Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Don Matesz and Platonic Reality--In Defense of Hard Science

Don over at Primal Wisdom recently argued that "Western science" and shamanism are equally valid  paradigms. Don raises a lot of interesting points, and I happen to disagree with all of them.

Reality is Not Relative

First he argues that there is no absolute (or Platonic) reality.
I would argue that we have no reason to put any experience in the category 'unreal.'  If you experience it, it is a part of reality.  This is true whether you experience it in a 'normal' physiological state, or an 'abnormal' physiological state.  We have no evidence showing that what is 'normal' is more real than what is 'abnormal.'  Whether any individual can discern meaning in any particular 'abnormal' percept depends on her conceptual framework.  
I believe that there is an independent reality that exists no matter how we perceive it. If a tree falls in the forest, it doesn't matter if anyone hears it or not, or whether they watch it fall while 'shrooming their asses off.
We have no evidence showing us that any particular perceptual apparatus (say, human) is more accurately tuned to reality than any other (say, cat), or that only one particular state of the human apparatus (rested, tired, fed, unfed, awake, dreaming, without drugs, with drugs) provides the only correct information about reality.  Our knowledge is inevitably conditioned by the limits of our perceptual apparatus.
There is plenty of evidence showing that some mental states are more accurately tuned to reality than others. People are much better at driving while awake and not under the influence of psychoactive drugs. Is the ability to drive an accurate measure of the ability to assess reality? Yes it is. Drive off a cliff, whether awake or not and you will die in a fiery ball of death (at least according to every action movie I've ever seen). Dreams and psychoactive visions can lead to creative insights and help with lateral thinking, (Kekulé dreaming about the structure of benzene, for instance), but that doesn't make them real.

There is No Magic Line Separating Empirical From Theoretical

Don tries to create an imaginary divide between things we can see and touch, the perceptual (or empirical), and  everything else, what he labels the theoretical:
We have two basic types of concepts:  empirical and theoretical.  Empirical concepts refer to entities that we experience through the five senses, such as colors, textures, velocity, mass, direction, and so on. 

These entities are not self-explanatory; if they were, we would not do science to create explanations.

In its attempt to explain phenomena (perceptual data), the mind generates a class of entities called theoretical entities.  
We don't need science to create explanations, actually. We do it all the time, and probably have been doing so for millions of years. In the middle ages peasants would have "explained" the death of their cow with witchcraft.

Creating explanations (or heuristics) is a natural and generally useful thing (not so much for witches and other scapegoats). I'm sure it helped hunter-gatherers to survive and process the world around them. The main difference between science and a hunter-gatherer's heuristics is that the scientific method is a useful process to help humans overcome the many handicaps we have in creating explanations such as selection bias, laziness, lack of information, etc.

Newton Did Not "Invent" Gravity

To illustrate his point, Don talks about gravity:
Gravity is an example of a theoretical entity invented by Isaac Newton to explain the universally observed fact that objects will drop to the earth if released into free fall from a position above the earth.

It is of utmost importance to realize that Newton did not discover gravity while rummaging around the countryside looking for a 'force' to explain why things fall to the earth.  You can't open the earth and find gravity there.  You can't put a piece of gravity on your table. Gravity is an idea, not a physical entity.  Newton did not discover gravity, he invented it. 
Actually, what Newton did was to mathematically describe gravity, most especially noting that it is proportional to the distance squared.

To say that Newton invented gravity is no different than saying Galileo invented gravity when he figured out that all object objects fall at the same rate in a vacuum, regardless of mass. They both helped to correctly describe gravity.

"You can't put a piece of gravity on your table." Your table is a piece of gravity. 

Germ theory predated the actual ability to see germs, and Semmelweis was ridiculed by his colleges and his ideas ignored. Nowadays, we can take really cool pictures of lethal viruses with electron microscopes. At what point did the "theoretical" idea of germs turn into the "perceptual" fact that we can see and photograph them? Or maybe viruses and bacteria are still just inventions of people like Semmelweis and Pasteur.

Einstein Did Not Discredit Newton

Newton was famously puzzled by the problem of action at a distance, writing in a letter:
It is inconceivable that inanimate brute matter should, without the mediation of something else which is not material, operate upon and affect other matter without mutual contact…That gravity should be innate, inherent, and essential to matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum, without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in philosophical matters a competent faculty of thinking can ever fall into it. (source)
That problem was solved by Einstein who discovered (in the Platonic sense) that gravity is a property of space (or more properly space-time).

Don writes:
We measure mass in grams and acceleration in meters per second per second.  We can only know the magnitude of the force by measuring the mass and the rate of acceleration, then performing this calculation.

But then when you consult Einstein, gravitation is not a force anyway, it is a function of spacetime curvature.

