Thursday, 5 September 2013

It’s All Semantics

I tend to annoy everyone. It’s not intentional. Honestly. I don’t get up in the morning determined to irritate people, it’s just my habit of questioning everything and refusing to just accept what I’m told. I’m a sceptic, but not the one-sided kind. There are plenty of others who claim to be sceptics but who, as far as I can see, only go so far with their questions. I’ll explain.....

It goes like this.....whether you’re on Facebook or sitting by a campfire, and the topic tends to get a bit deep, you tend to get two major “sides” occur. In most debates on How Things Are, you usually get someone who chirps up with “God did it!” and then you get “No, it’s science, dumbass.” Sometimes you get people who combine these two, in a variety of ways (some, oh let’s say, more considered, than others), including self-proclaimed metaphysicists, and others. And then you get me. I argue with all of them.

What annoys them, basically, is that I won’t take any of these positions.  The religious folk hate my constant pointing out that their beliefs are unscientific, and the scientists (who hearing that, think I’m on their “side”) hate my maverick ideas about the Universe and so on.  But I don’t even fall into the metaphysical camp properly, because it’s too wide open and woolly for my tastes. So they all roll their eyes at me, call me names, and decide I’m stupid. I can live with that. That annoys them even more, that their derision doesn’t bother me. As I said, I manage to annoy everyone.

Well, it’s all understandable really. I am, after all, implying that God and Stephen Hawking are both mistaken.  That is quite the stance to take. Requires chutzpah. I am unfazed. No wonder I get “those” looks.

But the problem is a basic philosophical one. I am all about definitions and proof. I require solid definitions and at least a reasonable level of proof. I’m into the whole “What do you mean by that? How do you know that?” thing. I ask those questions a lot, even if I don’t actually do it out loud. By which I mean that as soon as somebody seems very certain of something, I am suspicious. I look at them funny. And I examine their words really closely. I examine what they mean by those words.

What I love about scientists, the good ones that is, is that they are not afraid to say “We don’t know.” Because we don’t. We really, really don’t. And we know we don’t know. Despite that, there are plenty of times scientists behave as if they know. Some of them are extremely good scientists, those I really admire. I think they just forget themselves.

So, let’s see why I say that some of the definitions of words that we often bandy about are problematic.

#1 The first word I offer is the word “all”. I have a problem with this word, apparently, at a very mundane level when asking my kids to clean up. “Can you make sure you do ALL the dishes?” And I find the dog bowl still under the table. Or their father’s lunchbox unwashed. Or a large, annoying pan in soak. Or whatever. And I refer them to Sesame Street and how words are defined. All means all. I may even sing a little song.

In conversations, then, about The Universe, I find scientists – good scientists – sometimes referring to “The Known Universe” or “Our Universe”. Which is cute, but doesn’t really help. And occasionally you catch metaphysicists, and others, talking of other Universes. You certainly hear religious folk, and others, referring to “Outside the Universe” or “Beyond the Universe”.  And all of them like to offer the good old “Before the Universe”. I’m often tempted to say “I do not think it means what you think it means.” But it could be me that’s using the word wrong, of course.

When I say “Universe” I am referring to All There Is And Ever Has Been. Oh no, they say, that’s not what we mean. Well then, what word should I be using? Come on, what have you got? You don’t like my alternatives, do you?

Because if I say “The All” they roll their eyes at me, because it sounds too metaphysical. So how do we talk about “everything?”

You see, the thing is, making it sound as if you are referring to everything, and then going beyond that, is plainly unfair. It’s moving the goalposts. All means all. How we can we discuss the Universe if we can’t even agree on its definition?

The word Universe - according to Webster’s dictionary - is from the Latin, uni, meaning whole, and versus, meaning turned toward.  There’s no concept of it being just part of anything. In fact definition 1 says “The whole body of things and phenomena observed or postulated.” 

Whole. Not part. Not even most of. And not just things observed, you notice, but also those postulated.

So maybe I’m just being too literal, or maybe we need a new word. Perhaps, it isn’t really a question of right or wrong here, but of having different ideas about what it means. And this is a fundamental problem, because whether you insist that the Universe was created by God, or formed in the Big Bang, we are leaving things out, one way or another. For a start we are not including the time before, nor are we including the empty space it moved into. And as some scientists like to tell us that time and space are ultimately the same thing, you have a problem either way.

