Shadows of Reality

Silhouette of a woman in a cave looking at her...
Silhouette of a woman in a cave looking at her own shadow. The image can be used in philosophy (for example in Allegory of the cave) as well as to show psychological principles (for example Borderline personality disorder). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave has people chained in chairs facing a blank wall. All that they can see are the shadows cast on the wall of the cave. When they break free from their chains they discover that reality is not what they believed it to be. In particular, they don’t know what the sun is, having never seen it before. The implication is that we cannot know reality and that we only see shadows of it and must make do with that.

It’s a nice analogy, and presages Kant’s noumenon and phenomenon, where phenomenon is what we sense or perceive and noumenon is what gives rise to phenomenon. Noumenon is fundamentally unknowable through human sensation, and perhaps corresponds to Kant’s “Ding an sich” (thing-in-itself), which I think of as the thing that gives rise to perceived phenomena, but is not and cannot be experienced through the senses or by other means (if such exist).

Plato's Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam,...
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The nice thing about allegories and analogies is that you can play around with them. Of course, if you push them too far they fall apart, but that is part of the fun. I’m going to push the Cave Allegory a little bit.

You see, the people in the chairs are not entirely without information about the outside world, aka reality. If the shadows move across the cave wall and they are not moving, then something else is! They won’t know what is causing this phenomenon, but they will notice that it changes in a fixed cycle. The shadows sweep across the wall, only for everything to go dark, and then everything repeats. Let’s call it a day.

If the people in chairs watch for long enough they may determine that there longer cycles. Sometimes the shadows reach higher up the walls, and sometimes they are lower. Let’s call these longer cycles years.

When one raises his hand one of the shadows changes. Some of the shadows are apparently related to the people in the chairs! The person in the chair will most likely come to associate one of the shadows with him/her self, and by extension would assume that some of the other shadows are people also.

He or she might not realise that his/her body is actually seated in a chair, and that the shadow which he/she associates with his/her self are merely outlines. This is a scary thought – if the analogy holds, is it not possible that the same is true of us? We may be seeing shadows and concluding that we are the shadows. Maybe there is a wider reality outside of our perceptual cave and we only need to turn around to see it.

However, just like the people in the cave, if we did wake to a wider reality, we probably would not understand what we are seeing – the people in the cave, when they freed themselves, found the sun to be incomprehensible.

I just realised that in Plato’s original allegory, the light that threw the shadows was not the sun but a fire. I’m going to acknowledge my mistake but let it stand, as it makes my point that the people in the chairs are not completely without clues about the wider world, even if their interpretations are wide of the mark.

Science and what was previously known as ‘natural philosophy’ are attempts to describe the shadows that we see. One of our shadows is the rising and setting of the sun. I’ve described elsewhere that the extreme doubter, the ultimate sceptic, doubts that we will see another sunrise, or rather, cannot see any way that we can know absolutely that we will see another sunrise (leaving aside for arguments sake the possibility that we drop dead – that is not what the issue is).

I don’t actually believe that we are sitting in any conceptual chairs, so we can’t leap out of them to get a wider view of reality in the sense of the allegory, but we do describe the world in terms of what we see, just as those in the cave do. We have no better access to reality than they do. We just have a better class of shadows as it were.

That’s why I find it amusing when the headlines read that scientists have found the Higgs Boson, or that they have detected gravity waves. Oh really? I do not suggest that the Higgs Boson has not been “found” or that gravity waves have not been detected, of course, but no one have ever seen the Boson or watched a gravity wave passing by.

One possible way the Higgs boson might be prod...
One possible way the Higgs boson might be produced at the Large Hadron Collider. Similar images at: http://atlas.web.cern.ch/Atlas/GROUPS/PHYSICS/Conferences/2003/aspen-03_dam.ppt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No, what they have in fact done is theorised about these things, designed experiments that should show a blip in a graph or find an anomalous number in the printout of their experiments, and this is what they see. They see the predicted blip or the anomalous number.

