Why Scientific Philosophy Is Important

I recently talked to a person who was convinced that scientific theories, mathematical theories, mathematical theorems, knowledge, truth, and scientific laws were all basically synonymous. He said that physics could not exist without math, because math defined physics. He also was convinced that believing and agreeing were the same thing. I attempted to remedy these misconceptions using some basic arguments, but I was finally written off as “not understanding anything” and “unwilling to do the math”. When I asked him to define the word truth, he merely kept repeating, “I don’t know what you mean. Truth is just that which is.” When I attempted to explain that the word “truth” was a symbol referring to a concept, and that we couldn’t have a discussion if we were referring to different concepts with the same word, he said “you don’t need to define truth, it just is. It’s very simple.” He couldn’t understand why I kept “bringing up philosophy when we’re talking about simple truths here.”

Sigh. If I can’t break through that kind of rhetoric, I might as well just explain my thoughts here.

Why is it important to know about the philosophy behind knowledge, truth, and science when talking about it? Isn’t it possible to rely on a the natural human consensus of truth? Besides, while it is so hard to explain using language, people intuitively grasp the concept. Right?

Well, let’s give some examples. It’s true that if you drop an object, it falls, right? Well, yeah, that statement is true if you are on the surface of a planet, and not orbiting it. Or if you are underwater and you drop a buoyant object — it goes up! But wait, can you drop something underwater if it doesn’t go down? No, that wouldn’t be dropping it would just be… releasing? Hold on, when an object is in orbit, isn’t it actually just falling in a special way? It’s moving sideways fast enough that it misses the ground by the time it’s fallen far enough. But if an astronaut releases a wrench, and it float right in front of him, you wouldn’t call that “dropping”.

What we see is that the word “drop” has a definition, and we need to know what the definition of “drop” is before we can begin to assess the truth of the statement “if you drop an object, it falls”. As it turns out, “dropping” an object consists of releasing it such that it falls away from you. Uh oh. So yeah, “if you drop an object, it falls” is true, but it doesn’t actually convey any physical knowledge; it just defines a property of the word “drop” in terms of another word, “fall”.

So lets look at some more meaningful examples. Most people would say it’s true that planets orbit the sun in an elliptical manner. Except it isn’t true. It’s true that the movement of the planets can be approximated into ellipses, but in fact there are measurable deviations. “Okay, sure. The movement is actually described by Newton’s laws of motion, and the law of gravitation.” Okay, yes, an N-body approximation gets much, much closer to describing reality. In fact, it perfectly matched the observations Newton was working from. However, it’s still not true the Newton’s laws describe the motion of the planets.

We can look to general relativity to describe the motion of the planets even better. We have launched satellites to observe very minor fluctuations in the path of the Earth that would confirm the prediction made by general relativity. As it turns out, general relativity makes predictions that perfectly match our observations. Woof. Finally, we’ve found some truth. The path of the planets around the sun is described by general relativity.

But wait, can we say this in good conscience? No! Just like Newton, we’ve found a set of laws which create predictions that match our observations. But just like Newton, we cannot measure the motion perfectly. All we can say is that general relativity describes the motion of the planets as far as we can observe. We don’t know if there is some unknown mechanic that affects the motion of planets in a way we can’t measure right now. We can’t say that general relativity is “true”, we can only say that it is confirmed by all of our observations to date, much in the same way that Newton could not say that his laws of motion were true; they merely described the all physical data he was capable of obtaining.

This gets to the root of the problem. While mathematical notions can be “true” because they exist within an entirely constructed framework defined through logic, theories in science can never be “true”. The point of science is not to find things that are true, but to find the best explanation for why the world works the way it does. And just to get one thing clear, theories are explanation of “why”, and laws are explicit definitions of how physical quantities relate. So no, we don’t use “math to define physics”, physics uses math to explain the physical universe. But even without math, we can perform a sort of qualitative physics.

