If It's Not Disturbing, You're Not Doing It Right

By Sean Carroll | June 22, 2008 11:38 am

Science, that is. No, this is not what I have in mind. Rather, this provocative statement — the discoveries of science should be disturbing, they shouldn’t simply provide gentle reassurance about our place in the universe — is the conclusion reached by my latest Bloggingheads dialogue, with David Albert.

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David is a philosopher of science at Columbia, author of Time and Chance as well as Quantum Mechanics and Experience. We talked about what philosophers of science do, the awful What the Bleep Do We Know? movie, string theory and falsifiability, and touched on time before running out thereof. Future episodes are clearly called for.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Science
  • Aaron Bergman

    the discoveries of science should be disturbing, they shouldn’t simply provide gentle reassurance about our place in the universe

    The discoveries of science shouldn’t be anything; they just are.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    This depends upon what is meant by disturbing. It would be disturbing if science found that Chthulhu is about to emerge from the depths to wreak havoc, or that Deepok Chopra has been right all along about quantum healing. I am not sure which would be worse! :-) These findings would disturbing in a bad way. A “distrurbing” scientific find that changes how we think can be a good thing. Every now and then it is good when some scientific find knocks our foundational ideas around some. Yet I think it might be best if these happen with far less frequency than more normative finds which bolster established theories for a while. Disturbing finds in science I think should be fairly exceptional events, maybe analogous to episodic chaotic events in evolutionary punctuated equilibrium.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://www.BRB.org Boltzmann’s Reptilian Brain

    Great discussion. I particularly note Sean’s reminder that quite a lot of physicists don’t want to admit that there is a problem with the arrow of time. The underlying motivation is all too often a kind of childish machismo: that’s philosophy, and philosophy is bad. Sadly, the truth is that physicists needed philosophers like Huw Price to keep on telling them what ought to have been extremely obvious: the arrow of time is a real mystery, and our failure to explain it fully is a very strong hint that there is something major missing from our whole understanding of the early universe.

    I wonder if Sean has noticed any change in attitudes about this? I don’t mind so much the people who think that inflation solved all these problems years ago; that is an understandable mistake, particularly in view of the tenacity of certain old-timers who continue to insist on this untruth. It’s the ones who think, or pretend to think, that there is no problem in the first place that really worry me.

    Altogether, *not* one of physics’ finest hours.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    BRB, thanks. I haven’t noticed any significant change in the attitude of the large majority of physicists, many of whom continue to pretend that there is no problem to be solved. But the tiny percentage of people who take it seriously, and includes some well-known names — so I’m optimistic. Like David said, you have to keep plugging!

  • http://www.geocities.com/aletawcox/ Sam Cox

    A very interesting discussion. I appreciated the stress on avoiding preconceived notions and philosophical bias in scientific work…the importance of being “open” and accepting of what is learned in the field as well as being necessarily- and continuously- skeptical.

    We live in a world which is in many ways, disturbing, so we should not be overly disturbed if we find that what is discovered in science is also disturbing…counterintuitive.

    One man’s meat is another man (or womans) poison. It is all too easy to philosophically “gag” on the counterintuitive rather then search for a new and yet more elegant logical system which may be implied by what we learn.

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  • http://www.allysonbeatrice.com/blog Allyson

    Oh hey! David is the keynote speaker at my symposium thang this October. The world, she is so small.

    I’m looking forward to being disturbed.

  • http://coraifeartaigh.wordpress.com Professor R

    “The discoveries of science should be disturbing, they shouldn’t simply provide gentle reassurance about our place in the universe”

    Poppycock.
    Perhaps the philosopher meant “when the discoveries of science are disturbing/counterintuitive, we should pay careful attention and not dismiss them out of hand”. (The latter statement does not pre-judge the outcome.)

    However, if that is indeed what was meant, it is hardly original – this ‘philosophy’ is drilled into every experimentalist from day one….Cormac

  • spyder

    As disturbing and “awful” as WHAT THE F… is, it seems it hasn’t disappeared from the roundtables of conversations in the scientific, philosophical, and academic communities. Perhaps there is something like a silver lining in disturbing and awful??

  • amused

    Sean, it seems the Clay Institute disagrees with this conclusion. They are offering 1 million $ for a proof of the mass gap in QCD. That would in no way be a disturbing result; indeed, it would offer `gentle reassurance’ of things we already expect to be true.

  • Otis

    I thoroughly enjoyed Sean’s latest Bloggingheads dialogue with David Albert. Thanks guys for such dialogues that bring us up close to current scientific thinking.

