In this important article Frank asks a basic and fundamental question – Do we live in an Objective world? How do we know what is real? How can we measure things outside, or within, ourselves….? Can we know or measure anything?
To be a scientist is to believe that measurement, analysis, and conclusions we draw about nature correspond to nature ‘as it is’. This is sometimes called ‘naïve’ realism. In simple terms, this means we are responding to a nature which has a pre-existing form, and simply describing it, rather than making up this nature and giving it its form. To believe nature has a pre-existing form is to believe in an objective world – one outside of myself. In this sense the objective world is prior to my subjective experience and description of it.
This seems reasonable except that we interpret this objective world and so since the time of the physicist/philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), there has been a substantial shift in philosophy from – the objective leading to the subjective; to – the subjective creating the objective. There is a direct line from the latter view to today’s postmodernism which emphasises subjectivity over objectivity. (For more information on this please see: ‘Explaining Postmodernism – Skepticism & Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault’, Hicks, S.R.C., Connor Court Publishing, 2019.)
It is true that we use our human creativity to describe the world we live in. Thus, mathematical formulae have symbols which abstract physical properties. For instance, we use ‘a’ for acceleration, ‘v’ for velocity, and ‘c’ for the velocity of light. This labelling is arbitrary, but what is not arbitrary in the mind of the scientist, is that nature has physical properties to which we respond. This is called ‘ontology’ or the ‘nature of being’ and most working scientists simply accept that they are responding to this ontology. In fact, all of us operate within this ontology in our daily lives. For example, we must choose to walk through a door and not through a wall or out of a window.
Engineers use it to send the James Webb telescope into space or, in the future, a manned mission to Mars. We live pragmatically, as humankind, as if the world outside of ourselves is objective. We are creative actors in this world which has boundaries and form. A simple example which makes sense to most of us is that biology tells us trees, plants, animals, and human beings are binary. That is, they come in two parts: male and female. This is an important feature of nature, for two parts allow reproduction, variation, and adaptation. Individual human beings are subject to this biology, and that is not a preference. We may not like this feature of nature but that is simply a statement of our individual complex psychology rather than our biological nature ontologically.
So, why can we have confidence that the world we live in has a deep objectivity and is not simply a consequence of our psychology and its desires? Why is it true we are ‘responders’ and not ‘makers’ of reality all around us?
When we do experimental work on nature in science, and repeat it, we discover that the results are reproducible in time and space and that there are laws and principles in nature. We discover relationships in the natural world, some of which we can describe mathematically. Just like 2+2=4 is true, a priori and fundamental to our universe, we also discover by careful extrapolation from experiment, that there are many other fundamental and rational facts in nature such as Newton’s universal law of gravitation describing how gravity operates between stars and planets.
Scientists do their work carefully and with refereeing by other colleagues. Experimental work and theories suggest further experimental work in order to cross check and form a self-consistent picture of nature. Lack of experimental self-consistency leads to a paradigm shift which does not necessarily come immediately but is inevitable because science is a search for factual truth. To be sure, science is done by scientists with their own subjectivity, but the enterprise at its best, eschews human race, colour, gender, and sexual preference to form an objective picture of our world with which we operate routinely in engineering and medicine. Science is done by a tapestry of individuals who together access, by extrapolation through theory and experiment, the objective ontology of nature within experimental uncertainty.
Do science and religion cross over to each other?
The fact that scientists have belief or faith in a reasonable universe, which has a given form, leads also to the ‘why is it so?’ question. This leads some, like me, to believe that part of reasonable belief in this form also includes the existence of a transcendent God who created the very form of a rational universe in which science can be done.
Dr Frank Stootman