|19 Dec 2006 @ 18:00, by Beto Hoisel|
It's necessary to admit that the contents and concepts of contemporary science, in their essence, are still Greek, and the general approaches that outline its investigation fields are based on non-scientific metaphysical assumptions.
The metaphysical foundations of modern science are characteristically Greek-Roman and Judeo-Christian, applying only to Western science. Bewildered with the outcome of technology, science refuses to recognize other forms of knowledge which rest on distinct assumptions. Searching for the fundamental components of reality, trying to find out the bricks that build matter and the universe, physicists proceed with the Jonic saga without a critical analysis and taking for granted that an understanding of the world will emerge from this pursuit.
Thales used to think the world was made of water; today's physicists think it's made of quarks. The belief in atoms that move in emptiness submitted to mathematical laws immanent to nature goes back to Democritus and Leucippus, in the same way it's well aged the Newtonian supposition that mind is something apart of the physical world and reality can be understood without considering consciousness as a part of it. This way, since Greek antiquity till Modern Age, Western scientists try to understand the nature of physical reality as something separated of human experience and lives, segregating the vastness of their inner world and the subjective and imaginary slope of wholeness as something devoid of scientific value. From this standpoint we can infer the first assumption – almost always concealed – of modern science:
THE UNIVERSE EXISTS APART OF HUMAN PERCEPTION, BUT IT CAN BE UNDERSTOOD BY WAY OF THE PROPER UTILIZATION OF THE TOOLS AND METHODS SCIENCE HAS DEVELOPED.
This is a metaphysical outlook inherited from a scientific tradition rooted in Greece, which is not recognized in other advanced cultures such as those of India and China. Furthermore it has been denied by recent research of Western science itself. This point will be explained ahead.
Another article of faith of modern science whose origin is clearly rooted in Ancient Greece can be enunciated this way:
ALL REALITY CAN BE REDUCED TO MATTER AND ENERGY SUBMITTED TO THE BLIND AND IMMUTABLE LAWS OF NATURE.
This petitio principii is the basis of materialism that Western science has assumed since it denied the existence of the psychical-imaginary world, reducing life to a mere byproduct of complex chemical interactions, as well as consciousness to an emergent epiphenomenon of the nervous system organization. It's clearly restrictive, since it discards our most direct experience: the immediate feeling that we are a subjectivity in its own right. Physical reductionism is not an outcome of scientific research; on the contrary it provides the metaphysical background upon which scientific research proceeds and theories are formulated.
There is another principle underlying Western scientific practice we can ascribe a metaphysical content, since it demands a posture of faith in the work of its practitioners. This principle hardly would survive an evaluation of scientific knowledge evolution and some mathematical discoveries of the 20th century. Its enunciation is as follows:
IN SPITE OF SCIENCE REPEATEDLY ABANDON OLDER THEORIES, IT ADVANCES STEADILY IN THE PATH TO AN ACCURATE DEPICTION OF THE UNIVERSE SUCH AS IT REALLY IS.
The fallacy of this assumption sounds obvious. It's used by science as a marketing appeal aphorism, unable to withstand an accurate survey of the facts in recent history of science. This principle is clearly promotional even in the most utilitarian sense of obtaining funds for research and construction of larger and more expensive equipment and machinery. It doesn't show to be entirely convincing any more: in 1993 the Congress of the United States killed, once and for all, the project to build the mammoth particle accelerator Superconducting Super Collider – SSC, that would have cost the soaring sum of 11 billion dollars. This can mean a full stop in the hallucinated process of constructing equipment always bigger and bigger to study particles more and more minuscule. Underlying that principle there's another assumption hardly comprehensible or acceptable in other culture than our own:
REALITY AS A WHOLE IS A VAST UNIFIED SYSTEM THAT CAN BE GRASPED BY REASON AND PRESENTED BY OUR THEORIES.
These rules are of metaphysical nature; they are not self-evident axioms nor are deduced or can be proved. They are not ubiquitously adopted principles, such as the universals of language are, according to Noam Chomsky's discoveries. Moreover, they are under serious contention in the laboratories experiments and had been rejected by demonstrated theorems of contemporary mathematics. The epistemological crisis triggered by the clash of paradigms has arisen and aggravated throughout last century, and the chances are that the new millenium will face a thriving brand-new science where these assumptions are boldly discarded.
