Is “everything in the universe ultimately knowable via the scientific method as we currently understand it?”
…asks Monica Byrne in her interviews with Jeff VanDerMeer and Rudy Rucker. I think that’s an exciting question because it’s in its third trimester with question babies: What are other methods that work? Do any methods work epistemologically? What are the weaknesses and failures of the Scientific Method?
I think we have to start with some axioms: we are phenomena of the universe; “nature” is “everything that is.” If there are souls or gods, we will be able to see their impact on the world and learn things about them that way. But historically, as we have discovered more of the world, we come to realize that more and more of it, rather than being supernatural, grows from phenomena that we have previously lacked the senses or conceptual framework to perceive.
We also have to start with the axiom that the universe does, in fact, exist; even if a figment of our imagination, the fact that it holds together at all means that we have dreamed it into existence fully functioning. So we’ll just assume that there’s something there for us to know. If it is as mercurial and changeable as the mood of a god, then we either should see the ground dissolve under our feet with every step, or we see them emplacing rules like “E=MC2“
And finally, we assume that we are as real as anything else in the universe is. Our muscles, nerves, digestive systems, brains, and elbows are all natural phenomena that compose us.
By definition, we, the synthesis of those systems, and potential universe-knowers, are cyborgs — cybernetic organisms. Cybernetic systems are self-regulating; that is, they take information through sensors (our fiveish senses, in our case; bump sensors in the case of a Roomba), process the information (we use brains; the Roomba uses a microprocessor), and then act on the world through manipulators (we use muscles to direct our sensors, move around in the world, and directly manipulate pieces of it; the Roomba rolls around with motors until it gets stuck on a piece of string.)
Intuition: The Greatest of the Cybernetic Powerups
An important piece that we have that the Roomba lacks is an internal set of inputs and outputs (though the Roomba has certain limited internal inputs: a clock is an input, for instance, and there might be “the wheel is not turning — it’s probably stuck on a piece of string” sensors). We humans have an unusual ability to look at ourselves looking at the world and adapt our actions, both external and internal to circumstances on both sides of our nervous systems. We call that process of looking “consciousness”, and as much as it might be an illusion, it is nonetheless a valuable working hypothesis for what’s going on. At the very least, it matches our experience and enables the conversation.
When we get information from our internal sensors, and the source of the information doesn’t strike us as immediately obvious, we call the experience intuition. If it instead seems obvious, we call it what it feels like: a memory, an imaginary scenario, a reason.
But when we don’t know where the information comes from, that creeps us out, right? When it genuinely feels like someone is talking to us, and only us; when we can’t tell that the origin is internal, rather than external, psychologists call it a symptom: an auditory hallucination. It’s a common symptom of schizophrenia. It’s also the defining feature of a prophet.
If that’s the case, humanity’s gained a great deal from the unifying visions of schizophrenic prophets. We’ve also done a great deal of harm in the pursuit of their visions. The problem is apophenia: we simply can’t innately tell the difference between information that actually pertains to other information, and information that looks like it pertains to other information. Conversely, we can also suffer from a lack of imagination: we can’t see the difference between something that is counter to our own experience and something that is impossible.
John Nash was schizophrenic. He lived a terrified, paranoid life where he nonetheless believed that he was saving the world from nuclear armageddon by developing a new form of logic, designed to describe human decisionmaking, called Game Theory. While it’s a matter of debate if we are, in fact, safe from the fate of nuclear attack, it’s not arguable that his new insights into not only mathematics and logic, but human nature, were in use while two respective superpowers glared down the barrels of their atomic guns, and for decades neither pulled the trigger.
He saw through the veil of the world, looking at human interactions in a wholly new way. It personally cost him deeply, but few prophets seem like happy people: Mosheh was homeless for years and talked with bushes. Avram heard voices and smashed statues because they were lying to him. Buddha saw a bowl float upstream and abandoned his family to starve himself. But these are all people who saw a vital vision outside of experience expected by their contemporaries: a people of unified tribes, borne of a slave revolt; a system of the universe that operated differently from the internal squabbles of humans; a process to let suffering die. Many schizophrenics have come and gone in the history of humanity. We have benefitted from some small number of their visions. The others have veered too far into their internal ecosystems of thought, unable to make contact with other humans.
In its less extreme forms, though, we catch glimpses of truth all the time. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to stand for the ground crumbling beneath our feet.
