Swans Commentary » swans.com May 31, 2010  



The Scientific World Picture


by Michael Doliner





To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

—William Shakespeare, Macbeth, V.v.19-28


(Swans - May 31, 2010)   Perhaps the strangest and most deadly gift of the Enlightenment to mankind is what I call "the scientific world picture." That is the creation story as modern science gives it to us. It goes roughly like this: there was a big bang that created a lot of dust that slowly cooled and collected into planets and stars and on many of them, including earth, life grew spontaneously. It wasn't a particularly unlikely process. A spark probably got it going on many different planets. Then through chance and survival of the fittest, we arrived. A human being is nothing more than dust -- life and death and everything else is all part of a huge meaningless process that in the end goes nowhere. Indeed, even the distinction between life and death is unreal, part of our strange false perspective. For everything that happens is just part of this long meaningless physico-chemical process. Subatomic particles combined to make particles, particles atoms, atoms molecules, and molecules us. The distinction between one portion of this long process called "alive," and another, called "dead," is purely arbitrary. "We," and of course even the word "we" designates an illusion, don't really exist. What does exist is the physico-chemical interplay of the tiny bits of this dust, a dance of atoms, electricity, and push and pull. And even this, the tiniest bits, may be actually something less substantial, strings perhaps. "Strings of what?" is apparently not a question. Macbeth's "nothing" at least included a stage play, while we have only a sandstorm, if that. And the conclusion of many is, "you might as well have as much fun as you can while you are still around."

It is my goal to dispel this picture. Of course, I do not want to put a creationist picture or any other religious picture in its place. No, I want to get rid of the whole idea of us in here looking at a picture out there. To embrace any such picture will get us nowhere, except to a bit of self-delusional comfort.

Still with me? Just don't get scared. All right. Wagons ho! I want to look at something that seems so simple that we never look at it: distance. Everybody is quite sure he (or she) knows what distance is. But is the distance, say, between two walls "something"? Is it something "out there" that we can observe? We say it is 72 inches between two walls. I look down the corridor, I see the two walls and the floor, but I don't see anything telling me that it is 72 inches between them. That the distance is 72 inches is not an experience. So it must be both out there and invisible. Hum, curious.

Well, someone might say, you have to measure it. But let us look at the word "measure." Measuring is a little routine. We get out our tape measure, stretch it from wall to wall, look at the number, and remember it. Now when we do this routine are we creating or measuring the distance? "Creating" is not a good word here, but the right word doesn't exist. Using "measure" forces the answer to our question. For the word "measure" tells us that it, the 72 inches, was there to be measured. But where was it? Again, I see the walls and the floor, but not the distance. The name of what we did, "measure," is the fatal step in what turns out to be a metaphysical commitment. It orders the universe. Let us, humans with the free use of our intelligence, withdraw the license of "measure" to order the universe. For to use intelligence freely means to accept no authority. We did something to produce a number. That is what we can say. We did something. Am anfang war die tat, in the beginning was the deed, as Goethe put it.

What we did is a very special kind of thing. Let me take a shot at describing it. A measurement of distance is an operation that produces a number, an operation others can repeat. The others will come up with the same number. But how can we know that? How can we know that what we did to measure the distance will give me the same number some other time, let alone give it to somebody else? For it is certainly not logically necessary that it do so. Well, we designed the little operation to give consistent results. That is it's whole point. We make sure the tape is straight; we make sure we measure straight across. We teach others how to play the game. Those who can't do this little task, who get different numbers from time to time, will go into a walk of life where it is not that necessary to measure distances. But even so, with all these precautions, nothing that we did guarantees, or even implies, that we will get the same number again.

In the end you might say the knowledge that this operation is repeatable is the treasure of the species. That is the reality of scientific discovery. A scientific discovery is the discovery that we can repeat a certain operation and get the same number. This is what we mean by the distance being "out there." "Out there" means that we can do this operation, and as a result other connected operations. It is something our ancestors learned and passed down to us. Their real treasure. We know, without really thinking about it, that when making a measurement we should keep the tape measure straight if we want to get accurate readings. "Accurate?" Against what criteria? Well, of course we know from ancient lore that when we keep the tape tight, go straight across, and carefully read the number, then we ourselves again, and many other people at other times, will get the same number by doing that measurement that way too. Accuracy of any particular measurement is consistency of results, not an approximation to an external standard.

When first done this kind of result must have seemed almost magical. To the uninitiated it might seem like a conjuring trick. I measure a distance and announce a number. Then I leave. Somebody else who knows nothing of what I did comes in, measures a distance, and comes up with the same number. Amazing! And so handy. With it you can order lumber over the phone. Contractors can give instructions to carpenters. Needs can be calculated in advance. What might be called the class or even the tribe of Measurers must have grown very rapidly given their newfound ability to "think ahead," and their other awesome powers. However, measuring is also dangerous, for as intricate and absorbing as all the things you can do with distance are, they are but a distraction from more important things. Living, for example.

