Question about the Scientific Method

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I have posted this here because I am not sure it is relevant in any of the main boards.

I have a question about what science can and cannot observe. Maybe this is too philosophical but I am more interested in a specific empirical matter. As biological creatures, our entire experience of the world is due to our senses and brains. This means that what we experience - what we observe of the world - is telling us about how our brains respond to sense perceptions. But that can only be an evolved set of relations between external world and internal plans and behaviours. In effect, we aren't objective measuring devices or even objective responders to the world.

Does this cause problems for how we observe the world and infer theories about how it works? Put another way, it seems that all we really can observe and explain is some correlation between internal brain processes and external features.

I am not asking what this means in terms of some existential status or the meaning of knowledge, but more whether it is allowed for in the scientific method? Or do we just assume that the perceptions we have are sufficiently representational to allow us to draw meaningful conclusions? As an example, if I think about the field of mathematics, is this really describing external relations or merely internal relations? If the latter, is it the case that we are satisfied that evolution has equipped our inner logical domain to genuinely correspond to some external domain?
 

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  • #2
tnich
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I think the scientific method is an attempt to be as objective as possible within our admittedly subjective views of the world. Using this method, we build models of the physical world that we can test against that world for validity. We use the models to design experiments and make predictions about what we should observe. We also require that experiments be repeatable, that more than one person understand the model and observe similar results under the same conditions. In a sense this puts the model in the external world and not just in one person's head.
 
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Yes. Though I suppose I am wondering about the validity of the models of the physical world, given they must be constrained to being models of models (the brain is modelling its responses to external features, which may not be directly analogous to those external features, for example sound and color). I wonder at how much fidelity to the external world is lost, if experience is primarily internal modelling of brain processes (eg vision isn't a picture of the world, it is the response profiles of collections of neurons). Put another way, we can probably assume that macro-scale relations are reasonably well-preserved given the evolutionary value of that, but when we start into theoretical domains, what then? Are the models we build truly describing rules and properties of external features, or are we constrained to describing some fundamental rules about how human brains work?
 
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  • #4
Ibix
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Are the models we build truly describing rules and properties of external features, or are we constrained to describing some fundamental rules about how human brains work?
It would be a truly bizarre universe where (for instance) the proton did not have a clearly defined rest mass, but every experiment we did to measure it somehow got interpreted by the brain as saying the same thing. Despite using different output systems - e.g. analog dials, 7 segment LEDs, computer displays, graphs, probably others.
 
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  • #5
Drakkith
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Or do we just assume that the perceptions we have are sufficiently representational to allow us to draw meaningful conclusions?
Yes. :wink:
 
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Ibix, yes it would be bizarre. I don't have any particular examples in mind, the question is more concerned with whether or not this factor is taken into account or simply ignored. Drakkith above says yes, we do ignore it.
 
  • #7
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Or do we just assume that the perceptions we have are sufficiently representational to allow us to draw meaningful conclusions?
There are some cases when our perceptions are the subject of observation: also some subjects that we do know already that our perception will has some flaws during observation: but with these limits the general answer is a 'yes'.
 
  • #8
russ_watters
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As biological creatures, our entire experience of the world is due to our senses and brains. This means that what we experience - what we observe of the world - is telling us about how our brains respond to sense perceptions. But that can only be an evolved set of relations between external world and internal plans and behaviours. In effect, we aren't objective measuring devices or even objective responders to the world.

Does this cause problems for how we observe the world and infer theories about how it works? Put another way, it seems that all we really can observe and explain is some correlation between internal brain processes and external features.
This hasn't been true in a very long time. Today the majority of scientific work uses tools to do the sensing/measurement for us, which gives much better results.

And even when tools are/were manually read (like a dial/mercury thermometer), there is no lack of objectivity in the measurement.

The types of observations where human perception actually plays a role are very limited.
for example sound and color
No, where accuracy matters, these are recorded and described/measured by machines or devices that take human perceptions 'faults out of the equation.
 
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  • #9
Lord Jestocost
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Yes. Though I suppose I am wondering about the validity of the models of the physical world, given they must be constrained to being models of models (the brain is modelling its responses to external features, which may not be directly analogous to those external features..................
That's the point. As Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington puts it in “THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD” (Cambridge University Press (1928)):

“Besides the direct knowledge contained in each self-knowing unit, there is inferential knowledge. The latter includes our knowledge of the physical world. It is necessary to keep reminding ourselves that all knowledge of our environment from which the world of physics is constructed, has entered in the form of messages transmitted along the nerves to the seat of consciousness. Obviously the messages travel in code. When messages relating to a table are traveling in the nerves, the nerve-disturbance does not in the least resemble either the external table that originates the mental impression or the conception of the table that arises in consciousness.* In the central clearing station the incoming messages are sorted and decoded, partly by instinctive image-building inherited from the experience of our ancestors, partly by scientific comparison and reasoning. By this very indirect and hypothetical inference all our supposed acquaintance with and our theories of a world outside us have been built up. We are acquainted with an external world because its fibers run into our consciousness; it is only our own ends of the fibers that we know; from those ends we more or less successfully reconstruct the rest, as a paleontologist reconstructs an extinct monster from its footprint."
 
