“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”
Albert Einstein, The World as I See It, 1931
The debate between realism and anti-realism is, at least, a century old. Does Science describe the real world – or are its theories true only within a certain conceptual framework? Is science only instrumental or empirically adequate or is there more to it than that?
The current – mythological – image of scientific enquiry is as follows:
Without resorting to reality, one can, given infinite time and resources, produce all conceivable theories. One of these theories is bound to be the “truth”. To decide among them, scientists conduct experiments and compare their results to predictions yielded by the theories. A theory is falsified when one or more of its predictions fails. No amount of positive results – i.e., outcomes that confirm the theory’s predictions – can “prove right” a theory. Theories can only be proven false by that great arbiter, reality.
Jose Ortega y Gasset said (in an unrelated exchange) that all ideas stem from pre-rational beliefs. William James concurred by saying that accepting a truth often requires an act of will which goes beyond facts and into the realm of feelings. Maybe so, but there is little doubt today that beliefs are somehow involved in the formation of many scientific ideas, if not of the very endeavor of Science. After all, Science is a human activity and humans always believe that things exist (=are true) or could be true.
A distinction is traditionally made between believing in something’s existence, truth, value of appropriateness (this is the way that it ought to be) – and believing that something. The latter is a propositional attitude: we think that something, we wish that something, we feel that something and we believe that something. Believing in A and believing that A – are different.
It is reasonable to assume that belief is a limited affair. Few of us would tend to believe in contradictions and falsehoods. Catholic theologians talk about explicit belief (in something which is known to the believer to be true) versus implicit one (in the known consequences of something whose truth cannot be known). Truly, we believe in the probability of something (we, thus, express an opinion) – or in its certain existence (truth).
All humans believe in the existence of connections or relationships between things. This is not something which can be proven or proven false (to use Popper’s test). That things consistently follow each other does not prove they are related in any objective, “real”, manner – except in our minds. This belief in some order (if we define order as permanent relations between separate physical or abstract entities) permeates both Science and Superstition. They both believe that there must be – and is – a connection between things out there.
Science limits itself and believes that only certain entities inter-relate within well defined conceptual frames (called theories). Not everything has the potential to connect to everything else. Entities are discriminated, differentiated, classified and assimilated in worldviews in accordance with the types of connections that they forge with each other.
Moreover, Science believes that it has a set of very effective tools to diagnose, distinguish, observe and describe these relationships. It proves its point by issuing highly accurate predictions based on the relationships discerned through the use of said tools. Science (mostly) claims that these connections are “true” in the sense that they are certain – not probable.
The cycle of formulation, prediction and falsification (or proof) is the core of the human scientific activity. Alleged connections that cannot be captured in these nets of reasoning are cast out either as “hypothetical” or as “false”. In other words: Science defines “relations between entities” as “relations between entities which have been established and tested using the scientific apparatus and arsenal of tools”. This, admittedly, is a very cyclical argument, as close to tautology as it gets.
Superstition is a much simpler matter: everything is connected to everything in ways unbeknown to us. We can only witness the results of these subterranean currents and deduce the existence of such currents from the observable flotsam. The planets influence our lives, dry coffee sediments contain information about the future, black cats portend disasters, certain dates are propitious, certain numbers are to be avoided. The world is unsafe because it can never be fathomed. But the fact that we – limited as we are – cannot learn about a hidden connection – should not imply that it does not exist.
Science believes in two categories of relationships between entities (physical and abstract alike). The one is the category of direct links – the other that of links through a third entity. In the first case, A and B are seen to be directly related. In the second case, there is no apparent link between A and B, but a third entity, C could well provide such a connection (for instance, if A and B are parts of C or are separately, but concurrently somehow influenced by it).
Each of these two categories is divided to three subcategories: causal relationships, functional relationships and correlative relationship.
A and B will be said to be causally related if A precedes B, B never occurs if A does not precede it and always occurs after A occurs. To the discerning eye, this would seem to be a relationship of correlation (“whenever A happens B happens”) and this is true. Causation is subsumed by a the 1.0 correlation relationship category. In other words: it is a private case of the more general case of correlation.