Refinement of Intuition
Once we see a glimpse of truth, we want to get a better look. To gain those glimpses, we have learned to apply techniques of enlightenment; methods of altering our perception to pierce the veil of illusion where we see its tattered edges. I see two directions that those techniques take us.
Forging Intuition into Belief
Some techniques increase our certainty of what we want to be true. They concentrate on strengthening our beliefs. In general, we can easily identify these as religions. Christianity, for instance, places a great deal of stock in faith; that is, in abolishing doubt. In practice, such techniques work by confirming and building on the concepts closest to the prejudices of their practitioners. The outcome of such practices feel satisfying to the practitioners because the processes make a beautiful pattern, where what a practitioner learns confirms an axiom by providing associated ideas to support it; and confirms those associated ideas by referring back to prejudices as axiom. We love symmetry! True things are often symmetrical. But that doesn’t mean that everything symmetrical is true.
Fertilizing Intuition with Doubt
The other direction is to decrease the certainty of the practitioner; after all, if there is reality to be perceived, I must be able to start off without knowing it, before I can learn it. If I reduce the weight of my preconceptions, then maybe I’ll be able to see past the things that are comfortable — but unrelated —coincidence with what’s actually going on.
I know two systems that do this. Curiously, they approach from opposite directions in this model.
Zen is a tool, developed by the Buddha and subsequent Buddhists that helps its practitioner intuit their way past their attachments (or, more colloquially translated, baggage). It gives them the techniques and strength to feel compassion for all beings — significantly, drawing no distinction between others and themselves — that experience fears, lusts, obsessions, and other habits of thought that cloud one’s perception. When the practitioner meditates, they find that the parts that they think define them, wind up showing themselves to be gnarls of being that have grown like callouses around and protect the soft and vulnerable, yet flexible and perceptive, bits of universe that, at this moment, think that they “are” the practitioner. That is, by casting profound doubt on every perceptive input, the practitioner of Zen finds that they can see how to remain still — to recognize the process of the universe as if flows around, through, and composing the consciousness.
The Scientific Method
The Scientific Method is a complex tool, developed by latter-period natural philosophers and subsequent scientists that helps the practitioner reason their way through the illusions of reality, using intuition as the important initial step. The practitioner uses their intuition to find a fact that they think is interesting and true. They then ask themselves, “If what I think is true was actually false, what would have to be true, instead?”
I might say, “I think that what goes up, must come down. Therefore, if I throw something into the air as hard as I can and it doesn’t come down, it will demonstrate that things can go up without coming down; otherwise, I have stronger evidence though that what goes up must come down.”
I can test that by throwing something really, really hard. Let’s say, I build a trebuchet, the most powerful flinger my society can manage, that will hurl a rock into the sky. I throw the rock, and a few seconds later, it comes back down. Now I can confidently say: “I have demonstrated that, when I throw something into the air as hard as I can, it comes back down.” (You’ll note that I’m tempering my claims with what I actually demonstrated, even though I might want to claim more.) I’m now more confident that I was right because I doubted and tested my assertion. I write down those results to save and communicate them.
Now, you hear of my results and say to yourself, “I have a theory that says that the way you’re throwing that rock won’t demonstrate that what goes up must come down. Instead, my theory says that, if I throw at a certain speed and direction, the rock will fall at the same rate that the horizon comes toward the rock. It will miss hitting the ground forever.” So you set up your newly-invented rocket, based on your calculations, and say, “If this rocket comes back down to the ground, it means that my calculations do not prove that something can go up without coming down,” and launch it. Then I watch what happens.
Perhaps your rocket comes back down and you’re disappointed. Maybe that’s because I was right all along, and what goes up must come down. Maybe you made a mistake in the calculation or in the construction of the rocket. Maybe you’re discouraged because it satisfies a deeply-held prejudice or self-doubt. Maybe you can’t get the money together to try again. But you wrote it down just like I did, and someone else can either demonstrate or disprove your hypothesis by doing a different test (or perhaps retrying the test without making the same mistakes.) Maybe your results even say, “Well, it came down, just really far away,” and someone else will be able to someday refine that into a new experiment to test.
This is how we can approach the knowability of the universe. We take our inputs from our senses — both internal and external — and then say, “What if I was wrong?”
Specifically, the Scientific Method uses these discrete steps:
Intuit a fact about the world. It can be anything! It’ll work best if it’s something you really think is true. That’s your hypothesis.
