The Scientific Method: Right Unless It's Wrong

I've said it before: the popular view of scientific inquiry is a joke.  Not like a joke, but literally this one:

A man is walking down a street at night when he sees an old man at a street light, scouring the pavement for something.  He approaches the old man and says, "Sir, did you lose something?"  "Yeah, sonny," the old man replies.  "I lost my car keys somewhere down the block, so I'm looking for them under this light."  Confused, the man says, "But if you lost your keys down the street, why are you looking for them here?"  "Because," the old man replies, "the light's better over here!"  Zing!

There is a light, call it philosophical materialism, which, according to the purveyors of materialistic science, is not only a fruitful avenue of scientific inquiry, but the only avenue any real scientist can take.  (Even to suggest that we refocus our efforts on those dark spaces down the street is considered scientific heresy.)

But there is nothing within science requiring such absolutist thinking.  As quantum physicist Amit Goswami writes in The Self-Aware Universe, philosophical materialism (which he calls "scientific realism") derives from "a hangover caused by an overly enthusiastic indulgence in a four-hundred-year-old revel called classical physics that was kicked off by Isaac Newton sometime around 1665."  There is no scientific principle within the philosophy of science stating that inquiry must be wholly materialistic.  Instead, this is mere opinion, steadfastly adhered to because...well, because.

Don't believe me?  Consider this long-revered, completely audacious and unprovable claim: science excludes metaphysics.  In the eighteenth century, David Hume argued that all genuine knowledge involves either mathematics or matters of fact and that metaphysics, which goes beyond these, is worthless.  (This, according to that paragon of objective truth, Wikipedia.)

Let's take a closer look at the claim.

Premise:

1. Metaphysics: Not genuine knowledge.

2. Science: Is genuine knowledge.

3. The terms are thus mutually exclusive: science is not metaphysics, and metaphysics is not science.

Conclusion:

4. Using the principle of substitution in (3), we derive:  science is not (not science).  It isn't what it isn't, so it must be what it is.

As Plato said to Socrates, "Well, duh!"

While it is true that scientific inquiry starts with an investigation of the material world, philosophical materialism forces science into a dead-end street: all inquiry must adhere to materialistic strictures and cannot go beyond them.  Such a notion may seem perfectly adequate in describing why the sky is blue or how gravity influences an apple's fall – but it seems wholly inadequate in answering more fundamental questions: why is there a universe rather than no universe?  Why is it ordered, when the Second Law of Thermodynamics decrees entropy to be nature's overwhelming feature?  How does a cause-and-effect universe come about without a First Cause?  What makes the universe knowable?  And doesn't Big Bang cosmology at least imply that the universe may have come about through the machinations of a Creator?  To reply to any of these questions with "science excludes metaphysics" seems inadequate at best and a dodge at worst.

Careful, shrieks the materialist.  We're scientists, not theologians.  Creator?  As in You-Know-Who?  You can't talk about YKW!

Why not?

Because that's metaphysics!

And what's bad about metaphysics?

But the question is not whether science excludes metaphysics.  The question is, must science exclude metaphysics?  Just why can't you talk about YKW?

If we don't remove all discussion of YKW from scientific inquiry, sooner or later, we'll realize we can't exclude YKW at all!

I refer the reader to Plato's reply to Socrates above.

There's one further observation to make about the old man: though he will never find his car keys, it is not for a lack of trying, and it's most certainly not a matter of stupidity.  He shows every sign of rationality: he has established a search grid, has adopted a strategy, and operates with a substantial degree of rigor.  The problem is not with his intellect, but with a philosophical underpinning that prevents him from considering other investigative avenues.  Ironically, in this case, intelligence is irrelevant.  The smartest man in the world won't find a solution.

A case in point: Enter Stephen Hawking.

In an intriguing interview presented by a news site from Australia and enthusiastically dittoed by Fox News, Hawking argues that "the boundary condition of the universe ... is that it has no boundary."  Time, he claims, did not begin with the Big Bang, it was just going in a different direction.