These results however based on existing theories. Starting from theories about matter and what it is made of. Atoms, you say? Oh OK, we have experiments (from long ago) which show that matter is made up of atoms. We know a lot about atoms from experiments and theories, but no one has ever seen one or held one in his/her hands. We are sure, though, that matter is basically made up of atoms.

English: Some common molecules and the atoms t...
English: Some common molecules and the atoms that they are made from. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, certain results of these experiments lead to the question of what atoms are made of. So we end up with a (very accurate) theory and experiments which show the existence of sub atomic particles. Some of these theories lead to the theory of the existence of the Higg’s Boson. It is required if some of the theories are correct.

I don’t know the details, but experiments have been done which reportedly appear to show the existence of the Higg’s Boson. What they show is results which are consistent with the stack of theories the top one of which predicts the existence of the Higg’s Boson, and the lower theories predict various behaviours down to the lowest level, those that theorise that matter is fundamentally atomic.

English: Crystal structure of vanadinite. Gray...
English: Crystal structure of vanadinite. Gray: lead atoms, orange: vanadium atoms, green: chlorine atoms, blue: oxygen atoms. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those are our shadows on the wall. We describe what exists by using theories based on what we can see. We see the blip in the graph, and celebrate our theory which is underpinned by other theories down to the lowest and most general theories. However, we can’t get out of our allegorical chairs and turn to actually look at what exists. That’s where the analogy breaks down – there are no chairs and there is no wall. However what we are looking at are shadows.

The Hubris of Scientists

Screenshot from the public domain films Maniac...
Screenshot from the public domain films Maniac (1934) showing Horace B. Carpenter as the character “Dr. Meirschultz” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scientists talk about gravity,  mass and probabilities, atoms, Higgs boson, black holes and qasars. Certainly the universe seems to behave as if these concepts represent reality and so scientists are justified in the their assertions and predictions. Nevertheless the assumption that the concepts that scientists use represent reality is debatable.

The scientific method which has been a part of science since 17th century is a set of rules that scientists use to develop and test theories about the scientific view of the world. Basically, the scientist formulates a hypothesis (based on an earlier theory or as a totally new theory) and develops experiments to test the theory. The experiments produce observations which either support or do not support the theory.

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scienti...
English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scientific Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the observations agree with the theory they are said to support the theory. If they do not, they are said said to disprove the theory. So far, so black and white. An experiment may be challenged on many grounds. For example the search for the Higgs boson is not done by actually isolating candidate particles and looking at it directly. Instead the expected properties of the Higgs boson, perhaps its mass or energy, the way it interacts with other particles, or other more esoteric properties,  can be used to deduce that, for example, in a particular experiment a peak at a certain point on a graph produced by a scientific instrument could only be the result of the presence in the apparatus for  at least an instant of the required Higgs boson.

One possible way the Higgs boson might be prod...
One possible way the Higgs boson might be produced at the Large Hadron Collider. Similar images at: http://atlas.web.cern.ch/Atlas/GROUPS/PHYSICS/Conferences/2003/aspen-03_dam.ppt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a similar way, we don’t detect an electric current directly. Instead we rely on electromagnetic theory which predicts that moving electrons should produce a magnetic field and that magnetic field would interact with a static magnetic field of a permanent magnet perhaps to produce a force on the permanent magnet hence moving a needle. Behold! We detect an electric current. Actually what we see is the movement of a needle and we infer the electric current from that observation.

Sometimes the chain of inference is short, as in the electric current experiment, while in others it is very much longer. I expect that the detection of the Higgs boson falls into the latter category, but I could (easily) be wrong. It is apparent that the more links that there are in the chain of inference, the higher the likelihood that one of the links might be debatable.