A and B are functionally related if B can be predicted by assuming A but we have no way of establishing the truth value of A. The latter is a postulate or axiom. The time dependent Schrödinger Equation is a postulate (cannot be derived, it is only reasonable). Still, it is the dynamic laws underlying wave mechanics, an integral part of quantum mechanics, the most accurate scientific theory that we have. An unproved, non-derivable equation is related functionally to a host of exceedingly precise statements about the real world (observed experimental results).
A and B are correlated if A explains a considerable part of the existence or the nature of B. It is then clear that A and B are related. Evolution has equipped us with highly developed correlation mechanisms because they are efficient in insuring survival. To see a tiger and to associate the awesome sight with a sound is very useful.
Still, we cannot state with any modicum of certainty that we possess all the conceivable tools for the detection, description, analysis and utilization of relations between entities. Put differently: we cannot say that there are no connections that escape the tight nets that we cast in order to capture them. We cannot, for instance, say with any degree of certainty that there are no hyper-structures which would provide new, surprising insights into the interconnectedness of objects in the real world or in our mind. We cannot even say that the epistemological structures with which we were endowed are final or satisfactory. We do not know enough about knowing.
Consider the cases of Non-Aristotelian logic formalisms, Non-Euclidean geometries, Newtonian Mechanics and non classical physical theories (the relativity theories and, more so, quantum mechanics and its various interpretations). All of them revealed to us connections which we could not have imagined prior to their appearance. All of them created new tools for the capture of interconnectivity and inter-relatedness. All of them suggested one kind or the other of mental hyper-structures in which new links between entities (hitherto considered disparate) could be established.
So far, so good for superstitions. Today’s superstition could well become tomorrow’s Science given the right theoretical developments. The source of the clash lies elsewhere, in the insistence of superstitions upon a causal relation.
The general structure of a superstition is: A is caused by B. The causation propagates through unknown (one or more) mechanisms. These mechanisms are unidentified (empirically) or unidentifiable (in principle). For instance, al the mechanisms of causal propagation which are somehow connected to divine powers can never, in principle, be understood (because the true nature of divinity is sealed to human understanding).
Thus, superstitions incorporate mechanisms of action which are, either, unknown to Science or are impossible to know, as far as Science goes. All the “action-at-a-distance” mechanisms are of the latter type (unknowable). Parapsychological mechanisms are more of the first kind (unknown).
The philosophical argument behind superstitions is pretty straightforward and appealing. Perhaps this is the source of their appeal. It goes as follows:
There is nothing that can be thought of that is impossible (in all the Universes);
There is nothing impossible (in all the Universes) that can be thought of;
Everything that can be thought about is, therefore, possible (somewhere in the Universes);
Everything that is possible exists (somewhere in the Universes).
If something can be thought of (=is possible) and is not known (=proven or observed) yet – it is most probably due to the shortcomings of Science and not because it does not exist.
Some of these propositions can be easily attacked. For instance: we can think about contradictions and falsehoods but (apart from a form of mental representation) no one will claim that they exist in reality or that they are possible. These statements, though, apply very well to entities, the existence of which has yet to be disproved (=not known as false, or whose truth value is uncertain) and to improbable (though possible) things. It is in these formal logical niches that superstition thrives.
APPENDIX – From “The Cycle of Science”
“There was a time when the newspapers said that only twelve men understood the theory of relativity. I do not believe that there ever was such a time… On the other hand, I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics… Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’, because you will get ‘down the drain’ into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.”
R. P. Feynman (1967)
“The first processes, therefore, in the effectual studies of the sciences, must be ones of simplification and reduction of the results of previous investigations to a form in which the mind can grasp them.”
J. C. Maxwell, On Faraday’s lines of force
” …conventional formulations of quantum theory, and of quantum field theory in particular, are unprofessionally vague and ambiguous. Professional theoretical physicists ought to be able to do better. Bohm has shown us a way.”
John S. Bell, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics
“It would seem that the theory [quantum mechanics] is exclusively concerned about ‘results of measurement’, and has nothing to say about anything else. What exactly qualifies some physical systems to play the role of ‘measurer’? Was the wavefunction of the world waiting to jump for thousands of millions of years until a single-celled living creature appeared? Or did it have to wait a little longer, for some better qualified system … with a Ph.D.? If the theory is to apply to anything but highly idealized laboratory operations, are we not obliged to admit that more or less ‘measurement-like’ processes are going on more or less all the time, more or less everywhere. Do we not have jumping then all the time?
