Science: Of the universal & unrestricted or Of the contingent & restricted?

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Peter Atkins (science without limits) versus Mary Midgley (the limits of science)

Tara Shears (universal clarity) <--> Nancy Cartwright (contextual governance)

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Science Unlimited (Peter Atkins)

EXCERPT: Science is not the only way to ask questions about reality. But it is the only way to get reliable answers. [...] Other methods, non-scientific methods, of exploring reality are entertainments, distractions, but sometimes experimental fodder for the mill of science. Poetry, for example [...] is revealing about the psyche of its creators and its readers, but adds no insight. [...] Literature too is evidence about thought and perception [...] worthy of scientific investigation as a contribution to an understanding of consciousness. The visual arts [and musical perception's stimulation of emotions] are best regarded as specimens that when studied add to a scientific theory of aesthetics. [...] Religion, of course, is wholly useless [...]

Science is often accused of arrogance. Instead, humanity should glory in the realisation that [...] it has [...] a manner of answering all the real great questions relating to reality. [...] Science can even elucidate [...] the foundation of ethics. [...] In short, it looks for roots of good and evil in ethology, anthropology, and sociology [...]

There are, of course, deep and as yet unanswered questions [...] how did this universe came into existence? And: what is the nature of the consciousness [...] Science is edging towards answering them both [...] Perhaps deepest of all is why mathematics [...] works so well as a language for the description of the world. Mathematics, in fact, might be the ultimate reality....

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The Limits of Science (Mary Midgley)

EXCERPT: Physical science has [...] succeeded to the position of prime authority in our culture which used to be held by religious doctrine. It is regarded as something that has to be believed, and this has a disturbing effect on the way in which science itself is now regarded. Instead of seeing the physical sciences as [...] sources of knowledge about physical facts, we are now called on to revere them as the source of all our wisdom [...]

This is scientism, and it sets us something of a puzzle since there are many topics which we really want to understand [...] but about which the physical sciences don't tell us anything. Advocates of scientism tell us that this is only a temporary difficulty [...] This promise has been standing for the last fifty years [...] In fact, this whole reductive program [...] is not really science at all. It is [...] a vision [...] backed by confidence drawn from successes of quite different kinds. Not all questions are actually physical questions or can be provided with physical answers.

The attempt to use physical language everywhere is one of many bad ways out of the problem that was set by dualism. [...] in the 16th century [...] there were then only two sophisticated ways of thinking [...] As Newton put it, “Nature and Revelation were God's two books, given to us to study”. Since that time, however, [...] there is now no need to split the world into two kinds [...] of study so as to give only one of them the supremacy....

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Mathematics and the Universe (Tara Shears)

Just what is the world made of? [...] Our answer has developed as our knowledge progresses [...] to today’s view that the building blocks of creation are subatomic, fundamental particles. [...] But is this really the final answer? Is it possible that something deeper lies beyond our current understanding, perhaps something that shows that the fundamental fabric of the universe is not material at all?

Our current, best scientific view of the world is that it is at heart a very simple place. Look closely at anything in it, and you’ll see structure growing progressively simpler as you examine it at smaller and smaller scales. [...] you will see the fundamental particles that, collected together, form atoms and everything else. A few fundamental forces determine the behaviour of these subatomic particles and how they stick together. Everything is bathed in an energy field (the eponymous Higgs field), that governs how strong the forces are – a delicate balance that ensure atoms are stable and that our universe looks the way it does to us.

It sounds a nice idea, and possibly on a par with thinking that everything in the universe is just a figment of your imagination. But what distinguishes this viewpoint is the way it was arrived at – through the scientific method. [...] we use to test the predictions of our particle physics theory. This theory represents our best understanding. It is the only explanation we have that has passed each experimental test we’ve given it.

The theory is called the Standard Model precisely because of this ubiquitous success. As a theory it is compelling not just because of the continual reinforcement of experiment, but also because the universe it describes is [...] describing a landscape of mathematical, aesthetic beauty. The very neat way in which mathematics describes the universe in this theory has led some [...] to think that mathematics itself must be the fundamental reality of the universe. [...] But to me mathematics is a tool – and a good one because it has enabled us to express our understanding in a way that is unambiguous and universal.

That’s not to say that understanding is easy. It isn’t. The quantum subatomic world is horribly non-intuitive. My internal picture of a fundamental particle is something small round and coloured, but that’s only because the real thing, a local “excitation in the corresponding field”, localised according to a set of probabilities, is something for which I have no internal picture whatsoever. Despite this [...] these particles are physical. The reason that we claim this is that their behaviour is still described within our theory [...]

I know that science is a work in progress. The Standard Model is not a final theory and we certainly don’t have the last word on the underlying reality of the world. [...] there is the question of why the universe should be made of fundamental particles at all. [...] But what I do know is that we will find out more, as we explore more, as we construct experiments capable of producing the data that will rule in or out improvements and replacement explanations for the Standard Model, because this is how science works. The description of the universe in the theory that ultimately survives these tests is what will become our explanation of the material nature of the universe.

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Unnatural Laws (Nancy Cartwright)

EXCERPT: [...] we are all supposed to live in a world governed by eternal, all-encompassing laws, laws discovered by the experiments of physics and encoded in its mathematical equations. This 400-year-old image of the governance of nature is today being undermined by exciting new modes of understanding across the sciences, including physics and biology, as well as, perhaps less surprisingly, in the study of society. There is order visible in the world, and invisible. But if we trust to these new ways of understanding, this need not be order by universal law. It can be local, piecemeal, and contextual – much like the world as we encounter it.

[...] For centuries this everyday world was at odds with the scientific world governed through-and-through by immutable law. But many of the ways we do science today bring the scientific image into greater harmony with what we see every day: much of modern science understands and manipulates the world without resort to universal laws.

Consider biology [...] A close look at the methodologies employed, especially in evolutionary biology, suggests that rather than good old-fashioned ‘proper laws’, biology offers instead laws that emerge historically, laws that are contingent and laws that admit exceptions. [...]

Physics is no exception. Its very virtues get it into trouble. The terminology of physics is tightly controlled, which distinguishes it from disciplines that hardly count as science at all [...] There are rules in physics for how to use language [...] In most situations there are a number of factors affecting the outcome that we do not know how to describe using these regimented descriptions [...] These are not the kinds of situations where the laws of physics get their best purchase.

[...] the good confirmations of the laws of physics occur in the special situations where we can describe all the causes with proper physics concepts. That is the real content of the ceteris paribus clause: This law holds so long as all the factors that affect the behaviours under study can be described by proper physics concepts that have the kind of strict rules for their application that good, rigorous science demands; it holds in such specially structured environments – indeed these are the only environments where we can produce precise predictions. Whether there is (or is not) systematicity outside environments structured like this is speculation, well beyond the kind of rigorous testing that earns physics its kudos. So too is the assumption that all environments are secretly structured in the right way, even if we have not yet discovered it.

Laboratories are structured in the right way [...] So too are a great many naturally-occurring situations. The planetary system is so structured and seems to have little disturbance that cannot be subsumed under proper physics concepts. But most situations do not seem to be structured in the right way. Physics is above all an exact science. Its concepts must be precise, measurable and fit in exact mathematical laws. So they may not even in principle be able to describe every situation. Physics laws are thus ceteris paribus, and perhaps irredeemably so.

What then of the notion of eternal, universal law? To fit what happens in modern physics, biology and social science, as philosopher Sandra Mitchell proposes, the old dichotomy ‘law versus non-law’ or what is universal, exceptionless, immutable versus all the rest must give way to a sliding scale along a variety of dimensions...

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