Philosophy

The Broken Watchmaker

Even a broken watch tells the right time twice a day.  However, to know that the watch is broken, we must observe it when it tells the time incorrectly rather than when it tells it correctly. This analogy is a useful way to understand the problem in modern science, because clearly there are times in which science makes correct predictions. Those who argue that science works only look at science when it seems to work correctly. To know that they are looking at a broken watch, they would have to look at it when its predictions break down — either because the prediction isn’t there, or the prediction disagrees with observation.

Common Examples of Scientific Failures

There are numerous examples of problems in modern science, that are generally well-known in scientific circles, but little understood outside of it. For instance, everyone uses electronic gadgets, which employ the flow of electrons, although no one knows what an electron is or why the theory that describes it (quantum theory) only describes the electron statistically rather than deterministically as we expect material objects to behave. The behavior of electrons further depends upon the experimental setup, so the electron somehow “knows” what we are trying to do, which is so bizarre that today, after a century of the best minds trying, we cannot think of anything that might be quite like it.

The consequences of this failure are quite dramatic: we cannot build electronic gadgets with single atomic objects; we must only build them with much larger ensembles. If we tried to develop atomic gadgets with single quantum objects, they would be so unpredictable that it could not be considered useful technology. In a simple sense, we know how the large collection behaves, but we don’t know how its parts do. We work around this problem by dealing with collections, although deep in their minds, every physicist knows that the theory is incomplete until this problem is solved.

Almost all people reading this blog would have used air-conditioners and heaters, just as they would have used electronic gadgets. However, little do most people know that the scientific theories that describe electrons and heat are logically incompatible. The theory of electrons is linear, while that of heat is non-linear. Even though these two theories work separately, we don’t know how they could be brought together. In a simple sense, there is no theory that can predict exactly what will happen when your computer heats up. To avoid the unpredictability of heated computers, the computers are always designed to automatically shut down when they have heated up. But we could not afford to shut down the power (i.e., take away the energy from a material system) at the beginning of the universe, deep within the earth’s crust or within the sun. So, nature works in a single way, which is partially described by two different theories, the first linear and the second non-linear.

In computing theory, similarly, there are many problems that cannot be solved. We design and execute only those programs which we know can be solved, and solved optimally. The problems that we know cannot be solved—e.g., the problem of determining whether a program is good or malicious—we don’t try to solve. The users are left to deal with the problem—e.g., spam, viruses, trojans, etc.—if they ever tried to use the technology. The problems of identity and privacy are similarly unsolvable in principle, even though we build some fences to protect ourselves in some well-known cases, but these cases are so few as compared to the open vulnerabilities that the fence builders are always falling behind the hackers, and many such hacks go completely undetected. The problems of computer security are fundamental problems in computing theory due to which we cannot detect the malicious intent from a good intent, because we don’t know how to deal with meanings within a machine. Nevertheless, we try to fence as best we can.

Millions of people die of diseases such as cancer or deadly viruses not because we don’t understand the basic mechanism of killing the causes of diseases  using antivirals,  antibiotics, X-rays, or lasers, but because we don’t know how to shoot the target accurately. If your method of shooting is inaccurate, it would kill the host rather than the invader. Technological development in this case aims to find improved accuracy for the bullets, although the living being’s natural immune response already knows how to do that. This problem has its root in the fact that atomic theory has no sense of particle identity and we can only spray the bullets in the hope that they will probabilistically hit the enemies more than the citizens. Again, the fundamental failure in science is covered up either by finding workarounds to this failure, or leaving the technology vulnerable.

In every criminal justice system, many criminals go scot free because technology is unable to pin the crime to the criminal because we are unable to read the criminal’s mind. In our documentaries, books or movies on the subject, we extol the thrilling beauty of criminal forensics which essentially relies on the criminal being foolish and leaving behind material traces of evidence. Even polygraph tests are inadmissible in most criminal justice systems because they can be beaten and are known to fail. We know that the criminal knows whether or not she or he committed the crime. But we have no way of mapping their bodily states—brain and body—to their mental state (i.e. the knowledge of crime). If the mind is identical to the brain and body, then why aren’t we able to decode the physical states into the mental states?

Why, for instance, would we engage in the torture of terrorists if we knew how to read their minds by reading their bodies? Isn’t the primary goal of torture just a discovery of facts? Doesn’t the existence of torture indicate that we don’t know how to read the mind even though we proclaim that the mind is nothing but the brain?

Fencing Scientific Failures

The pervasive technology around us has many limits, to which we remain oblivious. We don’t understand that these limits are consequences of fundamental problems, and their solutions—whenever they will be provided—would be a workaround to the unsolved problem. Often times, the workarounds are built to prevent the system entering the state where it will fail. For instance, we can shut down the computer when it heats up, or we can set up a firewall or intrusion detection system to protect our computers from malicious attacks, or eliminate a polygraph test from admissible evidence because it might be erroneous, or caveat the success of a drug with a certain limited percentage of cases because we just don’t know when and why it works or fails. It is as if we know that the watch will tell the time correctly only twice in a day, so we decide to hide the watch at any other time.