For instance, “things stay still until you push them, and things keep going straight unless you push them.” This phrasing of Newton’s first law of motion is simplistic and uses words like “thing” and “push” without really defining them, but it gets the point across. Similarly, “big things move less when you push them, and small things move more.” This is very simplistic, and doesn’t even mention the fact that acceleration changes linearly with force, but it communicates the basic idea of Newton’s second law of motion, without even getting into what “big”, “small”, and “move” really mean.

The point is that the traditional phrasing of Newton’s second law, F=ma (which, by the way, is more accurately ΣF = m * Σa), merely uses mathematical symbols rather than English symbols, which allows us to manipulate it using the rules of mathematics. But just because we are manipulating arbitrary quantities with math doesn’t mean anything physically. Just because I calculate that an object which masses 1 kg should accelerate at 1 m/s^2 when I apply 1 N of force doesn’t mean the thing is actually going to act that way if I perform the experiment. This is because “mass” is really a simplification of a whole range of things, as is “acceleration”. It doesn’t even account for internal forces, and only describes the movement of the center of mass.

Math may be true, but only within the realm of math. When we translate physical quantities into the mathematical universe, they lose they physical meaning. We may translate them back, but the results we get can only be an approximation, not a truth, not a reality. These approximations can be very useful, but we have to remember the limitations of our theories, and our instruments.

Defining Life

I’ve had this conversation a couple of times recently, because it poses an interesting question: can we create a definition for ‘alive’ that encompasses not only known biological life, but also any theoretical lifeforms we can imagine? This might include alternative biochemistry, artificial life (nanites?), and even digital lifeforms.

Obviously there is an inherent problem in this discussion; we are assuming everyone shares a similar definition of life. However, even a skin-deep probing can reveal divisive philosophical questions. Are computer viruses alive? How about self-replicating structures of dust particles in a plasma? Is the Earth alive? We can’t truly resolve this problem without first clearly setting a boundary for what things are alive and what things aren’t alive. For example, scientists seem to have resolutely decided that biological viruses are not alive. Similarly, its clear to our human sensibilities that a car engine is not alive, even if it is highly advanced and has all sorts of sensors and regulatory mechanisms.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to skip over this roadblock and dive in. Wikipedia gives these criteria for calling something ‘alive’:

  1. Homeostasis: Regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state.
  2. Organization: Being structurally composed of one or more cells.
  3. Metabolism: Converting chemicals and energy to maintain internal organization.
  4. Growth: A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.
  5. Adaptation: The ability to change over time in response to the environment.
  6. Response to stimuli: A response is often expressed by motion; for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (phototropism), and chemotaxis.
  7. Reproduction: The ability to produce new individual organisms, either asexually from a single parent organism, or sexually from two parent organisms.

There are some good ones in there, but a few need to go. Let’s throw out Organization (this can almost be seen as tautological — things made of cells are alive because they are made of cells — and exclusive of otherwise potential candidates for life), Growth (one can imagine an organism which is artificially constructed, but then maintains itself perfectly, or a mechanical organism that starts life by being constructed externally, and slowly grows smaller as it sacrifices components to stay operational), and Reproduction (again, imagine a constructed organism that cannot reproduce). This leaves Homeostasis, Metabolism, and Adaptation/Response to stimuli.

However, its clear that Metabolism is important: an organism must take something from its environment and consume it to maintain an internal state. Metabolism and Homeostasis are where biological viruses fail the ‘life test’. While some advanced viruses meet the Adaptation and Response to Stimuli (arguably the same thing, just at different scales), no virus can use resources from its environment to perform internal upkeep. It requires the hijacked machinery of a cell to do that.

Unless you say that living things are part of a virus’s ‘environment’. Then you could argue that in some sense of the word, viruses are alive, because they use resources present in the environment to perform internal upkeep. This raises an important question about context. Indeed, all definitions of life seem to hinge on context. For example, a computer virus’s environment is the computer system. Resources would be computing time and memory, perhaps.

Is a computer virus alive? Advanced viruses can modify their own state (metamorphic code), respond to stimuli (anti-virus, user activity, etc), and metabolize resources from their environment. They also reproduce, although we cut that criterion so the point is moot. If a computer virus meets the requirements for life (albeit unconventionally), then do we have to accept it as a lifeform?