Mind you, this is the same Stephen Hawking, who, in a paper co-author by the brilliant Roger Penrose, established that, at the Big Bang, both space and time were created in the same instant. Time came into existence as a component of a four-piece continuum called space-time. Without space, there can be no time, and vice versa.

Hawking echoed such findings in his wildly popular A Brief History of Time (1988).  Space and time were created with the Big Bang.

But I suppose that word has always gnawed at him: created.

So what to do?  Simple: Hawking employs nuance.  You see, even though time came about due to the Big Bang, it was only time as we understand it.  Time as we don't understand it, a term conceived by Hawking himself some three decades ago as "imaginary time," is infinite, leaving a boundless (and conveniently YKW-free) universe.

What is imaginary time?  In simplest terms, imaginary time is real time that has undergone a Wick Rotation.  Its coordinates are all multiplied by the imaginary root i.  This, says Hawking, leaves a fully materialistic universe and obviates the need for YKW.  How exactly imaginary time accomplishes this feat of cosmic prestidigitation Hawking fails to say, and a quick survey of cosmologists is bound to garner nothing more than a collective shrug of the shoulders.  But never mind.  The illustrious Stephen Hawking decrees it so.  Hawking is a smart guy, and smart guys are never wrong, except when they are.

But here's the point.  So long as materialists can adhere to the illusion that matter is the only thing that matters, any argument will suffice, no matter how obtuse, convoluted, odd, or incomprehensible.  Thus, imaginary time to the rescue!  Now all Professor Hawking has to do is be right.

And once again, we may avail ourselves of Plato's response to Socrates.

Terry L. Mirll is an award-winning science fiction writer.  His novella Karat Cake won a Mariner Award from Bewildering Stories.  His short story "Astrafugia" took first place in science fiction from Writer's Digest Magazine's Ninth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.

Image: Instituteofbatteries via Wikimedia Commons.

I've said it before: the popular view of scientific inquiry is a joke.  Not like a joke, but literally this one:

A man is walking down a street at night when he sees an old man at a street light, scouring the pavement for something.  He approaches the old man and says, "Sir, did you lose something?"  "Yeah, sonny," the old man replies.  "I lost my car keys somewhere down the block, so I'm looking for them under this light."  Confused, the man says, "But if you lost your keys down the street, why are you looking for them here?"  "Because," the old man replies, "the light's better over here!"  Zing!

There is a light, call it philosophical materialism, which, according to the purveyors of materialistic science, is not only a fruitful avenue of scientific inquiry, but the only avenue any real scientist can take.  (Even to suggest that we refocus our efforts on those dark spaces down the street is considered scientific heresy.)

But there is nothing within science requiring such absolutist thinking.  As quantum physicist Amit Goswami writes in The Self-Aware Universe, philosophical materialism (which he calls "scientific realism") derives from "a hangover caused by an overly enthusiastic indulgence in a four-hundred-year-old revel called classical physics that was kicked off by Isaac Newton sometime around 1665."  There is no scientific principle within the philosophy of science stating that inquiry must be wholly materialistic.  Instead, this is mere opinion, steadfastly adhered to because...well, because.

Don't believe me?  Consider this long-revered, completely audacious and unprovable claim: science excludes metaphysics.  In the eighteenth century, David Hume argued that all genuine knowledge involves either mathematics or matters of fact and that metaphysics, which goes beyond these, is worthless.  (This, according to that paragon of objective truth, Wikipedia.)

Let's take a closer look at the claim.

Premise:

1. Metaphysics: Not genuine knowledge.

2. Science: Is genuine knowledge.

3. The terms are thus mutually exclusive: science is not metaphysics, and metaphysics is not science.

Conclusion:

4. Using the principle of substitution in (3), we derive:  science is not (not science).  It isn't what it isn't, so it must be what it is.

