Thursday, January 06, 2011

3. Faith


An unreasonable faith in reason

In a global human conscience that is being stimulated by Hollywood and enlightened by a steady, ubiquitous stream of 24 hour news cycle and celebrity endorsements that conditions our world-view, 'reason' stands guard at the gates of our minds like a bouncer outside a nightclub, letting in only what it deems 'reasonable' and discarding what is not. We take it for granted that capitalism and the free-market is the best economic policy available to us. It seems quite reasonable to believe that politicians that get elected by popular vote would hold the people and their best interests at heart. Statistics that indicate an ever increasing polarisation in the distribution of wealth and increasing levels of poverty in free market economies and facts that expose the blatant disregard for democratic values by politicians have yet been unable to unseat our entrenched beliefs or survive the onslaught of propaganda. Not so long ago, It was quite reasonable for rational and otherwise intelligent people to believe that the Earth was flat and that the Titanic was unsinkable!

It was possible for intelligent people to deduce that the Earth must be flat because 'reason' is merely conjecture that seems arguably true but not factually proven to be so; often because it is practically very difficult to prove with the available technology. It was reasonable to assume that the Earth must be flat as long as we lacked the means to find out for sure or prove otherwise. Indeed, it was logical to assume that if the Earth was anything but flat, people would fall off if they ventured too far! It was not until we could circumnavigate the Earth that the facts could be established that the earth could not be flat. Perhaps it is no accident that the fact had to be first established for the sharpest minds of the time like Sir Issac Newton to search ever harder to bring observed facts back within the borders of reason.

For centuries, science has been synonymous with 'reason' but the two actually have always had very little in common. True science can only deal with the measurable and the quantifiable, whereas reason is most often the process by which we attempt to quantify what is qualitative or practically immeasurable. It is important that we differentiate between the two because science in its essence is a strict discipline that relies fundamentally on facts and data that have been gathered by careful measurement and unbiased and meticulous observation. Indeed it would have been tempting for Johannes Kepler to doubt his measurements and ignore deviations in the data that did not fit into existing hypothesis, but it was his stubborn faithfulness to observation and measurement that led to the discovery that planets revolved around the sun in elliptical orbits. It was a bold and courageous move away from 'reason' and towards quantifiable facts that inspired the forefathers of the scientific revolution and gave credibility to the scientific method that they pioneered.

Early in the 19th century, Albert Einstein advocated the most unreasonable proposition the world had yet encountered. He argued that time is another dimension of space. His argument seemed so 'unreasonable' that, even though he managed to define the relationship between 'space' and 'time' in clear mathematical terms, it took the scientific community many years and experimental proof before the theory was accepted and the genius of Einstein was widely acknowledged. It is often the ability to peal away what commonly seems 'reasonable' and 'intutive' to uncover deeper truth that has been the halmark of genius. Marking an equally significant discovery that remains one of the most brilliant insights about our understanding of the universe, Werner Heisenberg showed in his principal of uncertainty that there is a calculable limit to how accurately we are able to measure the fundamental units of space and time. It is perhaps the most honest admission that science has yet made about its own limitations.

The theory of relativity and the principle of uncertainty are critical in the way they define how the scientific method is reliable only to the degree to which its observations are objective and its measurements are accurate. However, Messrs Einstein and Heisenberg have successfully argued that it is impossible to observe the 'relative' universe with absolute objectivity nor measure it beyond a calculable level of accuracy.

Practitioners of science, myself included, have no choice but to take it on faith that there must be some underlying order to the universe. When we learn about matter for example, the lessons eventually lead to molecules, how those molecules are made up of atoms and how atoms are made up of charged particles called electrons and protons that move, behave and react in predictable ways. These in turn, we are taught, are made up of sub-atomic particles. The tools we have built to observe the universe however are not sophisticated enough to accurately see - let alone measure - at the atomic scale. Neither our present limitations in the way we try to comprehend our immediate environment nor the scale of the cosmos has diminished our faith, in our own ability to understand 'how the universe works' - as indeed they should not. However it is humbling to remember that atomic theory - like the rest of science - has been revised many times in the past and there is no good reason to rule out the possibility that it may be completely overhauled in future. Observation has led us to admit that at the atomic and sub-atomic scale, we cannot clearly differentiate between particles and waves. Niether can we calculate of determine how they move or behave - all we can come up with is the probability that a certain particle would be at a certain point of region at a certain time.

Of course, the model we have established according to the atomic make up of matter and the space-time continuum of the universe is capable of explaining and predicting (with reasonable accuracy) most observable phenomena. It is also able to provide 'reasonable' answers to some of the philosophical as well as practical questions about the universe. It is reasonable to believe in a 'big bang' today, as it was reasonable to believe in a flat Earth a few centuries ago. Yet, all we have is 'strong evidence' at best and 'hypothesis' at worst - not proof - of the big bang or the existence of atoms and their sub-atomic particles for that matter. No one has actually "seen" any atoms or sub atomic particles - but only evidence for their existence. The truth is, what we know about the material make up of the universe is hinged on the 'probabilities' calculated at the atomic scale. The immensity of the number of atoms in most visible chunks of matter magnify those probabilities to the extent that the chaotic behaviour of individual atoms average out and the 'average' of their behaviour seems predictable and determinable.

It is not heresy to admit that there is an element of 'faith' in science. Faith has always been a cornerstone of science and will continue to be so. It is a controversial claim to make in the apparently deterministic world where reason and logic is hailed supreme, but it is demonstrably and irrefutably true. Science in its very core, is based on the 'faith' that their must be consistent laws laid out evenly across the whole universe, which we should be able to decipher using the cycle of hypothesis, experiment and observation.

The practice of science is a humbling experience because science already understands the limits of what is knowable. Even as the 20th century dawned, Max Plank had already derrived what seem to be fundamental units of space and time beyond which nothing would be measurable. Even though we are yet far from reaching the theoretical limits of what we can and cannot know, science indicates that space and time itself may not exist beyond the scale of plank units. We do not yet know of any technology that would enable us to observe space and time at the atomic scale and beyond. What we think we know about atoms and the movement of planets is at least in part conjecture because our measurements at both the inter-planetary scale as well as the atomic scale are crude and only vaguely accurate. Light does not shine on atoms, so we cast beams of electrons and observe their murky, poorly defined shadows. We use simple mechanics and classical geometry to measure or derive inter-planetary distances over which we already admit that space and time itself could be warped and subject to violent distortions within miniscule time intervals.

The fact that we are able to predict the motion of planets and predict the tides may yet leave room for us to ignore the level of tolerance that has been allowed for the inaccuracy of those measurements or the general assumptions that has allowed for intricate - but unnoticeable - details to be ignored. In being able to harness the enormous power of the atomic nucleus, we are tempted to over-estimate our understanding of its inner workings. As we bask in our mastery of the elements and the glory of our technological achievements, it is increasingly becoming ever easier to loose sight of the degree of faith that has enabled those advancements in technology.

The story of human evolution is unique among all the species on Earth because the success of our evolutionary enterprise so far has hinged on our superior cognitive ability to solve practical problems. History bears witness that the rate of our technological advancement is a reflection of our ability to solve practical problems. yet, this capacity to solve problems has been somewhat proportional to our willingness to subject our natural intuition, or 'reason' to the scrutiny of a process we now call the 'scientific method'. The fundamental requirement of faith in the practice of science and the employment of reason adds even more emphasis to the fact that our 'capacity to know' is overwhelmed more often than not, by a far more compelling 'need to believe'.