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Philosophy of science

Recently, SCTS was tagged in a post from a new age spiritual page. It’s not clear why, but we ended up, unsurprisingly, disagreeing with the claims being made and had some interesting conversations.

Much to our surprise, a subscriber from that page contacted us and asked several important questions relating to science and philosophy. I thought I would share the response as it provided an opportunity to elaborate on several important subjects, notably, philosophy of science, cosmology and origins.

Question:

I really enjoyed the debate but you left me hanging without a response on several issues. The unanswered question I’m most curious about is: if everything must come from something, how does science explain initial creation? Maybe I’m wrong but you guys believe in the Big Bang right? Where did all of that energy come from in the beginning if there was no creator? I’ve never been able to ask an atheist this question. I’m honestly and sincerely curious of your response. Thanks!

Response:

These are some of the big questions and require the introduction of several elements to answer. I hope you don’t mind that I take a bit of time to explain.

Firstly, we have to start with some philosophy fundamentals. In philosophy, we have two primary areas of inquiry: epistemology and ontology. In addition, each scientific discipline has a philosophy which discusses these ideas in the context of the particular scientific discipline, for example: philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of chemistry, philosophy of physics, etc., etc., etc.

The three main domains of philosophy.
The three main domains of philosophy.

Ontology is the study of trying to determine what there is (what exists) and what we can say about the nature of things. Epistemology is the study of knowledge; what we can claim to know, the method by which we can acquire knowledge and the certainty with which we can assert knowledge. The idea of absolute truth is a controversial one in science. We do not speak of truth. We only speak in probabilistic language. The best that we can say is that something is likely to be true and to give a confidence level.

This intellectual honesty is crucial in science. We cannot know with 100% certainty that we are not all a brain in a vat somewhere in the universe or simply the figment of someone’s imagination. Absolute truth is not relevant in science. It is purely a discussion for philosophers to speculate about. There is simply no way that we can claim to know anything definitively. We should all be skeptical when someone claims to know something and we should be even more skeptical if they claim to know with certainty. That is a warning sign.

Science is effectively an epistemology; a way to learn about reality. That is to say, science is the best method that we have ever invented so far to logically and consistently investigate, evaluate and draw conclusions about what is, what isn’t and how the universe works. The tools of science are logic, reason and the scientific method. The reason science is so powerful and effective is because it is inherently skeptical, rigorous and methodical. We know that our minds play tricks on us and we have all sorts of cognitive biases and prejudices which seek to confirm answers that we want to find, regardless of what really is. The method of science is designed to do our best to minimize and avoid these human biases.

For example, wherever possible, when evaluating scientific hypotheses, we want to double or even triple blind our experiments. I’ll use an example where human subjects are participating in a study. Let’s say we want to study a particular medicine and if it works or not. In order to minimize the possibility of human bias, we want to avoid the possibility that the scientists conducting the experiment can affect the outcome so we don’t inform them who is getting the medicine and who is not (single blind), we want to avoid the possibility that those participating in the experiment can not affect the outcome, so we don’t let them know if they are taking the medicine or not (double blind) and, if possible, we want those evaluating the results to also not be able to affect the outcome, so we have a third party tally up the totals and they are not informed who took the medicine (triple blind). This would be an example of how all through the process, we try to “blind” it or control for human bias and use methods to minimize or avoid it.

In addition to methods like blinding and controlling for external variables, so that we can do our best to only isolate particular causes and effects, we also try to falsify our hypotheses first. That means before we conclude that our idea is right, we try everything we can to disprove or refute it. As science is highly competitive and everyone is trying to refute each other’s ideas, we only want to publish our results once we are confident that we have done everything we can to find flaws in reasoning and method. If we are confident that we cannot refute our idea, we submit it for peer review, so that impartial third party experts can review it to see if the idea is flawed or sound. Once everyone has tried to refute something unsuccessfully, there is good reason to believe that there is something here of value, that we have revealed something about the nature of reality.

