Monday, October 27, 2008

Will String Theory Tie the Knot?

It seems to me that science has become more and more abstract in order to explain the world around us. Namely, it has gone from bodies to cells to molecules to atoms to quarks to strings. From each progression, the answers have become more and more complex. Can something like string theory finally tie the knot between the physical world and the spiritual world? Or, metaphorically speaking, is science doomed to chase “ghosts” (aka empty truths)? Thank you in advance for any feedback.


Daniel Kim said...

I think you are right in observing that science has gotten increasingly abstract. One needs to read no further than Stephen Hawkings' books regarding imaginary timeline to realize this.

As our scientific knowledge increases, it seems that we're becoming further humbled at the sheer mysteriousness of this universe. During the Newtonian revolution, mankind had such high hopes for science in uncovering the mysteries of this universe and making it plain for human beings to understand. But as we go further outward and further inward, we're realizing that we're really running into sheer unsurmountable limitations of human understanding. We used to be able to say that eventually science will discover the answer, and we would understand.. But we are no longer confident. What does it mean to say that beyond the edge of the universe, there is not even space? What does it mean that we live in 12 dimensions, while we only experience 3 dimensions? We are beginning to realize that we're now running into aspects of the universe that our human brains will simply not be able to process. It's like trying to explain quantum mechanics to a dog. Even if you could speak perfect dog-language, the sheer limitation of the dog's brain will make it impossible for that dog to comprehend the concepts. Likewise, because we are creatures who can only conceptualize our universe in 3 dimensions (and perhaps 4, because we can experience time), we are really running into our final limitations of understanding when we talk about string theories, which has something like 12 dimensions wrapped up into tiny subatomic string entities.. We really don't have a clue what that means, all we know is that whoever or whatever designed this universe is infinitely more intelligent than us.

Regarding whether or not string theory will tie the knot between the physical and the spiritual, I really don't think so. Scientists are hoping that string theory will provide a link between Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics, and that's just the link between the physical and the physical! No one, as far as I know, is hoping that string theory will somehow solve the mystery of the spiritual reality.

I just think the spiritual reality is a completely different realm from the physical reality, and science cannot, by its current definition, uncover it. It's like using the methodology of market prediction calculations to try to solve a murder crime. It's simply the wrong methodology.

There ARE clues that we can get from science that point to the spiritual realm, but as long as science works under the mantra of "we cannot allow for any supernatural explanations", then it seems to me that they have already by definition ruled out any possibility of discovering the supernatural.

A case in point would be that science these days is making claims that go against our axiomatic knowledge (knowledge that we simply know to be true) - and people just buy it... Scientists tell us that free will is an illusion, and that if you think that you actually "chose" to lift your arm, then I'm sorry - that was just an illusion, because you really didn't have a choice in the matter. Now, this conclusion goes against some very axiomatic knowledge that we have - that we really really feel like we just chose to lift that arm! But science says, "well, I know that you really felt like you just chose to lift that arm, but you're wrong."

That is what I mean when I say that I don't think science can ever cross the line of spirituality, because they are willing to go THAT far and saying something that ridiculous in order to deny the spiritual realm. The only way science can "discover" the supernatural would be if they actually broaden the term "science" to include other forms of knowledge and if they let go of the strictly naturalistic philosophy that science is committed to. But if that were to happen, you would hardly call that "science" anymore, not in the sense we use that word today.

Well, this question really touches upon the difficult but fascinating issue of "philosophy of science", and I recommend studying up on that topic.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Daniel for giving such thorough insight into the matter. I will try to read more upon the topic as time and interest permits.

Personally, I agree with the reasoning you give. I think science is a tool to make "factual" claims through observation, but it fails to make "truth" claims in relationship to purpose. Unfortunately, the distinction between facts and truths seem to be lost to some people. Therefore, since scientific claims (like string theory) probably cannot tie the knot between the physical and the spiritual realms, what must we do to make these axiomatic knowledge more relevant to the discussion in order to convince the skeptics? Specifically, is it fair to assume that intuitive knowledge are not illusions? To give a specific example, people with mental disorders often experience reality differently than normal people do. Do these axiomatic knowledge (which I assume to be universal to the human condition) still apply to them? If not, then can we still use the argument of intuitive knowledge, which is now selective, to explain reality?

