Tag Archives: Einstein

Addiction to Prediction

When you don’t have a television, friends, or family, you have lots of time to read.  At least I do, and lately, I’ve been reading about science and philosophy.

I’ve been trying to understand from a scientific point of view the apparently universal addiction to predictions.  Albert Einstein believed it is the goal of science to predict, as did Isaac Newton.  They believed the laws of the universe could be apprehended and codified mathematically.  This was the basis of Einstein’s discomfort with quantum physics.  That events could not be definitely predicted–only their relative probabilities–led him to insist the theory was “incomplete.”

It could be said the future is incomplete, too, that science and the future will never be finished.  The ancients (and moderns) have a similar argument about God.  If God is perfect, the mover that doesn’t move, as Aristotle believed, or if God is done, complete, finished, and all life is moving toward that ideal, it does imply an end point.

It intrigues me that science has taken on the soothsayer’s cloak, seemingly without awareness that this is the stuff of superstition and mythology.  What’s this preoccupation with the future?  Is the present not good enough?

Quantum mechanics takes a leap by challenging the assumption of predictability.  It also challenges the mechanistic tradition that ousted God or other life force from the cosmos.  It supports my contention that there is no objective reality standing apart and uninvolved.  The experiment is a creation of the experimenter.

The most significant distinction, here, to me, is that quantum mechanics turns conventional views of science’s predictive aspirations upside down.  The cosmos is unpredictable.  We are floating in an ocean of probabilities punctuated with unlikely events.

We can predict with relative certainty that all our bodies are going to die, but no one can predict how or when.  Those who commit suicide may on some level want to decide the method and timing.  Those who “live dangerously” increase the probability that the how and when will occur dramatically and sooner rather than later.

Psychologically, the admission by scientists and mathematicians that life is unpredictable, that nature, the universe, and even electrons pulsate to their own rhythms–despite the rules mankind wants to impose on them–rattles the cages of the concrete thinkers who believe reality consists of rules.  It’s possible that the theologically inclined and the philosophers are more mentally nimble with respect to probabilities, possibilities, and the unexpected.  The people who believe miracles are possible, that prayer works, that all is not what it seems, might delight in the idea of a probable universe of infinite variability.

It seems science has painted itself into a corner by creating a construct that has little relevance to life.  Will Durant, in The Story of Philosophy, looks to Francis Bacon–who wanted to compile all human knowledge and saw science as the guiding light of the future–as a kind of messenger.  Durant praises Bacon’s vision but notes Bacon was not familiar with the scientists of his own time, like Kepler and Harvey.  His enthusiasm was ideological, not practical.  But Durant also suggests the idea of world rule by scientists instead of politicians is laudable.  According to me, Durant is idealistic himself.  Scientists in politics become politicians, as indicated by the current controversy over global warming or “climate change.”  According to the media-digested and regurgitated “statistics” or “evidence,” scientists speak with one voice.  Dissenters are ignored, discredited, or otherwise cast into the dustbin of irrational heretics.

My point, which I keep skirting, is that today’s science is not my version of “science,” so maybe I should respect Socrates’ insistence on strict definitions.  In our world, scientists as a group are accorded the awe and respect formerly reserved for gods, but who can define what “science” or “a scientist” is?

The Latin root for “science,” is “sciere,” or “to know,” so it presumes nothing about forecasts.  Aristotle made observations and used inductive reasoning to synthesize what he observed into an organized framework.

My dictionary says science is “knowledge obtained by study and practice.”  It also refers to systematized knowledge and classification.  By that definition, any organized body of knowledge could be a “science.”  The dictionary refers to the “science of boxing.”

Also by that definition, anyone who studies and uses a certain skill or set of skills can call himself a scientist.  The science of carpentry, the science of advertising, and of course, political science.  The “scientific method” need not apply.

My definition starts with the scientific method, which uses deductive reasoning to establish a hypothesis and seek evidence pro and con.  To establish cause and effect in a controlled experiment, the variables must be artificially reduced to one.  There is a “study” group and a “control” group, with the numbers in each group great enough to produce statistically significant differences between the groups, should differences exist.  So “scientific research,” at least in modern terms, only seeks to predict probabilities, like quantum physics does.

I have oft-expressed doubts about whether the scientific method is valid for obtaining knowledge that can be generalized outside the experiment, but this is the method used in medical research, at least.  The idea of causation, the motivation to prove or disprove a hypothesis, and the factors that might affect the outcome are arbitrarily chosen.

Does any effect have a single cause?  Here I have perhaps a broader view than most, yet I’m subject to “because” thinking, myself.  I figure it’s so much a part of traditional Western thought processes that many are not even aware of its subliminal effect on how we structure reality.  As I read the ideas of philosophers through time, I see they, too, sought causes for the effects they observed.  This correlated with beliefs in God, or nature worship, or superstitions and mythology.  The idea of an unseen hand directing the forces of nature and thereby life on earth, reveals the human desire to understand.

Quantum mechanics and the Oriental pattern-based approach to understanding shakes the cause-and-effect pedestal.  It no longer reigns absolute in a world in which correlations are given at least as much intellectual weight as presumed causes.

I wonder about such taken-for-granted notions as the speed of light.  How do they know it travels at 186,000 miles/second?  Who discovered that and how was it proved?  How does anyone know that’s the absolute speed limit of the cosmos?

