Thursday, February 21, 2019

The unreasonable effectiveness of science

Paul Davies

Paul Davies is an British physicist, expert in cosmology and quantum mechanics, well known for his activity in scientific popularization. In one of his articles [1], with the same title as this post, he wrote the following:
The fact that this rich and complex variety emerges from the featureless inferno of the Big Bang… as a consequence of laws of stunning simplicity and generality… has a distinct teleological flavor.
And in his most famous book, The Mind of God (1992), written in response to Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Davies wrote the following words:
The success of the scientific method at unlocking the secrets of nature is so dazzling it can blind us to the greatest scientific miracle of all: science works.
What Davies poses here has much to do with one of the most pressing problems of our time, the debate between realism and anti-realism, if we use the terms of analytical philosophy. This debate can be summarized in the following words:

It is evident that technology works. In recent centuries it has given rise to several industrial revolutions, and makes us capable of building tools and devices that work outside our body, or even inside. But technology is a direct consequence of scientific discoveries. Is it reasonable to claim that the results of science are figments of the human mind without a direct relation to reality?
While realists claim that the results of science do have a direct relationship with reality, anti-realists think that those entities whose existence is postulated by science (atoms, electrons, genes, etc.) do not exist outside of our minds.
This problem is a particular case of the millenarian debate between realism and nominalism. In four previous consecutive articles in this blog (this was the first) I mentioned another particular case, not exactly the same but strongly related, which was posed during the dawn of Greek philosophy and asks whether mathematical entities (such as numbers) have a real existence, or are creations of our mind.
Since science and mathematics are closely related, both problems are intertwined and difficult to separate. In relation to this, Leonard Adleman, computer scientist and pioneer of DNA computing, wrote this in his article Computing with DNA [2]:
Biology was no longer the science of things that smelled funny in refrigerators... The field was undergoing a revolution and was rapidly acquiring the depth and power previously associated exclusively with the physical sciences. Biology was now the study of information stored in DNA—strings of four letters: A, T, G and C...—and of the transformations that information undergoes in the cell. There was mathematics here!
Albert Einstein
What did Albert Einstein think about these two problems? Regarding the first, the reality of scientific entities, his position seems to be realist, as shown by these two quotes:
It could well be said that "the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility" [...] In my opinion, nothing can be said a priori about the way in which concepts should be formed and connected, nor about the way in which we should coordinate them with sensory experiences. The only possible guide in the creation of that order, the only determining factor, is success. [3]
To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. [4]
But with respect to the reality of mathematics, it seems that Einstein tends to anti-realism, as seen in this other quote:
How can it be that mathematics, which after all is a product of human thought, independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate for the objects of reality? [...] In my opinion, a brief answer to this question is this: to the extent that the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not true; and, to the extent that they are true, they do not refer to reality. [5].
In the next posts we’ll talk more about this.

[1] The unreasonable effectiveness of science. Chapter of the book Evidence of Purpose: Scientists Discover the Creator, 1994, page 44.
[2] Scientific American (279:2, 54–61, 1998).
[3] Physics and reality, The Journal of the Franklin Institute, 221:3, 1936.
[4] Science and religion. Symposium about Science, Philosophy and Religion, 1941.
[5] Cited by James R. Newman, The World of Mathematics, Simon & Schuster, 1956.

The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Philosophy and Logic: Previous Next
Manuel Alfonseca

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