Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Limiting Nature of Philosophy

Scientific discover, by its very nature, is a creative process. Those who wish to discover how things work must first imagine how they might work and test that imaging. As such, humanity places limits on scientific discovery to those things that the individuals involved can imagine. In this way prevailing philosophies can have a profound impact on scientific discovery.

It would be easy to dismiss the limiting nature of philosophy as a phenomenon of past centuries, but one can look at the modern age and at well respected scientists to see the effects. Einstein was a remarkable physicist, his general theory of relativity was a huge step forward. Without his contribution in this area “physicists would eventually have discovered general relativistic effects … but probably not until late in the 20th century” (Scientific American, p.48). Yet even Einstein was captive to his own philosophies.

After his work on relativity Einstein began work on quantum theory, his work included contributions that eventually resulted in laser technology. But the science eventually led in a direction that he could not accept. Quantum physics relied on statistical probabilities to explain what was happening with sub-atomic particles and Einstein’s personal philosophy insisted that nature worked in a deterministic way – that there must be causal explanations of what was occurring. Einstein “famously declared that God does not play dice” (p. 185) revealing his close-mindedness to the idea that the smallest of particles behaved in a random way.

Fortunately, not everyone shared this particular philosophical view and quantum theory has continued to evolve with the recognition that photons and other sub-atomic particles can actually be in multiple places at the same time. How much physics was hampered by Einstein’s philosophic views is difficult to know, but it is not absurd to assume that, had Einstein been able to accept this reality, he may have been able to make further groundbreaking discoveries in quantum physics. Perhaps it would have even led him to discover the unified theory that had otherwise escaped him.

While human philosophy must always place barriers on what is possible to imagine, it does not necessarily have to be counterproductive. If a philosophy insists that something must be true then it can drive one to explain that truth. Einstein, again, is illustrative of this effect.

The relativity principle was suggested by Galileo stating that “all physical laws are the same regardless of your state of motion, as long as the velocity at which you cruise along does not change” (Scientific American, p. 47). With the discovery of electromagnetic forces this principle appeared to fall apart as experimentalists could never find the relativity effect when measuring light.

The lack of a relativistic effect in electromagnetism bothered Einstein. The conflict between Einstein’s own philosophy and conventional wisdom of the time pushed him to look for another solution.

This drive to validate personal philosophy ultimately led to the special theory of relativity, one of the most profound discoveries of the 20th century. The implications of the theory are very counter-intuitive for most people – the speed of light is constant but length and time vary at high speeds – that it isn’t unreasonable to assume that only the drive to validate this philosophy made such a discovery possible.

As these example shows, philosophy has a limiting effect on the creative process regardless of the intelligence and nature of the creator. However, the limitation of philosophy can have positive and negative effects.

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