The first charge against ‘measurement’, in the fundamental axioms of quantum mechanics, is that it anchors the shifty split of the world into ‘system’ and ‘apparatus’. A second charge is that the word comes loaded with meaning from everyday life, meaning which is entirely inappropriate in the quantum context. When it is said that something is ‘measured’ it is difficult not to think of the result as referring to some pre-existing property of the object in question. This is to disregard Bohr’s insistence that in quantum phenomena the apparatus as well as the system is essentially involved. If it were not so, how could we understand, for example, that ‘measurement’ of a component of ‘angular momentum’ … in an arbitrarily chosen direction … yields one of a discrete set of values? When one forgets the role of the apparatus, as the word ‘measurement’ makes all too likely, one despairs of ordinary logic … hence ‘quantum logic’. When one remembers the role of the apparatus, ordinary logic is just fine.
In other contexts, physicists have been able to take words from ordinary language and use them as technical terms with no great harm done. Take for example the ‘strangeness’, ‘charm’, and ‘beauty’ of elementary particle physics. No one is taken in by this ‘baby talk’… Would that it were so with ‘measurement’. But in fact the word has had such a damaging effect on the discussion, that I think it should now be banned altogether in quantum mechanics.”
J. S. Bell, Against “Measurement”
“Is it not clear from the smallness of the scintillation on the screen that we have to do with a particle? And is it not clear, from the diffraction and interference patterns, that the motion of the particle is directed by a wave? De Broglie showed in detail how the motion of a particle, passing through just one of two holes in screen, could be influenced by waves propagating through both holes. And so influenced that the particle does not go where the waves cancel out, but is attracted to where they co-operate. This idea seems to me so natural and simple, to resolve the wave-particle dilemma in such a clear and ordinary way, that it is a great mystery to me that it was so generally ignored.”
J. S. Bell, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics
“…in physics the only observations we must consider are position observations, if only the positions of instrument pointers. It is a great merit of the de Broglie-Bohm picture to force us to consider this fact. If you make axioms, rather than definitions and theorems, about the “measurement” of anything else, then you commit redundancy and risk inconsistency.”
J. S. Bell, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics
“To outward appearance, the modern world was born of an anti religious movement: man becoming self-sufficient and reason supplanting belief. Our generation and the two that preceded it have heard little of but talk of the conflict between science and faith; indeed it seemed at one moment a foregone conclusion that the former was destined to take the place of the latter… After close on two centuries of passionate struggles, neither science nor faith has succeeded in discrediting its adversary.
On the contrary, it becomes obvious that neither can develop normally without the other. And the reason is simple: the same life animates both. Neither in its impetus nor its achievements can science go to its limits without becoming tinged with mysticism and charged with faith.”
Pierre Thierry de Chardin, “The Phenomenon of Man”
I opened this appendix with lengthy quotations of John S. Bell, the main proponent of the Bohemian Mechanics interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (really, an alternative rather than an interpretation). The renowned physicist, David Bohm (in the 50s), basing himself on work done much earlier by de Broglie (the unwilling father of the wave-particle dualism), embedded the Schrödinger Equation (SE throughout this article) in a deterministic physical theory which postulated a non-Newtonian motion of particles. This is a fine example of the life cycle of scientific theories.
Witchcraft, Religion, Alchemy and Science succeeded one another and each such transition was characterized by transitional pathologies reminiscent of psychotic disorders. The exceptions are (arguably) medicine and biology. A phenomenology of ossified bodies of knowledge would make a fascinating read. This is the end of the aforementioned life cycle: Growth, Pathology, Ossification.
This article identifies the current Ossification Phase of Science and suggests that it is soon to be succeeded by another discipline. It does so after studying and rejecting other explanations to the current state of science: that human knowledge is limited by its very nature, that the world is inherently incomprehensible, that methods of thought and understanding tend to self-organize to form closed mythic systems and that there is a problem of the language which we employ to make our inquiries of the world describable and communicable.
