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A Matter of Faith

Entry 2002, on 2019-09-20 at 13:57:25 (Rating 2, Philosophy)

The debate Bob was having over religion had got to a critical point. In the end it had come to what is more important: truth or faith. Bob said, "But, surely you agree that accepting reality and seeking truth is what really matters". His opponent, Alice, wasn't so sure, saying "But what is reality? Is your reality the same as mine? What gives you the right to claim yours is real and mine isn't?"

Bob had heard it all before: the same old relativist argument that truth is really just opinion, and that one opinion was just as good as any other. And he wasn't going to accept that, so he said "We are debating over the internet - an invention of science - so if you are so determined that religious faith is just as good as empirical science is it not rather hypocritical for you to use the results of a philosophical view you essentially reject?"

But his opponent had also been involved in this sort of debate in the past and was ready for that objection. She said "Superficial successes, such as technology derived from mechanical laws, don't really say anything about the underlying principles the universe operates on. And who is to say that those scientific discoveries couldn't ultimately be attributed to the guiding hand of a greater entity, like the one I have faith exists."

This was clearly going nowhere, and Bob knew that there was no absolute way to counter that type of argument. He also knew that philosophically scientific principles could never be fully proved within their own system of logic. Most science relied on inductive logic and that was never absolute. And any claim of success could never prove that the underlying methodology was irrefutable.

But still, he persisted: "We know that no system can prove its own validity, but let's just use common sense here. Science gives us great results and it's underlying logic seems to be valid, even if just from a common sense perspective. Considering all epistemological systems cannot be fully internally consistent, why not just choose the one which gives the best practical results?"

But again, Alice had a response to this: "Well, before Einstein we were fairly certain that Newtonian physics was correct, yet it turned out to really be just a model for what was really happening. Who's to say the same won't be found to be true for Relativity in future, or any other theory for that matter?"

Again, Bob called on an argument from practical consequences, countering with "We can never know for sure, but it is a practical approximation to assume theories which give us perfect results are true until something better comes along, or we start seeing situations where the theory is inaccurate or just wrong. And by the way, Newtonian physics was already known to be inaccurate before Einstein."

This argument went back and forwards along similar lines for a while, with neither of the debaters really being able to convince the other that either belief system was unconditionally better than the other, so they just had to leave it with no agreed winner.

So Bob logged out of the internet site and went back to his research. He was a professor of quantum physics at a leading university, after all, and debating religious nuts on the internet was really beneath the standard of dignified discourse he set for himself. And nothing was ever discovered through argument and pure thought anyway, because he was an experimental physicist and relied on the power of empiricism to establish what was really true. His philosophy was that unless experiment confirmed it, it was just an opinion.

And his current work was actually possibly related to the subject he had been debating. Ever since the famous double-slit experiment was first performed, there had been debate about what it really meant. Were particles really particles? Or were they waves? And how did the observer watching them affect the outcome?

Bob's assistant had been setting up the experiment for him while he engaged in futile on-line debate, so he thought he might go and check on progress. Bob arrived in the lab and noticed the assistant had already left for the day. Checking the time he realised he had wasted more time than he thought, and it was now well after 5.

But Bob was in the lab now so he figured he might as well run the experiment while he was there. The experiment involved a quantum interaction between subatomic particles which would cause a particle to divert and produce a signal in a sensor on the left side of the apparatus if the current model was accurate. It was a variant of the classic double-slit experiment where the particles behaved in different ways, demonstrating the strange but apparently true rules of the quantum world.

Bob strode purposefully to the particle accelerator and switched on the power to give it time to warm up. An ominous hum filled the lab as the energy levels rose. This was what science was all about, and Bob loved it. His colleagues who worked in theoretical physics might enjoy dreaming up new ideas, but until people like him actually tested them they weren't worth much.

And here he was, with the opportunity to help prove one of the greatest theories of them all: quantum physics. This was what reality was all about: the experiment showed actual reality, not the sort of personal preference his opponent in the argument earlier that day seemed to believe. But at the same time there was the chance the particle would move to the right, and if it did that it would be exciting too, because then the theorists would have something they needed to explain. It might seem like a game, but science had worked this way for its entire modern history.

The computer told him the experiment was ready to run. He tapped a few commands on the keyboard, and the particles accelerated until they were ready to be released towards the target. Bob pressed the initiate button, privately comparing it to the captain of the starship Enterprise issuing the command "make it so".

Nothing happened.

Bob glanced at the screen. A warning message asked "Do you really want to initiate the beam?" Well, of course I do, thought Bob, that's why I pressed the "Initiate Beam" button! Programmers worked with the practical side of technology, like he did, but he still had trouble understanding them some times! He clicked "OK".

The anti-climax was obvious. Clearly, being captain of a starship really was a bit more dramatic than what he was doing. The computer emitted a shirt beep and a message "Data capture complete" appeared, along with a button "View Results". He clicked it. A graph of the particle paths appeared on the screen. His experience of interpreting what might be a random collection of dots and lines to a lot of people immediately told him the result. The particle had moved to the left, as he had expected.

Well, it was OK to confirm existing theories, he mused, although proving those smug theorists wrong would have been more satisfying. He clicked the "Save" button and saved the results onto the computer's hard drive. As he did, he noticed an existing set of results already there. His assistant must have done a run to check the setup of the system before he did. Of course, the assistant didn't have the background knowledge to know how to interpret the results, so Bob opened them so he could have a quick look at them himself.

The file opened and Bob stared at the graph, highly puzzled. The particle had moved to the right!

Bob called the assistant and asked why he had changed the polarity of the experiment, but the assistant claimed he had changed nothing. Finishing the call, Bob tried the experiment again. He had total confidence that the result he got was correct, and when he repeated the experiment he got the same result: the particle moved to the left.

His phone beeped and he noticed Alice had started the debate again. He didn't bother reading her comment just yet because he wanted to do some more testing. He asked one of his colleagues - an astronomer who was working late, but those guys always worked weird hours - to run the experiment for him, just to check that he hadn't done anything obviously stupid. The particle went to the right. He tried it again himself, and it went to the left. Puzzled, he went home.

The next day he decided it was time to run a more credible test so he asked another physicist to run it, after explaining the mechanism involved. The particle went left. It seemed that physics experts made the particle go left and the rest made it go right. When his assistant arrived at work he went over the assembly of the system to make sure it had been done correctly. At one critical stage the assistant had reversed the polarity of the beam. The particle should have gone right all along!

He ran the experiment again himself, and it did go right. At this stage Bob was starting to question his own concept of reality. Could it be that the way the real world worked really was linked to the observer? When he was convinced the particle should go left it did, yet when he understood there was an error and it should go right that happened instead.

Suddenly he wasn't so convinced that his argument about there being a single underlying reality was true. Looking for a distraction, he picked up his phone and looked at the screen. The message from Alice was still there. She had commented "What's the difference between your confidence in science and my faith in religion. Is there really any difference between confidence and faith? Is my reality any less real than yours?"

It was as if she had known about the experiment which had so shaken his faith in reality. He replied, "No, there isn't."

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