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The Illusion of Knowledge Revisited

This morning the New Scientist web site posted an article entitled “Is Dark Energy an Illusion?”  See here:

http://space.newscientist.com/article/dn11498-is-dark-energy-an-illusion.html

Here is the lead sentence:  “The quickening pace of our universe’s expansion may not be driven by a mysterious force called dark energy after all, but paradoxically, by the collapse of matter in small regions of space.”

This article brought to mind a wonderful debate we had in September about what it means to “know” a scientific theory is true.  I used the standard model of cosmology and especially its reliance on “dark matter” and “dark energy” as a jumping off point for the discussion.  See

http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/illusion-of-knowledge-iii/

http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/the-illusion-of-knowldge/

http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/the-illusion-of-knowledge-ii/

In my first post I noted that Professor Mike Disney is skeptical of the standard model, and he says:  “The greatest obstacle to progress in science is the illusion of knowledge, the illusion that we know what’s going on when we really don’t.”

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I take no position on the controversy over the standard model.  The point of my posts was the Disney quote.  The greatest obstacle to knowledge in origins science is the illusion of so many adherents to NDE that they “know,” when what they have really done is “infer.”

Epistemology (the philosophy of how we know and what it means to know) is tricky stuff.  But there is clearly a category difference between direct observation of a phenomenon and inferring the existence of the phenomenon based on observations of something else.

Both Darwinism and the standard model are based upon inferences from observations, not direct observations.  They are in a different epistemic category from, say, the heliocentric solar system, which has been observed directly.  As I said in September, much of the Neo-Darwinian edifice is constructed upon a foundation of inferences (inferences compelled by metaphysical, not scientific, commitments) masquerading as undisputed facts.  But to assess NDE critically, we must be able to distinguish between facts and inferences

My (I thought) rather modest observation was met by howls of indignation by some of the commenters, who claimed that even though the standard model is based upon inferences and key elements of it (e.g., dark matter and dark energy) have not actually been directly observed, we nevertheless know that it is true as certainly as we can know anything is true.

I wonder what those commenters would say now in response to the New Scientist article.  Is it really a fact that something we could know was true AS CERTAINLY AS WE CAN KNOW ANYTHING IS TRUE back in September may now be nothing more than, as the article says, an illusion?

“Epicycles” were necessary to make Ptolemy’s cosmology work.  “Ether” was necessary to make 19th century cosmology work.  As Newton and Einstein demonstrated, neither of these things was real.  They were artificial constructs created in the minds of researchers to prop of false theories. 

Are dark matter and dark energy real?  Or are they like epicycles and ether, artificial constructs propping up a false theory?  I don’t know the answer to this question.  I do know the science community should hold its inferences (both cosmological and biological) with a little more humility than I have observed. 

APPENDIX:

Here is a quick synopsis of dark matter and dark energy:  The standard theory of gravity predicts that the further an object is away from a massive object, the smaller the gravitational effect the massive object will have on the object.  In the solar system this means that the distant planets will orbit the sun much more slowly then the closer planets, and sure enough empirical observations confirm the theory.

Problem 1:  In the 1970’s it was observed that the theory does not work at the level of galaxies.  The stars and gas at the outer edge of galaxies orbit at the same rate as the ones closer in. 

Solution 1:  The concept of dark matter (objects with mass that do not consist of atoms) was developed to account for this.

Problem 2:  Experiments to measure the amount of dark matter revealed there was not nearly enough to account for the data.

Solution 2:  Observations designed to find out how much the expansion of the universe is slowing found out just the opposite.  The universe is expanding at an increasing rate.  The concept of dark energy was developed to account for this, and it turned out that the amount of dark energy was exactly the right amount to account for the “missing” dark matter.

From these observations came the so-called “standard model” of cosmology.  The universe consists of 4% regular atoms, 21% dark matter, and 75% dark energy.

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11 Responses to The Illusion of Knowledge Revisited

  1. BarryA wrote:
    Both Darwinism and the standard model are based upon inferences from observations, not direct observations. They are in a different epistemic category from, say, the heliocentric solar system, which has been observed directly. As I said in September, much of the Neo-Darwinian edifice is constructed upon a foundation of inferences (inferences compelled by metaphysical, not scientific, commitments) masquerading as undisputed facts. But to assess NDE critically, we must be able to distinguish between facts and inferences

    My (I thought) rather modest observation was met by howls of indignation by some of the commenters, who claimed that even though the standard model is based upon inferences and key elements of it (e.g., dark matter and dark energy) have not actually been directly observed, we nevertheless know that it is true as certainly as we can know anything is true.

    Nice to hear from you. One thing we KNOW is that we have a problem reconciling our models with measurements. We can be confident at least of that truth for now.

    I studied passingly under a pioneer of Dark Matter theory, James Trefil. Even he has some reservations about all this because of the difficulty of no direct empirical observation….

    It would be helpful to revist David Berlinski’s essay: Was there a big bang

    A scientific crisis has historically been the excuse to which scientists have appealed for the exculpation of damaged doctrines. Smolin is no exception. “We are living,” he writes, “through a period of scientific crisis.” Ordinary men and women may well scruple
    at the idea that cosmology is in crisis because cosmologists, deep down, have run out of interesting
    things to say, but in his general suspicions. Smolin is no doubt correct. What we are discovering
    is that many areas of the universe are apparently protected from our scrutiny, like sensitive files sealed from view by powerful encryption codes. However
    painful, the discovery should hardly be unexpected. Beyond every act of understanding, there is an abyss.