Kuhn’s approach to Scientific Revolutions is but one of a series of approaches to issues of theory and paradigm shifts in scientific thought and its resulting evolution. Scientific theories seem to be subject to a process of natural selection as much as organisms are in nature.
Animals could be construed to be theorems (with a positive truth value) in the logical system “Nature”. But species become extinct because nature itself changes (not nature as a set of potentials – but the relevant natural phenomena to which the species are exposed). Could we say the same about scientific theories? Are they being selected and deselected partly due to a changing, shifting backdrop?
Indeed, the whole debate between “realists” and “anti-realists” in the philosophy of Science can be thus settled, by adopting this single premise: that the Universe itself is not a fixture. By contrasting a fixed subject of the study (“The World”) with the moving image of Science – anti-realists gained the upper hand.
Arguments such as the under-determination of theories by data and the pessimistic meta-inductions from past falsity (of scientific “knowledge”) emphasized the transience and asymptotic nature of the fruits of the scientific endeavor. But all this rests on the implicit assumption that there is some universal, immutable, truth out there (which science strives to approximate). The apparent problem evaporates if we allow both the observer and the observed, the theory and its subject, the background, as well as the fleeting images, to be alterable.
Science develops through reduction of miracles. Laws of nature are formulated. They are assumed to encompass all the (relevant) natural phenomena (that is, phenomena governed by natural forces and within nature). Ex definitio, nothing can exist outside nature – it is all-inclusive and all-pervasive, omnipresent (formerly the attributes of the divine).
Supernatural forces, supernatural intervention – are a contradiction in terms, oxymorons. If it exists – it is natural. That which is supernatural – does not exist. Miracles do not only contravene (or violate) the laws of nature – they are impossible, not only physically, but also logically. That which is logically possible and can be experienced (observed), is physically possible. But, again, we confront the “fixed background” assumption. What if nature itself changes in a way to confound everlasting, ever-truer knowledge? Then, the very shift of nature as a whole, as a system, could be called “supernatural” or “miraculous”.
In a small way, this is how science evolves. A law of nature is proposed. An event or occurs or observation made which are not described or predicted by it. It is, by definition, a violation of the law. The laws of nature are modified, or re-written entirely, in order to reflect and encompass this extraordinary event. Hume’s distinction between “extraordinary” and “miraculous” events is upheld (the latter being ruled out).
The extraordinary ones can be compared to our previous experience – the miraculous entail some supernatural interference with the normal course of things (a “wonder” in Biblical terms). It is through confronting the extraordinary and eliminating its abnormal nature that science progresses as a miraculous activity. This, of course, is not the view of the likes of David Deutsch (see his book, “The Fabric of Reality”).
The last phase of this Life Cycle is Ossification. The discipline degenerates and, following the psychotic phase, it sinks into a paralytic stage which is characterized by the following:
All the practical and technological aspects of the discipline are preserved and continue to be utilized. Gradually the conceptual and theoretical underpinnings vanish or are replaced by the tenets and postulates of a new discipline – but the inventions, processes and practical know-how do not evaporate. They are incorporated into the new discipline and, in time, are erroneously attributed to it. This is a transfer of credit and the attribution of merit and benefits to the legitimate successor of the discipline.
The practitioners of the discipline confine themselves to copying and replicating the various aspects of the discipline, mainly its intellectual property (writings, inventions, other theoretical material). The replication process does not lead to the creation of new knowledge or even to the dissemination of old one. It is a hermetic process, limited to the ever decreasing circle of the initiated. Special institutions are set up to rehash the materials related to the discipline, process them and copy them. These institutions are financed and supported by the State which is always an agent of conservation, preservation and conformity.
Thus, the creative-evolutionary dimension of the discipline freezes over. No new paradigms or revolutions happen. Interpretation and replication of canonical writings become the predominant activity. Formalisms are not subjected to scrutiny and laws assume eternal, immutable, quality.
All the activities of the adherents of the discipline become ritualized. The discipline itself becomes a pillar of the power structures and, as such, is commissioned and condoned by them. Its practitioners synergistically collaborate with them: with the industrial base, the military powerhouse, the political elite, the intellectual cliques in vogue. Institutionalization inevitably leads to the formation of a (mostly bureaucratic) hierarchy. Rituals serve two purposes. The first is to divert attention from subversive, “forbidden” thinking.
