Scientific Metaphysics & Uncertainty

There is, among a certain group of scientists, a shrill certitude about science which leads to overconfident proclamations on matters of philosophy (and by extension, religion). It is therefore refreshing to be reminded that many scientists have a different and more humble view. In this Scientific American interview with physicist George F.R. Ellis, he discusses Lawrence Krauss’ belief that physics has explained “why there is something rather than nothing.” Krauss’ metaphysical claim is, of course, much loved by New Atheists who believe that science has explained pretty much everything. Ellis, a giant in his field who co-authored The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time (1973) with Stephen Hawking, disagrees:

Krauss is presenting untested speculative theories of how things came into existence out of a pre-existing complex of entities, including variational principles, quantum field theory, specific symmetry groups, a bubbling vacuum, all the components of the standard model of particle physics, and so on. He does not explain in what way these entities could have pre-existed the coming into being of the universe, why they should have existed at all, or why they should have had the form they did.  And he gives no experimental or observational process whereby we could test these vivid speculations of the supposed universe-generation mechanism. How indeed can you test what existed before the universe existed? You can’t.

Thus what he is presenting is not tested science. It’s a philosophical speculation, which he apparently believes is so compelling he does not have to give any specification of evidence that would confirm it is true. Well, you can’t get any evidence about what existed before space and time came into being.  Above all he believes that these mathematically based speculations solve thousand year old philosophical conundrums, without seriously engaging those philosophical issues. The belief that all of reality can be fully comprehended in terms of physics and the equations of physics is a fantasy. As pointed out so well by Eddington in his Gifford lectures, they are partial and incomplete representations of physical, biological, psychological, and social reality.

And above all Krauss does not address why the laws of physics exist, why they have the form they have, or in what kind of manifestation they existed before the universe existed  (which he must believe if he believes they brought the universe into existence). Who or what dreamt up symmetry principles, Lagrangians, specific symmetry groups, gauge theories, and so on? He does not begin to answer these questions.

It’s very ironic when he says philosophy is bunk and then himself engages in this kind of attempt at philosophy. It seems that science education should include some basic modules on Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, and the other great philosophers, as well as writings of more recent philosophers such as Tim Maudlin and David Albert.

There are many unknowns and some things that may never be known. While some find this intolerable and feel a need to fill gaps with metaphysical assertions (which come in scientific and religious or mystical forms), I prefer the Lakota or wakan way, which strikes me as being methodologically scientific. By this understanding, some things will always be mysterious, paradoxical, inexplicable, and ambiguous. This should not bother us. Living with uncertainty is, in my estimation, far more invigorating than living with certitude.

At its best or in ideal methodological form, science is also about mystery, paradox, and uncertainty. This sense of science is beautifully expressed by physicist Carlo Rovelli in a recent piece for the New Republic:

Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking at the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain. In fact, not only is it not certain, but it’s the lack of certainty that grounds it. Scientific ideas are credible not because they are sure but because they’re the ones that have survived all the possible past critiques, and they’re the most credible because they were put on the table for everybody’s criticism.

The very expression “scientifically proven” is a contradiction in terms. There’s nothing that is scientifically proven. The core of science is the deep awareness that we have wrong ideas, we have prejudices. We have ingrained prejudices. In our conceptual structure for grasping reality, there might be something not appropriate, something we may have to revise to understand better. So at any moment we have a vision of reality that is effective, it’s good, it’s the best we have found so far. It’s the most credible we have found so far; it’s mostly correct. But, at the same time, it’s not taken as certain, and any element of it is a priori open for revision.

Hear, hear! Rovelli also has some interesting things to say about “naive” scientists who think that philosophy is superfluous. These scientists of course have a head full of philosophy, much of it metaphysical, but they don’t recognize it as such. Unexamined assumptions often work this way, and in other contexts we call this lack of awareness what it is: ignorance.


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12 thoughts on “Scientific Metaphysics & Uncertainty

  1. Larry Stout

    Science presupposes philosophy, in fact. The fundamental philosophical tenet of science, in fact, is that anything posited by science must be (forever) prospectively falsifiable; furthermore, any evidence presented that indicates that a tenet is false is itself forever prospectively falsifiable. This plainly rules out any notion of certainty. This overarching circumstance has been succinctly and cogently stated in this way: “There is no such thing as knowledge, just belief.” (Sorry that I am unable to give credit with proper attribution here.)

    People may (and do) say, “But I am absolutely certain about at least some things [some of which they may mention].” However, anyone of moderate life experience and a decent memory will recall some instances of once “certain” personal beliefs being turned on their heads. And since no one can predict which of any remaining “certain” beliefs might eventually suffer the same fate, “certainty“ becomes an ill-defined probabilistic thing. But, nothing probabilistic is certain.

