Monday, September 1, 2008

Advantages of a Scientific Approach to Cosmology

SAGREDO: I am providing an answer to the question posted in “big bang cosmology” (08/18/2008). In a separate thread I will comment on the very interesting points brought forward by ETNY.

The answer is yes, science has an advantage when it comes to understanding and explaining nature.

This question unavoidably brings the heavy load surrounding the intense debate among philosophers and sociologists of science that ponder how science works and what constitutes a work of science. So to avoid getting involved in such interminable debate let me propose a practical “working notion” of what scientific research in cosmology entails.

I posit -- notwithstanding quantum mechanics’ complications arising from the observer modifying the observed object -- that Heisenberg or not, there is an external reality, there are objects external and independent to the observer.

Having accepted that there is an external reality, the second fundamental point of understanding is that the work of theorists is to develop models of that external world that can be judged by how coherent they are at providing explanation of observations and how accurate at predicting and fitting experimental data. Note that 1. in this modest but practical approach to understand the workings of science, a model is not judged to be ‘true’ or ‘false’ but rather ‘useful’ in explaining and predicting observations; and 2. We have excluded from the domain of scientific cosmology a whole class of human experiences (art, spirituality, mystic experiences, etc) that do not fit the ‘model vs. fitting the data’ approach. The statement ‘explaining and predicting observations’ could be construed as an open ended proposition and certainly needs a lot of qualifiers such as here ‘explaining’ means providing causal explanation in a systematic and repeatable manner and ‘predicting’ is meant in a robust way (in the statistical sense), otherwise I can see my critics advancing the notion that astrology is science under my proposed definition. There is no room here to take on the topic of demarcation. Popper will come to the rescue in case of doubt. Granted, this is quite a restrictive definition of science and somewhat problematic in that here we are dealing with a legitimate approach to cosmology that excludes very important components as highlighted by ETNY (see “post-Western Cosmologies”). Let’s focus on the epistemic implications not the ontological.

Guided by the “working notion” of scientific cosmology one can take a Popperian approach and recognize that the value in the scientific approach to cosmology stems from the fact that 1. We know when a model is wrong (i.e. it does not fit the data) and therefore needs to be discarded; and 2. When a scientist makes a claim, it will have to be reproduced systematically and independently before it is widely accepted.

These two points alone are an advantage when compared with non-scientific approaches. Consider the alternative: when has divine revelation, inspiration of a shaman, the dictum of an oracle, prophesy, or astrological readings been able to be reproduced in a systematic and controlled way? Prediction is not the currency of religious doctrine; it is only post-diction in the form “the devastating earthquake is a manifestation of the will of god”.

The predictive power of non-scientific world views is weak and arbitrary (astrology) and can not be subjected to controlled and systematic measurement. As such there is no rejection mechanism for non-scientific world views. Furthermore, two such world views can come with conflicting accounts of “reality” and there is no way to discriminate because they both are based in non testable claims.

This response embodies the narrow point of view generally accepted by scientists, and it is perhaps the reason for so much apathy and at times disregard for a scientific cosmology from the public in general. One could argue that in the post-Hiroshima world it was about time that researchers in the humanities come out and put science on check. Too much power to science and scientists, with their manipulation of concepts that are closed to the average citizen, and we’ll see democracy diminished [Feyerabend]. Or as Ernesto Sabato put it “science is the new religion”. However, and leaving the “science wars” aside, taking the recipe of the sociologists to the extreme is also problematic. Two points: 1. in the case of cosmology, history shows that the prevailing model does not fit the “social construct” mold (i.e. nobody wanted the big bang, it emerged with the impulse of experimental data that at the beginning no theory was pursuing and went contrary to theoretical expectation and taste); 2. leveling the field among all possible approaches to uncovering the “truth” about nature has provided a platform to propel unethical notions in the academic environment by groups that have a non-academic agenda (global warming denial, evolution denial, holocaust denial, etc.). The challenge is: cognizant of the cultural backgrounds and diverse world views, can we bring closer to the popular audience the new scientific knowledge about the universe? I believe that faced by global environmental and resource challenges arising from blatant abuse, scientific ignorance is not an option.