Addiction to Prediction

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            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 often 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 both “good” or “bad” forecasts 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.

 

 

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