    Sean made one remarkable assertion that I think deserves close inspection. This occurred at about 34 minutes into the conversation, during the discussion of the incompatibly of the discrete character of quantum mechanics with that of continuous general relativity. Sean stated that he would not be satisfied unless there was a unifying theory that “made sense” and gave scientific understanding, even though the new theory may not be necessary in order to explain the empirical data.

    Here Sean has put an incredible constraint on the natural world, that is, he would require that the universe, both micro and macro, “make sense” and be understandable to an animal whose brain was shaped by random, contingent evolution. Why should things turn out that way? Sean has made an incredible leap of faith. There is no reason at all why humans should be able to do what Sean wants them to do, given their supposedly precarious evolutionary history.

    It is as if an orangutan was bopped on the head by a falling meteorite and the orangutan sitting next to him says, “You know, the universe should make sense to us. Therefore, I expect that someday one of our descendants will be able to explain exactly why that rock fell out of a clear blue sky and hit you on the head.”

    The point is that Sean’s expectation reflects a decidedly theistic wordview, whereby humans are created in the image of God and have special abilities that could not have been shaped by evolution. I am with Sean. I believe that humans have a specialness that evolution cannot explain. But unless Sean can explain why humans should be able to do what he expects them to do, I must say that he is clinging to a notion out of blind faith.

    Most scientists, in order to do science, make the same leap of faith, and that is a good thing. But they should contemplate on what their faith must assume about human origins

  • http://www.geocities.com/aletawcox/ Sam Cox

    From remarks by Otis #11,

    “Sean stated that he would not be satisfied unless there was a unifying theory that “made sense” and gave scientific understanding, even though the new theory may not be necessary in order to explain the empirical data.

    Here Sean has put an incredible constraint on the natural world, that is, he would require that the universe, both micro and macro, “make sense” and be understandable to an animal whose brain was shaped by random, contingent evolution. Why should things turn out that way? Sean has made an incredible leap of faith. There is no reason at all why humans should be able to do what Sean wants them to do, given their supposedly precarious evolutionary history.

    It is as if an orangutan was bopped on the head by a falling meteorite and the orangutan sitting next to him says, “You know, the universe should make sense to us. Therefore, I expect that someday one of our descendants will be able to explain exactly why that rock fell out of a clear blue sky and hit you on the head.”

    The point is that Sean’s expectation reflects a decidedly theistic wordview, whereby humans are created in the image of God and have special abilities that could not have been shaped by evolution. I am with Sean. I believe that humans have a specialness that evolution cannot explain. But unless Sean can explain why humans should be able to do what he expects them to do, I must say that he is clinging to a notion out of blind faith.”

    Sam’s comments:

    I’ll let Sean have his own say as to whether he betrays a theistic world life view by taking the position that there must be a theory out there which unifies QM and GR conceptually! I would be inclined to believe that is not necessarily true.

    However, there are some points made here by Otis, which relate, not only to this thread, which handles the notion that scientific truth can sometimes be “disturbing” and counterintuitive, but another thread on athiesm as well.

    I believe it is possible to go after this notion of “God” (theism) in an emperical rather than philosophical manner. The existence or non-existence of God need not be treated (only) as a philosophical or religious issue, but can be approached emperically…as a problem for scientific investigation.

    For example, what exactly are the implications which follow from the field established facts that the universe exists as it is observed, at invariant frames of reference?…or that nothing is outside a GR universe, by definition?….or the reality of photonic entanglement?

    Whatever our world life view, we as scientists are trying to describe and explain the order, information and complexity we find all around us, and see in our bathroom mirror every day.

    As mortal as we may be, and as disturbing as what we find in our universe sometimes is, we are part of what exists. Just the facts that we are here, and that the universe only exists as it is observed, should give us a few clues as to the nature, importance and function of observation, intelligence and consciousness in the cosmos- our existence. These clues in turn should assist us in understanding the existence and importance of order and complexity in the cosmic structure.

  • Otis

    Sam (#12) made some very interesting points. However, I need to reemphasize that Sean seems to have the expectation that the universe must be comprehensible, sensible, and understandable to humans. In his paper “Why (Almost) All Cosmologists are Atheists” he writes:

    “The scientific assumption is that there exists a complete and coherent description of how the world works. This need not be a purely materialist description … simply a sensible description covering all phenomena.”

    I maintain that if humans are indeed products of contingent biological evolution, his is an incredibly unreasonable expectation. Humans have existed for just 0.0000014 percent of the history of the universe. Yet Sean wants to constrain the world such that it can only operate in ways that these unlikely interlopers find to be sensible, comprehensible and understandable. Did the hot Big Bang inflationary universe know we were coming? If the universe is fundamentally mathematical (according to Max Tegmark, Galileo, Feynman, Penrose and others), why are we able to do the math? I can only conclude that those scientists that dismiss a theistic or teleological view of the world have not thought very deeply about these questions.