The other important point to make before I continue is that for us to accept something, it needs not only to have passed through these rigorous steps, but also it should be repeatable by others. If it can be, thus, falsifiable and repeated, we have good science and we provisionally accept this hypothesis as being correct. The longer the idea survives without being refuted or replaced by a better explanation, the more certainty we can have that this is justifiable knowledge.

The last point to emphasize is that knowledge is contingent on the best available evidence and is subject to change as we gather more facts. Good hypotheses become and form components of theories or explanatory frameworks for explaining phenomena and describing facts. Theories do not graduate to fact, but rather explain facts.

Depiction of the expansion of the universe from a dense, hot state.
Depiction of the expansion of the universe from a dense, hot state. [Wikipedia]

Now that we have the foundation for science, ontology and epistemology, I will address your particular questions. While science does attempt to understand cause and effect, there is no law in science that something must have a cause. We assume that simply because most things do have antecedent causes. What we can say with a high degree of confidence about the universe is the following: Approximately 13.7 billion years ago, matter began to expand outwards from an extremely dense, hot state. That is referred to as The Big Bang, but the name is a misnomer. We do not know what “banged” or what the state of matter was before “something” happened to begin this process. We can only observe what happened and explain the consequences after this event. We have multiple lines of evidence suggesting that we can have a fairly high degree of confidence about our knowledge of the formation of the universe. But, and I emphasize, we cannot say what reality was before the so called big bang.

Many postulate the idea of a ”singularity” before, an infinitesimally small point of energy and matter before the big bang. But we simply cannot have much confidence in this idea, because our mathematics fail at the Planck barrier and we cannot see any further back in time/space. That is an example of the difference between hypothesis and theory. The singularity is a hypothesis which cannot yet be tested or confirmed. The Big Bang, however, is a theory, is widely accepted and supported by a great deal of evidence. We simply do not know how the universe ultimately began or if asking this question is even the right question. There might be no time before the Big Bang, as time may have simply come into existence at that point. We cannot know why the universe is like it is or if there is something before with our existing knowledge and technology.

We are hopeful that we may someday unite the four forces of nature into one unifying theory and be able to combine relativity with quantum physics. This might allow us to better explain the origins of the universe and why we have these particular laws of physics. Some believe there may be evidence of a multiverse, a larger area of hyperspace with multiple universes, with potentially different laws of physics. Some believe that there is evidence that all matter is made of cosmic strings, which are infinitesimally small units of matter. But we simply do not know these answers now. And anyone who claims to know is being presumptuous at best and dishonest at worst.

As for the hypothesis that there must have been a creator, many scientists and philosophers, including myself, think that that is not an answer at all and there is no evidence to support the claim. It seems that the universe shows us that complexity can emerge out of simplicity and simple rules. There is no necessity to postulate something more complex to explain complexity. The idea that complexity can emerge from simpler systems is called emergence and there is very good evidence to support it in all areas of science. Language is an example of emergence, ant colonies are another. There are many. No one ant has the ability or knowledge to create a colony and, yet, somehow when ants work together, an ant colony emerges.

The infinite regress paradox. [J. W. Dunne, "The Serial Universe", 1936]
The infinite regress paradox.
[J. W. Dunne, “The Serial Universe”, 1936]

In conclusion, we can’t claim to know how this all came about, nor if there is anything outside or before it or even if those are valid questions. We are working on it. There seems to be no apparent purpose in the universe or our existence. We seem to simply be interesting chemistry. We are the result of billions of years of time and matter configuring and reconfiguring into interesting patterns. We create our own meaning. Postulating that, in order to explain complexity, we must invent something infinitely more complex only pushes the question back to how did that infinite complexity come into being. So we have an infinite regress paradox and the idea becomes incoherent and unreasonable. It is not an intellectually sound argument. I’m sorry this was so long, but it would be impossible to explain this without providing the fundamentals and basis on which these conclusions are drawn. Take care.

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