December 11, 2016

The objectivisation of scientific information

Appendix 12 of The Stable Society: its structure and control: Towards a Social Cybernetics, Wadebridge Ecological Centre, UK, 1978

It cannot be denied that those scientific disciplines dealing with the simplest type of behaviour, in particular physics, have been extremely successful. However, as physics has developed, it has become ever less dependent on perception for the purposes of building up scientific knowledge. In fact, as physics has developed, so has man’s view of the physical world become couched in ever less subjective terms, i.e. terms which are ever less those of our own personal experience. As Konrad Lorenz says, “Every step of knowledge in physics means ‘taking off a pair of glasses.”156

Von Bertalanffy writes:

“It is an essential characteristic of science that it progressively de-anthropomorphises, that it progressively eliminates those traits which are due to specifically human experiences. Physics necessarily starts with the sensory experience of the eye, the ear, the thermal sense, etc., and thus builds up fields like optics, acoustics, the theory of heat, which correspond to the realms of sensory experience. Soon, however, these fields fuse into such that do not have any more relation to the ‘visualisable’ or ‘intuitable’: optics and electricity fuse into electro-magnetic theory; mechanics and the theory of heat into statistical thermodynamics, etc.”98

Thus a satisfactory science of thermodynamics could not have developed so long as heat was merely equated with the sensation it produced in us. Such an identification must be made if we are to adopt the strict empiricist thesis. In this sphere, as in many others, empiricism could have provided a barrier to any further development of knowledge. Such a standpoint was abandoned in favour of the not altogether unreasonable hypothesis that if something produced heat there must be a reason for it, and that the sensation called heat that we felt was but the way in which this thing was affecting us. The thing, in fact, could be studied apart from the sensation it produced in us. Heat was found to be a kind of energy that could be exploited. It was analysed in terms of the movement of particles and various temperature scales were developed. Slowly, the theory of thermodynamics came into being.

Indeed, as science advances, the variables used are further and further divorced from those of our experience. Thus the physicist’s concept of ‘time’ as dependent on velocity and as inseparable from space; the pi-meson with its lifespan of two millionths of a second; the electron that weighs only a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a gram; and anti-particles that may run counter to time and that may originate in the future and become extinct in the past—all of these are obviously totally outside the world of our experience. As Noel-Martin writes:

“Ever since Evariste Galois made his brilliant contribution to mathematics, mathematical thought has explored a world of ideas so far removed from experience as to correspond with no known reality. The great mathematicians of our time can be said to work by intuition rather than by external sense data.”93

W.H. Thorpe considers that many of the most important theories in the history of science,

“are arrived at as much by the modes of thought of the artist and of the pure mathematician as by those popularly considered to be characteristic of scientists . . . by great ‘leaps of imaginative insight’; leaps which, at the time they were made, may have had very little experimental or observational basis.”122

Gerald Feinberg shows how this feature of scientific activity was necessary for the understanding of the concept of matter: 167

“The proper understanding of matter requires the imagination to invent entities not apparent in everyday phenomena. It is the enduring miracle of creative thought that the mind is equal to this task.”

Writing of Democritus, he says:

“What is remarkable is that he was willing to make the intellectual leaps of assuming the existence of unobserved objects quite different from those found in ordinary matter, and to account for everyday objects in terms of them. It is in this sense that Democritus is a forerunner of modern physics, in which the properties of bulk matter are accounted for in terms of atoms and their component particles, which in themselves behave very differently from the way bulk matter does.”

Bridgman shows how the modern theory of the atom was developed in this manner:

“This is evidently a construct, because no one ever directly experiences an atom, and its existence is entirely inferential. The atom was invented to explain constant combining weights in chemistry. For a long time, there was no other experimental evidence of its existence, and it remained a pure invention, without physical reality, useful in discussing a certain group of phenomena.”168

In other fields of study, however, the original subjective vocabulary is still intact. Academics in these fields are busily engaged in the hopeless task of using these subjective variables for the purpose of building up objective knowledge. Can they do otherwise? Man has but a small psychological stake in the behaviour of atoms, at least until such time as he seeks to extract the energy imprisoned within them in power stations and atom bombs. When we pass to the behaviour of people and societies, however, can he really overcome the subjective views with which he has been imbued during the course of his upbringing in his particular cultural group? The answer is undoubtedly no.

References

93. Charles Noel-Martin, The Role of Perception in Science Hutchinson, London, 1963.

98. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, ‘General systems theory: a critical review’ General Systems Yearbook Vol. VII, 1962.

122. W.H. Thorpe, ‘The Language of Birds’ Scientific American October, 1956.

156. Konrad Lorenz, ‘Gestalt perception as fundamental to scientific knowledge’ General Systems Yearbook Vol. VII, 1962.

167. Gerald Feinberg, ‘Ordinary Matter’ Scientific American May, 1967.

168. P.W. Bridgman, The Logic of Modern Physics Macmillan Co., New York, 1960.

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