Category: The Fabric of Reality

Penguin: 1998.

What makes life special

We can see that the ancient idea that living matter has special physical properties was almost true: it is not living matter but knowledge-bearing matter that is physically special. Within one universe it looks irregular; across universes it has a regular structure, like a crystal in the multiverse. [190]

A theory’s mark of Cain

In general, perverse but unrefuted theories which one can propose off the cuff fall roughly into two categories. There are theories that postulate unobservable entities, such as particles that do not interact with any other matter. They can be rejected for solving nothing (‘Occam’s razor’, if you like). And there are theories, like yours, that predict unexplained observable anomalies. They can be rejected for solving nothing and spoiling existing solutions. It is not, I hasten to add, that they conflict with existing observations. It is that they remove the explanatory power from existing theories by asser­ting that the predictions of those theories have exceptions, but not explaining how. [160-1]

On the shoulders of giants

The reverence that philosophers show for the historical sources of ideas is very perverse, you know. In science we do not consider the discoverer of a theory to have any special insight into it. On the contrary, we hardly ever consult original sources. They invariably become obsolete, as the problem-situations that prompted them are transformed by the discoveries themselves. For example, most relativity theorists today understand Einstein’s theory better than he did. The founders of quantum theory made a complete mess of understanding their own theory. Such shaky beginnings are to be expected; and when we stand upon the shoulders of giants, it may not be all that hard to see further than they did. But in any case, surely it is more interesting to argue about what the truth is, than about what some particular thinker, however great, did or did not think. [157]

Corroboration and refutation

Well, Popperians might speak of a theory being the best available for use in practice, given a certain problem-situation. And the most important features of a problem-situation are: what theories and explanations are in contention, what arguments have been advanced, and what theories have been refuted. ‘Corroboration’ is not just the confirmation of the winning theory. It requires the experimental refutation of rival theories. Confirming instances in themselves have no significance. …

Under inductivism, observation was supposed to be primary. One imagined a mass of past observations from which the theory was supposed to be induced, and observations also constituted the evidence which somehow justified the theory. In the Popperian picture of scientific progress, it is not observations but problems, controversies, theories and criticism that are primary. Experiments are designed and performed only to resolve controversies. Therefore only experimental results that actually do refute a theory – and not just any theory, it must have been a genuine contender in a rational controversy – constitute ‘corroboration’. And so it is only those experiments that provide evidence for the reliability of the winning theory. …

And even then, the ‘reliability’ that corroboration confers is not absolute but only relative to the other contending theories. That is, we expect the strategy of relying on corroborated theories to select the best theories from those that are proposed. That is a sufficient basis for action. We do not need (and could not validly get) any assurance about how good even the best proposed course of action will be. Furthermore, we may always be mistaken, but so what? We cannot use theories that have yet to be proposed; nor can we correct errors that we cannot yet see. [148-9]

It’s all about argument

Only argument ever justifies anything – tentatively, of course. All theorizing is subject to error, and all that. But still, argu­ment can sometimes justify theories. That is what argument is for. [146]

Ever since Galileo

I have described Galileo’s new conception of our relationship with external reality as a great methodological discovery. It gave us a new, reliable form of reasoning involving observational evidence. That is indeed one aspect of his dis­covery: scientific reasoning is reliable, not in the sense that it certifies that any particular theory will survive unchanged, even until tomorrow, but in the sense that we are right to rely on it. For we are right to seek solutions to problems rather than sources of ultimate justification. Observational evidence is indeed evidence, not in the sense that any theory can be deduced, induced or in any other way inferred from it, but in the sense that it can constitute a genuine reason for preferring one theory to another.

But there is another side to Galileo’s discovery which is much less often appreciated. The reliability of scientific reason­ing is not just an attribute of us: of our knowledge and our relationship with reality. It is also a new fact about physical reality itself, a fact which Galileo expressed in the phrase ‘the Book of Nature is written in mathematical symbols’. As I have said, it is impossible literally to ‘read’ any shred of a theory in nature: that is the inductivist mistake. But what is genuinely out there is evidence, or, more precisely, a reality that will respond with evidence if we interact appropriately with it. Given a shred of a theory, or rather, shreds of several rival theories, the evidence is available out there to enable us to distinguish between them. Anyone can search for it, find it and improve upon it if they take the trouble. They do not need authorization, or initiation, or holy texts. They need only be looking in the right way – with fertile problems and promising theories in mind. This open accessibility, not only of evidence but of the whole mechanism of knowledge acquisition, is a key attribute of Galileo’s conception of reality. [94]

On superior explanations

If a theory about observable events is untestable – that is, if no possible observation would rule it out – then it cannot by itself explain why those events happen in the way they are observed to and not in some other way. For example, the ‘angel’ theory of planetary motion is untestable because no matter how planets moved, that motion could be attributed to angels; therefore the angel theory cannot explain the particular motions that we see, unless it is supplemented by an independent theory of how angels move. That is why there is a methodological rule in science which says that once an experimentally testable theory has passed the appropriate tests, any less testable rival theories about the same phe­nomena are summarily rejected, for their explanations are bound to be inferior. This rule is often cited as distinguishing science from other types of knowledge-creation. But if we take the view that science is about explanations, we see that this rule is really a special case of something that applies naturally to all problem-solving: theories that are capable of giving more detailed explanations are automatically preferred. They are preferred for two reasons. One is that a theory that ‘sticks its neck out’ by being more specific about more phenomena opens up itself and its rivals to more forms of criticism, and therefore has more chance of taking the problem-solving process forward. The second is simply that, if such a theory survives the criticism, it leaves less unexplained – which is the object of the exercise. [66]

Science: the relativity of right

In science the object of the exercise is not to find a theory that will, or is likely to, be deemed true for ever; it is to find the best theory available now, and if possible to improve on all available theories. A scientific argument is intended to persuade us that a given explanation is the best one available. It does not and could not say anything about how that explanation will fare when, in the future, it is subjected to new types of criticism and compared with explanations that have yet to be invented. A good explanation may make good predictions about the future, but the one thing that no explanation can even begin to predict is the content or quality of its own future rivals. [64-5]

Taking our best theories seriously

If there is a single motivation for the world-view set out in this book, it is that thanks largely to a succession of extra­ordinary scientific discoveries, we now possess some extremely deep theories about the structure of reality. If we are to understand the world on more than a superficial level, it must be through those theories and through reason, and not through our preconceptions, received opinion or even common sense. Our best theories are not only truer than common sense, they make far more sense than common sense does. We must take them seriously, not merely as pragmatic foundations for their respective fields but as explanations of the world. And I believe that we can achieve the greatest understanding if we consider them not singly but jointly, for they are inextricably related.

It may seem odd that this suggestion – that we should try to form a rational and coherent world-view on the basis of out best, most fundamental theories – should be at all novel or controversial. Yet in practice it is. One reason is that each of these theories has, when it is taken seriously, very counter-intuitive implications. Consequently, all sorts of attempts have been made to avoid facing those implications, by making ad hoc modifications or reinterpretations of the theories, or by arbitrarily narrowing their domain of applicability, or simply by using them in practice but drawing no wider con­clusions from them. I shall criticize some of these attempts (none of which, I believe, has much merit), but only when this happens to be a convenient way of explaining the theories themselves. For this book is not primarily a defence of these theories: it is an investigation of what the fabric of reality would be like if they were true. [ix]