Ask yourself the inverse question: If what I think is true was not true, what then must be true? That’s the null hypothesis.
Devise a way to determine if that thing, the null hypothesis, is true. You’ve just designed an experiment.
If that thing is true — that is, you “failed to disprove the null hypothesis” — then what you thought — your hypothesis — was wrong! Unless you’ve made a mistake, you’ve just proven that your hypothesis is not possible.
If that thing is false — that is, you “disproved the null hypothesis” —then what you thought might be true! Find another, probably narrower, thing that would be true if you were wrong and start over!
Either way, you learned something. Tell people what you learned so they can accept, refine, or challenge it. Then start at the top with the new information you’ve learned!
Like all human cultural forms, the Scientific Process is subject, in the short term, to human failings. Your funding could rely on studying hypotheses that benefit your funder, or you fudge your results in ways that will get your continued funding. You might make mistakes. You might overstate your conclusion, obscuring how much truth you’ve learned. You might want an outcome so badly, you ask yourself softball questions or use specious logic. You might dedicate your work to ingratiating yourself into the favor of another, biasing your investigations. But in the long run, the Scientific Method, when run through many iterations — by many people with their many, often opposed, human motivations — uncovers hoaxes, biases and mistakes. It inches us asymptotically closer to a view of actual truth.
Everything in the universe is subject to this process.
Evolution of the Scientific Method
Byrne asks her question a particular way: “The Scientific Method as we currently understand it”. The Scientific Method itself has even evolved through experimentation over the last four centuries. When I was in High School, I learned it like this:
Develop a hypothesis based on intuition and knowledge.
Test your hypothesis.
If your test comes out positive, call your hypothesis a theory; if it comes out negative, develop a new hypothesis.
That is, figure out if what you think is right, is right.
But that was High School. The Scientific Method runs contrary to the goals of a school system dedicated to making children into useful consumers and workers for the benefit of the owners of industrial capital. Later in life, I learned new, more advanced iterations of the process more dedicated to determining truth than asserting it:
Develop a hypothesis based on intuition and knowledge.
Develop a null hypothesis — what would be true if your hypothesis is wrong.
Test your null hypothesis.
If the test comes out positive, revise your hypothesis, since your initial one was wrong; If the test comes out negative, revise the null hypothesis because now you can refine the information you’ve learned.
When a null hypothesis becomes implausibly unwieldy to conceptualize, call your hypothesis theory.
That is, figure out if what you think is not impossible.
So, can we learn everything in the universe through the Scientific Method? No.
First, the Scientific Method really determines if a particular vision of truth is impossible, not if it is absolutely, epistemologically true. It cannot prove, only disprove. So if we have no reason to believe something might be true, we simply don’t know to look.
Second, there are parts of the universe that are untestable. Sometimes, they’re untestable for practical reasons, as when I could only build a trebuchet to launch my rock. Sometimes they’re untestable for universally structural reasons, like Schrödinger’s cat gedankenexperiment. (“I tested it. The cat dies half the time. But at least I’ve developed a new hypothesis that cats like to get in boxes, even if the odds of survival are only 50/50.”)
But could we learn everything in the universe through any method? Also no! There is simply too much information, and an infinite amount of it is false. Intuition alone, or pleading our case to the gods, or just doing what comes naturally, doesn’t give us a better avenue to truth because so much of it is borne from prejudice. We need intuition in order to start the Scientific Method, but if our intuited understanding of the world can’t stand up to the question, “Really?” then it’s not much value to us.
That leaves us with truths that we intuit, yet we cannot test. Sadly, these look exactly like falsehoods that we intuit and cannot test. Following our species-wide gift of apophenia might make great art, but whether or not it makes for great understanding relies on our ability to interrogate those intuitions.
While we maight, ourselves, be the way by which the Universe can understand itself, our faculties are almost certainly not the only way, and we did not evolve for the purpose of understanding the universe. Evolution has no purpose, no meaning, no morality, no sense of justice. As beings of the universe, as natural phenomena, we have only what has temporarily taken our form: a wave that forgets that is the ocean.
But purpose, meaning, morality, and justice are important for us! We need those things because they have been of benefit to our ancestors as we evolved.
What if I’m wrong, and there is purpose, meaning, universal morality, or a sense of justice built into the universe? What else would therefore have to be true?
Let’s find that out and start asking it questions.