In every area of science that has been converted into technology, you see something working but you also see lot of it failing. The failures, however, are fenced better as the technology develops, although not solved. The improved methods of fencing are often considered as an advancement of science, while fundamental problems still lurk just beneath the surface. People who argue that science is working aren’t able to distinguish between the grounds and the fence: they cannot see that the existence of the fence itself is an unsolved problem. The fencing mechanisms have become so pervasive that we treat them as part of what science is capable of doing rather than as things that arise from its basic failures.

The above examples are, of course, by no means an exhaustive list of problems. They are just the common ones that nearly everyone has encountered in one way or another. Beyond these failures in pervasive technology, there are even bigger problems in areas that are yet not developed enough to form technologies. For instance, there are serious foundational problems in complex systems with numerous interactions, the nature of perception, mind and meaning, cosmological quandaries like dark energy and dark matter, the problem of life’s origin, the singularities at the origin of the universe, the problem of free will and morality, etc. These problems are even more removed from the realm of technology because we just do not understand how any of it works, or how something so elaborate and complex could even come into existence.

When you recognize the times when science fails dramatically, or the times when it fails spectacularly but its failures are saved by fences, the times when science works pale in comparison. That’s when the broken watch analogy becomes pertinent—the broken watch is broken most of the times, although it sometimes seems to work.

Are These Separate or Related Issues?

A problem is never truly understood until it has been solved. The observed symptoms of a problem may indicate a very minor change, or, on the contrary, a complete overhaul of the underlying mechanism, and it is not possible to know beforehand which way we need to go about it. Computer programmers are quite familiar with this phenomena where a small error can lead to a large catastrophe while a major design flaw may only result in cosmetic problems. This fact holds true for science as well. When we see the above failures, we aren’t immediately sure if these are minor problems to be solved, or entail major revisions to science. Lord Kelvin, for instance, would have thought that black-body radiation and the constant speed of light only require minor adjustments to the established scientific view of the time.

The determination of whether the problem needs a fundamental change or a cosmetic one requires a deeper analysis of the problem itself. This analysis has been going on in all areas of science for many decades now, and the answers have been so hard to come by that it is considered professional suicide to spend your career in trying to solve the problem: you may never solve it, and therefore jeaopardize your career advancement. These days hardly anyone today works on the foundations of quantum physics, the foundations of number theory or set theory, or questions the idea of a mechanical theory of computation. Everyone knows that these are the biggest outstanding problems of our times, but few would risk their career in trying to solve them. What if they were to fail in that attempt? That should give an indication of how difficult some of these problems are.

My particular approach to this scientific paralysis has been to reduce the number of problems to be solved to just one, by showing how solutions would naturally arise if material objects were symbols of meanings rather than meaningless things. Once multiple problems have been reduced to a single problem, then we begin to see the gravity of the situation: we begin to realize that there is indeed a serious problem that requires a fundamental rather a cosmetic change. The next step is naturally to show what that fundamental change would look like. In my writings, I have attempted to do just that—showing how all fundamental problems in science require only one change—a change in our view of space-time from linear, homogeneous and isotropic to  hierarchical, typed and closed. I have also described a mathematical structure that would make this structure comprehensible. Since that structure requires a shift in the nature of logic and numbers, I am currently working on the formulation of a new kind of modal logic to make this formally describable.

In a simple sense, every object in the universe is not an independent entity. It is rather defined in relation to a conceptually more abstract entity. The location of an object (i.e. its position in space and time) must be described like a postal address and a clock time rather than like a infinitesimal point in an infinite, flat, and uniform expanse. The collection of all these entities constitutes a hierarchical structure, in which nodes are types rather than quantities. The quantification, in fact, depends on first finding the types.

How Broken Is Science?

From this viewpoint, science is not broken in its details but in its fundamentals. The fix, however, is not complex; it is quite a simple revision in our notion of space and time. The problem of science, in this view, is that we are trying to reduce a hierarchical structure to a flat structure. All such reductions must be either inconsistent or incomplete. For instance, if we were to try to reduce the idea of a color to a specific set of colors, the reduction would be incomplete. If, however, we indeed took that specific set of colors to constitute a complete reduction of the idea of color, then the description would be inconsistent.

Scientists who assert that science is working although a few minor things need to be figured out are like Lord Kelvin who thought that black-body radiation and the constant speed of light would fit into the conceptual framework of classical physics. The problems facing science today are far more profound, varied, and pervasive than the ones previously seen. Their fix, accordingly, also requires a fundamental shift in our thinking.

The watch is broken, and the scientists who continue to stick to the current materialist ideology in science are the makers of this broken watch, and they  don’t realize how broken it actually is. They try to move the needles of this watch to keep the appearance that the watch is working, not recognizing that the underlying mechanism itself needs an overhaul. The pedestrians watching this exercise marvel at the fact that this moving needle gives them useful technology, and therefore science must be correct. The profound problems of incompleteness, indeterminism, irreversibility, and incomputability are hidden from their limited vision, because scientists don’t acknowledge their failures; they however extol the beauty of the fences that have been built to mask or suppress these failures. The situation is as grim as it is disturbing.