Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

I was just reading a book in which JRR Tolkien’s name cropped up, together with a few lines of his.

Although now long estranged,
Man is not lost or wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
And keeps the rags of lordship he once owned.

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
Through whom is splintered from a single White
To many hues, and endlessly combined
In living shapes that move from mind to mind.


We make still by the law in which we’re made

(JRR Tolkien)

These thoughts of his remind me of how far humanity has fallen in the last few hundred years, during which time so many people have been beguiled by the easy doctrines of physics (especially) that they have come to think of themselves as machines – biological machines, to be sure, but machines nevertheless.

Now it is true that there is much that is mechanical about a person – as a trip to the dentist will remind us ; but there is also so much more that is not mechanical.  For example, can consciousness be properly described in mechanical terms?  is love a mechanical process? is free will mechanical?

Tolkien here straightens our ideas, I think.


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There are few things more enlightening than to listen to what people say about themselves.  In most cases people are far too modest.

For example, there is a growing tendency in these modern times for people to think of themselves as essentially machines.  Some will openly declare as much ; while others speak of themselves as if they were but machines,- leaving that conclusion as a strong inference.  Ask someone how his eyesight works, and he is likely to reply that it is something like a video camera that registers whatever objects he happens to look at.  And his ears are like a tape recorder that registers whatever sounds happen to fall in range of hearing.

In other words, people see themselves as passive observers of the world ; the world does what it must, and the senses merely register and record what is going on.   But this way of thinking can have pernicious effects, which politicians and other clever people with ‘an agenda’ are not slow to take advantage of.

Also this way of thinking says that the world does what it likes to us ; and, being mere machines, all we can do is respond mechanically to what the world does.  Thus the world makes us what we are in the minutest details of thoughts, words and deeds.

So, we are just machines ; but the world also is just a machine, and so we are nothing more than cogs in its complex mechanism.  It is a world of causes and effects, and nothing more.  Whatever happens must happen ; and there could not have been an alternative, except by chance.

And yet, when people reflect more deeply on their relationship with the world, they are not convinced that everything is mere mechanism ; in particular, they have feelings that they themselves are more than just machines.  They feel that they have the will to act somewhat independently of what the world is doing ; they feel that they have the power of making real decisions ; they feel that they have the ability to perceive the world, and act upon it, in their own ways.

If it is true that we can perceive the world in our own way, then at least one interesting conclusion arises : that the world is becoming as we make it.

But, it will be objected, How can our perceptions of the world affect the world itself?  How can our consciousness (which is non-material) affect the world (which is material)? Surely consciousness and matter are different kinds of substance ; therefore, how can they affect each other?  How can they act and react upon each other?

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I am not sure why, but from an early age I have been curious about psychology – from even that time before I knew the word psychology.  Of course, each of us is an individual, but what really interests psychologists is those things we have in common.  Like it or not, there’s more to humanity than just individuals – there are types of individual.

I was thinking about this as I remembered a conversation that I shared some longish time ago.  It was one of those turning points in my life.  It’s a marvel how our lives are shaped by little things.  Or are they little?  Judge for yourself.

Thoughts which take strong materialist line have a funny way of turning out.  For example, it you say to a certan kind of physicist, “I see the light coming from that searchlight,” you are likely to find yourself drawn into a strange dialogue.  For the physicist, putting his authoritative scientific hat on, is bound to respond with, “No you don’t.”

“But I can see it!” you cry.
“It is important for you to remember that what you call light is, in fact, electromagnetic radiation.  It is a field of electricity and magnetism, both of which are invisible,”  he announces with an air of finality.
You overcome your diffidence in the face of such authority to venture, “Then what is that beam of light I see shining away from us up into the sky?”
“That is not a beam of light,” he replies with a hint of impatience.  “What is happening is that some of the invisible radiation is reflected off the particles of dust and moisture in the air.  This reflected radiation then enters your eyes, and your mistaken response is to say that you see light in the sky.  What you really mean to say is that the radiation has caused your brain to produce light in your conscious awareness.”