    People of all ages have considered that they pretty much have it all figured out. But they didn`t. And we don`t. The farther science explores and finds answers, the more questions are posed. As one astrophysicist has put, “The canvas keeps expanding.“

  2. Stewart Guthrie

    Brilliant, both of you. Thanks so much.

    Perhaps our present unawareness and devaluation of uncertainty spring partly from a few centuries of of progressivism, fueled by industrialism? In that progressivism the way forward, in knowledge especially, is on a firm base and leads onward and upward. (This recent and poorly-grounded optimism may also help keep us dozing as, pedal to the metal, we head for the ecological cliffs.) Let’s hear it for uncertainty.

    It’s the same, under-appreciated uncertainty that commonly leads us, as it does other animals, to bet on the most important possibility about the universe, i.e. that it’s alive, responsive and (humans assume) fair-minded.

    I think.

  3. Bob Wells

    Since pre-humans and humans first developed symbolic thought and language there has been a split between the symbolic and literal, the intuition and the reasoned; reaching it’s peak in the contrast of metaphysics and physics. An example is the astronomers of the day helping build the huge monoliths based on the seasons and solstices for the purpose of sacrifice to the gods.

    How can we explain the split of reason/science and intuition/faith throughout human history? I personally believe all you have to do is look at the split hemispheres of the human brain. Tremendously oversimplified one is given to intuition and faith and the other to reason and science. In some people one is dominate and the other weak, and in others vice-versa. How could human history not be filled with the conflict between the two?

    Like you, I am a believer in the Wakan way that simply shrugs off the seeming irreconcilable conflict. But I have endeavored to carry it to what I see as it’s logical conclusion that each must be embraced fully and with complete abandon–accepting what stands the test of time and honest examination and rejecting that which does not.

    To me, that is the true scientific method.


  4. Cris Post author

    Thanks Stewart. I too think that making good Pascalian-Bayesian bets is a sound or “adaptive” strategy. Animating the cosmos and modeling “nature” as a form or part of human society was a consistently good bet for those symboling-speaking humans who peopled nearly the entire world in the relatively short span of ~35,000 years.

    In terms of life and mammalian history, this kind of migratory dispersal and permanent colonization is unprecedented. Of course what came after, and is ominously rolling ecologically onward, is also unprecedented. It’s a prospective mess!

    Probabilistically speaking, I also have little doubt that material-technological advance, which is an undeniable product of applied sciences and industrial society, has given rise to a generalized (and often blind) faith in Progress. At some point, this fossil-fueled faith will falter and cause all certitude to come crashing down.

  5. Chris Kavanagh

    I agree with the majority of the sentiments in the quotes, especially the notion that we should be a bit more humble in making claims of something being “proven”, but I find some of the other content from the original interview/articles rather problematic.

    In Rovelli’s quote he mentions “The very expression “scientifically proven” is a contradiction in terms” but in the article he clearly acknowledges that there are findings which are so well established that it is practically impossible that they will ever be overturned. The earth being flat or the common ancestry of life on Earth would seem to fit in these categories. It is philosophically true to say they can never be entirely proven but it is also true that the weight of evidence for them is so great that they have been proven beyond all reasonable doubt. So to talk about things which are ‘scientifically proven’ does make sense, it just shouldn’t be used so liberally.

    More problematic however is Ellis’ interview. I don’t have the necessary physics expertise to judge the validity of his assertions about Krauss’ arguments but in the end that seems to be what they are assertions, for instance, I wonder if Krauss would concede that “he gives no experimental or observational process whereby we could test these vivid speculations of the supposed universe-generation mechanism.” It sounds like rhetoric and while I have more sympathy for Ellis’ perspective than his portrayal of Krauss, that is precisely why I am suspicious that he may not be giving the argument of Krauss, or others like him, a fair hearing. He also seems to make a spectacular leap into the age old error, repeated without fail in every era, of declaring all major discoveries complete and that now we are just filling in the details:

    “It’s rather like the situation as regards exploring the Earth: once upon a time we had only fragmentary knowledge of what is there. Then we obtained a global picture of the Earth’s surface, including detailed satellite images of the entire land mass. Once you have seen it all, you have seen it all; apart from finer and finer details, there is nothing more to find.”

    This is clearly wrong and it makes me wonder if his other pronouncements on the state of physics can be trusted. His endorsement of the anthropic principle as being more interesting than string theory or multiverse theory also seem indicative of a Christian bias but I may be projecting here.

  6. Cris Post author

    Chris, as you noted, I cherry-picked these quotes to make my particular point, and there are indeed some questionable items in both those links.

    I suspect that Ellis is indeed a Christian, but this doesn’t mean that we should not seriously evaluate the anthropic principle, even if it means we ultimately find it nonsensical or non-testable. The physics community jury is still out on that issue, though there seems to be a minor consensus against it. I don’t think there is any question that he is right about Krauss’ a priori metaphysical assumptions. I think most first year grad students in philosophy can identify those and call Krauss out with logical authority.

    In the Rovelli piece, he makes some questionable, if not mistaken, assertions about religion, but those weren’t to my point, so I ignored them.

  7. Chris Kavanagh

    I understood the motivation for your cherry picking (and fully endorse it) and was mainly commenting on my subsequent disappointment when I went to read the original articles not to criticise your post. I agree that Krauss, like Sam Harris, has clear metaphysical assumptions in his approach but I’m not sure I can accept Ellis’ case for how simply his case can be dismissed. I’m currently seeking some input from my physicist brother to get a better informed perspective; will report back if he reports anything insightful/inflammatory.

    I also don’t think we can dismiss the anthropic principle out of hand but it does seem to me akin to focusing on why you were specifically selected to receive a royal flush that enabled you to win a poker game. I do not doubt Ellis understands the relevant complexities much better than me, but I equally don’t doubt that his perspective is influenced by philosophical and religious biases.

  8. Chris Eilers

    I agree that Ellis appears to be correct about Krauss’s a priori metaphysical assumptions. However, it seems to me that Ellis shares a metaphysical assumption with Krauss that is highly questionable. Ellis asserts that “you can’t get any evidence about what existed before space and time came into being”, which implies that space and time did indeed come into being at the Big Bang. This seems to be a metaphysical assumption that is shared by many physicists, although it doesn’t appear to be shared by others, e.g., Sean Carroll, and I don’t personally see any logical justification for this assumption.

    Perhaps space and time did come into being at the Big Bang insofar as they are accessible to empirical examination, but the limit of empirical examination at any point of time — or some absolute limit of empirical examination — doesn’t necessarily constitute the limit of reality (as Carroll argued via the link from the Scientific American interview).

    I agree with Chris Kavanagh that the expression ‘scientifically proven’ can make sense on a practical level as long as it’s not taken as the expression of any kind of metaphysical certitude, As far as I can see, it’s on the basis of this practical level that Krauss asserts that something can come from nothing — or at least from the “nothingness” of the quantum field, which appears to be able to generate “something”. However, I depart from Krauss’s view at the point where — if my recollection is correct — he dismisses what he calls the abstract, meaningless philosopher’s nothingness.

    It seems to me that Ellis raises perfectly reasonable questions, such as “Why does the quantum field exist at all?” and “Why does it take the form that it does?” (which — for some people — are answered by their metaphysical assumption of an all-pervading intelligence). However, I’d raise additional questions: “Are such questions inherently answerable anyway — whether practically or metaphysically?” and “Given the evolutionary limitations that appear to be implicit in the development of the human brain, is the human mind capable of visualising a coherent answer to them, even if they are, in principle, answerable?”.

    Of course, my second question assumes that the human mind solely arises from the human brain via the process of natural selection, and I’m strongly inclined to assume this on the practical level, although not with any metaphysical certitude. : -)

  9. Larry Stoutl

    From another perspective:

    Make a list of several things that you “know” to be “absolutely certain”. Then tack on some things about which you are “very nearly certain”, and some about which you are “rather confident”.

    Is there not a gray continuum, not only between the categories “rather confident” and “very nearly certain”, but also between the categories “very nearly certain” and “absolutely certain”. Are you able to draw a hard and fast, objective line between the latter two categories? If such a boundary cannot be rationally and objectively drawn, then by implication uncertainty extends to an indeterminate distance into the perceived category of certainty, in effect making the entire array of beliefs comprehensively a gray scale of uncertainty.

  10. Larry Stout

    Elsewhere I have maintained that there are as many different perceptions of the world as there are people, and, more particularly, that there are as many different personal conceptions of any nominally discrete religion as there are nominal adherents to that religion. Today I find, unsurprisingly, that others have had a similar view. Quoting within quotes now from “Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton”, by Edward Rice (p. 472):

    “…a missionary with twenty years’ experience [in Africa] who had worked diligently to collect tradition and religious beliefs had to admit that he had found that ‘no two men thought alike upon any single subject’….”

  11. Larry Stout

    @Stewart Guthrie

    “It’s the same, under-appreciated uncertainty that commonly leads us, as it does other animals, to bet on the most important possibility about the universe, i.e. that it’s alive, responsive and (humans assume) fair-minded.”

    Confusing what’s merely plausible with what’s truly possible is a fundamental and nearly universal flaw in reasoning. The only evidence that something was indeed possible is its existence or occurrence, which, outside the realm of Newton-Einstein physics on an earthly scale, cannot be confidently predicted. There is, of course, no consensus about what’s plausible (i.e., imaginable); there are no rational bounds.

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