How to deduce various data with the observatio...
How to deduce various data with the observation results (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, faced with an experiment that supposedly tests a theory, the result does not absolutely prove or disprove the theory. If the experiment appears to show agreement with the theory, an opponent of the theory may cast doubt on the experimental method or in the theories that the theory being tested relies on. He or she would claim that the result doesn’t show what it purports to show. In addition he or she might point out that one experiment does not prove the theory as the next experiment could show the opposite. One experimental failure is enough to disprove the theory.

My cooking companions this evening- Zak dispro...
My cooking companions this evening- Zak disproved the “watched pot” theory. (Photo credit: who_da_fly)

Or is it enough to disprove it? Not really because the proponent of the theory  could claim that some currently unknown effect or other is preventing the experiment from producing the correct observations. So debate follows, more experiments follows, and in the end, a consensus is achieved. History will record that theory A was generally accepted until so-and-so’s experiment replaced it with theory B. Or that theory A was extended by theory B and confirmed by so-and-so’s experiment. Or similar. Much more black and white!

Scientists explain experimental results in terms of theories. For instance when sodium is introduced into a flame (perhaps in the form of sodium chloride – salt) and the light from the flame is passed through a prism then a bright yellow line is seen. Scientists explain this as the result of the transition of an excited electron from an elevated orbit to a lower one. This explanation depends on several, maybe many, other explanations, such as an explanation of what ‘excited’ means and what ‘electron’ means and what ‘orbit’ means. In many cases these explanations are based on mathematics, and an explanation is based on concepts each of which requires explanation.

sodium flame test
sodium flame test (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So therein lies the hubris of scientists. Their attempts at explanation of observable facts is a bottomless pit of explanation on explanation. There is no ultimate explanation. The universe is and does what it is and does.

So, am I saying that science is pointless? No, I am merely saying that we need to be careful and not treat our explanations as anything other than very clever descriptions of those bits of the universe that we are have seen.

Contents of the universe according to WPAP 5-y...
Contents of the universe according to WPAP 5-year results (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like the analogy of the sheet. Suppose you have an object hidden behind a sheet. You are allowed to make pin pricks in the sheet, one at a time. The universe is the object behind the sheet and each pin prick is an observation. As you make more and more pin pricks in the sheet you see more and more of the object behind the sheet. You may discover that a line of pin pricks is showing red. You form a theory that behind the line joining the existing pin pricks, between the existing pin pricks and, with less certainty, beyond the end pin pricks in the line, everything is red. To check this theory you make a pin prick between two existing pin pricks and find that the new pin prick shows red. The theory is supported by this new observation.

Scientists have been creating these pin pricks for centuries and now have a pretty good idea of the shape of the universe (and a pretty holey sheet!). Nevertheless there are parts of the object behind the sheet, the universe, that they haven’t yet uncovered, and maybe never will.

An example of simulated data modelled for the ...
An example of simulated data modelled for the CMS particle detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. Here, following a collision of two protons, a is produced which decays into two jets of hadrons and two electrons. The lines represent the possible paths of particles produced by the proton-proton collision in the detector while the energy these particles deposit is shown in blue. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an example of the type of thing that I mean, consider the so-called dark matter. Scientists appear to have pretty much discovered what constitutes matter but they can’t account for some aspects of certain large scale phenomenon observed in the universe and have hypothesised a new type of matter called ‘dark matter’, which doesn’t appear to interact with normal matter except gravitationally. It’s like suddenly finding some pin pricks showing blue in a line that is otherwise red. Something unexpected that needs explanation.

I accused scientists of ‘hubris’ above. That’s not entirely fair as hubris implies arrogance and while scientists confidently create explanations for phenomena that they study, I believe that most would concede that their explanations could (with very low probabilities, I would guess) prove to be erroneous.

''I think that it's important for scientists t...
”I think that it’s important for scientists to explain their work, particularly in cosmology. This now answers many questions once asked of religion.” – Stephen Hawking (Photo credit: QuotesEverlasting)