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.

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.

Using Games to Educate

In the last few years we’ve seen the Internet playing a larger and larger role in education. Everyone seems to expect a revolution in education within 20 years. It’s possible, although I don’t think it will come from the direction that everyone thinks it will (see my post on online education). I want to give my two cents about an ancillary approach: videogames. Games don’t have to teach the students anything. In fact, I think they are much more useful as vehicles for the education. Games provide a background, a context, for new knowledge. For example, playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution (play chapters of a game as homework instead of reading chapters of a book?) could help spark discussion about the current situation of computers, implants, artificial intelligence, politics, etc. The experiences within the game outside of the lesson help students stay interested and apply the knowledge, even if subconsciously, beyond the classroom.

I’m going to focus on two games: Kerbal Space Program and Minecraft. Prmrytchr has a whole blog on using Minecraft (as well as other games) in the classroom, so I’m going to focus on the technical aspects.

the KSP splash

Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is an indie game currently under development with an open alpha available for purchase. In the game, you run the space agency of a particularly derpy alien race in their Sol-like system. In sandbox mode, you can throw together rockets, probes, rovers, space stations, planes, and planetary bases from a wide assortment of parts. Then you launch your constructions and control them to the best of your abilities.

KSP Screenshot KSP Screenshot 2

While hard to grasp at first, the game is incredibly fun. You do need a rudimentary understanding of kinematics to play well. This is the first step in its ability to act as an educational tool. While you can strap an engine onto a fuel tank and try to fly it, you quickly realize that doing anything impressive — such as putting an object in orbit — requires a bit of education. While you could watch tutorials, you could also get a lesson about basic kinematics and orbital mechanics from a present teacher. There’s an opportunity for lessons on engineering, as well.

As students become more proficient, more complex opportunities open up to them. Orbital rendezvous and gravitational slingshots get more involved physically. Spacecraft design, between mass conservation, fuel-mass ratio, reaction thruster placement, and properties of engines, is a great opportunity for springboarding into other physics. Other elements of spacecraft design that aren’t simulated in KSP, such as heat management, enter the realm of thermodynamics. Ancillary topics that arise when discussing space exploration can involve relativity and electromagnetic waves.

minecraft splashMinecraft, on the other hand, is about as physically unrealistic as you can get. However, it provides an awesome way to teach logic and economics. Even vanilla Minecraft has a growing arsenal of parts which allow rudimentary (or not so rudimentary) automation. Redstone is a powerful tool for doing any sort of logical manipulation — or teaching it. Watching your toolbox of gates and mechanisms grow out of a few basic ground rules is amazing. Creative minds are pushed to imagining new ways of using redstone, pistons, minecarts, and all the other machines being added in. While I’m not a fan, mods like Technic or Tekkit expand the array of basic parts at your disposal.

Multiplayer in Minecraft is an interesting case study of economic theory. Because the system varies so much from the real world, it provides an outside perspective on traditional economic theory. As you teach the basics of microeconomics, you can analyze why Minecraft’s multiplayer economy and identify how to restrict it. The ultimate goal of the class could be to establish a working economic system on a Minecraft server (perhaps through plugins/mods?).

Redstone Schematic Redstone Screenshot

Whether or not any of these are good ideas, it illuminates how games don’t have to be the primary vehicle of learning to be a useful educational tool. Games can merely be a springboard, a point of reference from which lessons emerge. The game keeps the students interested and grounded in the topic, while providing a useful outlet and vector of fortification for the knowledge they are getting in class.

A Forum for Original Thought

Nowadays, people hunger for original analyses and theses. Their pangs are reflected in the popularity of video series like The Idea Channel, Extra Credits, The Big Picture, and TED talks. Essentially, these are just spoken essays and presentations. They don’t really utilize the video medium, other than by coupling speech with a slideshow of images and (occasionally) video clips. Yet more and more these videos are supplementing written forms like blogs and columns. The intersection of unquenchable desire for consumable media (i.e. videos) and a veritable drought of mental stimulation makes spoken essays a desirable form of idea transmission.

Perhaps the number of quick-fact “educational” videos (e.g. Minute Physics, Smarter Every Day, CGPgrey, Vsauce, numberphile) stimulated the Internet’s interest in science. Indeed, there seems to be a vibe coursing through the tubes that “science is cool”, even if the way science is taught in schools isn’t. The realization that the scientific realm, learning, and, more generally, intelligent thought can be interesting has made people desire an influx of original analysis. It stimulates the brain, giving way to more thought in a way that other media has (mostly) failed to do.

In a world with an endless volume of consumable content, our brains may have become starved. Long periods of rumination can be painful and boring, so we flood it with cheap, throwaway media. Yet these times of inward reflection may serve an important purpose. Unfortunately, our over-stimulation by Internet videos, TV, movies, video games, and music has left us unable to focus on content-delivery platforms like text. We thirst for mental stimulation, yet cannot bear to gain it by taking a step backwards. This conundrum gave rise to the popularity of “spoken essays”. They inject creative, original thought quickly and painlessly. As we mull over this gem, we can further explore the subject in the video comments. Such discussion is evidenced by the considerable quality of comments on the aforementioned videos. Trolls, raging arguments over politics and religion, and insults have given way to (somewhat) thoughtful debates about the video’s analysis. Occasionally the next video in the series might make mention of some interesting points or surprising overall consensus concerning the previous video.

But is the classroom going extinct as a forum for intelligent discussion? Does it have a place in the furious online world? Perhaps. Although quick-fact videos give information, they very rarely delve into the depths of the subject and explain it in a way that lets the viewer solve entirely new problems on their own. They give the information top-soil, but hold back any sort of theoretical bedrock. A viewer might come out feeling smarter, but she will not have gained any tools in her arsenal of critical analysis and problem solving. This is partially due to the medium. Spending a longer amount of time to explore the subject drives off the initial appeal of the videos: quick learning.

However, some video series manage to seriously teach a subject while staying interesting. Crash Course has series on biology, literature, ecology, US history, and world history, served up by the eponymous vlogbrothers. They don’t necessarily go into the same depth that a yearlong course would, but that’s not really a problem here (it’s called “Crash Course” for a reason). The fact that dozens of videos are being spent exploring one subject is a start. Another faux-classroom video venue is Udacity. Udacity is a different beast; it is much more of an exploration into online courses than Crash Course. The physical classroom is woefully unfit to teach computer science. Udacity takes a stab at creating a classroom environment that takes advantage of its medium to deliver a more fitting CS education to a much greater volume of people, while still keeping a basic academic form.

Ultimately, I see a rise in the popularity of systems like Udacity, as well as series like Extra Credits and The Idea Channel. If educators want to truly grab the interest of new generations, they need to examine that which is already capturing attention. Rather than lamenting the advent of consumable, throwaway media, embrace it. There is a place for education in online videos and video games.

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