Now we will see how that crisis appeared and hardened, hitting contemporary science in its very foundations.
In the beginning of modern science, the world was a paradise made of light and atoms. Everything in it was determinate and predictable, and Isaac Newton was its prophet.
Light, whose refraction was already studied by Newton in 17th century, had its wave nature established by Thomas Young, in 1803, as his well-known two parallel slits experiment has shown a pattern of bright and dark bands when a passing through light beam hit a screen. Such patterns are clearly distinctive of wave propagation, as we can see in the surface of a placid pond when we throw two pebbles on it, generating interference patterns where the circle waves meet. Till the end of 19th century it was accepted as a fact that light was a wave propagated in a very subtle medium, named luminiferous ether.
Matter, was known to be made of extremely minute different atoms, according to the different chemical elements; each element had its own kind of atom, distinct of other. It was widely acknowledged that such particles were so small and indivisible that any speculations on their inner nature were not physical questions, but rather a metaphysical topic.
In the last years of 19th century, it was thoroughly admitted among highbrow scientists that the understanding of reality was almost entirely achieved, and soon a big picture of the universe would be accomplished setting the world free of its mysteries. Everything worth to be fathomed was already known (or nearly) and the remainder were only details or metaphysical topics, off the premises of science. French philosopher Auguste Comte, the father of positivism, wishing to exemplify a kind of subject to be always out of man's reach had the unfortunate idea of exemplifying with the stars composition. The stars were so far away, he reasoned, they could never be examined. This way thee study of the stars physical nature was a matter of metaphysical order, in the same rank of the speculations on the intimacy of atoms. However, a few years after this confident statement some astronomers were applying Fraunhöfer's findings on the absorption and emission spectral bands of star light to identify the chemical elements present in these celestial bodies. Studying the ideological context of science in the end of 19th century we can uncover several points similar to those in the current view of many scientists.
First, the confusion on the meaning of what a "metaphysical" topic really is. After one hundred years, we see science still favors to conceal the metaphysical basis of its non-explicit assumptions, in the same way it continues to label metaphysical the problems unreachable to presently adopted concepts, putting them outside of the scientific field of study and research. At the closing of 19th century these subjects were the chemical composition of the stars, the inner constitution of atoms, etc. In the end of twentieth-century the same happened to phenomena involving the presence of a subjective realm as an intrinsic part of the experiment. We must be very careful when a scientist says that some topic has a metaphysical nature; and also to be sure if he's really aware of the metaphysical foundations of his work. Or, moreover, if he uses the word metaphysical as a waste paper basket to throw away the problems he cannot handle with his conceptual apparatus and ideology.
The second analogy point in the two century turns is a curious feeling of several most distinguished physicists, in both periods, that a comprehensive picture of scientific knowledge was almost completed, remaining only a few details of minor importance to be filled. This state of affairs, already commented by Prof. Weisskopf in his brilliant lecture on the nature of time, brings together in the same naive viewpoint 19th century scientists and our contemporary Stephen Hawkins – who claimed the throughout understanding of the entire universe and its operation is almost attained.
Scientific endeavor proceeded beyond 19th century's assumed limits to knowledge, and will continue along 21st century as well. However, by the same token science suffered a major change on its bases from 19th to 20th century, these days we are prone to witness the emergence of a new shape to 21st century's physics, one hardly recognized as science to a 20th century physicist without causing a deep discomfort, as he verifies that most subjects discarded as metaphysical will be paramount to the new investigations, under a fresh interpretation of cosmic wholeness.
We live now the unfolding of an epistemological crisis that has matured throughout twentieth-century, originated in two scientific facts of the end of 19th century. The first was the famous experiment by Michelson and Morley, disproving the existence of a luminiferous ether, that became the starting point in the way to relativity. The second, christened the ultraviolet catastrophe, revealed through calculations an entirely unexpected profile to the radiation of a black body, which in the higher frequencies appeared so exaggerated its energy had to be infinite. These results, incompatible with empirical experience, were meaningless, opening the path to the investigations that led to quantum theory. From then on several disturbing discoveries and experiments yielding paradoxical results, and also startling mathematical theorems promoted the steady demolition of the scenery established by classical physics.
(see the following article THE QUANTUM SABATH)