As Plato said to Socrates, "Well, duh!"

While it is true that scientific inquiry starts with an investigation of the material world, philosophical materialism forces science into a dead-end street: all inquiry must adhere to materialistic strictures and cannot go beyond them.  Such a notion may seem perfectly adequate in describing why the sky is blue or how gravity influences an apple's fall – but it seems wholly inadequate in answering more fundamental questions: why is there a universe rather than no universe?  Why is it ordered, when the Second Law of Thermodynamics decrees entropy to be nature's overwhelming feature?  How does a cause-and-effect universe come about without a First Cause?  What makes the universe knowable?  And doesn't Big Bang cosmology at least imply that the universe may have come about through the machinations of a Creator?  To reply to any of these questions with "science excludes metaphysics" seems inadequate at best and a dodge at worst.

Careful, shrieks the materialist.  We're scientists, not theologians.  Creator?  As in You-Know-Who?  You can't talk about YKW!

Why not?

Because that's metaphysics!

And what's bad about metaphysics?

But the question is not whether science excludes metaphysics.  The question is, must science exclude metaphysics?  Just why can't you talk about YKW?

If we don't remove all discussion of YKW from scientific inquiry, sooner or later, we'll realize we can't exclude YKW at all!

I refer the reader to Plato's reply to Socrates above.

There's one further observation to make about the old man: though he will never find his car keys, it is not for a lack of trying, and it's most certainly not a matter of stupidity.  He shows every sign of rationality: he has established a search grid, has adopted a strategy, and operates with a substantial degree of rigor.  The problem is not with his intellect, but with a philosophical underpinning that prevents him from considering other investigative avenues.  Ironically, in this case, intelligence is irrelevant.  The smartest man in the world won't find a solution.

A case in point: Enter Stephen Hawking.

In an intriguing interview presented by a news site from Australia and enthusiastically dittoed by Fox News, Hawking argues that "the boundary condition of the universe ... is that it has no boundary."  Time, he claims, did not begin with the Big Bang, it was just going in a different direction.

Mind you, this is the same Stephen Hawking, who, in a paper co-author by the brilliant Roger Penrose, established that, at the Big Bang, both space and time were created in the same instant. Time came into existence as a component of a four-piece continuum called space-time. Without space, there can be no time, and vice versa.

Hawking echoed such findings in his wildly popular A Brief History of Time (1988).  Space and time were created with the Big Bang.

But I suppose that word has always gnawed at him: created.

So what to do?  Simple: Hawking employs nuance.  You see, even though time came about due to the Big Bang, it was only time as we understand it.  Time as we don't understand it, a term conceived by Hawking himself some three decades ago as "imaginary time," is infinite, leaving a boundless (and conveniently YKW-free) universe.

What is imaginary time?  In simplest terms, imaginary time is real time that has undergone a Wick Rotation.  Its coordinates are all multiplied by the imaginary root i.  This, says Hawking, leaves a fully materialistic universe and obviates the need for YKW.  How exactly imaginary time accomplishes this feat of cosmic prestidigitation Hawking fails to say, and a quick survey of cosmologists is bound to garner nothing more than a collective shrug of the shoulders.  But never mind.  The illustrious Stephen Hawking decrees it so.  Hawking is a smart guy, and smart guys are never wrong, except when they are.

But here's the point.  So long as materialists can adhere to the illusion that matter is the only thing that matters, any argument will suffice, no matter how obtuse, convoluted, odd, or incomprehensible.  Thus, imaginary time to the rescue!  Now all Professor Hawking has to do is be right.

And once again, we may avail ourselves of Plato's response to Socrates.

Terry L. Mirll is an award-winning science fiction writer.  His novella Karat Cake won a Mariner Award from Bewildering Stories.  His short story "Astrafugia" took first place in science fiction from Writer's Digest Magazine's Ninth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.

Image: Instituteofbatteries via Wikimedia Commons.