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Might the rate of passage of time be an obstacle for scientific knowledge?

  1. Sep 10, 2009 #1
    Hello, I hope someone can shine some light on the following questions:

    The std scientific method (observation, hypothesis, experimental verification or falsification) assumes that the phenomenon being studied happens (is observable) within the time span of human experiment, let's say a human lifetime at most.

    But, how much justified are we to make this assumption?
    Could it be that there are completely deterministic laws governing processes which escape our grasp simply because they take too long for us to study them scientifically?

    What follows is not precisely what I have in mind but for the sake of example, let's consider biogenesis. We frequently read that life emerged "relatively quickly after the formation of a solid rock earth crust", meaning maybe 600 million years after. On the other hand since the Miller-Urey days in the 50's, scientists are trying to combine chemical compounds in test tubes and submit them to the supposed conditions of primeval earth hoping to eventually witness the formation of something at least close to life.
    Biogenesis very likely involved some chain of reactions which, while happening at normal "human known" rate, their statistical improbability of precisely getting the right combinations and sequence means that you have to wait for billions of reaction events in order to, by statistical chance, come up with the right one.
    But what if, besides this, biogenesis involved some as yet unknown reaction which not because of statistical improbability but by intrinsical speed, takes (let's say) 1,000 years to happen?
    In such case, human experiments trying to replicate biogenesis would be doomed from the start (I repeat, not because of improbability but by the sheer timespan of the phenomenon).

    Has this possibility been considered by any scientist or philosopher of science as a potential fundamental obstacle to achieving full scientific knowledge?

    And while we are here, further deep into the question: do different fundamental phenomena happen at different rates? or could we say that truly fundamental phenomena all happen at the same rate of passage of time, and if we see a phenomenon taking long (let's say, an apple going rotten) it's simply because although the individual fundamental molecular processes happen at the std rate, it's just that the macroscopic phenomenon appears slow due to the complexity and qty of atoms and molecules involved?

    And, if different fundamental phenomena happen at different rates, why is it so?
    and would this not force us to reckon that there might be completely deterministic laws which are as yet unknown simply because the rate at which they operate is still much slower than the slowest of the laws we know about?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 10, 2009 #2


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    I have not read further - there is no such assumption, so whatever you have tried to build on it, is most likely false.

    Geological record allows us to research things on mulitimilion years scale.

    Astronomical observations allows research of things on multibilion years scale.

    We don't have to make experiments to understand things. It often helps, but it is not always necessary.
  4. Sep 10, 2009 #3
    Thanks Borek, you're obviously right but (maybe because you didn't read further) you misunderstood my question.

    Certainly we can scientifically understand phenomenon which take geological and even cosmological timespans to happen. But as far as I can tell, those are because such long-span phenomena are the result of accumulation of fundamental phenomena which we know because we could study them experimentally. In a micro example what I mentioned about an apple getting rotten, in a macro example the history of the cosmological universe which we can deduct back to minutes from the big bang by extrapolating and accumulating fundamental phenomena which we have experimentally confirmed in, let's say, particle accelerators.
    The fundamental phenomena did not take any long to happen and are perfectly understandable from experimental science, only the accumulated long-term effect needed to be deducted from the knowledge gained from experimental and theoretical science.

    What I was wondering about is the possibility of fundamental phenomena which happen in a totally deterministic way but within a timespan intrinsically too long to be known in the traditional scientific approach.
  5. Sep 10, 2009 #4


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    Do you even have a hypothetical scenario?

    All this sounds like you are asking "What if something is going on that nobody knows about?"
  6. Sep 10, 2009 #5
    I do not have any particular scenario where I would be suggesting this possibility to be a possible reason for un-understood phenomena.

    My question is rather from the philosophy of science viewpoint: what does entitle us to assume that every scientifically knowable (fundamental) law deploys its observable effects within the very short human experimental timespan?
    is this ever considered by scientists and if so how do they deal with it?
  7. Sep 10, 2009 #6


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    No, he really got all he needed. The issue here is that you seem to think that all of science is based on human-constructed lab experiments. This isn't the case. For example:
    No, that isn't the case.
    Particle accelerators (or other lab instruments) are not sufficient to test our theories of the universe. Much of the foundational theories of science are not tested directly by humans, in labs. Very little of what we know of gravity, for example, can be tested in a lab and all of the implications it holds for cosmology must be "tested" by observing the universe. We cannot build stars in a lab, we cannot watch them evolve, we cannot simulate gravitational redshift or lensing, make or simulate black holes, etc.

    You have too narrow a view of what constitutes the "experimental verification" part of the scientific process. The universe is one giant laboratory.
  8. Sep 10, 2009 #7
    If physical effect x is happening over a time period then it's affecting 'something'. That 'something' is detectable. So the point is within the human timespan we can find out if 'something' going on.

    We might not know what it is until its completed, and if that spans several generations, well thats what records of observations/results.whatever are all about.