“So how can you prove that no light is coming from the searchlight,” you dare to ask.
“That’s easy,” he says.  “We could do an experiment. We could, of course fly to the Moon, where there is no atmosphere and no dust.  You would find there that, if you shone the searchlight slightly away from you, then you would see no beam of light coming from it, because there is no dust or moisture to reflect the radiation back into your eyes.”
“Thus demonstrating that the radiation itself is perfectly invisible?”
“Yes, quite.”

“So, generally speaking,” the physicist continues, “There is no light at all in the world around you.  It is all in your head.  Light is a phenomenon of psychology, not physics.”

Now I know it comes a surprise to many materialists that their doctrines lead to such a conclusion ; their instinct is first to deny it and then to find a way round it.  By extending the above experiment, it can be shown that the world around us has no colour, no sounds, no scents, no flavours and even no solidity of touch.  And there is no such thing as beauty either.  All such things are psychological, all experienced in consciousness and nowhere else.

It also comes as a surprise to many materialists that our ancestors certainly gave much thought to the appalling consequences of materialism.  A dark, drear, colourless, utterly neutral world of nature gave them no comfort at all.  And it went against their direct empirical experiences of living.

So, they came up with answers.  And, just to tease a little … you will find the OT fascinating.  😉

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The great Oracle at Delphi once told a young Athenian that Socrates was the wisest man in the world.  When the youth asked Socrates why this was, he replied, “I suppose it is because I know nothing, but I do have opinions on many things!”

We can see that Socrates was using the word knowledge in a special way here ; what he meant was that he had no certain knowledge of anything ; he did not know reality.  This kind of humility was thereafter a persistent character of most of the writings of learned people right through antiquity and up to the modern age.

Then something new happened.  First, we discovered (or invented perhaps) powerful mathematics ; then we invented what we now call the scientific method.  The mathematics enabled us to make statements about the material world that were more or less precise and in a way that had hardly been attempted previously, and the second enabled us to investigate the material world in a highly particular systematic way.

To begin with, these two aids to investigation allowed us to produce a vast amount of information about the world ; and then allowed us to use that information to manufacture new powerful technology – including the technology to make more powerful means of studying the world more closely.  By the end of the nineteenth century, we had a veritable explosion of information in physics and in its technological fruits.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that scientists of every stripe were eager to emulate the methods of the physicists

Now there was nothing wrong with this emulation and there still isn’t anything wrong with it as long as we remember that the methods of physics are directed at the material world ; particularly at the non-living world.

But man is a forgetful creature ; also much given to speculation, and easily deceived by appearances.  Thus it was that he forgot the original purpose of physics and the scientific method, and it was this forgetting that turned initial successes into a disaster.  For he began to see living things in purely physical concepts ; and, from there began to perceive living things as machines.  Biological machines.  Perhaps this new way of seeing things was epitomised by an enthusiastic late eighteenth century stock breeder ; he asked, “What is a sheep but a machine for turning grass into meat?”  Few people then imagined that Man would be characterised as a machine that happens to turn shepherd’s pie into thoughts.

But that is where we are today.  Man is a machine which is governed entirely and exclusively by the laws of physics.  Gone is the mind, gone is the psyche, gone free-will, gone is personal responsibility ; banished is the soul and the spirit together.  We are simply machines, assemblies of particles, at the mercy of our material environment (however you might try to dress it up in the exciting tales from quantum mechanics!).

But there is hope.  Physics as it is done today has almost exhausted itself grappling with the myths of the sub-particular world ; and, having led their colleagues astray, it will be the physicists who start breaking out of the prison they have made for us all.  This repentance began about a century ago with such luminaries as Rutherford and Planck, who sounded the warnings and offered the keys of the prison.

Was it not Rutherford who said, “Whether we like it or not, we live in a spiritual world.”  And was it not Planck who said, “Consciousness is everything.  Matter is derived from consciousness.”