    Like Darwin’s theory of evolution, Big Bang cosmology has undergone that curious social process in which a scientific theory is promoted to a secular myth. The two theories serve as points of certainty in an intellectual culture that is otherwise disposed to give the benefit of the doubt to doubt itself. It is within the mirror of these myths that we have come to see ourselves. But if the promotion of theory into myth satisfies one human agenda, it violates another. Myths are quite typically false, and science is concerned with truth. Human beings, it would seem, may make scientific theories or they may make myths, but with respect to the same aspects of experience, they cannot quite do both.

    Regarding Dark Matter and Energy, see, http://www.cosmologystatement.org

    The big bang today relies on a growing number of hypothetical entities, things that we have never observed– inflation, dark matter and dark energy are the most prominent examples. Without them, there would be a fatal contradiction between the observations made by astronomers and the predictions of the big bang theory. In no other field of physics would this continual recourse to new hypothetical objects be accepted as a way of bridging the gap between theory and observation. It would, at the least, raise serious questions about the validity of the underlying theory.

    What ever the solution to the problem of Dark Matter or Dark Energy, I’m confident will entail a revolution in thinking of either our origins and/or our understanding of basic physics. Of that I have little doubt.

  2. scordova writes: “What ever the solution to the problem of Dark Matter or Dark Energy, I’m confident will entail a revolution in thinking of either our origins and/or our understanding of basic physics. Of that I have little doubt.”

    This is precicely what was necessary to overcome both epicycles and ether.

  3. I meant, of course, “precisely.”

  4. Sal, your comment also makes me think of the common rejoinder: “The theory of NDE is as sound as the theory of gravity.” Does anyone else find this statement to be ironic? My lay understanding is that relatively works very well at the level of the very large, and quantum mechanics works very well at the level of the very small. But the rub is that they are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be true. If one is true the other must be false. This observation, which I understand is a commonplace among theoretical physicists, means, if nothing else, that if there is ever to be a “grand theory of everything” that works at both the level of the very large and the level of the very small, it is highly likely that today’s theory of gravity will have to be modified drastically or abandoned altogether. Can we conclude from this that by comparing NDE to the theory of gravity, the defenders of NDE are being hoisted on their own petard? Are they not saying that NDE is as sound as a theory that everyone knows is inadequate or at least seriously incomplete? The alternative, it seems to me, is to admit that there never will be a “grand theory of everything,” and today’s theory of gravity is the best we can hope for.

  5. I’ve always been uneasy about the idea of dark matter/energy, as I am with the “multi-verse”, simply because we can’t be certain any of it exists. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all just storytelling until hard evidence is produced. This is why I’m skeptical of NDE – I see no evidence in favor of unguided evolution; just steaming heaps of stories. I read an article yesterday about what is referred to as the “pioneer effect” The pioneer probes (10 and 11) we sent out years ago should be farther away from us by now, but there seems to be some invisible “force” tugging at them. Perhaps studying this phenomenon will lead to a dark matter “solution”, or at least eliminate a few hypotheticals here and there.

  6. My lay understanding is that relatively works very well at the level of the very large, and quantum mechanics works very well at the level of the very small. But the rub is that they are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be true.

    The first part of your statement is correct. Wikipedia phrases the second part of your statement the following way:

    The modern world of physics is notably founded on two tested and demonstrably sound theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics —theories which appear to contradict one another. The defining postulates of both Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum theory are indisputably supported by rigorous and repeated empirical evidence. However, while they do not directly contradict each other theoretically (at least with regard to primary claims), they are resistant to being incorporated within one cohesive model.

    …..
    In fact, there do exist quantum theories which incorporate special relativity—for example, quantum electrodynamics (QED), which is currently the most accurately-tested physical theory [1] —and these lie at the very heart of modern particle physics.

    Regarding grand unification, one of the first to criticize that possibility was famous IBM physicist Rolf Landauer. Of all things, some of these criticism emerage out of our understanding of data compression. A digital file can only be compressed so much (you’ll note how difficult it is to keep trying to apply WinZip to an already zipped file). In like manner, we can expect limits to how compactly we can express the physical universe. If anything, it’s miraculous we have found such compact expressions for the laws we know!!!

    Furthermore, grand unification is falling to the anti-reductionistic sentiments in math and discoveries in modern physics. See: Irreducible Complexity in Mathematics, Physics and Biology….

    Sal

  7. 7
    The Scubaredneck

    Barry,

    This is an excellent post. It might be fun, as a seperate blob post, to compile a list of other things that have been known as certainly as dark energy. As a History of Science buff, I enjoy this sort of pursuit as it reminds us of the contingient nature of scientific knowledge, a feature Darwinists would do well to keep in mind.

    The Scubaredneck

  8. Interesting post, BarryA. Hopefully the current situation will prompt a bit more open scrutiny of concepts such as dark energy.

  9. In my first post I noted that Professor Mike Disney is skeptical of the standard model, and he says: “The greatest obstacle to progress in science is the illusion of knowledge, the illusion that we know what’s going on when we really don’t.”

    Could you give a citation for this? Ive been trying to track it down.

  10. Sorry bevets. The best I can so is tell you it was from a show that aired on the National Geographic Channel the evening of 9/5/06.

  11. The history of Western science confirms the aphorism that the great menace to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. Cleopatras Nose p.7

    The obstacles of discovery — the illusions of knowledge — are also part of our story. Only against the forgotten backdrop of the recieved common sense and myths of their time can we begin to sense the courage, the rashness, the heroic and imaginative thrusts of the great discoverers. They had to battle against the current “facts” and dogmas of the learned. Daniel Boorstin The Discoverers p.xv

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