    Someone notices 'something', records it.
    Someone notices 'something else', records it (may be the day after, maybe in a few hundered years).

    For lack of a better way of explaining it, its like a jigsaw that nature throws at you one piece at a time. You may not konw what the picture is until the end, but you start getting a good idea after quite a few peices are given to you. Afte ra certain time, we'll be albe to make predicions as to the next peice, as the picture builds up, we get more and more accurate with our predicitons.
  9. Sep 10, 2009 #8


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    I like the analogy. And sometimes nature throws you the pieces so quickly they need to be slowed down (such as a diffraction pattern growing one photon at a time) and other times, many experiments must be run simultaneously to gather enough pieces to get a coherent picture (such as splattering observations about thousands of stars onto a graph and discovering a complete picture of stellar evolution).
  10. Sep 10, 2009 #9


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    Extrapolation is one way that we can predict processes that are too slow to observe. Every object on the desk in front of me, and the desk itself, is evaporating (more precisely, sublimating). Their atoms are flying off into the air, never to return. They're also deforming under their own weight (i.e., undergoing creep). If left alone, they would slump and later disappear, a process taking far longer than my lifetime. We can predict this because it's what occurs to these materials at a higher temperature, as well as other materials at room temperature or lower (think of ice cubes disappearing in your freezer due to sublimation). Our observations on various materials and at various temperatures are compatible with a unified kinetic theory that can be used to predict effects too slow to be seen in a few decades.

    Amassing large systems is another technique useful in studying rare stochastic processes. The chance that any given single atom of 238U will fission in my entire lifetime is about one in fifty million. So how could we ever learn about radioactivity in uranium? We just amass a trillion trillion atoms and observe the now-frequent clicks from a Geiger counter.
  11. Sep 10, 2009 #10


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    Oxidation is probably faster than both processes you have listed :smile:
  12. Sep 10, 2009 #11
    The assumption that the laws of nature will not change is one of the issues with the problem of induction in science. See http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~cfs/305_html/Induction/Grue.html [Broken] for a relatively famous philosophical thought experiment. I can't find the actual article, but that's a basic description. Although we can infer things about different times, it is true that observation is limited by the lifespan of each scientist, for example, or of all scientists, or by some finite measure.

    It's just one of the issues involved with the larger problem of induction and the fact that there is no such thing as verification in science. There are definite obstacles to achieving full scientific knowledge.

    More at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/induction-problem/.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  13. Sep 10, 2009 #12


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    Gerinski - Rate or appropriate scale of observation is definitely a live issue for science.

    And consider the standard way science handles it. The descriptions of reality that require the least information are where "things are standing still, no longer changing". So time effectively ceases to be an issue.

    Now this can be achieved either because things are standing still (like the assumption laws of physics are eternal). Or because they have reached equilbrium and any change does not result in a meaningful change (which would be the other way that laws of physics arrive at platonic eternality - through persistence rather than existence).

    So the way science handles time/change is by shifting it outside the reference frame. And of course, being modelling, it is always open to question whether this has been done appropriately in a particular case like biogenesis.

    On biogenisis, it actually seems likely that the critical reactions were "very quick". When you have dynamism at the molecular scale, equilibriums emerge very fast. And so there would be no reason to expect some mysterious long chain of events.

    Here, Stuart Kauffman's autocorrelator models of biogenic phase transitions should help convince you of a more probable temporal picture.

    And relating to your more general question, the universe does indeed have a natural foundational rate of change - the speed of light. All energetic interactions are equilibrated at this single rate (OK, gravity not yet measured, weak force drags, etc).

    Then we had this odd thing happen. Massiveness emerged (via a Higgs phase transition mechanism according to the lastest view) and suddenly you could have local "slowness" right down to absolute zero (planck scale uncertainty). So we went from a vanilla realm of purely relativistic action to one where massive locales lagged and did their thing at variable rates between zero and c.

    But you can see how GR looked for what did not change, what looked stable, to ensure time - or rather change - was not a problem for the modelling. Phenomena would be found safely within the dimensions of the model. Not being weird and supraluminal. Or even non-local. Whoops.
  14. Feb 14, 2010 #13
    No worries, there are a lot of problems with the philosophy behind science. Empiricism is just one mode of thought, if you want to be a philosopher about it (and many people do).

    At one point, the "logic" of science breaks down and we simply say "its the way it is." Or "it works." Or "its fundamental..."

    Can I prove I'm not in the matrix? No. Can I prove my science isn't blind to a series of meta-laws underlying the laws I could possibly observe? No.

    Does my inability to prove I'm not a mind in a magic box (and no real universe) invalidate science? NO. The point is "it works" even if it doesn't have rigor to it, background to it. You can always imagine scenarios science can't touch. The problem is, nobody has successfully been able to discern any "truth" among these scenarios. There is no good metric with which to measure the validity of one conspiracy theory over another...

    At one point, some guy said "screw this speculation, lets just start where we can start, at observation and prediction." That guy was a scientist.
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