This is very much as is the case with obsessive-compulsive disorders in individuals who engage in ritualistic behavior patterns to deflect “wrong” or “corrupt” thoughts. And the second purpose is to cement the power of the “clergy” of the discipline. Rituals are a specialized form of knowledge which can be obtained only through initiation procedures and personal experience. One’s status in the hierarchy is not the result of objectively quantifiable variables or even of judgment of merit. It is the result of politics and other power-related interactions. The cases of “Communist Genetics” (Lysenko) versus “Capitalist Genetics” and of the superpower races (space race, arms race) come to mind.
Conformity, dogmatism, doctrines – all lead to enforcement mechanisms which are never subtle. Dissidents are subjected to sanctions: social sanctions and economic sanctions. They can find themselves ex-communicated, harassed, imprisoned, tortured, their works banished or not published, ridiculed and so on.
This is really the triumph of text over the human spirit. The members of the discipline’s community forget the original reasons and causes for their scientific pursuits. Why was the discipline developed? What were the original riddles, questions, queries? How did it feel to be curious? Where is the burning fire and the glistening eyes and the feelings of unity with nature that were the prime moving forces behind the discipline? The cold ashes of the conflagration are the texts and their preservation is an expression of longing and desire for things past.
The vacuum left by the absence of positive emotions – is filled by negative ones. The discipline and its disciples become phobic, paranoid, defensive, with a blurred reality test. Devoid of new, attractive content, the discipline resorts to negative motivation by manipulation of negative emotions. People are frightened, threatened, herded, cajoled. The world without the discipline is painted in an apocalyptic palette as ruled by irrationality, disorderly, chaotic, dangerous, even lethally so.
New, emerging disciplines, are presented as heretic, fringe lunacies, inconsistent, reactionary and bound to lead humanity back to some dark ages. This is the inter-disciplinary or inter-paradigm clash. It follows the Psychotic Phase. The old discipline resorts to some transcendental entity (God, Satan, the conscious intelligent observer in the Copenhagen interpretation of the formalism of Quantum Mechanics). In this sense, it is already psychotic and fails its reality test. It develops messianic aspirations and is inspired by a missionary zeal and zest. The fight against new ideas and theories is bloody and ruthless and every possible device is employed.
But the very characteristics of the older nomenclature is in its disfavor. It is closed, based on ritualistic initiation, patronizing. It relies on intimidation. The numbers of the faithful dwindles the more the “church” needs them and the more it resorts to oppressive recruitment tactics. The emerging knowledge wins by historical default and not due to the results of any fierce fight. Even the initiated desert. Their belief unravels when confronted with the truth value, explanatory and predictive powers, and the comprehensiveness of the emerging discipline.
This, indeed, is the main presenting symptom, distinguishing hallmark, of paralytic old disciplines. They deny reality. The are a belief-system, a myth, requiring suspension of judgment, the voluntary limitation of the quest, the agreement to leave swathes of the map in the state of a blank “terra incognita”. This reductionism, this avoidance, their replacement by some transcendental authority are the beginning of an end.
The Universe is a complex, orderly system. If it were an intelligent being, we would be compelled to say that it had “chosen” to preserve form (structure), order and complexity – and to increase them whenever and wherever it can. We can call this a natural inclination or a tendency of the Universe.
This explains why evolution did not stop at the protozoa level. After all, these mono-cellular organisms were (and still are, hundreds of millions of years later) superbly adapted to their environment. It was Bergson who posed the question: why did nature prefer the risk of unstable complexity over predictable and reliable and durable simplicity?
The answer seems to be that the Universe has a predilection (not confined to the biological realm) to increase complexity and order and that this principle takes precedence over “utilitarian” calculations of stability. The battle between the entropic arrow and the negentropic one is more important than any other (in-built) “consideration”. This is Time itself and Thermodynamics pitted against Man (as an integral part of the Universe), Order (a systemic, extensive parameter) against Disorder.
In this context, natural selection is no more “blind” or “random” than its subjects. It is discriminating, exercises discretion, encourages structure, complexity and order. The contrast that Bergson stipulated between Natural Selection and Élan Vitale is grossly misplaced: Natural Selection IS the vital power itself.
