Friday, November 09, 2007

Mlodinow and Feynman – Physicists look at a Theory of Knowledge (Epistemology)

1. Both share a humility of approach, Socrates-like, that is declare your ignorance first and proceed from there to discover by experience what is new for you and then see what general conclusions you can logically draw from there. Classically, St Augustine called this a “docta ignorantia” or a “learned ignorance!” I’m not so sure either of these scientists would like to keep company with St Augustine, but I’m sure they’d be comfortable bedfellows with Socrates.

2. Mlodinow describes Feynman’s office and personality thus: “The blackboards were covered with mathematics – mostly with Feynman diagrams like those he had invented in his youth. There was a desk, a couch, a coffee table, a couple of bookshelves. Nothing seemed opulent. Nothing indicated that he was one of the most famous and respected scientists of the twentieth century.” (Some Time With Feynman, p. 40)

3. The fraught question of Positivism: Positivism refers to the world given to observation. It goes back at least as far as Francis Bacon and the British Empiricist School of the 17th and 18th centuries – in other words what we see concretely is what exists and nothing else – it’s the world of observable data. Thereby this movement sought to sideline theology and metaphysics as meaningless. However, Modern Physics is indeed interesting in this regard insofar as we’re not too sure as to the “real” existence of what we “observe.” That’s because we have gone ever and ever more deeply into the micro-world of the atom. For example the Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann proposed the existence of “sub-subnuclear particles” called “quarks” - a word he borrowed from our own James Joyce (Murray is a polymath and polyglot). Of course no one has ever “seen” an electron, proton or neutrons with the naked eye, much less a “quark” which is even smaller again and a constituent sub-entity within the protons and neutrons. We conclude they are there because of other evidences we see through electron microscopes and other such devices beyond my knowledge. Then, of course, we have the quandary which is for the most part insuperable, that we change what we observe by the very act of observing it – our modern equipment displaces a lot of what it seeks to observe – so cannot “really” observe it in “actuality” or “in the raw” as it were. Heisenberg's great "Uncertainty Principle" fits in here, I think! Therefore, positivism has to be transcended as we move into spheres of ever more sophisticated abstractions. It’s almost as if metaphysics is getting its own back by forcing us to theorize and philosophize what can’t be truly observed. Does something exist if we cannot observe it? Modern physics would suggest that such is the case.

4. There is a need for two approaches to science according to Mlodinow and Feynman namely the Greek Method (Method of tight theorem and proof based on accepted axioms) and the Babylonian Method (Pragmatic approach: something is true if it works in all possible situations, when it adequately describes a real situation or problem). Modern science needs both approaches.

5. “A lot of discoveries are like that, new ways of looking at old things, or old concepts…So I guess I learned something about the psychology of discovery.” (Feynman quoted by Mlodinow, op.cit., p. 38) Here Feynman has a lot in common with the “Lateral Thinking” approach advocated by Edward de Bono.

6. “The scientist analyzes something like a detective does…We are trying to figure out what nature is like from the clues given by experiments. We have the clues and we try to figure it out…” (Feynman quoted by M., op.cit., p. 42)

7. Here is Feynman on the physicist’s approach to thinking: “A scientist’s work is normal activities of humans carried out to a fault, in a much exaggerated form. Ordinary people don’t do it as often, or, as I do, think about the same problem everyday…Scientists, therefore, do something with an intensity that is out of the ordinary.” (Feynman quoted by M., op.cit., pp. 43-44)

8. For both Feynman and Mlodinow science is a love affair and the mistress is the problem that they are currently working on. (op.cit., passim). Passion and obsession are two other words that both use frequently about their pursuit of science.

9. Feynman was a total non-conformist in every way – surely a quality of a very original thinker. In other words such men and women are very courageous as they have to “plough their own lonely furrow.” That takes courage indeed!

10. Both are/were persistent in their research/work. They did not give up!

11. It’s most important that a scientist finds the right problem for him or her to work upon!

12. They both took/take great leaps of imagination, i.e., they think/thought outside the box!

13. You need to be able to believe in yourself, to follow your intuition with conviction and self-belief!

(To be continued.)

Above is a picture of Dr Leonard Mlodinow

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