Science in an irrational world

Since Newton, every activity has aspired to the prestige of science.  Medicine wished to be the mechanics of the human organism — the traditional doctor, a stern physicist whose abtruse knowledge could not be communicated to the benighted mind of the patient.  Industry sought to reproduce the precision of the laboratory — the scientific manager would make production and profit as much a statistical certainty as a planet’s orbit.  Government, like the great scientists, aimed to crush tradition and superstition, and impose theoretical order on the buzz and confusion of life.

Science, it was thought, unlocked the hidden rationality of nature.  The astonishing profusion of random variety one finds, for example, in the growth of ice crystals or a rain forest habitat, was only apparent.  Everything obeyed the Law, and the Law spoke in simple mathematical principles.  Knowledge lay in revealing these secret theorems.  Happiness would be gained by applying them to human affairs.

Yet the more scientists learn about nature, the less they understand.  Today’s best-regarded creation story, the Big Bang, is scarcely more rational than Genesis.  The concept of black holes, which can’t by definition be found, reminds me of the old doggerel, “As I was walking on the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there.”  Relativity allows motion and distance to distort that ultimate weapon of the scientific manager — time.

These, however, are developments in conventional physics, within the boundaries of a law-like universe.  Other discoveries make belief in such a universe more a matter faith than of science.

I have posted on this before.  Today’s lesson in the irrationality of the world comes from two articles in the March issue of the Scientific American.  The first is titled “Impossible Inferences”:

Werner Heisenberg discovered that improved precision regarding, say, an object’s position inevitably degraded the level of certainty of its momentum.  Kurt Godel showed that within any formal mathematical system advanced enough to be useful, it is impossible to use the system to prove every true statement that it contains.  And Alan Turing demonstrated that one cannot, in general, determine if a computer algorithm is going to halt.

David H. Wolpert . . . has chimed in with his version of a knowledge limit.  Because of it, he concludes, the universe lies beyond the grasp of any intellect, no matter how powerful,  that could exist within the universe.  Specifically, during the past two years, he has been refining a proof that no matter what laws of physics govern a universe, there are inevitably facts about the universe that its inhabitants cannot learn by experiment or predict with a computation.

The second article, “A Quantum Threat to Special Relativity,” lays out findings even more subversive to faith in a rational universe.  According to the authors, David Albert and Rivka Galchen, the implications of quantum physics, for curious and very human reasons, have only been worked out over the last 15 years or so.  They appear devastating to the law-abiding world of Newton and Einstein.

Prior to the advent of quantum mechanics . . . scholars believed that a complete description of the physical world could in principle be had by describing, one by one, each of the world’s smallest and most elementary physical constituents.  The full story of the world could be expressed as the sum of the constituents’ stories.

Quantum mechanics violates this belief.

Real, measurable, physical features of collections of particles can, in a perfectly concrete way, exceed or elude or have nothing to do with the sum of the features of the individual particles.  For example, according to quantum mechanics one can arrange a pair of particles so that they are precisely two feet apart and yet neither particle on its own has a definite position.  Furthermore, the standard approach to understanding quantum physics, the so-called Copenhagen interpretation . . . insists that it is not that we do not know the facts about the individual particles’ exact locations; it is that there simply aren’t any such facts.  To ask after the position of a single particle would be as meaningless as, say, asking about the marital status of the number five.

One consequence of quantum physics, nonlocality, is described by the authors as a “deeply spooky and counterintuitive phenomenon.”  How spooky?  “Nonlocality implies that a fist in Des Moines can break a nose in Dallas without affecting any other physical thing (not a molecule of air, not an electron in a wire, not a twinkle of light) anywhere in the heartland.”

So there you have it.  The law-abiding behavior rationalism demands has gone missing from whole chunks of the scientific story of how the universe works.  It should be obvious, but probably needs to be said anyway, that this doesn’t undermine science in the least.  Unlike ideological or religious dogmas, science isn’t wedded to a particular answer regarding the world and all the things in it.  Science is the sense of wonder made critical and methodical.  It’s organized curiosity, and it shouldn’t surprise us to find scientific explanations getting curiouser and curiouser.

Nor is rationality undermined, if by that term we mean a decent respect for the facts and relationships that have led to our survival.

But rationalism is undermined.  The belief that the world can be explained by simple but hidden theorems, accessible only to a handful of geniuses:  that is undermined.  The unreasonable faith that such theorems, in some form, must be imposed on human society as the final solution to the problem of universal happiness:  that is undermined.

Those who have worshipped at the altar of reason might feel alarmed by this turn of events.  They stand with the churchmen who dreaded the diminution of human dignity, if the earth became a satellite of the sun.  Four centuries ago, scientific findings contradicted religious doctrines.  Today, they confound the dogmas of the ideology of rationalism.  Irony may not be inherent to the fabric of things, but it surely defines the present moment in the advance of human knowledge.


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