Moreover, there are things we wouldn’t normally call a single entity that fulfill the requirements for life. These are often termed “living systems”. The Earth is a prime example. It has systems that regulate its interior, it absorbs sunlight and that helps fuel the regulatory cycles on the surface. It’s debatable whether the Earth responds to stimuli. Sure, there are feedback loops, but the Earth doesn’t really respond accordingly to changes (say, changes in solar luminosity or meteoric impacts) in order to maintain homeostasis. Quite the opposite, in fact. For example: a decrease in solar radiation produces more ice, lowering albedo, thus lowering albedo further.

So maybe the Earth isn’t alive, but we have to consider nonetheless that systems can be alive. In fact, its questionable whether humans are single organisms. Several pounds of our weight are gut bacteria, independent organisms which share no DNA with us, but on which we rely for survival. We are a system. Call it a colony, call it symbiosis; the entity that is a human is in fact a collection of trillions of ‘independent’ organisms, and yet that entity is also singularly ‘alive’.

Can we trust our initial, gut reaction that tells us what is alive and what isn’t? Moreover, what use is there in classifying life in the first place? We treat cars that are definitely not alive as if they are precious animals with a will of their own, and then squash bugs without a second thought. Is it important to define life at all, rigorous criteria or not?

Mobile Computing

Many have predicted the fall of the PC in favor of large-scale mobile computing with smartphones and tablets. Most people don’t need the power of a high-end laptop or desktop computer to check email and play Facebook games. Indeed, most services are now provided over the Internet, with low client computational requirements. However, we may see an abrupt reversal in this trend.

There are two factors at play that could radically change the direction of the computing market. First, some experts are now predicting doom and gloom for the “free Internet”. The post-Snowden Internet is very likely going to fragment along national lines, with each country creating its own insulated network over security concerns. Not only does this mean the US will lose its disproportionate share of Internet business (and US tech companies will see significant declines in overseas sales), but it also means the era of cloud services may be coming to a premature close. As users see the extent of NSA data mining, they may become less willing to keep all of their data with a potentially unsecured third-party. If users wish to start doing more computing offline – or at least locally – in the name of security, then desktop computers and high-power tablets may see a boost in sales.

Second, the gulf between “PCs” and “tablets” is rapidly closing; the agony over PC-mobile market shifts will soon be moot. Seeing a dip in traditional PC sales, many manufacturers have branched out, and are now creating a range of hybrid devices. These are often large tabletop-scale tablets to replace desktops, or tablets like the Surface Pro to replace laptops. I suspect the PC market will fragment, with a majority of sales going towards these PC-mobile hybrids, and a smaller percentage going towards specialty desktops for high-power gaming and industry work (think CAD and coding).

I doubt desktop computers will disappear. In 10 years, the average household might have a large tablet set in a holder on a desk and connected to a mouse and keyboard, or laid flat on a coffee table. It would be used for playing intensive computer games, or the entire family could gather round and watch videos. In addition to this big tablet-computer, each person would have one or two “mobile” devices: a smallish smartphone, and a medium tablet with a keyboard attachment that could turn it into laptop-mode. Some people may opt for a large-screen phone and forgo the tablet.

It’s hard to tell whether or not the revelations about national spying will significantly impact the civilian net (the same goes for the fall of net neutrality). On the one hand, people are concerned about the security of their data. However, being able to access data from any device without physically carrying it around has proved to be a massive game-changer for business and society in general. We may be past the point-of-no-return when it comes to adopting a cloud computing framework. On the whole, transitioning from a dichotomy between “mobile devices” and “computers” to a spectrum of portability seems to be a very good thing.

Digital Copyright

We’ve got a big problem in America. Well, we’ve got a number of big problems. But one of the biggest, baddest problems is that monstrous leviathan known as copyright law.