    I agree with Sam Cox that the question of God’s existence could be put to the test. It need not be an issue of proving or disproving his existence. The trend in science today (especially in cosmology) is to produce “weight of evidence” arguments.” If this approach was taken with the God Question, I expect that God would fare very well.

    (For an good overview of the “weight of evidence” or “degrees of belief” approach, see the article “Some Swans are Grey” in the May 10, 2008 issue of New Scientist magazine.)

  • http://www.geocities.com/aletawcox/ Sam Cox

    Otis in post #13 said:

    In his paper “Why (Almost) All Cosmologists are Atheists” he (Sean) writes:

    “The scientific assumption is that there exists a complete and coherent description of how the world works. This need not be a purely materialist description … simply a sensible description covering all phenomena.”

    I maintain that if humans are indeed products of contingent biological evolution, his is an incredibly unreasonable expectation. Humans have existed for just 0.0000014 percent of the history of the universe…

    Sam’s comments:

    Otis, Sean Carroll knows QM/SR/GR….and the probable geometry of the universe very well. He also knows his topology. Notice what he says: “This need not be a purely materialist description”….

    The near impossibility of our existence is well known by every scientist with any credentials at all. Even conjecturing an eternal universe of quantum fluctuations, it is very unreasonable to assume that without a set of inherent constraints, stucture and information of any kind could or would have come about.

    Paul Davies undertook a pretty comprehensive study of the probabilities of existence in a truly random universe (in his book “The Mind of God) and came to the (also!) pretty powerful conclusion that, to use Paul’s own words, “we were truly meant to be here”. You might be interested to know that I don’t buy Paul Davies conclusion…I don’t think a universe of the kind we emperically know we live in really demands that an eternity ago, we were “meant to be here”.

    However, quantum mechanics and relativity are very deterministic concepts and suggest that inherent constraints (manifolds, proportions) and forces other than chance coordinate within the universal stucture in such a way as to result in information and complexity, including ourselves.

    We on this thread are speaking to the fact that what we emperically know about the universe can sometimes be counterintuitive- even disturbing. Anyone who has studied the modern models of the universe, used every day in the laboratory, and commonly in GPS and modern technology of all kinds, knows how “spooky” …counterintuitive…disturbing…the universe is. Sean started this particular thread precisely because he knows and appreciates the potential meaning of this spookiness….”need not be a purely materialistic description”.

    This brings us back to what I said… Sean well understands current models of the universe-and their philosophical implications! Every time I start to feel defensive about my particular world-life view, I remember the observation of Stephen Hawking: “The universe just IS”.

    Sam Cox tries to accurately describe the universe, but Sam Cox is also a part of the universe. He WILL go in the direction the universe is taking him, by its structure, by his unique heredity, and as a result of his experiences at his unique frame of reference.

    I’ve elaborated on other threads as to how certain aspects of the models we are using today have quasi-religious implications. I’ve spoken about God as a kind of “collective consciousness” brought about by the quantum entanglement of all information and complexity in the Planck Realm for example.

    However I have also made it clear, that such an emperically derived God is NOT the property of any particular religion, nor is the nature of such a God a reflection of many religious ideas and teachings.

    For example, since nothing is outside of the universe, God must be inside too. There are things…many things, God cannot do. God is very powerful to us, seemingly all powerful, but God has purposes in his actions which are far beyond us. In reality, God could be described as a coordinating and relating process by which gradually increasing thermal entropy is traded for gradually decreasing informational entropy over eternity.

    We are personal beings, and the universe is observed only by particulate complexity remotely on 4D event horizon surfaces so I, however, hesitate to conceive of God as a mindless “force”. I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Overmind” in his famous book, “Childhood’s End.” Since God “sees” through all eyes which have, are and will exist, his consciousness is cumulative- very different in that respect from ours, which is individual.

    We live in a universe within which we can find both determinism and free will, depending on the frame of reference we take. Logical systems are a “dime a dozen” because each frame of reference is the basis for observing the universe (in an ultimate- and all too real way) differently.

    Your comments are very thoughtful…a very interesting thread.

  • Otis

    Sam,
    Thanks for your comments. This has been a very interesting and useful thread. My thanks also go to Sean for all his efforts in contributing to this blog and sharing his thinking with a wide audience.

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  • http://ThisisforSamCox No Name

    Sam, I am trying to get in touch with you. I am channeling all that you say or have reported about the universe. I do not know how to get in touch with you. Sherie

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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