Observation, Theory, and Reality

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

8.3 Limits of Representation and Knowledge of Reality
It follows…that there are limits to what the scientific method can achieve in explanatory terms.  We need to respect these limits and acknowledge clearly when arguments and conclusions are based on some philosophical stance rather than purely on testable scientific argument.  If we acknowledge this and make that stance explicit, then the bases for different viewpoints are clear and alternatives can be argued about rationally.

We human beings want so badly to be able to explain our existence and existence itself that we tend to “fill in the blanks” and treat speculation (no matter how well reasoned) as if it were something akin to fact.  This is true for both science and religion.  A more reasonable approach, it seems to me, is to reject absolute certainty—especially where physical evidence is sparse or nonexistent—while always striving to deepen our understanding.  That is the scientist’s stock-in-trade—or should be.  Each of us needs to become more aware of the limitations of our understanding!

Thesis F6: Reality is not fully reflected in either observations or theoretical models.
Problems arise from confusion of epistemology (the theory of knowledge) with ontology (the nature of existence): existence is not always manifest clearly in the available evidence.  The theories and models of reality we use as our basis for understanding are necessarily partial and incomplete reflections of the true nature of reality, helpful in many ways but also inevitably misleading in others.  They should not be confused with reality itself!

We humans create our own “realities”, but under the very best of circumstances (science, for example), our “reality” is only an imperfect model of what actually exists.

The confusion of epistemology with ontology occurs all the time, underlying for example the errors of both logical positivism and extreme relativism.  In particular, it is erroneous to assume that lack of evidence for the existence of some entity is proof of its non-existence.  In cosmology it is clear for example that regions may exist from which we can obtain no evidence (because of the existence of horizons); so we can sometimes reasonably deduce the existence of unseen matter or regions from a sound extrapolation of available evidence (no one believes matter ends at or just beyond the visual horizon).  However one must be cautious about the other extreme, assuming existence can always be assumed because some theory says so, regardless of whether there is any evidence of existence or not.  This happens in present day cosmology, for example in presentations of the case for multiverses, even though the underlying physics has not been experimentally confirmed.  It may be suggested that arguments ignoring the need for experimental/observational verification of theories ultimately arise because these theories are being confused with reality, or at least are being taken as completely reliable total representations of reality.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  But, without evidence, all we have is conjecture, no matter how well informed.  As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

No model (literary, intuitive, or scientific) can give a perfect reflection of reality.  Such models are always selective in what they represent and partial in the completeness with which they do so.  The only model that would reflect reality fully is a perfect fully detailed replica of reality itself! This understanding of the limits of models and theories does not diminish the utility of these models; rather it helps us use them in the proper way.  This is particularly relevant when we consider how laws of nature may relate to the origins of the universe itself, and to the existence and nature of life in the expanding universe.  The tendency to rely completely on our theories, even when untested, seems sometimes to arise because we believe they are the same as reality—when at most they are descriptions of reality.

Ellis makes a pretty good case here against dogma.  Though he does not specifically mention religion (and why should he, as the subject at hand is cosmology), I do think these ideas apply to religion as well.

Always a journey, never a destination.

References
Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.
[http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602280]

Where Cosmology Meets Philosophy

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

The physical explanatory power of inflation in terms of structure formation, supported by the observational data on the fluctuation spectra, is spectacular.  For most physicists, this trumps the lack of identification and experimental verification of the underlying physics.  Inflation provides a causal model that brings a wider range of phenomena into what can be explained by cosmology, rather than just assuming the initial data had a specific restricted form.  Explaining flatness (Ω0 ≅ 1 as predicted by inflation) and homogeneity reinforces the case, even though these are philosophical rather than physical problems (they do not contradict any physical law; things could just have been that way).  However claims on the basis of this model as to what happens very far outside the visual horizon (as in the chaotic inflationary theory) results from prioritizing theory over the possibility of observational and experimental testing.  It will never be possible to prove these claims are correct.

Inflation is one compelling approach to explaining the structure we see in the universe today.  It is not necessarily the only one, but it currently has the most support.  Basically, a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, the universe expanded dramatically.  Around 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang the universe had a diameter on the order of 1.2 × 10-27 meters.  To put that size in perspective, the diameter of a proton is between 0.84-0.87 × 10−15 meters.  So, when inflation began, the entire universe had a diameter almost a trillion times smaller than a single proton!  10-34 seconds later when the inflationary period was coming to an end, the size of the universe was a little over half the distance to Alpha Centauri!

The basic underlying cosmological questions are:
(1)  Why do the laws of physics have the form they do?  Issues arise such as what makes particular laws work?  For example, what guarantees the behaviour of a proton, the pull of gravity?  What makes one set of physical laws ‘fly’ rather than another?  If for example one bases a theory of cosmology on string theory, then who or what decided that quantum gravity would have a nature well described by string theory?  If one considers all possibilities, considering string theory alone amounts to a considerable restriction.
(2)  Why do boundary conditions have the form they do?  The key point here is, how are specific contingent choices made between the various possibilities, for example whether there was an origin to the universe or not.
(3)  Why do any laws of physics at all exist?  This relates to unsolved issues concerning the nature of the laws of physics: are they descriptive or prescriptive?  Is the nature of matter really mathematically based in some sense, or does it just happen that its behaviour can be described in a mathematical way?
(4)  Why does anything exist?  This profound existential question is a mystery whatever approach we take.

The answer to such questions may be beyond the limits of experimental science, or even beyond the limits of our intellect.  Maybe, even, these questions are as meaningless as “What lies north of the north pole?1because of our limited intellect.  Many would claim that because there appears to be limits to what science or human intellect can presently explain, that this constitutes evidence for the existence of God.  It does not.  Let’s just leave it as we don’t know.

Finally, the adventurous also include in these questions the more profound forms of the contentious Anthropic question:
(5)  Why does the universe allow the existence of intelligent life?
This is of somewhat different character than the others and largely rests on them but is important enough to generate considerable debate in its own right.

Well, a seemingly flippant answer to this question is we wouldn’t be here if it didn’t, but that begs the question.  Perhaps intelligent life is the mechanism by which the universe becomes self-aware, or is this just wishful thinking?  In the end, I am willing to admit that there may be some higher power in the universe—in the scientific pantheist and humanist sense—but I will stop short of calling that “God” in any usual sense of the term.

The status of all these questions is philosophical rather than scientific, for they cannot be resolved purely scientifically.  How many of them—if any—should we consider in our construction of and assessments of cosmological theories?

Perhaps the limitations of science (and, therefore, cosmology) is more a manifestation of the limitations of our human intellect than any constraint on the universe itself.

One option is to decide to treat cosmology in a strictly scientific way, excluding all the above questions, because they cannot be solved scientifically.  One ends up with a solid technical subject that by definition excludes such philosophical issues.  This is a consistent and logically viable option.  This logically unassailable position however has little explanatory power; thus most tend to reject it.

Let’s call this physical cosmology.

The second option is to decide that these questions are of such interest and importance that one will tackle some or all of them, even if that leads one outside the strictly scientific arena.  If we try to explain the origin of the universe itself, these philosophical choices become dominant precisely because the experimental and observational limits on the theory are weak; this can be seen by viewing the variety of such proposals that are at present on the market.

And let’s call this metaphysical cosmology.

1Attributed to Stephen Hawking

References
Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.
[http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602280]

Ryden, Barbara. 2003.  Introduction to Cosmology. San Francisco: Addison Wesley.