Glossing over the issues with traditional copyright law, I want to focus on digital copyright. It has been apparent for some time that there is something dreadfully wrong with the way the US handles copyright management on the Internet. An explosion of annoying DRM, horrific lawsuits, and illegal prosecution has illuminated the fact that our current system for managing content rights is broken.

Currently the DMCA governs much of US digital copyright law. It is based on two tenets: one, content providers are not accountable for user-uploaded content as long as, two, there is a means for quickly taking down content at the request of the owner of any copyrighted material in that offending content.

However, many large content producers have taken to spamming such takedown requests, to the point of absurdity; for example, HBO at one point requested that Youtube take down a video with HBO content – that HBO itself had posted. We also hear the stories about kids being sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars because they pirated a few dozen songs. And in at least one case, monolithic content producers like the MPAA and RIAA have gotten the US government to grossly violate a swath of other laws in order to enforce the DMCA. I speak of the Kim Dotcom raid. Invalid permits, illegal seizure of evidence, failing to unfreeze funds for legal defense, harassment while in custody, illegal withholding of evidence from the defense – the list goes on. It shows that the crusade against copyright infringement has become a farce, and the DMCA is no longer effective.

Ironically, it’s not even clear that taking this hard-line approach is the right way to go about deterring copyright infringement in the first place. Over the last few years, Netflix has grown to comprise around 35% of all Internet traffic during peak hours; it has become the de facto way to easily watch movies and TV online. And while Netflix has grown, file-sharing sites have dropped from 30% to 8% of all traffic. This means that legitimate content consumption has effectively replaced online piracy for movies and TV shows.

Why did this happen? Simple: it became easy to watch movies and TV online without pirating. Pirating doesn’t occur because people don’t want to pay for content. It occurs because they physically can’t pay for content. If they could shell out cash for their favorite movies on demand over the Internet, they would; but until streaming sites like Netflix, there was simply no mechanism for doing so. In trying to protect their content, the MPAA actually encouraged online piracy.

We see the same thing occur with music and video games. In many cases, reduced DRM leads to increased sales. There are two explanations. One, if content is easy to pirate, then people do so quickly after release. Because more people are, say, playing the latest video game, word of mouth spreads faster, so more people end up buying the game legitimately. Second, it could be that when a content creator releases something without heavy DRM, the public collectively takes it as a show of good faith, and would rather purchase the content to show support rather than pirate it and take advantage of the creator.

In any case, we can expect to see a change in digital copyright in the near future. For everyone’s sake (that is, both content creators and consumers), I hope we take the path of less DRM and easier legitimate access to content, rather than the path of heavy-handed piracy suppression and draconian DRM.

Separating Science and Religion

I read this article for school:
Lightman’s The Accidental Universe

When asked to write an essay about it, this is what came out. I don’t normally post essays like this, but I’ve been meaning to write a post much like this for a while anyways, so it’s convenient.


Lightman descends into the realm of religion, masking his language with a thin film of scientific consideration, but none of its hard, decisive, rational edge. Lightman never even touches the basic principles of science, but uses philosophical arguments to parade a seemingly-scientific theory around.

Falsifiability is a method for evaluating scientific theories popularized by Karl Popper. It contends that a theory cannot be proved by showing evidence in favor of it. A theory may be shown to be strong if it can make empirically confirmable and correct hypotheses, but a theory can never be proved – only disproved. So to be a scientifically valid, a theory must have a way to be disproven (thus by not being disproven, it continues as the dominant theory). This is one of the problems with the multiverse theory, the theory of intelligent design, and even string theory: it is most likely impossible to disprove them. If an intelligent creator revealed itself, such a turn of events would not inherently make the multiverse theory wrong, per se (a multiverse theory can coexist with intelligent design). It would only make it irrelevant. Of course, this reveals an even bigger fundamental problem with those theories: they don’t explain the mechanics behind physical phenomenon in the traditional sense. Instead, they provide a framework of thought into which actual scientific theories can be slotted. But the multiverse theory is only one framework among many, and there is no way to show that one framework is strictly better than another.