It’s hard to know where hypothesis or mathematical conjecture ends and proof or answers begin.  So much is assumed to be true, until it no longer is, like the world is flat or evolution is a fact.

Are concepts of space and time even legitimate when considering the scope of the universe?  I wonder if any answer will satisfy the questioners.  Aren’t answers just the flip sides of the next questions, or series of questions?

Another serious limitation of the scientific method, especially as it’s applied to natural phenomena or human activity, is that you can’t know what might have been.  There are no alternative scenarios with which to judge and compare.  This is my dilemma with historical trends and concepts like man-made climate change.

Ex-post facto justification for historical events—like dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan—rely on the propaganda generated by “our side” about what might have happened instead.  “The Japanese would never have capitulated,” or “We saved thousands of American lives” are excuses I’ve heard numerous times.  Fact is, nobody knows what might have happened.  It is not given to us to know the results of unrealized action.

The disconnect between science and life also bugs me.  Thomas Hobbes tried to apply scientific principles to human behavior for a model of government.  I suppose the “behavioral sciences” also strive to fit human behavior into scientific models.  This seems backwards.  The deductive method tries to exclude too much and risks being blind-sided by factors it chooses not to see.

My study of astrology made me wary of predictions long ago.  People want and crave predictions, but “good” or “bad” forecasts both put binders on the future and restrict imagination regarding alternative possibilities.  “Science” might be more useful to humanity by broadcasting its knowledge of the present and leaving predictions to the fortune tellers.

Predicting Uncertainty

 

 

bksisaacson2007

It’s impossible to know what might have been.  It’s just as impossible to know what lies ahead.  I just finished reading a biography of Albert Einstein (Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson, 2007).  It struck me that Einstein wanted to believe in a universe that could be predicted, if only we knew the hidden laws.  He thus believed in predestination, insisting that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”  He wanted to believe in strict cause and effect.

In this regard, Einstein ran up against, and spent the latter part of his life, trying to refute the implications of his own 1905 paper on the “photoelectric effect” which won the Nobel Prize in 1922.  He relied on the work of Max Planck, who in 1900 had come up with an equation that described the curve of radiation wavelengths at each temperature.  This required the use of a constant (now called Planck’s constant) that accounted for the sudden shift in wavelengths of light emitted by metal at different temperatures.  Planck believed these “quanta” were not properties of the light itself, but of the interaction between matter and light.  It was Einstein who suggested these “quanta” were properties of the light itself.  Thus he and Planck laid the foundations for quantum mechanics, but neither was comfortable with the fact that their ideas undermined the Newtonian concepts of strict causality and certainty they cherished.

Based on these beginnings, the rising physicists of “quantum mechanics,” like Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, recognizing that light demonstrated the dualistic qualities of particles or waves, refuted age old ideas of an objective reality, existing apart from the observer.  They began to think in terms of probabilities.  Heisenberg developed his “uncertainty principle” in 1927.  This asserted that it is impossible to know the exact position and momentum of a particle, such as an electron, at the same time.  Knowing the precise location precludes certain knowledge of the momentum, and vice versa.

Quantum mechanics expanded the world of physics far beyond Isaac Newton’s absolute, objective universe, based on observable laws. But throughout his life, Albert Einstein resisted the vagueness of non-absolutes, even though he made his own contributions to quantum physics.  Einstein’s stubborn desire for predictability, which is the ostensible goal of science, for some people, could not adapt to the uncertainty of probabilities.  As another early quantum physicist, Erwin Schrodinger, might explain, the wave function of probabilities exists until an actual event is observed, at which point the probability wave collapses and the probability of the event’s occurrence becomes 100%.  Linked with this is the idea that the observer cannot be objective but must be considered a participant in the event.

bkscapra1975

That the observer necessarily affects the experiment is an integral component of quantum physics, but the principle has more general implications, too.  Books like The Tao of Physics (Fritjof Capra, 1975), or The Dancing Wu Li Masters (Gary Zukav, 1979), describe how modern physics parallels the beliefs of Oriental mystics.  As noted in The Dancing Wu Li Masters, the Chinese term for “physics” is “wu li,” which means “patterns of organic energy.”  This relates to the pervasive quality of “qi,” sometimes described as “life force,” or “vital energy,” which is said to pervade the cosmos, including all matter and non-matter.  The idea of ‘qi” is ignored in Western thinking, as if life exists apart from science or medicine.

bkszukav1979

Western science presumes to disconnect life from the mechanical universe we imagine, but this is a relatively modern development.  Astronomy grew out of astrology and chemistry grew from alchemy, ancient belief systems that gave life to the heavens and to earthly minerals.  The search for cosmic laws or the language of the gods is as old as man’s awareness of the sun, moon, the planets and constellations, and their mysterious cycles.  All these have been used to make predictions.  The seer, the fortune teller, the prognosticator–these are as powerful as ever.  Modern superstition confers blessings on the predictors of weather, stock market, politics, or football games, as well as on the climate changers and the Apocalyptic soothsayers of the twenty-first century.

From a quantum mechanics point of view, however, it might be said that nothing can be predicted with certainty.  We only can assess probabilities and can’t know all the contingencies that affect events.  There is no objective reality, no ultimate outcome, no absolute end-point.  Time is endless.  There is only process, and no one knows where it will lead.  The possibilities are infinite.