Modern Physics is converging with Philosophy (possibly with the philosophical side of Religion as well) and the convergence is precisely where concepts of Order and disorder emerge. String theories, for instance, come in numerous versions which describe many possible different worlds. Granted, they may all be facets of the same Being (distant echoes of the new versions of the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics).
Still, why do we, intelligent conscious observers, see (=why are we exposed to) only one aspect of the Universe? How is this aspect “selected”? The Universe is constrained in this “selection process” by its own history – but history is not synonymous with the Laws of Nature. The latter determine the former – does the former also determine the latter? In other words: were the Laws of Nature “selected” as well and, if so, how?
The answer seems self evident: the Universe “selected” both the Natural Laws and – as a result – its own history. The selection process was based on the principle of Natural Selection. A filter was applied: whatever increased order, complexity, structure – survived. Indeed, our very survival as a species is still largely dependent upon these things. Our Universe – having survived – must be an optimized Universe.
Only order-increasing Universes do not succumb to entropy and death (the weak hypothesis). It could even be argued (as we do here) that our Universe is the only possible kind of Universe (the semi-strong hypothesis) or even the only Universe (the strong hypothesis). This is the essence of the Anthropic Principle.
By definition, universal rules pervade all the realms of existence. Biological systems must obey the same order-increasing (natural) laws as physical ones and social ones. We are part of the Universe in the sense that we are subject to the same discipline and adhere to the same “religion”. We are an inevitable result – not a chance happening.
We are the culmination of orderly processes – not the outcome of random events. The Universe enables us and our world because – and only for as long as – we increase order. That is not to imply that there is an intention to do so on the part of the Universe (or a “higher being” or a “higher power”). There is no conscious or God-like spirit. There is no religious assertion. We only say that a system that has Order as its founding principle will tend to favor order, to breed it, to positively select its proponents and deselect its opponents – and, finally, to give birth to more and more sophisticated weapons in the pro-Order arsenal. We, humans, were such an order-increasing weapon until recently.
These intuitive assertions can be easily converted into a formalism. In Quantum Mechanics, the State Vector can be constrained to collapse to the most Order-enhancing event. If we had a computer the size of the Universe that could infallibly model it – we would have been able to predict which event will increase the order in the Universe overall. No collapse would have been required then and no probabilistic calculations.
It is easy to prove that events will follow a path of maximum order, simply because the world is orderly and getting ever more so. Had this not been the case, evenly statistically scattered event would have led to an increase in entropy (thermodynamic laws are the offspring of statistical mechanics). But this simply does not happen. And it is wrong to think that order increases only in isolated “pockets”, in local regions of our universe.
It is increasing everywhere, all the time, on all scales of measurement. Therefore, we are forced to conclude that quantum events are guided by some non-random principle (such as the increase in order). This, exactly, is the case in biology. There is no reason why not to construct a life wavefunction which will always collapse to the most order increasing event. If we construct and apply this wave function to our world – we will probably find ourselves as one of the events after its collapse.
Appendix – Interview granted to Adam Anderson
1. Do you believe that superstitions have affected American culture? And if so, how?
A. In its treatment of nature, Western culture is based on realism and rationalism and purports to be devoid of superstitions. Granted, many Westerners – perhaps the majority – are still into esoteric practices, such as Astrology. But the official culture and its bearers – scientists, for instance – disavow such throwbacks to a darker past.
Today, superstitions are less concerned with the physical Universe and more with human affairs. Political falsities – such as anti-Semitism – supplanted magic and alchemy. Fantastic beliefs permeate the fields of economics, sociology, and psychology, for instance. The effects of progressive taxation, the usefulness of social welfare, the role of the media, the objectivity of science, the mechanism of democracy, and the function of psychotherapy – are six examples of such groundless fables.
Indeed, one oft-neglected aspect of superstitions is their pernicious economic cost. Irrational action carries a price tag. It is impossible to optimize one’s economic activity by making the right decisions and then acting on them in a society or culture permeated by the occult. Esotericism skews the proper allocation of scarce resources.
2. Are there any superstitions that exist today that you believe could become facts tomorrow, or that you believe have more fact than fiction hidden in them?