And the reason this is all so problematic is that creation, by definition, be it by God or a massive explosion, messes with the Laws of Physics. And you cannae change the laws of physics, Jim. Or can you?

#2 The word ‘law”.

We are rather used to this word but I don’t think it always means what you think it means. Does it mean a rule that cannot be broken? When we create laws, that’s the general idea. But they get broken anyway. So, no, if it’s actually unbreakable, it’s not the same thing as that kind of law.

We decided that these laws of physics are actually impossible to break. Who says it’s impossible? Are we sure these laws apply everywhere? What do you mean? How do you know?

When something made no sense long ago, people simply said “God did it”. These days some people still say that when they don’t like the ramifications of science. 

Scientists, on the other hand, find a problem, i.e. something seemingly impossible, and say “It sort of messes with the laws of physics, so we need a new theory to explain how it is possible.”

That’s how quantum theory came about. Einstein hated it and I don’t really blame him. But it exists, it works, and it leads to yet more questions than answers. In fact as knowledge grows, we discover that what we thought we knew was wrong. Again good scientists are cool with that, they expect it, they’re not offended by it. Unfortunately some of them still behave as if what we know now is The Truth . Maybe they don’t mean to. Maybe if we just reminded them not to be so arrogant, and use the words “we currently believe” a bit more often, those who actually don’t understand the science, but listen to those who do (and totally miss the uncertainty factor) wouldn’t get so annoyed with me.

Anyway, this leads us to definition...

#3. “Science.”

It is not an alternative religion. You don’t have to believe in science. What science IS, is the body of knowledge that we have collected to date. It’s not the same as it was yesterday.  We learn new stuff all the time. In 100 years time what we know now will seem quaint. Teachers will say “in 2013, we believed that...BUT....” and students will laugh. Bless ‘em, they’ll think, they thought they knew everything.

If I haven’t nagged you into watching this video yet, please do so now.

It may all be stuff you already knew (as some have claimed......) but I think it illustrates what I’m saying. We must never allow ourselves to get haughty about what we know, not even the top scientists, because many things are uncertain.

Scientists ARGUE with one another. This is a good thing, of course, but it demonstrates clearly that while we may know this, this, and this (because we’ve all agreed on it, and no proof to the contrary has so far arisen), we’re not so sure about THIS.

Nobody really knows how gravity works, for example. But it does. We have measured it, and we know a lot about it, but we don’t really understand it. We cope just fine anyway, we don’t float away just because we don’t fully understand it. From our observations we can make predictions of how it will behave in whatever scenario, and we seem to get that part right. Before we visited the Moon (I use the big “we” here, I didn’t go) we calculated how heavy our boots needed to be, and it was pretty much bang on. Science begins with observation, after all. We extrapolate and infer from what we observe. Gravity is well-observed. And because we assume the laws of physics are unbreakable, and will apply everywhere, we don’t actually need to understand exactly how gravity works, we just do the math.

.....And sometimes we are wrong. So far, we have no examples of the laws of physics being broken (if they look a bit bent we compensate for it, see note on quantum theory, above), but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Furthermore, if we assume that these laws are impossible to break and apply everywhere, and we create theories based on these fundamentals, if perchance one day we find that the laws of physics DON’T apply EVERYWHERE, then that will alter every theory built upon them. Which is very unsettling an idea, and is therefore ridiculed. Understandably so really.

But we still can’t define “everywhere”.

We are all just doing the best we can really. It is a very safe feeling that we have such a good grasp of How Everything Works (even if we aren’t quite sure what “everything” is) and I don’t expect scientists to suddenly take annoying people like me into account, and preface everything they say with a disclaimer. That would get tedious, and it would also give more fuel to the creationists and others who like to discredit good science with their convoluted pseudo-science.

No, we have to remember, when we read science, what it is, and what it isn’t. We have to agree on what words mean before we can discuss anything. We have to be open to possibilities, without being credulous. We cannot have a cavalier attitude about objections to our favourite theories, or we face the possibility of looking really daft when they are proven wrong.

Which is why I ask:

 “What do you mean by that?”


“How do you know?”

And drive everyone nuts.

Every single time.

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