to the birth of our own endlessly cycling universe, looping like the Ouroboros symbol of antiquity and of multiple unscientific cultures worldwide, which Plato, a philosopher, described as the first living thing in the universe.
Philosophers have always had far more freedom in their thinking than scientists and early philosophers lived in times dominated by imagination and symbolism. Scientists now often live in a world devoid of imagination. Philosophy has been shut out of science and science is the poorer for it. Creative thought is a fundamental part of human development yet it’s so often side-lined. People lack cross-discipline thinking and guard arbitrary territories behind lines drawn only for the sake of convenience:

Knowledge may be infinite and it may be borderless, but for practical purposes, we slice knowledge up into pieces and apply convenient labels that help us segment it into manageable portions for pedagogical purposes.

M. E. Kabay, PhD, CISSP

There are often good reasons for the doors being shut. The art world too demands a pedigree to show an artist is ‘qualified’ to contribute to the field from some deep-rooted personal value system and aesthetic understanding rather than applying themselves randomly. The difference is at times very hard to spot but is an essential aspect of modern art. Nature is quite capable of abstract beauty without human assistance so it’s possible to dupe unknowing art critics into heaping praise on an elephant with a paint brush. That’s not to say the elephant’s work isn’t of aesthetic value, only that the elephant is no more aware of the effect of her painting on others than a spider is aware of humans that stop to gaze at a web bejewelled with dew. It’s not the intrinsic value of a piece of modern art that resonates, it’s the value added to it by a human being holding it up and putting their name to it as a thing they wish others to be aware of and experience. The assumption, perhaps correctly, is that anyone (or anything) that hasn’t already proved themselves as a creator of art for art’s sake should be treated with caution. The world of science is not dissimilar. There are barriers and trials one must overcome before becoming an accepted member. There are uniforms, strange languages and obscure symbols. Scientists at times conduct themselves like a priesthood, custodians of the mysteries of the universe dressed in white vestments. It’s understandable, even forgivable, but their altar is sanctified by logic, reason, intellect and deduction. They seek evidence not proof, as nothing can ever truly be proven scientifically, only verified by repeatable demonstrations. Their beliefs are founded on demonstration while faith is anathema to the process, but an amount of faith is in fact enshrined within the most fundamental concepts of science: faith that humans must possess the ability to comprehend reality with some practical degree of accuracy, and faith that the process used for deduction, the scientific method, is the only correct way to go about it.
Neither of those tenets are arrived at scientifically. It’s not possible to do an experiment using the scientific method to determine if there are alternatives to it, neither is it possible to discover the limits of our comprehension through experimentation. We can’t manipulate the necessary variables or appoint a non-human control group for study. It’s easy to forget that before the endless waves of faultless logic begin a small leap of faith is required. What this means is, despite assurances that science is an entirely objective discipline, it cannot be so. It also means that science is a very human discipline and one that cannot remove itself from its human origins. To my mind that’s one of it’s strengths, not a flaw. Without it scientific research would lose its sense of wonder, its practical applications, its greatest achievements; it would become no more than a cataloguing exercise in patterns of matter and energy. As meaningless and directionless as nature, which despite a wealth of aesthetic beauty is devoid of intent or human message and is not art.
The most awe-inspiring, fascinating and beautiful thing in the known universe is simply this – to be human and to experience life here. It transcends individual disciplines and the territorial approach to knowledge, it cannot be categorised as any one thing or coherent collection of things. And it isn’t separate from the universe, life on the Earth, or even the matter and energy from which everything is made. The boundaries are ours and they are false.

*EDIT 06.04.11*
"I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read little philosophy and less theology, so I don't think his views should be taken with any special weight."
Sir Martin Rees, astronomer Royal
So Hawking was just sounding off against philosphy without doing any research.

"If I have the time and I'm not totally overwhelmed with things to do, then my mind constantly and gently chews over problems and often an answer or idea will pop into my head almost at random. Having the space to think is a genuine luxury, and vitally important if we want people to be creative in any job."
Professor Brian Cox
What is it Brian Cox is doing if not philosophising? To me the finger-pointing 'my dad's bigger than your dad' attitude shown by otherwise respectable and brilliant scientists is just an argument over territory - 'You leave the thinking to us and we'll just call it all science, even when it's not.'

No comments:

Post a Comment