In order to have any semblance of a proper philosophy of science, we must acknowledge the validity of our senses before deducing anything else. A child learns to rely on his senses before he learns to speak, and it takes a modern philosophy professor or a quantum physicist to claim otherwise. The claim that the senses are valid simply means that “whatever we perceive, we perceive it as such” – not, “however we interpret what we perceive, is what reality is.” The validity of the senses is axiomatic – it is logically impossible to have an “invalid sense.” If you see the sky in shades of red, and everyone else sees in shades of blue, your senses are just as valid as anyone else’s – only yours are biologically distinct in that they transmit light differently. Whatever you perceive, you perceive it as such. The biological function of the senses is automatic, but the function of your conceptual faculties, which interpret and integrate your sense-data to form a comprehensive model of reality is not. It is only in the interpretation of your sense-data that you can err.
The second important idea to realize is that reality exists independent of our perception of it – the sky is a certain color no matter which color you perceive it to be. Some people’s physiology is such that it looks blue, other’s such that it looks gray, but the nature of the particles bending the light as it passes through them doesn’t change according to who is looking at them.
Once you understand that reality exists independently of our perception of it, and can only be perceived according to the particular nature of our senses, the question becomes how to form universally and objectively valid ideas about reality and share them with others. This is simple enough regarding seeing different colors. The colorblind can understand the nature of the color spectrum and the color-seeing can wear gray glasses. In the same way, we can understand many things that no human can see – aspects of existence that are not directly observable by the senses. Tools like microscopes, telescopes, and X-ray radios are used to study the aspects of reality that we cannot perceive directly. A deeper and deeper understanding of how the universe works is gained by an increasingly complex understanding of physical laws on multiple levels and scales of reality. Advanced mathematical models allow us to predict and confirm the behavior of objects that cannot be directly or indirectly observed, and understand behaviors that are to complex to be grasped directly.
Our scientific advances have allowed us to understand reality on many levels, but some subjectivists claim that the “true” nature of reality evades us, since just as Newton was not aware of relativity, and Einstein not (initially) aware of quantum physics, our current scientists are not aware of the “true” stuff composing the current particles. However, all knowledge is contextual. Newtonian physics is as true in the context of ordinary sub-luminal matter as relativity is true in the context of non-quantum objects. False ideas in a given context are still false: you are wrong if you claim that the earth is flat because you have an understanding of “earth” and you are wrong if you claim that evolution is false if you have the concept of life on earth existing where it did not before.
The validity of the above statements depends on the round-earth theory and the theory of evolution being true, of course. At this point, let’s define what a “theory” and a “fact” are in the scientific meanings of the words. A fact is any statement about reality – and since reality is absolute, facts must be true or false. The statements “the earth is round” and “the earth is flat” are both facts – but the first is true, while the second is false. The theory of a round earth was formed after many observations came together to form a concepts – the idea that the earth is round. This concept was validated by various experiments and observations, and then a theory was formed. As Stephen J. Gould explains: "facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don't go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them."
OK, so what does the philosophical rant above have to offer science? Well, philosophy cannot tell you that E=mc^2, that the speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s, or even that energy is always conserved. Philosophy is impotent to discover how reality works, but it can tell you that it does work. It cannot tell you which theories are true, (contrary to what the Greeks thought) but it can do is rule out theories that are logically impossible, and hence must be thrown out. For example, an object cannot be one thing and another at the same time, if the properties are contradictory because A cannot be A and non-A at the same time. A particle cannot exist and not-exist at the same time. A photon cannot change locations based on your knowledge of its location if there is no causal link between the two. All these contradictions must be immediately thrown out if science is to be distinguished from mysticism and subjectivity. Even the slightest voluntary deviation from logic destroys the whole concept of science because the entire idea of scientific knowledge depends on the fact that logic is true, and a thing is what a thing is. If we say that a particle can exist and not exist at the same time, we cannot claim that a ball cannot be both red and blue at the same time. If we say that the laws of causality change according to our perspective of a photon, then we cannot claim that the laws of gravity are unchangeable either. The universe is either causal or not. Scientific knowledge is either a logical, non-contradictory pyramid of an ever-more sophisticated conceptual model of the world, or it is a jumble of contradictory and rationalistic ideas. Scientific disciplines are part of one, integrated, understanding of reality, not contradictory islands of rationalistic models.