Daniel Kim said...

Sure, I think axiomatic knowledge still applies. There might be people with mental disorders or kids who can't comprehend that if A=B and B=C, then A=C.. (that's an example of axiomatic knowledge). But that doesn't mean that therefore we have to throw out that axiomatic knowledge. You just "know" that if A=B and B=C, then A=C. You can't explain why except to simply say that it's a logical law.

I think what you might be struggling with is what epistemologists call "foundationalism" of knowledge. It's the idea that was popular during the days of Descartes, where people felt that all knowledge must be substantiated. But since then, we've moved on and come to a more robust understanding of knowledge.

For example, I can "know" that I have an itch on my arm. That's a feeling that I have, and I can just know that even though it's not universal, it's not accessible to anyone else. Another example: I can have reasonable certainty that my memory is reliable - that I grew up with my mom and dad. Notice that if you don't have axiomatic "trust" in your memory, you can't do any science, either. After all, you have to remember that you took down the observations in your lab and not some evil scientist who's trying to trick you.

Regarding your question about how to convince a skeptic about axiomatic knowledge.. I don't know what to say. Just ask him if he believes if 1+1=2. And if he says I am not sure, because I was simply taught that, then you just have to use a philosophical argument called "comeonism" - which is to say, "Come on." The same goes for someone who says that he's not sure if his free will is real. That's like saying that he's not sure if he's actually thinking. You just have to say "O come on." I think John Searle does a good job of comeonism in the first half of his book "Rediscovery of the Mind."

But for a more technical treatment of this issue, you can take a look at the other Gracepoint Forum post here

Anonymous said...

Oh okay, I think I jumped to the wrong assumption that knowledge (as a function of memory) is only within the physical realm and tried to explain knowledge within physical limits. So to be sure that I understand the argument, do certain forms of knowledge, such as axiomatic knowledge, lie within the supernatural soul? Moreover, what can be considered to be axiomatic? Surely, one man's "come on"--a seemingly subjective statement--cannot account for everyone. Perhaps this question is more appropriate for the other forum post.

Daniel Kim said...

For a list of "o come on" axiomatic knowledge, I suggest the first few chapters of John Searle's book.

The list is not something fancy.

- When you feel pain, you really feel it.
- If A=B, B=C, then A=C
- When you have thoughts and you think through something, you are actually thinking through something (like what you just did with the logic above)
- When you choose to do something, you are actually choosing to do something.
- You are not a robot
- There is a persistent "you" that is acting

Things like that.

Daniel Kim said...

One more addition to the answer above.. It seems that you are saying that axiomatic knowledge cannot be shown to be axiomatic because there's someone out there in the world who won't believe it. (like one man's "come on" cannot apply to everyone's beliefs).

That's true. There might be someone out there who won't believe that A=B, B=C, then A=C. However, the presence of someone who won't believe an axiomatic knowledge does not disqualify the above statement as an axiomatic knowledge. For one, I can tell you that my 7-year-old daughter might not believe the above statement. But that does not mean that therefore the above statement is not axiomatic.

I find this kind of logic very common among relativists -- they say that since there are people who believe otherwise, there cannot be any real truth claims. This is ridiculous. There are people who think that the earth is flat. That does not mean that therefore we cannot know that the earth is round. (btw, the shape of the earth is NOT axiomatic knowledge, so don't be confused about that -- I'm just giving you an example).

So just because there might be someone out there illogical who does not believe that 1+1=2, that does not mean that we can no longer axiomatically believe that statement.

In short, axiomatic knowledge does not have to mean that it's universally agreed upon without exception. If that were the case, then we would not have any knowledge at all, because I can always find one person who will not agree.

Mark B said...