But did their colleagues listen?  No.  For the physical sciences are easy to do ; no great wisdom is required.  And they are profitable ; research grants are readily forthcoming, if only for the sake of the saleable technology.

On the other hand, a science of humanity takes the harder road ; the road trodden by Socrates and most of his successors ; the road of modesty.

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Something to think about
Some strange ideas about human nature have emerged in recent years.  One such idea appears to be that humans have no control over their actions.

The world is made of particles
The argument for the idea runs like this.  The entire universe is composed of particles which are perfectly invisible to us ; but these particles assemble themselves in systematic ways to produce larger particles, such as molecules  ; and the larger particles arrange themselves in ever larger groups, until the largest of them are actually able to influence our sensory organs.  In other words, they become visible, audible, tangible and so on.

The world is determined by natural laws
This is not a particularly surprising model of what the world might be like.  We can imagine such things as rocks, puddles, mountains, rivers and so on being made of trillions of invisible particles, all arranging themselves according to what appear to be natural laws which decide on the shapes and sizes and masses of natural things.  In accordance with the natural laws, objects, such as the stones, puddles, mountains and oceans, etc., may only take on certain physical arrangements.  And the things themselves have no power to alter their physical arrangements.  A mountain cannot choose to grow either bigger or smaller, heavier or lighter, etc. ; nor can it decide where to place itself on the Earth’s surface.  This model of the physical world is easily imagined, so no surprises there.

Humans are no different to non-living things
When we come to living creatures such as people, we can certainly imagine the shape and size of a person being decided by the same natural laws that decide the shape and size of a pebble or a mountain.  We can just about imagine those same natural physical laws arranging the matter of our bodies so that we move about on the Earth’s surface.  We are able to imagine this because, if circumstances are right, even pebbles move about on the Earth’s surface – in high winds, for example.  The difference between a moving person and a moving pebble is that the person moves more elegantly and in a much more complex way.

All human behaviour is determined by impersonal natural forces
But now we begin to approach a puzzle.  The puzzle is this : a person will often move about without there being any external natural forces being applied to his body.  But pebbles, etc. do not.  Thus, the model seems to say, people move in that way in response to internal forces acting on the body.  But those forces are of exactly the same kind as the external forces that move pebbles ; indeed, those internal forces are dependent on external forces, in the form of the food we eat (so it is doubtful if they can really be called internal).

Humans have no personal control over their behaviour
And the puzzle deepens.  For this model of the world does not give the person any control over his movements ; all movement is governed by the natural laws which decide the way in which the particles of the body shall act.  So a person has no more control over his movements than does a cloud of dust being driven by the wind.  It’s just that his movements are more complex because his particles are more complex.

Humans are completely material and mechanical
In the new model of the world, there is no ‘essence’ to a human being ; no mind, no soul.  There are just material particles doing what particles do in accordance with the usual natural laws.  Thus there is no ‘person’ in control of the human’s body ; there is no transcendent ’soul’ which is in control of the body.  The model is completely material, mechanical and impersonal.

Humans are machines that have gone crazy
There are many surprises to be investigated in this model of the human being, if only because it is utterly unlike the models we have been used to.  One puzzle is that a completely material, mechanical and impersonal biological machine could ever have come up with the ideas of personality and free-will.  Surely, aren’t such ideas aberrations in the proper functioning of the machine?

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Man is a creature of habit.  If he did not have habits, he would need to spend a lot of time consciously thinking about what he has to do.  He would have to evaluate every thought before he spoke of it and before he acted upon it.  He would have to evaluate every course of action before committing himself to it.  Life would be tedious.  But a habit, an automatic response to a thought, saves much time and mental effort ; it is productive of swift action and the satisfaction that goes with it.

It is perhaps small wonder that the most successful people tend to be more bound to their habits than the less successful.  Men and women who act with the minimum of thinking are the ‘achievers’ in this world, and they are rewarded accordingly.  Those less given to habits are the ‘philosophical’ types ; interesting people, but not noted for making their mark in the world of action – the world of trade and industry.

