Two years ago, I took an online course in Philosophy offered by a Scottish University (which shall remain nameless). The course contents were impressive, they claimed they would discuss the existence of God, the existence of a soul, the philosophy of science and a number of such high minded topics.
The reality was disappointing. A rapid and blurred progression of ideas were introduced without any foundation. Greek, German, French, Indian and Chinese systems of thought were ignored in favor of the teacher’s pet subject, the Scottish Enlightenment. The lessons themselves varied between obviousness, arcane abstraction and absurdity.
However, there was one “aha” moment. That point where one suddenly sees something that had hitherto been just one step beyond comprehension. When discussing science, they put forward two competing arguments:
- Science is an attempt to find the underlying rules of our universe. We start with a crude and imperfect picture of the universe. A scientific advance improves this picture, bringing it closer to the truth. Thus all scientific progress is a process of successive approximation to arrive at the laws of the universe.
- Science builds a set of rules that when operated give a good approximation of goes on in the universe. In this view, a scientific advance is anything that makes our model behave closer to the real world. All scientific progress is an exercise in model building, where successive models predict the world more accurately. But there is no reason why the mechanisms governing these models models should correspond in any way to how the universe really operates.
As an engineer, I am tempted to support the latter view.
If we consider the first explanation, then it is amazing that Science exists at all. While an ape who can anticipate the trajectory of a rock may outlive an ape who can’t, it is not clear what advantage a brain of our size gives in terms of propagating the species. Or why it should be able to grasp the underlying way in which our cosmos moves.
On the other hand, if we take the second approach, then Science is merely the way our ape descended brains cope with the reality we are faced with. We build models and try to impose the order of natural law on what would otherwise be a frightening and chaotic world around us. The full story of the universe, the way it all really works may not only be elusive but be fundamentally beyond our comprehension. A humbling thought.
The second viewpoint also leads to many interesting questions. Suppose in the future, we develop a grand unified theory whose results accurately predict everything in the universe from atoms to galaxies to the motion of life, would it matter whether or not it was really the mechanism operating around us? Take this question a little further and it is not hard to reach the Turing Test, Strong AI, Searle’s Chinese Room and even “the universe as a simulation” idea. When it is impossible to distinguish between the effects of reality and the theory, does it matter or not if the theory is “real”?
Since writing this, I was told that the 2 approaches looked pretty similar. To illustrate the difference, I wrote another post here giving a couple of examples.