Many people would jump at the above statements with questions like “What about light? It’s both a wave and a particle!” or “What about Schrödinger’s cat? We don’t know it’s location until we open the box!” or “What about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle? We can’t know the location and velocity of a particle at the same time!” (Actually, laypeople usually misapply all of these examples to mean much more than the actual theories, false or not ever intended to say.) My reply is that once you gain a proper philosophical understanding of science, all these “dilemmas” become moot. To use an analogy from economics, I cannot tell you just how a private healthcare system would be more efficient than a socialist one, and I cannot tell you just what policies private schools would adopt that would make them better than government ones, but once you understand the inherent superiority of markets over central-planning, you stop asking these questions and leave them to the entrepreneurs in medicine and education to figure out. Likewise, I know much less about quantum physics than economics, and cannot possible disprove every bogus theory out there, but once I understand the philosophical basis of science, I can leave the details to the physicists to figure out, and judge for myself when their ideas are contradictory because of a false premise.
Actually, I can probably reply to all the common misconceptions about quantum physics, but don’t judge the ill merit of the theories by the quality of my replies – my philosophical point stands whether or not my knowledge of physics is correct or not. I will briefly reply to three for now – evolution/creationism, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and thermodynamics/First Cause.
Regarding creationism, the whole notion of creationism as a valid “science” should be dismissed as easily as the claims of the Flat Earth Society. The difference between creationist pseudo-scientists and real scientists is that creationists pervert the scientific method by rejecting the need for evidence. No argument will sway their position because their beliefs rest on faith, not evidence. For creationists, the Bible is the absolute authority, and all scientific evidence to contrary is rejected or ignored. They seek not to discover truth, but to prove a belief they hold on faith, disgracing the word “science” by selectively presenting “facts” that “prove” their case. A real scientist will discard even a treasured, life-long pet-theory when presented with convincing evidence to the contrary, but these mystics are not interested in discovering the nature of reality, only furthering their religious dogma. Because no amount of evidence will convince someone who holds his beliefs on faith, we can reject their claims as soundly (and on the same basis) as the flat-earthers.
Note one of the creationist’s favorite tactics: the claim that “evolution is only a theory.” Of course it’s a theory! So is the claim that the earth is round, that the sun will rise tomorrow, and the idea of creationism itself. Remember the distinction between facts and theories I gave above. They are not different levels of certainty but different concepts entirely. The “theory” of creationism happens to be groundless, while the theory of evolution is supported by an overwhelming amount of evidence, just like the theory that the sun rises every day because the earth rotates around its axis.
Now, the application of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to mean that knowledge of “true” reality is not possible. It is not my intention to present the scientific principle itself here – you should learn that on your own. Briefly, it is the idea that it is physically impossible to measure both the exact position and the exact momentum of a particle at the same time. The more precisely one of the quantities is measured, the less precisely the other is known. The reason is that measuring the position of a particle changes its momentum, and measuring its momentum changes its position. This is a claim about our ability to precisely know the location of a particle – it is not, I repeat not a claim that reality is subjective to observation, or that the position of an object cannot be known -- we simply say that we can only know both the location and velocity of an object within some minute degree of error, and that is an objective fact. Since our measuring tools are rather primitive by sub-atomic standards, this will not a problem for a long time to come, if ever.
