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)



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I’m going to define technolust or technophilia as the almost uncontrollable urge to snap up the latest or most novel technical gadgets. I succumb to this disease frequently, although I do try to keep it under control. I do! Honestly!

I’ve been vaguely wondering about these selfie sticks, the ones where you stick your cell phone on the end of a pole and trigger it by using a bluetooth connection, so when I saw a bluetooth camera trigger in a local shop, I had to buy it. I had to buy it. I had no choice.

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Having got it home and played with it for a bit, I now have to find a use for the darn thing! I don’t particularly like selfies and you can only take so many of them, because essentially they are all the one picture with different backgrounds. You could essentially take one photograph against a “green screen” and chromakey in any background you desire.

My particular area of technolust is things related to or containing computer technology. It’s been with me all my life though I didn’t know it until I came across computer technology at home and at work. I had a Commodore 64 computer at home, and at work I worked on the old huge mainframes, mainly IBM ones. But it really blossomed when I came across mini computers, and the early PCs. I had one of the first portable PCs, like the one in the picture.

English: The IBM Portable PC 5155 model 68
English: The IBM Portable PC 5155 model 68 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One mainframe computer I worked on had 256kB of memory and we agonised over how we should divide the address space up between three or four “domains”. Another had a staggering 2MB of memory.

Then at the other end of the scale one PC we had we also upgraded to 2MB of memory, which came on a plugin card which was around 30 – 40 cms long and 10 – 15 cms high. We had to leave the top of the case off to use it!

English: Sun 2/50 1 MB Memory Expansion Board ...
English: Sun 2/50 1 MB Memory Expansion Board P/N 501-1020, with SCSI Controller P/N 501-1045 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not always physical things that trigger technolust or technophilia. Before all printers came with network connections they were connected (via a parallel cable usually) to a PC. It could then be shared to others over the network. HP produced a “JetDirect” device which connected the printer to the network either via a cable or a card inserted into the printer itself. I still remember the thrill that I got when I connected over the network to a JetDirect device (which is about the size of a small paperback book) using FTP as if it was a small computer in its own right, which in fact is what the device was.

{| cellspacing="0" style="min-w...
{| cellspacing=”0″ style=”min-width:40em; color:#000; background:#ddd; border:1px solid #bbb; margin:.1em;” class=”layouttemplate” | style=”width:1.2em;height:1.2em;padding:.2em” | 20px |link=|center | style=”font-size:.85em; padding:.2em; vertical-align:middle” |This file was uploaded with Commonist. |} Category:Uploaded with Commonist Deutsch: HP Druckserver Jetdirect 600N mit Ethernet und BNC für den Einbau in Druckern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve got altogether too many computer-related devices in the house. Some I use all the time and others are gathering dust. If I was truly obsessive I could fill the house with devices and possibly go broke, but I haven’t gone to those extremes. So I have a “server” and a “workstation”, and my wife has a laptop. Strictly speaking I have a laptop, but I don’t boot it up very often. It is my wife’s old laptop which I fixed and rebuilt.

Some time ago we got an iPad, which I found amazing – something the size of a magazine, which was able to do much of what the other more conventional computers were able to, and which was run by the touch of a finger (or two!). I also got an Android phone and I fell in love with the thing, so I had to have an Android tablet. Had to. No question!

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I love my Android tablet! It’s a rare day when I don’t use it two or three times and often it is more than that. I investigated programming for it, though I don’t have a “killer app”, so most of my programming efforts are uncompleted. I mostly use it for reading ebooks, getting the latest news and to a lesser extent for email and other online web browsing.

I also use it for games. When I go to bed I take the tablet with me and complete a couple of Sudoku puzzles or similar before I go to sleep. Experts advise against this, but it works for me.

English: IRex iLiad ebook reader outdoors in s...
English: IRex iLiad ebook reader outdoors in sunlight. Electronic paper. Electrophoretic display. Français : Bouquin électronique iLiad de Irex dehors à la lumière du soleil. Papier électronique. Ecran électrophorétique. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many people these days appear to be afflicted with technophilia or technolust. When a new Apple device is released queues form at the Apple stores worldwide as people try to slake their desire for latest gadget. This is strange as their old devices, which used to be the latest devices at one time, are not rendered useless by the new devices, and transferring personal information to the new device can be challenging, in spite of attempts to make it easy.

English: iPhone 4.
English: iPhone 4. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Technolust also extends to software. Some people just have to have the latest apps, the latest operating system. The usual justification for such an upgrade is usually justified by the user as a desire for the new features in the new software or bug fixes in the new software.  While I would not advocate never upgrading software, I find such justifications a little weak.

There is a danger that a software upgrade may “brick” a device, that is, it might stop the device from booting up and being used, which is why many people shy away from upgrades. While this is a real concern such happenings are rare and most upgrades go OK. Nevertheless, most users of technology have a horror story  about how things have turned to custard during an upgrade.

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I’m what I would classify as a cautious early adopter. For instance, when the new software was released for my phone and tablet, and these devices informed me that the update was available, I waited for a few weeks and followed the news on the upgrade on the Internet. This is almost always a bad idea as long conversations between people who have had trouble (interspersed with odd rare comment “It went OK for me”) doesn’t encourage one to upgrade!

IPod touch with software upgrade and web clips
IPod touch with software upgrade and web clips (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those who grow up with technology tend to use that technology without giving it much thought. Televisions are part of the environment. Cell phones are part of the environment. Maybe soon 3-D printers will be part of the environment. Smart phones and tablets, while desirable, are not quite so novel to the kids of today. They will no doubt direct their technolusts to other technologies.

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