Sunday, March 11, 2012

Description Minus Explanation

Where scientific knowledge is concerned, it is well to remind ourselves occasionally that description isn’t explanation—and that, therefore, all explanations (except for the most crudely mechanical that we can actually observe) are products of our own minds. Descartes (1596-1650) still tried to explain physical phenomena mechanically—but to do so he had to rely on supertiny invisible physical particles that completely filled the cosmos—and thus such things as gravity, the orbit of planets, the lightness of air, objects falling to the grounds, etc. all had their explanation in the relative motion (“agitation”) of invisible particles. Descartes’ vortex theory powerfully reminds me of the atomism of Lucretius (99-55 BC).  Descartes’ contemporary, Galileo (1564-1642), introduced the modern way—description. To be sure, the description had to be mathematical, thus based on measurement and observation. But while this approach is very fruitful for the manipulation of matter, it explains nothing at all. It’s an old, old problem, to be sure. The ancients had problems giving an account of motion. Calling what lies behind it “force,” is nice—because it is a different word—but nobody has ever seen force. Gravity has no explanation either. Description without explanation has a peculiar character if, say, we applied it to history.

In 1934 in Germany a man named Adolf Hitler rose to prominence. Thereafter his uniformed followers marched about and raised their right hands, palms stiff out, and shouted Heil Hitler. His armed forces crossed borders and did damage to other organized forces and herded civilians in certain quarters into camps. This in turn led to many other regions to dress males in uniforms and to move steel objects about, some lifting themselves in the air and dropping smaller objects that, falling, came apart and did much damage. Eventually these other forces crossed the borders of Germany until Adolf Hitler disappeared…

Something’s missing here. Something is also missing in cosmologies based strictly on the description of the behavior of matter—and something called energy that we all know but have never actually beheld.

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