Is it not just as reasonable, just as falsifiable (or not, as the case may be), to conclude that the universe as we know it is the only one, albeit a very lucky one? One could posit that it is indeed accidental. How does this postulate contend with the others on the battlefield of scientific thought? In some regards it may triumph over its opponents, because it relies on any contrary observation to disprove it, while both the multiverse theory and intelligent design can be valid even in the face of one or the other being true. So really, the Random Chance theory is more falsifiable, and thus more scientific.

But of course the Random Chance theory is completely unpleasing to the philosophical human mind. A much more palatable theory is the multiverse theory, which, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, slips in among the legitimate scientific advancements and completes a scientist’s world view satisfactorily. But is a scientist’s world view scientific? No. Science is a tool for developing a physically accurate view of the world, and we employ it because the human mind is not built to obey scientific rules. Our capacity for cognitive dissonance is astounding. Thus a scientist can in good conscience accept a non-scientific belief to assuage his existential conflicts by slathering the belief in the manner of other physics theories.
Another such unfalsifiable belief system is string theory. String theory is a self-consistent way of interpreting physical data using notions that fall out of mathematical equations but have no basis in experimental science. Indeed, string theory exists only as a way for some physicists and mathematicians to unify all of reality under some Platonic mode. But it is only that; a way to think about the universe, to help explain the Great Unexplainable, as Sax Russell calls it. String theory cannot produce hypotheses that can be tested to confirm the mode of thought. It can explain the observed, but only as well as previous existing theories. While it is nice that it can bring physical laws under a single wing, niceness is not a necessary quality of scientific theory. It is a subjective human measurement applied in the realm of philosophy.

Philosophy is not useless. It is a tool, like science, for examining the world. However, instead of measuring and describing physical phenomenon objectively, it takes human concepts or unimaginable realities (such as that beyond the realm of science) and compresses them down and creates a set of rules for the human mind to follow. It generates modes of thought that allow us to function and think about that which might otherwise turn us into quivering lumps of existential dread.

But assembling a philosophical system of thought only to pass it off as a product of science is dangerous. Besides preying on those incapable of evaluating the modes of thought on their own, it tricks the creator as well. Thus we can see the inevitable and unending conflict between the “rational” scientist and the “faithful” man of religion. Neither of them realizes that they are jousting with philosophical ideas, and as a result keeps hitting his opponent not at the weak spots, but at the bastions of his belief. The scientist calls his mode of thought “scientific truth” (a misleading term in and of itself), and the religious man calls his mode of thought “religion”.

Unfortunately for the world, nobody (certainly not the loud ones) seems to realize that science and religion are not diametrically opposed. Religion is not taken entirely on faith; while it does depend on some unfalsifiable core, it builds up a philosophical belief system around that which, beyond the basic axioms, is self-consistent and pretty damn useful. The scientist, used to tackling scientific theories, thinks that by attacking the core tenets of religion, he can bring down the entire system. But the core is unfalsifiable, so the methods of science are useless. Science and religion shouldn’t even overlap in their realms of explanation. In truth, they don’t. But unfalsifiable philosophy is given the title of science, and physical explanations are given the title of religion, so two incompatible systems are faced against each other. It would be better for everyone if both sides retreated to their realm of the human experience, but since they won’t, we get tripe like Lightman’s essay.

On the SLS

NASA has always built its house on political sand, not rock. While they can get lots of funding at the political high-tide, they can also get bogged down to failure. For instance, the ill-fated Space Shuttle program (or STS) was a result of shifting goals and influences on design from disparate sectors.

Similarly, the new Space Launching System (or SLS) is the brainchild of political forces. Its first stage is an extended Space Shuttle External Tank, and its first-stage engines are Space Shuttle Main Engines. Its solid boosters are STS-derived. This means that most of the STS tooling can be kept, and thus constituencies keep their jobs. I have to admit, this re-use reduces design times, but it is not the most efficient way to build a heavy launch vehicle, especially since the technology is more intricate than it needs to be (jacking up production costs).