Now let us ask another question. What does it mean to "do the same thing again?" Aren't any two moments in time different? I myself might be quite different tomorrow or a year from now. When doing the same thing again, are all the differences between these two moments irrelevant? Apparently all the innumerable differences, given that different people do the operations in different places at different times, are irrelevant. How do we know what is relevant? Can we spell out just what we should and shouldn't do? Well, it seems that almost any operation that gets you the "right" answer consistently will do. So there is a circularity here. The number is right because we can measure it again, and the measuring technique is correct because it got the right number using it. But surely, you might say, there is a standard.

We need a standard to break this circularity. Let us stick, for ease of imagination, to the nineteenth century standard, a platinum rod in Paris at a given temperature. Now of course, as we have seen, no object can be a standard, for how can such an object just sitting there be a standard for doing something? Unspoken, but there nevertheless, is the operation to be done with this standard to produce a number that we can compare with numbers produced by other operations. The claim that this object is the "standard meter" is just one more reason that we tend to think of distance as we do and not as it is.

So then am I saying that distance is not objective? "Distance" is "objective," as long as we remember what "objective" means. Facts are objective not because they involve something "out there" but because they are produced by repeatable operations or acts. First-hand accounts of events are notoriously "not objective" because there is no repeatable operation that can produce what the observer saw. "I saw him hit the brakes" can be disputed in court, but "the tire tracks started 50 yards from the impact point" can't. For it is a claim for a measurement that anyone might do again. Again, I do not want to say that nothing is objective. That is simply silly. What I want to do is clarify just what the word "objective" means. Something is objective if we, that is trained people, can reproduce it (a number, a chemical analysis, any of the results of any repeatable move) with one of these operations. The operation tells us just what kind of objective thing it is.

Now, the operation to use a meter stick, an approximate duplicate of the standard meter, is quite different from the operation with a tape measure. It doesn't go all the way between the two walls. So we push the meter stick against one wall, make a tiny mark on the floor at the other end of the meter stick, slide the meter stick to the mark. Repeat. Count the number of repetitions. Then, when we get to the end we do a little trick and measure back from the wall to get the fraction of a meter remaining. Dude! Clever me. But did I do the same thing with the meter stick as I did with the tape measure? Does the fact that there are two very different ways of measuring distance prove that distance is out there and that we are "measuring" rather than "creating" something. No, of course not. It is not hard to see how all the operations link together, with one, finally, as the master operation that solves all disputes. To be sure it very rarely comes to that. We use the tools we have, confident that they give results close enough to what the operation using the standard meter would give. Disputes about distance are very rare. Although no one really appeals to the Supreme Court of the standard meter, it is a great comfort in the cities the Measurement cult now inhabit to know it is there. Were there no standard meter I suspect a shudder of fear would go through the population, but so deep down that few would notice it.

Will we always get the same answer at different times? Well, no. One or both of the walls might be torn down. Or perhaps someone cleverly moved one just a few inches. Until Einstein came along we were pretty sure we would get the same answer unless somebody did something or something happened. Now we are not so sure. One of the hedges that provides our guarantee that the operation will produce the same number if done again is a metaphysical commitment to the proposition: if the operation gives a different number then something must have changed. With this metaphysical commitment we can obviously guarantee that the operation, done correctly, will always give the same answer -- unless something changed.

The complex of operations that gives the same result raises another interesting question. The operation with the meter stick is obviously useless to measure the distance to the moon. The operation we use to do that agrees with the meter stick operation where they both can be used. So does the moon operation measure the same thing as the meter stick operation, even where the latter is impossible? Given the scientific world picture, which supplies something out there to be measured, the answer must be yes, though we might add "theoretically yes," thus introducing the idea of "theoretical" distance. If we remain attentive to the operations themselves, we realize that the question is pointless. The operations that connect to the measurement of the distance to the moon are quite different from those connected to measuring the distance between two walls. The real scientific motto is always, "What can be done, can be done."

The result, that it is 72 inches between the two walls, means you can do other operations of a similar repeatable kind -- fit the refrigerator through the corridor, for example, or figure out how much paint you need to buy to paint the ceiling. If you are a realtor you might know not to show this house to a guy who hates corridors narrower than 84 inches. Yes, operations connect to other operations. The number the operation produces informs us of other operations we can or cannot do. And we can do many things. We are clever monkeys. But is there some underlying thing, the distance between the walls, that makes all these activities possible (or impossible, or unadvised)? If so what is it? It is the product of a metaphysic, not something actually there, but something we feel needs to be there because of the picture we have committed ourselves to.

