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Friday, 12 October 2012

Plastic universe


Possibly the world of external facts is much more fertile and plastic than we have ventured to suppose; it may be that all these cosmologies and many more analyses and classifications are genuine ways of arranging what nature offers to our understanding, and that the main condition determining our selection between them is something in us rather than something in the external world.
Edwin A Burtt – The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science

I’ve posted about E A Burtt before, together with this quote. It's one of my favourites so I've hauled it out for another airing – the idea that the universe may be too flexible, too plastic for single theories to cope with. It's close to Paul Feyerabend's view too, so that doubles the points.

After all, the principle that there must be a single, best theory to explain any phenomenon isn’t a principle one could ever prove. It’s an axiom – a basis for going in certain directions rather than others. Of course the single theory axiom is also a barrier to entry - a typical professional tactic. Do it this way or else, mavericks not welcome, trespassers will be sneered at, the big boys know best.

Science is like that in my view – very much a typical profession and based on axioms we can’t prove simply because they are axioms - they have to be accepted as given. Constraints which seem to be largely inherited social and professional constraints rather than anything deeper.

Complexity is a complex subject isn’t it? It would be a funny old world if it wasn’t I suppose, but how do scientists deal with it? On the whole, they seem to deal with complex phenomena by assuming there is always a better theory which will explain it more fully or more accurately.

Sometimes it doesn't work though. The consensus theory has to be stretched too far or the phenomenon has to be chopped up into chunks small enough for single theories to cope with, small enough to be dealt with by different professional cliques. 

But suppose Burtt’s plastic universe is more realistic than the single theory axiom? Suppose the universe really does present us with different and irreconcilable aspects of the same phenomenon?

In that case, we’d need two or more irreconcilable theories to explain it, wouldn’t we? We’d have to accept two or more theories explaining the same complex phenomenon in different and irreconcilable ways.

Does it matter?

To many it does, particularly for the entrenched professional. Yet in my view there is no secure way to demonstrate that it matters scientifically. It just goes against the scientific grain, feels wrong, isn’t how we’ve been taught, baffles the conventional mind, violates the consensus. But really it only violates the single theory axiom, which of course isn’t itself scientific and often covertly assumed to boot.

Maybe the universe is more mysterious, odd and multi-faceted than most scientists are comfortable with. But why do we expect to be comfortable with our theories? Because we do – it’s what we don’t like about loose ends.

What might a more plastic approach look like – this reality of multiple irreconcilable theories? Well we already know don’t we? How about alternative therapies and mainstream medicine? Or electrons being both waves and particles? Or psychology and neuroscience explaining the same behaviour?

Maybe climate will need more than one theory to explain how it functions? Maybe it already does, but politicians got there first. Because politicians are the ultimate single theory woo merchants aren't they.

Human beings? We seem to require lots of irreconcilable theories to explain ourselves, don't we? There is no single secret of life. No one theory to tell us what we are and why we do what we do. In this case, when we look at ourselves, we appear not to expect a single theory. We seem to be an exception to the single theory axiom. Maybe that's a social thing too.

A plastic universe - could it be our flexible friend?

9 comments:

Barnacle Bill said...

Very much like infinity; where you can one infinity bigger than another!
Life is too slippery for just one theory to hold it all.

Demetrius said...

There is a single secret of life, it is death.

Roger said...

Too hard, my head hurts.

James Higham said...

Complexity is a complex subject isn’t it?

A known known in fact.

Sam Vega said...

Presumably, the idea that there is a better theory which can explain discovered complexity (i.e. the old theory not working) can only be supported inductively. We believe there is one, because we have found/constructed them in the past. This is, of course, no guarantee that we will find any more in the future.

A K Haart said...

Bill - it is too slippery!

Demetrius - and taxes.

Roger - another angle is that maybe we're not clever enough to fit just one theory around complex phenomena.

Maybe we have to say it's a bit of this and a bit of that, but neither this nor that nor this and that are the full story. Nor will they ever be.

James - yet we try to simplify it - that's our problem. It isn't simple, it's complex.

Sam - exactly, there is no guarantee and we may be better off thinking around these issues as if the better (single) theory is impossible.

Woodsy42 said...

Maybe the two (or more) irreconcilable explanations in the physical world are only that way because as humans we are trapped in a situation whereby we cannot ever see, thus cannot ever explain, the entire underlying truth.

banned said...

Why are you denying the experience of Black Women if the face of white male hegemony?

A K Haart said...

Woodsy - I agree and I don't think we do ourselves any favours by assuming otherwise.

banned - I don't know what you mean.