Scientists, too, tend to be creatures of habit.  Once a method or a theorem has been accepted, it takes hold of the scientist’s thoughts and becomes difficult to change.  Not impossible, but difficult.  A method or a theorem is difficult to change because it is productive ; it is productive of further research and is productive of new technology.  In other words, it is productive of wealth and so is a powerful motivator.

But there are some risks attached to scientific habits.  Perhaps the most obvious risk is that they lead to a canalising of research ; the easier lines of investigation are chosen at the expense of the more difficult.  And these lines lead on to other lines.  And as long as these particular lines of research are productive of quick material gains, they are pursued ; science is literally paying for itself.  But only superstition can presume that the easier investigations will lead to greater truths.

But there is a more sinister risk.  The present scientific method was first applied to astronomy and then developed to aid physics.  It was developed and refined to study the inanimate world ; the world which was properly regarded as a mechanism ; i.e., a world where motion is key, and the motion determined by forces external to the body being moved.  All this makes sense in physics.

The method was so successful that scientists then applied it to living things.  Living things were thus classified as machines, which ‘worked’ entirely by forces acting upon them.  So productive was this method of study that many inventions were made to improve the performance of the living machines.  Gradually, almost without anyone noticing, the habit of thinking of living things as machines grew in man’s mind.

The habit grew until many of those of a scientific persuasion came to believe that living things were nothing but machines.  It is now taken for granted by many scientists that man himself is just a machine.

I wonder how many of those scientists have set their habit aside for a while to consider the consequences of it?  What is the future for humanity if we are simply machines, whose every thought and every word and every action is the result of the blind forces of nature acting our bodies?

Where now is the concept of Truth?  of Justice?  How are people to be held accountable for their actions?  On what grounds may one praise a useful machine?

What credit or criticism may one give to somebody’s opinion, if that opinion is nothing more than the result of impersonal natural forces acting on his or her body?

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I believe it was Poincare who said, “It is not necessary that a theorem be true, but it is necessary that it be beautiful.” At first sight this seems to be an odd thing to say ; for, surely, the whole practical value of a theorem lies, not in its appearances, but in its truth.

But perhaps his mind was working in a different mode from the practical ; for didn’t he also say that a scientist does not study nature in order to make use of it, but because it is merely beautiful. Also I am sure the idea would have crossed his mind that truth is an opinion ; and our opinions on what is true change over time. Sometime many years, or even centuries can lapse before a theorem (or, more strictly, a hypothesis) may be properly tested for truth. It will be remembered that Aristarchos of Samos argued the hypothesis of helio-centricity in the third century BC.

And then there is the principle of convention. For a theorem to be true, its rationale must be argued by agreed rules of reasoning ; and here, the rules also change over time. Pre-Socratic reasoning is very different from our own – as Socrates himself discovered at the cost of his life. Such reasoning is still current among many peoples, including modern people in the West.

On the other hand, nature does possess beauty, as poets, artists, scientists and people from all sides will testify. Therefore a beautiful theorem, provided it is reasonably grounded, will be very likely true, whether proofs be available or not.

But what makes a thing beautiful? And isn’t beauty also an opinion? Here we are on grounds that are similar to those occupied by reason ; grounds in which convention plays a major part. In very general terms, beauty is evidenced by such qualities as symmetry and proportionality – in such things as form and force, mass and motion, colour and sound.

And our ideas of beauty also change over time. The beauty of an ancient Egyptian portrait or statue does not quite match our own tastes ; and an Aztec painting is something of an acquired taste, too – as is a Salvador Dali portrait.

This raises the interesting question, Can an ugly theorem, that stands to reason alone, be accepted on the ground that it might one day be deemed beautiful?

From all this we can see why truth and beauty have always featured highly in our understanding of nature. And we notice that it is our understanding that we are considering – not that of animals or aliens.

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