So if gravity is like rocks, a purely physical phenomenon, how is it that Newton can say it is a force, and Einstein can say it is a curvature of space-time?  Think about it.  Did Einstein dispute Newton by producing a bit of gravity, and saying "Come on, just take a look, its obvious that gravity is a curvature of spacetime.  How could you have ever believed that it was a force?"
What Newton did was to accurately describe gravity. What Einstein did was to refine that description. Newton's description is quite accurate, Einstein's is more accurate. The alleged smoking gun that a force was suddenly transformed into a physical phenomena like a rock is a chimera (or a psychoactively induced "reality").

Relativity made some testable predictions. Most famously that if gravity was a property of the curvature of space then the path of photons (which are massless) ought to be effected. This was borne out by observation. Later such things as time dilation were measured with atomic clocks on airplanes.
The perceptive reader will realize that everything I say here about gravity applies to all forces invoked in modern science.

For an example relevant to the field of biology, including nutrition, it also applies to the concept of energy.   Like gravity, energy has no shape, color, sound, odor, or texture.  If you think otherwise, I invite you to show me a bit of energy.
We are back to the show-me argument. I, for one, do think otherwise, and I invite Don to explain that big yellow ball in the sky. Photons don't have mass, or smell, that's true, but they do have momentum (strangely enough), and they definitely have color (the visible ones, at least).
Few scientists question the very foundational concepts of the science in which they operate.  Most accept the foundational ideas like gravity and energy and use them to conduct 'normal' science.  Only now and then do we see some unusual individual (Newton, Einstein, Darwin, etc.) who questions the foundational concepts of any particular scientific enterprise (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) and revises old concepts or creates new concepts to organize and explain the data in a new fashion.

In fact, in order to pursue conventional Western science one has to accept gravity as a given.  If you start to question whether gravity exists or causes the convergence of matter, you are no longer practicing Western science, you are undertaking a revision of Western science.  And to take this position, you would have to be looking at Western science as just one of many possible ways of understanding how things work, not accepting it as 'the way things REALLY work.'
Underneath this type of argument against "Western science" is always the implicit double standard. How many shamans or acupuncturists question the framework in which they operate? How long would I last as an apprentice homeopathicist if I demanded proof?

Scientists question foundational concepts all the time. String theory attempts to explain some odd things about gravity, like why it is so frickin' weak compared to other forces. No one accepts gravity as a given, they accept it as something with a mountain of evidence behind it, that has been thought about and tested quite a bit.

None of these genius innovators Don mentions (Newton, Einstein, Darwin, etc.) worked in a vacuum. Where would Einstein have been without the Michaelson-Morley experiment? Newton and Leibnez were co-inventors of calculus, and Darwin was frightened into publishing upon seeing similar ideas from Alfred Russel Wallace.

Physics and Shamanism Are Not Equivalent

We now come to Don's concluding argument, a reiteration of the idea that all paradigms have equal merit but that "Western science" is probably less equal, because they its practitioners are apparently less open-minded.
Unfortunately, many people, including many scientists are not aware of the fact that modern science is full of  theoretical entities, like gravity, quarks, positive charges, negative charges, electromagnetic waves, energy, and so on.  These people assume that quarks exist the same way that rocks exist, and will summarily dismiss as absurd any theoretical entity proposed by alternative conceptual frameworks.
Again, all these "theoretical entities" seem to rest on the fact that they can't be presented in a box. And again, Don doesn't list formerly theoretical entities that now can be displayed like viruses and DNA.
As an example, shamans the world over use the concept of nature spirits to explain certain phenomena.  People unaware of the difference between perceptual entities and theoretical entities will often dismiss the idea of spirits on the basis that "Western science has searched far and wide and never discovered any nature spirits."  

The problem here is that nature spirits are theoretical entities.  You don't confirm or disconfirm their existence by rummaging around the forest, just as you can't confirm or disconfirm the existence of gravity by looking for it in the English countryside.
Now we come to the heart of the matter. Nature spirits are the same thing as gravity because they are both "theoretical". As I pointed out, Newton didn't look for the existence of gravity any more than Galileo or Aristotle. What they all attempted to do was accurately describe gravity. People already knew about things falling down.
The concept of gravity is meaningless outside the context of the conceptual framework (Western science) to which it belongs; and the concept of nature spirits is meaningless outside the context of the conceptual framework (shamanism) to which it belongs. 

In the shamanistic conceptual framework, the concept of nature spirits serves as a key concept in explanations for certain types of phenomena, some of which are generated and perceived in 'normal' physiological states, and some of which are generated and perceived in experiments entailing 'altered' physiological states.

Both paradigms (and apparently any paradigm at all) are equivalent. But their ideas are only relevant inside their own conceptual framework! So General Relativity and wood nymphs are both equally valid depending on the paradigm one operates in.


"Western science", whatever that actually means, is easily attacked in its transparency by those without transparency. The point of these arguments and their proponents is to create an equivalency that simply doesn't exist. Intelligent Design is not equivalent to evolution, acupuncture is not equivalent to antibiotics and relativity is not equivalent to shamanism.

Note: this is not an attack on Don Matesz or his intellect, I read his blog for good reason. But I am very much opposed to this sort of relativism.

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