Now on to thermodynamics and the notion of the First Cause. First, we can easily dismiss the creationists who claim that ever-more complex life cannot arise because of the laws of thermodynamics. They are grossly, and I mean GROSSLY misapplying the laws, and I will leave it up to you to find out what the laws actually are. (Just do a quick search on Google) Life on earth is possible because earth is not a closed system – it is powered, in a very literal sense, by the sun. Life itself is a mechanism (one of many) of for a cycle of various elements, such are carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen in a path towards greater and greater entropy. It is my understanding, that life on earth is the most efficient system of energy conservation in the entire known universe, and perhaps in the entire universe itself. The progress of more and more complex life-forms is also a progression of ever-more efficient life forms, culminating with perhaps the most efficient energy-consumption entity in the universe – man.
If I may go off on a wild and speculative tangent (skip this paragraph if you don’t want to be confused), the more productive we are, the more efficiently we are distributing the energy and elements created by the sun (and many other stars.) In a very real sense, productivity measured in dollars is equivalent to efficiency measured in energy consumption. Some may claim that the mass-consumption of fossil fuels contradicts this view, but even if true (there are a number of reasons why it is not, if you think about it) such a spike is only a temporary glitch in a cycle of greater and greater organization. If my theory is correct, and the evolution of humans (and perhaps other sentient species) continues as the universe increases in entropy, an asymptote of ever-more efficient consumption of energy and ever-increasing entropy will continue towards an asymptote until either (a) entropy wins out and intelligent life ceases in a sea of background radiation (b) intelligent life wins and near-infinite computing power is possible or (c) the two balance out -- which is effectively is the same as (b.) At this point (sometimes called the Omega point) near-infinite computing power is possible, and it’s possible to recreate the entire universe at any previous point in time, including yes, Greg’s idea of a virtual universe that we live in now. This can happen whether the universe continues to expand forever or collapses back onto itself – the asymptote will either be reached on the event horizon of the collapse or in the infinity of the expansion. (I don’t think we live in a “virtual” universe though – at least there is no evidence to believe that, as I reject the subjectivist theories of the bogus quantum physicists. It may be true, or not, but until we have evidence of such a computer reality, there is no point speculating about it. There is actually good reason to suspect that even if we did live in such a universe, we would never know it, and I can get into that if you want.)
Back on track, there is the notion of God as the First Cause. First, the notion is self-refuting. If the existence of an entity requires it to be created, then the existence of the creating entity requires a creator. In other words, if the known universe requires a creator, then God must live in a meta-universe that requires a creator too. The theist claims that the chain cannot go back ad-infinity, but even if true, this is not cause to violate his own rule. If you understand the word “universe” as “everything that exists” – call it a “meta-universe” if you want, and the break in logic becomes evident. If you reject logic, then you cannot claim to have a logical argument for God, and hence have no business trying to convince anyone of anything. (I hope everyone in this group realizes the self-contradictory nature of rejecting logic.) On a side note, even if an entity started the causal chain, there is no reason to suspect that it is self-aware and cares about humanity, much less that it is anything like the God of Religion
There is an even more basic argument against the First Cause argument though – the fact that infinity does not actually exist in reality. If you understand the Objectivist view of concepts (and if you don’t, go read a book as I’m not going to try to explain it all here) you should know that all entities, including the universe must have an identity. Infinity, other than as a mathematical abstraction, does not have an identity, and therefore does not exist in reality. This is a hard concept to grasp, or at least it was for me, so bear with me. For example, take time. Time is simply a relative measure of change, and cannot be measured “absolutely” without referring to a reference point. If there is no change, then there cannot be not time. So, for example, if the pre-big bang universe was a single, unchanging singularity, then time quite literality did not pass until after the Big Bang. Likewise, in any number of periodic events, we can grasp any two points in the chain, but not the chain as a whole. In the set of all positive integers, we can measure the distance between any two numbers, but we cannot measure from zero to infinity. Likewise, in the chain of time, we can measure any two points in time, but not the whole chain. Thus, the causal chain is not an infinite regression, but can only be understood in finite amounts.
That is all for now. Let me know if I did not explain anything sufficiently, or if you want me to expand on any ideas. BTW, I am working on a comprehensive theory on the psychology of happiness and depression, that I will post it or a link to it whenever it’s ready. It will contain a reply to Greg’s arguments, among many other things.