  • #10
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Yes, that's something like what I am wondering about (in the absence of any particular view or conceptual understanding of the issues). I suppose I would take it a step further - even though our experiences are built up from the "ends" of these nerve fibres, it is the way that these impulses are assembled into meaningful form that intrigues me in this regard. If we accept that evolution has resulted in the formation of brains that can assemble these messages, it sort of follows that the assembled form isn't optimised for making sense of the universe, it is assembled for the sole purpose of optimising our everyday functions. Presumably the model in the brain has some degree of informational reference to the environment but we cannot know how much. So, if it is at least possible that brains do not supply particularly accurate views of the world, it seems we are constrained in terms of the tools and techniques available for inquiry.

I read recently that Bohr regarded the subjects of inquiry in particle physics as beyond the direct reach of minds - that what we are describing is how the devices we use to measure them interact with them. That seems clear enough but it follows then that the non-objective measuring devices that we are add a further layer of abstraction or distance from the subjects and their behaviours.

Some possible areas of concern that come to my mind (and I am not proposing these are correct or even make sense, they are just things that occur to me) might include measurement, mathematical constructs, time, and the derivation of knowledge. These might all be more influenced by how brains function than by any specific insight in to external features (even though the derived laws might help predict certain things). Or they might not be. But given I rarely see any mention of this problem when reading books about science, I wondered whether anyone worries about this fact or it is just ignored. Put another way, when theorising about nature, or constructing experiments, do scientists examine the ways that our brains work to inform that process? Or do they just assume themselves to be sufficiently objective enquirers?
 
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  • #11
russ_watters
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... it sort of follows that the assembled form isn't optimised for making sense of the universe, it is assembled for the sole purpose of optimising our everyday functions.
So we invented (discovered?) radio (etc).
 
  • #12
pinball1970
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Yes, that's something like what I am wondering about (in the absence of any particular view or conceptual understanding of the issues). I suppose I would take it a step further - even though our experiences are built up from the "ends" of these nerve fibres, it is the way that these impulses are assembled into meaningful form that intrigues me in this regard. If we accept that evolution has resulted in the formation of brains that can assemble these messages, it sort of follows that the assembled form isn't optimised for making sense of the universe, it is assembled for the sole purpose of optimising our everyday functions. Presumably the model in the brain has some degree of informational reference to the environment but we cannot know how much. So, if it is at least possible that brains do not supply particularly accurate views of the world, it seems we are constrained in terms of the tools and techniques available for inquiry.

I read recently that Bohr regarded the subjects of inquiry in particle physics as beyond the direct reach of minds - that what we are describing is how the devices we use to measure them interact with them. That seems clear enough but it follows then that the non-objective measuring devices that we are add a further layer of abstraction or distance from the subjects and their behaviours.

Some possible areas of concern that come to my mind (and I am not proposing these are correct or even make sense, they are just things that occur to me) might include measurement, mathematical constructs, time, and the derivation of knowledge. These might all be more influenced by how brains function than by any specific insight in to external features (even though the derived laws might help predict certain things). Or they might not be. But given I rarely see any mention of this problem when reading books about science, I wondered whether anyone worries about this fact or it is just ignored. Put another way, when theorising about nature, or constructing experiments, do scientists examine the ways that our brains work to inform that process? Or do they just assume themselves to be sufficiently objective enquirers?
That's why studies are repeated with different approaches, different teams and different kit (if possible)
The LHC discovered the Higgs with independent teams for example.
125GeV, how do you feel about that? Does it matter?
The human brain with all its messy subjectiveness discovered the best way for finding out how the universe works.
 
  • #13
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I have a question about what science can and cannot observe. Maybe this is too philosophical but I am more interested in a specific empirical matter. As biological creatures, our entire experience of the world is due to our senses and brains. This means that what we experience - what we observe of the world - is telling us about how our brains respond to sense perceptions. But that can only be an evolved set of relations between external world and internal plans and behaviours. In effect, we aren't objective measuring devices or even objective responders to the world.
I agree, but see also further down below.
Does this cause problems for how we observe the world and infer theories about how it works?
I'd say yes.
Put another way, it seems that all we really can observe and explain is some correlation between internal brain processes and external features.
I'd say that is stretching it a bit too far. As a counterexample most of us can agree that animate and inanimate objects all fall to the ground if they are not supported by something else. There is clearly something external that makes objects fall to the ground which is unrelated to the human brain. And we know that falling to the ground can hurt, so we try to protect ourselves when this happens. So does e.g. cats, though I of course don't suggest that cats know any details about gravity, but they have some experience which makes them act when falling. I made this example to emphasize that countermeasures against the effects of gravity is not unique to humans, which is another argument that falling (gravity) is something external, unrelated to the human brain.