A. Superstitions stem from one of these four premises:
That there is nothing that can be thought of that is impossible (in all possible Universes);
That there is nothing impossible (in all possible Universes) that can be thought of;
That everything that can be thought of is, therefore, possible (somewhere in these Universes);
That everything that is possible exists (somewhere in these Universes).
As long as our knowledge is imperfect (asymptotic to the truth), everything is possible. As Arthur Clark, the British scientist and renowned author of science fiction, said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.
Still, regardless of how “magical” it becomes, positive science is increasingly challenged by the esoteric. The emergence of pseudo-science is the sad outcome of the blurring of contemporary distinctions between physics and metaphysics. Modern science borders on speculation and attempts, to its disadvantage, to tackle questions that once were the exclusive preserve of religion or philosophy. The scientific method is ill-built to cope with such quests and is inferior to the tools developed over centuries by philosophers, theologians, and mystics.
Moreover, scientists often confuse language of representation with meaning and knowledge represented. That a discipline of knowledge uses quantitative methods and the symbol system of mathematics does not make it a science. The phrase “social sciences” is an oxymoron – and it misleads the layman into thinking that science is not that different to literature, religion, astrology, numerology, or other esoteric “systems”.
The emergence of “relative”, New Age, and politically correct philosophies rendered science merely one option among many. Knowledge, people believe, can be gleaned either directly (mysticism and spirituality) or indirectly (scientific practice). Both paths are equivalent and equipotent. Who is to say that science is superior to other “bodies of wisdom”? Self-interested scientific chauvinism is out – indiscriminate “pluralism” is in.
3. I have found one definition of the word “superstition” that states that it is “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” What is your opinion about said definition?
A. It describes what motivates people to adopt superstitions – ignorance and fear of the unknown. Superstitions are, indeed, a “false conception of causation” which inevitably leads to “trust in magic”. the only part I disagree with is the trust in chance. Superstitions are organizing principles. They serve as alternatives to other worldviews, such as religion or science. Superstitions seek to replace chance with an “explanation” replete with the power to predict future events and establish chains of causes and effects.
4. Many people believe that superstitions were created to simply teach a lesson, like the old superstition that “the girl that takes the last cookie will be an old maid” was made to teach little girls manners. Do you think that all superstitions derive from some lesson trying to be taught that today’s society has simply forgotten or cannot connect to anymore?
A. Jose Ortega y Gasset said (in an unrelated exchange) that all ideas stem from pre-rational beliefs. William James concurred by saying that accepting a truth often requires an act of will which goes beyond facts and into the realm of feelings. Superstitions permeate our world. Some superstitions are intended to convey useful lessons, others form a part of the process of socialization, yet others are abused by various elites to control the masses. But most of them are there to comfort us by proffering “instant” causal explanations and by rendering our Universe more meaningful.
5. Do you believe that superstitions change with the changes in culture?
A. The content of superstitions and the metaphors we use change from culture to culture – but not the underlying shock and awe that yielded them in the first place. Man feels dwarfed in a Cosmos beyond his comprehension. He seeks meaning, direction, safety, and guidance. Superstitions purport to provide all these the easy way. To be superstitious one does not to study or to toil. Superstitions are readily accessible and unequivocal. In troubled times, they are an irresistible proposition.
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* This talk was given at a local TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences. Dr. Shohini Ghose talks about how the laws of quantum mechanics may be harnessed to develop next generation computers and novel protocols like teleportation.
Shohini Ghose is an Associate Professor of Physics and Computer Science at
Wilfrid Laurier University and an Affiliate of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.
She and her co-workers also made the first-ever movies of cesium atoms that demonstrate how the “butterfly effect” of chaos can impact quantum correlations or ‘entanglement’.
Dr. Ghose was awarded the prestigious Sera Bangali award for her contributions to science and she is also a member of the TED Fellowship for 2014. With much accolades and accomplishments, Dr. Ghose is also the founding Director for Wilfrid Laurier University’s Centre for Women in Science which aims to build a diverse community in science through research, action and communication.
She also recently co-authored the first Canadian undergraduate Introductory Astronomy textbook, which is now being used in several universities in Canada.
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Breaking barriers with quantum physics | Dr. Shohini Ghose | TEDxNickelCity