As a scientist myself, I find it rather frustrating that many of my colleagues would argue that axiomatic knowledge is not true unless it can be proved in some physical sense. Thus, there is scientific research going on that is trying to demonstrate that thoughts are merely chemical reactions happening in our brains, and memories are also mere physical phenomena. While there is certainly evidence that there are physical phenomena behind these events, it is foolish to say that such things are only physical.

The scientific community today seems to have forgotten that Western science was founded on the basis of axiomatic knowledge that the natural universe is the creation of a rational, order-loving God. This meant that the natural world could be understood through scientific means. Somewhere along the way (many blame Darwin but he wasn't the only one) scientists began to argue that the only truth we could understand was what could be explained by physical means. It's both laughable and frustrating that very intelligent people buy into this - what is actually also a faith-based claim - that the physical world is all their is.

Richard Lewontin, a well-known evolutionary biologist once said, "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises . . . because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism."

As long as people embrace this worldview, then scientific knowledge will continue to be upheld as the be-all and end-all of truth, rather than one of the many avenues by which we come to an understanding of the truth.

There is an interesting article right now on Breakpoint that talks a lot about this, and it's well worth reading:

Daniel Kim said...

Thank you, Mark, for the comment. I agree with you.

There is a pretty simple way of answering scientific naturalists about their claim that "axiomatic knowledge is not true unless it can be proved in some physical sense."

Basically, they are claiming that only true knowledge is something that can be shown scientifically.

But that's self-refuting.. Just ask the person, "Can that statement shown to be true scientifically?"

Their efforts to pin knowledge to a physical/chemical process in the brain, if you think about it, also do not make sense. Of course, I think it's categorically impossible by definition, but let's imagine for a moment that they were able to do it. Let's imagine that they actually succeeded in showing that the mind is a by-product of the chemical/physical processes of the brain. What would that show? It would actually prove the exact opposite of what they were trying to prove. It would show that ALL knowledge (including their scientific knowledge and deduction) is arbitrary and untrustworthy, because they are determined by the physical interactions in the brain. Let's say person X believes that A=B, B=C, so A=C, and person Y believes that A=B, B=C, and so A=100... Which one is true? Well, if we pinned our mind on the physical processes of the brain, we can't possibly know which one is true, because both "thoughts" were produced by the physical processes of the brain.. and person Y's physical process simply produced that output. How could you say that person Y's physical process is "false"? It was just following laws of physics.

IF they were actually successful in pinning thoughts to the physical processes of the brain, what they would actually accomplish is to get rid of knowledge altogether, including scientific knowledge... including the knowledge that thoughts are arise from the brain.. (strange circularity).

This is a major problem for naturalism, in that it gets rid of knowledge..

Any thoughts about this?

Mark B said...

A lot of naturalists will argue that since we're just a product of a bunch of chemical reactions that obey the laws of physics, then there really is no such thing as free will. What we do is simply a product of "random" chemical reactions. Yet if this were truly the case, then there would be no need for law or morality as we know it. Of course, they argue that law and morality are simply a product of our evolution that have helped us in our survival. I could go on, but you see how absurd these claims get.

With regard to the physical phenomena behind thought processes, memory, etc., this is a hot area of research and one for which I'm sure many scientists would like to discover a purely physical mechanism. I don't think it will work. However, we should also understand that as both physical and spiritual beings, our physical and spiritual natures are intertwined beyond our ability to understand. I don't think that we can treat them as dualities. The Bible certainly doesn't. Thus, while there may be a physical reality behind many processes, such as thought, that can be explained by science, there is an unseen spiritual reality that cannot be seen through physical means, and it is no less important.

This sort of brings up an interesting side point that I've only come to appreciate recently: The gospel promises that those who trust in Christ will be resurrected not only in spirit but in body as well. This is exemplified in Jesus' bodily resurrection, and prophesied on multiple occasions that at the end of time we will receive new physical bodies. Thus, I can only conclude that there must be something more to our bodies than simply flesh. Being embodied is inexorably linked to bearing the image of God.