The SLS is designed to launch the Orion capsule, which was designed as part of the under-funded Constellation program. The Orion spacecraft uses the Apollo architecture, and NASA helps this comparison by painting the SLS with white-and-black roll patterns reminiscent of the famous Saturn V rocket. Combined with the use of STS systems, the SLS threatens to become one big nostalgic mash. Unfortunately for NASA, this means its shortcomings will be overlooked in the future, much like the Space Shuttle program.

For instance, nobody is quite sure what to do with the damn thing after we’ve designed and built it. NASA has recently released that instead of a circum-lunar flyby, the first manned mission of the Orion/SLS will visit an asteroid that will be tugged into orbit around the Moon. After that, everyone seems to throw up their hands and say, “Mars? I guess?”

Criticisms aside, its good that we are developing any sort of heavy-lift manned capacity, because eventually it will enable deep-space missions. I’m just worried that the SLS program isn’t coherent enough to survive shifts in funding or vision. Not that NASA is particularly gifted in either of those departments. With their limited funding, I’m more interested in their robotic missions (or potential thereof — submarine to Europa, anyone?), because any manned program in the near future will consist of paddling around in the metaphorical kiddy pool.

Does Space Exploration have an ROI?

It’s easy to dismiss the current space program as a giant waste of money. Collectively, the world spends billions upon billions of dollars launching tiny pieces of metal into the sky. How could that possibly be better than, say, building a school in India or providing clean water to poor African countries, or even spending it domestically to improve our country? In the face of recent budget crises, this cry gains even more clout.

And indeed, a lot of space programs are very wasteful, especially NASA and the Roscosmos. However, this is generally due to the fact that politicians treat space as a football — another barrel of pork for their constituents. When politics and space exploration mix, you get bloated programs like the Space Shuttle and the new SLS. It’s much better when the politicians set broad goals (AKA land on the moon), fork over the money, and let the engineers work their magic. Otherwise you get a twisted maze of bureaucracy and general management which ends with wasted money and subpar designs.

But let us not forget that NASA has produced a number of very tangible technological advancements, which is summarized here better than I could. In addition, satellites are a cornerstone of the global communications network, not to mention the Global Positioning System, which is satellites. Although communications satellites are now built and launched by commercial ventures, NASA was the first and only customer for a while, and allowed companies to get some expertise in designing and building rockets. Furthermore, the space industry employs tens of thousands of people, all possible because of initial government funding.

However, those examples involve geostationary orbit at the most. What is the practical value of going out and scanning the other bodies in our solar system. Why should we launch space telescopes and space probes? If you don’t believe in the inherent value of knowledge, here is a very down-to-earth example (so to speak): the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) watches the sun 24/7 from L1. It gives us an advance warning for solar flares, allowing satellite operators enough time to turn their expensive pieces of equipment away from the sun, shielding the most delicate electronics from the impending wave of radiation. It is estimated that SOHO has paid for itself 10 times over in this fashion.

Finally, part of space exploration is the attempt to answer some of the big questions. Deep space telescopes answer some part of “Where did we come from?”, and probes to the surfaces of other planets and moon are often trying to answer “Are we alone?”. If you think this is far too sentimental an appeal, I urge you to imagine the ramifications if a future mission to Europa found microorganisms living in the oceans under the ice, or a mission to Mars found lithophiles buried under the Martian regolith. How would world philosophies change?

Regardless, we may be spending too much money and spending it in the wrong places. I submit to you the Indian space program, which designed and launched a mission to Mars for about 75 million dollars. I think the US should follow India’s example and lean towards frugality and very specific, directed goals. Accomplishing a single mission for a small amount of money is better, in my opinion, than developing several high-profile, high-cost programs simultaneously.

While my language and previous post may make it seem like I am opposed to any sort of space exploration, I am merely of the opinion that our society views space exploration in the wrong way. Space exploration should not be about sending humans to other bodies, at least not right now. It should be about trying to find out more about the rest of our solar system, so we can extrapolate and make predictions about the other systems and exoplanets we are discovering. And if all else fails, it can be a platform for many kinds of materials and electronics research.

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