For this month I return to my old tricks: speech against entrenched scientific doctrine. It may seem rash, destructive to do this work. One may counter that the indoctrination that is required is equally rash and destructive. I know that the young often have to learn lessons in an unpleasant way. The reason I write urgently about people’s faith in science is because I am basically a skeptic. I believe that holding a belief as absolutely true, without exception, does not create concord. When people are inflexible about ideas there is more fighting among people, within families, communities and internationally, not less. On one hand the people who strongly believe the doctrine cannot abide people who have another mind on an issue, they can’t even talk to them, thinking them beneath reproach. So far a hive mind has not been successfully implemented (and to my mind should not be implemented), no matter how scientific that hive mind might be. On the other hand, the people who can’t bring themselves to agree with a scientific “party line” tend to look down on themselves as well, feeling that it is their fault and they simply don’t understand. Sometimes they seek out alternative beliefs that are just as conceited as scientific beliefs. As a way to counteract solid beliefs, they create other solid beliefs. They believe that not having an equally entrenched belief to combat scientific belief, that is, to merely argue against a scientific belief, is destructive. A basic skeptical idea is that solid belief breeds discord and strife.
One way to see the drawbacks in having overconfidence about one’s knowledge is looking at the concept of “mansplaining.” The basic problem with the concept of mansplaining is it assumes that someone or other “really” knows about something. Often engineers and math buffs love their subject because of a love of the obvious. They want to return again and again to what they think they “really” know, like recounting the gold coins they’ve collected. And the person on the receiving end of this type of personality gets annoyed either because they don’t care to know, or feel that they really know, and the person mansplaining doesn’t “really” know. So we’re in a contest of who knows better. The skeptic completely avoids this contest, because she isn’t sure if anything is”really” known. The only thing skeptics believe, the only thing that keeps skeptics from nihilism, is they acknowledge that there are certain impressions in the present moment; they do not commit to where the impressions come from (external objects, or internal thoughts, or somewhere else), what it is that receives this impression they call the soul, but what the soul is I don’t know. They avoid a philosophical point of view on what these impressions (Greek phantasiai) are. The main goal of the skeptic is Ataraxia, which is peace of mind from not accepting any dogmatic doctrine. By thinking carefully about pro and con of various dogmatic doctrines, effectively counting the gold coins, getting involved in the richness of one doctrine, and then looking at a counter belief, counting the gold coins and richness, the skeptic can’t decide between the two piles of gold, the two doctrines. After doing this type of comparison a lot, the mind in Ataraxia becomes like a fortress, and a mansplainer will have almost no hold on such a skeptic, even if the topic is new. They may observe that the mansplainer appears rather rash in deciding they know so much, but they will not be moved to believe what the mansplainer believes because they have already weighed conflicting beliefs, nor will they be moved to criticize the mansplainer, because the skeptic doesn’t have an alternative belief to defend except what seems or appears to them through the senses/mind in the given moment.
My argument here seems to be an argument against Newton’s laws of physics. That the theory is “false.” However, I am not making the claim that Newton’s laws are false, I am rather asking if Newton’s laws of physics make sense–if Newton’s laws are neither true nor false. Like the person on the receiving end of a mansplainer, I feel merely puzzled, at a loss, unsure if I understand. Unlike people in physics classrooms who in the end look down on themselves deciding “I can’t do physics” or “I can’t do math” I believe anyone taking the position that they can’t make sense of these “laws” is a respectable position to take. This is the reason for the heavy use of the word “Seems.” It may be assumed that “It seems to me” can be added to all of what follows, and everything in this blog.
Newton’s laws of physics are only true in a perfect vacuum. The funny thing is that the basic notion that defines mathematical space, the open set, seems to assert that there is no such thing as a perfect vacuum. So, if Newtonian physics were logical, it would have to either abandon mathematical space, which would do away with line and point the way it is used in physics texts, or it would have to abandon Newton’s laws. The problem I’m running into is that the open set, the basic building block of mathematical space is defined by starting with a point, and then asserting that any “neighborhood” (or circle if you like, but circle depends on point and space already being defined) around that point, no matter how small, contains another point inside the neighborhood (circle). It is clear that space must have points in it, but could a point or a really small neighborhood still be considered empty space? It seems to come down to the question: What is a point?
The common understanding is that a point is a place, not a thing, and that it is such a small place that nothing can be in that place, because if something could be there, say the smallest neutrino, to say the least, there would then exist something of no size. Could there be a place (indeed many, many places) where only nothing can possibly be? It seems to be a contradiction in terms. A place is a place where something could be, and if nothing can be in this place, then it is no place at all. If we did away with the idea of a point to define the open set, say we used progressively smaller circles or neighborhoods instead of points…. that would result is a very different understanding of what is a circle or neighborhood, basically what space is would change: this new idea of space would not be ordered by the real numbers because they are defined in space as points. Instead space would have to be ordered by neighborhoods, if at all. This may be possible, and even worthwhile, but for the present it would make mathematical space stand on its head.
If there is a smallest particle, say take the smallest subatomic particle, or whatever, the smallest neutrino, I don’t know, and then take a neighborhood that is smaller than that, it seems then you have a perfect vacuum…assuming you can still locate points in this very small neighborhood. That doesn’t tell us what points are, but at least we can then say that there are very small neighborhoods of perfect vacuums where Newton’s laws can hold true. But to get to this conclusion we have sacrificed a lot: we have admitted that we don’t know what a point is. It seems that any neighborhood smaller than the smallest particle would have the same problem a point has: it would be a place that only nothing can possibly be in, which seems to be no place at all. Also, we have assumed we know what the smallest particle is.
It is safe to say that we can never know when we’ve found the smallest particle, because there will always be sizes beyond our reckoning.
Finally, it seems we are lucky to find a truly empty space large enough to claim that Newton’s laws are absolute and inflexible truths (in such spaces). Such a space is a situation that doesn’t matter much. In the world of breath and bodies, Newton’s laws of physics are approximations of more or less pragmatic use, not absolute truths. And mathematical space doesn’t seem to make sense either. Neither mathematical space nore Newton’s laws ought to be believed inflexibly as though other ideas are beneath reproach