I am not asking what this means in terms of some existential status or the meaning of knowledge, but more whether it is allowed for in the scientific method?
I'd say the scientific method IS the very thing that helps with removing bias and other human shortcomings in order to understand the physical world. And scientific instruments are built to help us with this.

EDIT:
And we know that falling to the ground can hurt, so we try to protect ourselves when this happens. So does e.g. cats, though I of course don't suggest that cats know any details about gravity, but they have some experience which makes them act when falling.
I just realized that there are more examples with animals.
If a cat is on a table and want to go to, let's say, another table some distance away, it won't just go off the edge of the table and fall down. It will either jump down on the ground, or it will jump across to the other table. So this indicates they must have some sort of knowledge that if they go off the edge they will fall down.

The same goes of course for birds :smile:, who most likely have way more experience with gravity than land animals. A bird won't just walk off the branch of a tree. It will use it wings to fly.

Sidenote: Cats can be amazing, amazing jumpers. I've found my new cat sitting high up on one of my bookshelves, and I don't know how she got up there, i.e. if she climbed in steps or jumped the whole way up :smile:. They also have amazing hiding capabilities. They like to be up high and/or hide, which I think is a defense against predators and also due to their own predator instincts, if I remember correctly.
 
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Yes, though I guess that's what we'd expect. Those external features that affect us as organisms would influence the ways in which brains evolve, so I wasn't anticipating that when we experience the world the things we experience don't have external analogs. I am more getting at the fact that the things we experience are not necessarily genuine external features (colors and sounds are examples, as I said).

When I think about this, I find it hard to see how we experience actual representations of the world, because what should be happening (I think) is that brains optimise functions as responses to external features. So experiences are likely to be more consistent with how organisms function than genuine representation. Of course there will end up being some close parallel at macro scales, such as cats feeling gravity, birds etc having navigational functions, most of us being aware of objects in the environment.

That means that we can make sense of the world, but it seems a heck of a stretch to believe that a brain that hasn't evolved that far from the rest of the great apes should be able to actually uncover fundamental rules of the universe. Especially if we think of brains as evolutionary objects intended to solve only a few essential problems. That suggests to me that the universe itself is probably relatively simple (or so much more complex that our models of it are actually very far short of it). Still, that's just my naive speculation. The problem I was getting at is probably more likely only in theoretical fields or those dealing with fundamental properties or micro-scale organisation, none of which were ever tackled by evolution in optimising how brains work.

A couple of examples that I mentioned above touch on this, but these may say more about my own lack of knowledge. The first is Newton's demonstration that white light can be split into its component colors. While this finding and the resulting conceptual treatment is an analog of an actual feature of the world, the fact that we discern these colors is a result of some internal process of the brain. So we have utilised some internal functional process (distinguishing wavelengths of EMR) to learn something deeper about the external world.

The other example I mentioned was time. I know next to nothing about time, but one thing I do wonder about is that our experience of time seems entirely internal - we have memory processes that maintain neural activations in order to build some kind of linear, movie-like experience of the world. There are people with certain lesions/damage for example who do not experience time as a flow - for them the world appears as a series of stills. And others for whom experience is a sort of non-continuous sequence. It would be hard to make sense of time, or even to know there IS time, without the typical memory experience undamaged human brains produce. But the fact that some brains fall short must make us question how far short even undamaged brains fall. Worse, when I think of this, it seems to me that the non-experiencing universe is unlikely to have a similarly time-like quality. What might the actual external feature really be that memory processes interpret by analog?
 
  • #15
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PS cats are weird. They love boxes. But maybe just squares. I have seen videos of cats sitting inside drawn squares on a surface. What the heck is THAT all about?
 
  • #16
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I am more getting at the fact that the things we experience are not necessarily genuine external features (colors and sounds are examples, as I said).
I agree with that. More prominent examples of this are irrational thoughts and/or delusions, particularly prominent of people suffering from various mental issues like psychosis or schizofrenia.

That means that we can make sense of the world, but it seems a heck of a stretch to believe that a brain that hasn't evolved that far from the rest of the great apes should be able to actually uncover fundamental rules of the universe. Especially if we think of brains as evolutionary objects intended to solve only a few essential problems.
Evolution, and humans in particular, are amazing. For humans, I think the delopment of very sophisticated language, and later very sophisticated mathematics, has played a huge role in the development of scientific thinking.

PS cats are weird. They love boxes. But maybe just squares. I have seen videos of cats sitting inside drawn squares on a surface. What the heck is THAT all about?
I know about this, but I don't know why they do it :oldbiggrin:. They can be very weird, and fun.

EDIT:
I am more getting at the fact that the things we experience are not necessarily genuine external features (colors and sounds are examples, as I said).
Other examples of this are optical illusions, which most of us can experience.
 
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