Saturday, December 05, 2009

Sanity from Science

Tibor R. Machan

Despite its unabashed and relentless championing of ripping off taxpayers for any and every scientific or technological project, Science News is still mostly an educational publication, a little magazine that comes around with the most up to date news about what the various sciences have discovered lately. (I have been a reader for I cannot remember how long, even had some letters published in the magazine's pages. But recently I have been bothered by how eagerly the editor turns to government for funding science instead of relying on research and development money from the private sector.) Still, as I say, nothing else quite manages to make the various sciences so accessible to an amateur like me.

Furthermore, there is at times talk in the pages of Science News that warms the tabernacles of my heart. Take the following, for example, from December 17, 2009, issue:

"New observations establish a supercluster centered on the cluster CL0016+16 as the largest galactic congregation ever found, astronomers report in Astronomy & Astrophysics. The supercluster extends even farther than previously thought, and it’s drawing in more and more galaxies. CL0016+16 lies about 6.7 billion light-years away from Earth. That cluster was first observed in 1981, and later observations hinted that it might be just one of a cluster of clusters. Observations by David Koo of the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1996 pointed to a large structure extending from the main cluster.

“'There are many predictions for large-scale structure in the universe, but nobody has really confirmed that this large-scale cluster exists in the distant universe,' says Masayuki Tanaka from the European Southern Observatory, a coauthor of the new report. 'We actually see this massive structure in the distant universe. Not theory, not prediction — this is the real universe'.” [my emphasis]

Why would this be so gratifying? Because in the philosophy of science there has for a very long time been a movement according to which scientists do not make discoveries but, instead, produce inventions; the various items of the different sciences are said by some of the most prestigious philosophers of science to be no more than theoretical entities, which means, entities only in the collective mind of the scientific community. Philosophers such as Berkeley and Kant, as well as more recent ones like the recently deceased Paul Feyerabend, have been on the side of the devil, for my money, by proclaiming what is best described as the anti-realist conception of the objects of scientific study. Out of this inter-subjectivist movement have emerged some rather bizarre ideas, indeed. One that always gives me trouble is that there are multiple universes and that even possible universes are in some way just as real as is, well, the universe in which we live and have had our history evolve. (But "the universe" means just that, everything that is, so "other universes" is nonsense.)

Then there are some other philosophers of science who have claimed that logic has nothing to do with reality at all--the most famous of these was Columbia University's Ernest Nagel who in 1944 wrote the seminal paper, "Logic Without Ontology," that rejected any firm relationship between reality and logic, a view that rejected Aristotle's, that of the ancient philosopher most responsible for developing logic as a method for guiding us toward an understand of reality. (It does so, indeed, because its bases are the most fundamental laws of reality!)

The anti-realist movement in the philosophy of science hasn't managed to purge all realists, especially not among working scientists as distinct from philosophers of science. But even the working scientists have tended to follow the ideas of, for example, the late Thomas S. Kuhn whose book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962) made a huge splash and made the term "paradigm" part of both ordinary and technical English language. Kuhn went so far as to claim that scientists do not discover or know a world but create one each time a revolution occurs (such as Einstein's relativistic [which overthrew Newton's mechanistic] physics).

So, it is quite rewarding to read about a scientist who comes right out and talks about "the real universe." In my view this is the right way to understand the world and the more scientists who testify as did Masayuki Tanaka above, the more responsible and relevant will science be in all fields.

No comments: