Philosophy and Science

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Philosophy can be described, not altogether accurately, as the things that science can’t address. With the modern urge to compartmentalise things, we designate some problems as philosophy and science, and conveniently ignore the fuzzy boundary between the two disciplines.

The ancient Greek philosophers didn’t appear to distinguish much between philosophy and science as such, and the term “Natural Philosophy” described the whole field before the advent of science. The Scientific Revolution of Newton, Leibniz and the rest had the effect of splitting natural philosophy into science and philosophy.

Statue of Isaac Newton at the Oxford Universit...
Statue of Isaac Newton at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Note apple. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Science is (theoretically at least) build on observations. You can’t seriously believe a theory that contradicts the facts, although there is a get-out clause. You can believe such a theory if you have an explanation as to why it doesn’t fit the facts, which amounts to having an extended theory that includes a bit that contains the explanation for the discrepancy.

Philosophy however, is intended to go beyond the facts. Way beyond the facts. Philosophy asks question for example about the scientific method and why it works, and why it works so well. It asks why things are the way they are and other so called “deep” questions.

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One of the questions that Greek philosopher/scientists considered was what everything is made of. Some of them thought that it was made up four elements and some people still do. Democritus had a theory that everything was made up of small indivisible particles, and this atomic theory is a very good explanation of the way things work at a chemical level.

Democritus and his fellow philosopher/scientists had, it is true, some evidence to go and to be fair so did those who preferred the four elements theory, but the idea was more philosophical in nature rather than scientific, I feel. While it was evident that while many substances could be broken down into their components by chemical method, some could not.

Antoine Lavoisier developed the theory of comb...
Antoine Lavoisier developed the theory of combustion as a chemical reaction with oxygen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So Democritus would have looked at a lump of sulphur, for example, and considered it to be made up of many atoms of sulphur. The competing theory of the four elements however can’t easily explain the irreducible nature of sulphur.

My point here is that while these theories explained some of the properties of matter, the early philosopher/scientists were not too interested in experimentation, so these theories remained philosophical theories. It was not until the Scientific Revolution arrived that these theories were actually tested, albeit indirectly and the science of chemistry took off.

Model for the Three Superior Planets and Venus...
Model for the Three Superior Planets and Venus from Georg von Peuerbach, Theoricae novae planetarum. Image enhanced for legibility. The abbreviations in the center of the diagram read: C[entrum] æquantis (Center of the equant) C[entrum] deferentis (Center of the deferent) C[entrum] mundi (Center of the world) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Before that, chemical knowledge was very run by recipes and instructions. Once scientists realised the implications of atomic theory, they could predict chemical reactions and even weigh atoms, or at least assign masses to atoms, and atomic theory moved from philosophy to science.

That’s not such a big change as you might think. Philosophy says “I’ve got some vague ideas about atoms”. Science says “Based on observations, your theory seems good and I can express your vague ideas more concretely in these equations. Things behave as if real atoms exist and that they behave that way”. Science cannot say that things really are that way, or that atoms really exist as such.

English: Adenine_chemical_structure + atoms nu...
English: Adenine_chemical_structure + atoms numbers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Indeed, when scientists took a closer look at these atom things they found some issues. For instance the (relative) masses of the atoms are mostly pretty close to integers. Hydrogen’s mass is about 1, Helium’s is about 4, and Lithium’s is about 7. So far so tidy. But Chlorine’s mass is measured as not being far from 35.5.

This can be resolved if atoms contain constituent particles which cannot be added or removed by chemical reactions. A Chlorine atom behaves as if it were made up of 17 positive particles and 18 or 19 uncharged particles of more or less the same mass. If you measure the average mass of a bunch of Chlorine atoms, it will come out at 35.5 (ish). Problem solved.

English: Chlorine gas
English: Chlorine gas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Except that it has not been solved. Democritus’s atoms (it means “indivisibles”) are made up of something else. The philosophical problem is still there. If atoms are not indivisible, what are their component particles made of? The current answer seems to be that they are made of little twists of energy and probability. I wouldn’t put money on that being the absolute last word on it though. Some people think that they are made up of vibrating strings.

All through history philosophy has been raising issues without any regard for whether or not the issues can be solved, or even put to the test. Science has been taking issues at the edges of philosophy and bringing some light to them. Philosophy has been taking issues at the edge of science and conjecturing on them. Often such conjectures are taken back by science and moulded into theory again. Very often the philosophers who conjecture are the scientists who theorise, as in famous scientists like Einstein, Schroedinger and Hawking.

:The Black Hole, Los Alamos
:The Black Hole, Los Alamos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The end result is that the realm of philosophy is reduced somewhat in some places and the realm of science is expanded to cover those areas. But the expansion of science suggests new areas for philosophy. To explain some of the features of quantum mechanics some people suggest that there are many “worlds” or universes rather than just the one familiar to us.

This is really in the realm of philosophy as it is, as yet, unsupported by any evidence (that I know of, anyway). There are philosophers/scientists on both sides of the argument so the issue is nowhere near settled and the “many worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics is only one of many interpretations. The problem is that quantum mechanics is not intuitively understandable.

Diagram of one interpretation of the Nine Worl...
Diagram of one interpretation of the Nine Worlds of Norse Mythology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “many worlds interpretation” at least so far the Wikipedia article goes, views reality as a many branched tree. This seems unlikely as probabilities are rarely as binary as a branched tree. Probability is a continuum, like space or time, and it is likely that any event is represented on a dimension of space, time, and probability.

I don’t know if such a possibility makes sense in terms of the equations, so that means that I am practising philosophy and not science! Nevertheless, I like the idea.

Displacement of a continuum body, from a refer...
Displacement of a continuum body, from a reference configuration to the current configuration. Continuum mechanics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



English: The Clump looking from the Redhouse
English: The Clump looking from the Redhouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Where ever one looks, things mostly seem to be in lumps or clumps of matter. We live on a lump of matter, one of a number of lumps of matter orbiting an even bigger lump of matter. We look into the sky when the bigger lump of matter is conveniently on the other side of our lump of matter and we see evidence of other lumps of matter similar to the lump of matter that our lump of matter orbits.

We see stars, in short, which poetically speaking float in a void empty of matter. We can see that these stars are not evenly distributed and that they gather together in clumps which we call galaxies. Actually stars seem to clump together in smaller clumps such as the Local Cluster of a dozen or so stars, and most galaxies have arms or other features that show structure at all levels.

Ancient Galaxy Cluster Still Producing Stars
Ancient Galaxy Cluster Still Producing Stars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The galaxies, which we can see between the much closer stars of our own galaxy, also appear to be clustered together in clumps, and the clumps seem to be clumped together. Of course, the ultimate clump is the Universe itself, but at all levels the Universe appears to have structure, to be organised, to be formed of lumps and clumps, variously shaped into loops, whorls, sheets, arms, rings, bubbles, and so on.

OK, but in the other direction, towards the smaller rather than the larger, our planet has various systems, weather, orogenic, natural, social and evolutionary. All sorts of systems at all levels, from global scope to the scope of the smallest element.

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In other personal worlds, below the level our interactions with our families, we have all the systems that make up our own bodies. The system that circulates our blood, the system that processes our food, the system that maintains our multiple systems in a state homeostasis.

That is, not a steady state, but a state where all the individual systems self-adjust so that the larger system does not descend into a state of chaos, leading to a disruption of the larger whole. Death.

The main pathways of metabolism in humans, sho...
The main pathways of metabolism in humans, showing all metabolites that account for >1% of an excreted dose. ;Legend PNU-142300, accounts for ~10% of excreted dose at PNU-142586, accounts for ~45% of excreted dose at steady state PNU-173558, accounts for ~3.3% of excreted dose at steady state (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By and large most systems in our environment are made up of molecules, which are in turn made up of atoms. Atoms are a convenient stopping point on the scale from very large to very small. They are pretty “well defined”, in that they are a very strong concept.

Atoms are rarely found solo. They are sociable critters. They form relationships with other atoms, but some atoms are more sociable than others, forming multiple bonds with other atoms. Some are more promiscuous than others, changing partners frequently.

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These relationships are called molecules, and range from simple to complex, containing from two or three atoms, to millions of atoms. The really large molecules can be broken down to smaller sub-molecules which are linked repeatedly to make up the complex molecules.

To rise higher up the scale for a moment, these molecules, large and small are organised into cells, which are essentially factories for making identical or nearly identical copies of themselves. The differences are necessary to make cells into muscles or organs and other functional features, and cells that make bones and sinews and other structural parts of a body.

A section of DNA; the sequence of the plate-li...
A section of DNA; the sequence of the plate-like units (nucleotides) in the center carries information. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I said, atoms are a convenient stopping point. Every atom of an element is identical at least in its base state. It may lose or gain electrons in a “relationship” or molecule, but basically it is the same as any other element of the same sort.

Each atom consists of a nucleus and surrounding electrons, a model which some people liken to a solar system. There are similarities, but there are also differences (which I won’t go into in this post). The nucleus consists a mix of protons and neutrons. While the number neutrons may vary, they don’t significantly affect the chemical properties of the atom, which makes all atoms of an element effectively the same.

An early, outdated representation of an atom, ...
An early, outdated representation of an atom, with nucleus and electrons described as well-localized particles on well-localized orbits. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Each component of an atom is made up of smaller particles called “elementary” particles, although they may not be fundamentally elementary. At this level we reach the blurry level of quantum physics where a particle has an imprecise definition and an imprecise location in macroscopic terms.

Having travelled from the largest to the smallest, I’m now going to talk mathematics. I’ll link back to physics at the end.

Nucleus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are all familiar with counting. One, two, three and so on. These concepts are the atoms of the mathematical world. They can be built up into complex structures, much like atoms can be built into molecules, organelles, cells, tissues and organs. (The analogy is far from perfect. I can think of several ways that it breaks down).

Below the “atomic” level of the integers is the “elementary” level of the rational numbers, what most people would recognise as fractions. Interestingly between any two rational numbers, you can find other rational numbers. These are very roughly equivalent to the elementary particles. Very roughly.

Half of the Hadron Calorimeter
Half of the Hadron Calorimeter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One might think that these would exhaust the list of types of numbers, but below (in a sense) the rational numbers is the level of the real numbers. While many of the real numbers are also rational numbers, the majority of the real numbers ate not rational numbers.

The level of the real numbers is also known as the level of the continuum. A continuum implies a line has no gaps, as in a line drawn with a pencil. If the line is made up of dots, no matter how small, it doesn’t represent a continuum.

Qunatum dots delivered by ccp
Qunatum dots delivered by ccp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A line made up of atoms is not a continuum, nor is a line of elementary particles. While scientists have found ever more fundamental particles, the line has apparently ended with quarks. Quantum physics seems to indicate that nature, at the lowest level, is discrete, or, to loop back to the start of this post, lumpy. There doesn’t seem to be a level of the continuum in nature.

That leaves us with two options. Either there is no level of the continuum in nature and nature is fundamentally lumpy, or the apparent indication of quantum physics that nature is lumpy is wrong.

Pineapple Lumps (240g size)
Pineapple Lumps (240g size) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to believe that a lumpy universe would permit the concept of the continuum. If the nature of things is discrete, it’s hard to see how one could consider a smooth continuous thing. It’s like considering chess, which fundamentally defines a discontinuous world, where a playing piece is in a particular square and a square contains a playing piece or not.

It’s a weak argument, but the fact that we can conceive the concept of a continuum hints that the universe may be fundamentally continuous, in spite of quantum physics’ indications that it is not continuous.

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