The need for philosophers in science.
The greats. The greatest of the greats. Einstein, Lorentz, Darwin, Maxwell, Newton, Galileo, Aristotle. A girlfriend once used to say how much she admired the 1920’s when “men knew how to be men, and women knew how to dress.” We could probably say the same about great scientists of the past, when scientists knew how to be great scientists. What happened to this river of greatness that seemed to produce a steady stream of world-altering radical thinkers? All this momentum - but where did it go? It’s as though it crashed over a waterfall into an endless abyss. It seems to have happened around the turn of the 20th century when Einstein splashed his tidal wave of a theory upon us. And then that was it. There was calm. Not a ripple or an Aristotle to be found.
Computers began to appear some time not too long after this storm of scientific achievement. Computers that propose to do our thinking for us; much superior in ability to process information, in unfathomable magnitudes with such an incredible precision that it drowns out by comparison our pitiful human capacity for accuracy. A flawless ability to process terabytes of information. Flawless, and to perfection. Without error, these instruments have unearthed an ability never seen before in this world; maybe even throughout the entire universe. Perfection.
With our newfound ability to not have to think, computers have stolen central stage where all our efforts can now be directed at them, in the hopes that they will solve the mysteries of the universe for us. No longer is there a need to wait under an apple tree when one can simply punch a card and see an immediate result. Microprocessors and software provide us with no room for error. No output by chance. No random discoveries by accident. No moments of creativity or sudden enlightening epiphanies. Computers don’t understand “chance.” They can’t fathom it. A computer cannot play dice or pull a random number from its head, but it sure can repeat a time-consuming complicated calculation a billion times over.
I have been programming computers for 29 years. I had taken an interest in artificial intelligence and began developing an application to create new recipes for salads. I programmed in every detail there is to know about tomatoes and carrots and everything green. I told it to write a billion recipes and then send me the top ten. Without ado, it did just this and sent me the first set. The first being of carrot, carrot, carrot and carrot, I sent them all back and said try again. I received from it then the ten after that. After twenty-five thousand more turns at this game, I got fed up and said just do it, and don’t bug me again.
“Without your involvement”, it stuttered and moaned, “How will I know then?” it troubled and groaned. Without my emotion of knowing what’s right, this damn computer was lost in the night. I gave up on these veggies, and instead taught it to see. It could view all our faces, but relied solely on me. For without my frustration, it felt no reward, for spotting a terrorist or guessing my card. Without knowing happy, or ever knowing sad, it could never know whether, if what it had was good - or just bad.
When was it that our boat sank? When did science become all mathematics? When did solving the great mysteries of science by sitting on a mountain top and staring at the clouds become a faux pas? If we look back, we can see that the last of the great thinkers seemed to end with Einstein and his absolutely mind boggling proposal of the bending and twisting of space as we know it. Einstein was a ‘thinker.’ He was ‘creative’ and practiced ‘thought experiments.’ After failing to get my emotionless computer to train itself to recognize faces, I tried to get it to do a thought experiment. I asked it to put a grey piece of paper into one of two boxes that describes it best. One box was black. The other was white. My computer caught on fire and melted out of sight. I asked a mathematician to do the same and he scratched his head and looked at me funny. He said, “the probability of it being in either box at any time is 50% but you’ll never know how fast it’s going.” I just looked at him funny and scratched my head. I asked a six year old the same question and she grabbed the grey paper, drew a big face on it, scribbled it out, threw it into the black box along with the charcoal pencil and sat in the white box and pretended she was flying an airplane. I realized then that it was just a pointless question, and that was in fact the real answer to the experiment. Neither math nor logic was able to resolve my question – only creativity.
Don’t get me wrong, without science we might never have been able to manufacture a pencil and without math I could never have figured out the folds to make the boxes, but without philosophy we would never understand what is that we are looking at. We can train a computer to do algebra, and to have it propose all sorts of fascinating views of reality, but without understanding the tools we have in our hands, we are unable to build a bigger tool. Without understanding, we are merely a computer, blindly processing information. We are lost, in a city, without a map. We see the street signs and the addresses, and we know precisely where we are - yet we are still lost. We are a tree that doesn’t know it’s in a forest or a vote that doesn’t tip the scale.
We are trying to understand the nature of fluid by studying only two H's and an O.
Math, science and philosophy are the triad of discovery. A mathematical reality is only as useful as the human mind’s ability to imagination it.