So, and this is my point, the scientific enterprise is a complex web of human operations of a special kind -- measurements and, of course, experiments. It consists entirely of our doing things, and does not consist of a picture consisting of truths about what is out there. But we will need to look at this more deeply to see why. Again, I hasten to add, the scientific project of collecting repeatable operations also does not support the creationist picture, which creationists want to support in scientific terms. For example, the concept of "intelligent design" is simply not a scientific theory, for it supplies no repeatable operation. The reader should be able to see why, but if not will have to wait for the section on theory. Science is a careful catalog of repeatable operations, a collection of actions that can be done by the average man, or at the very least several well-trained men, and it is in this sense that I call it democracy's art. It eliminates what one person uniquely can do once and for all; for example, the gesture of an artist caught on canvass, and constitutes the world as a complex of activities all or at least many people can do and do again at different times in different places. As such the scientific world picture is created entirely out of the banal, and in that sense very much capitalistic. These might be called stable operations, operations that can be done now or later by any properly trained human with reasonable abilities. It will give the same result. It is just such operations that can be linked together in technological marvels. It is just such operations that machines emulate. The distance between two walls is nothing but a collection of operations that either can or cannot be done. And to be sure not all these operations produce numbers, but those connected to the scientific world picture often do.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to this idea is the calendar. Doesn't the earth go around the sun in pretty much the same amount of time every year? Again, yes it does, but we must remember just how hard this is to determine. Primitive man erected Stonehenge to help him do it. That it is getting warmer today, that the crocuses are out, are scientific statements if I can look again and see them again. But they say nothing about the calendar. Nothing you can see does. Without being able to count, humans would probably have had no hope of realizing that the year was regular, for our feel for lengths of time longer than a few days, that is our memory of lengths of time of even moderate length, can only have been of the greatest haziness unless we anchored this memory in things we can count, like months and days, or seasons that we know have such-and-such a length. But how do we know they are of such-and-such a length unless we can count? Just to be able to measure a year is an extraordinary achievement. Yes, you might say, but isn't the fact that it works, that the calendar actually predicts the position of the sun, proof that it is out there? Yes, that's fine with me, just as long as you see that the evidence for something's being out there is that we can devise an operation that we can repeat that works again and again, that produces the position of the sun. Is it awesome, on the one hand, or, on the other, ho-hum, that we can predict the position of the sun a year from now? Then again, that it is a year from now is proven by the sun's being in that position. "What is" is what these repeatable operations can produce.

People who could do this must have been enormously powerful, for they could relieve the fear of the sun's sinking altogether and just disappearing. That the crocuses will bloom in two weeks is. And it is this kind of claim that the calendar dates must supply. What we make or discover are operations that we can do again with the same result. They give the same results when repeated by different people in different places at different times. Not every person need be suited, nor every place suitable. You can't drill an oil well just anywhere; not everybody can solve difficult mathematical problems. But there needs to be some skillful trained people who can do the operation again, and some places where it will work.

The logic behind measurement is far more complex than we tend to realize. Let us ask this question, for example. How was it possible that the standard meter has changed? It used to be a platinum rod one-meter long kept at a constant temperature in Paris. Now it is the wavelength of a certain frequency of red light. When I ask this question people immediately say, "The light is more accurate and easier to use!" and it is usually impossible to go further. But how could anything be more accurate than the standard meter? When you measured a meter with it, well, that was a meter, by definition, was it not? How can anything be more accurate than the thing whose length is exactly a meter, by definition?

The answer comes, once again, from looking at what we do. What do people mean when they say the wavelength of light is more accurate? Answer: this operation to measure something, when repeated, gives the same answer to more decimal places consistently. The measurement with the light wavelength might give the distance between the walls as 72.035 inches consistently, varying only in the fourth decimal place, whereas the operation with the meter stick might vary by as much as a quarter inch either way from 72.25 inches to 71.75 inches, thus varying in the ones column. For of course we realize that we don't get exactly the same number each time, just close to the same number, if we are allowing for small enough fractions. We might specify ahead of time that we want always to measure only whole numbers. To call this approximate measurement is somewhat of a slander. It is a different operation used for different purposes.

So the operation using the wavelength is more accurate because it comes up with the same answer to more decimal places when used to measure the same distance. That is, accuracy requires measuring the same distance two or more times. Accuracy is a question of the operation's consistency in the numbers it produces, not a relationship between the operation and some outside "real" distance. All well and good; perhaps obvious.


(Next time: Time.)


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About the Author

Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago (1964-1970) and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 31, 2010