Friday, 23 November 2012

A Dangerous Idea

At the age of about 12 I was exposed to a dangerous idea. It would be a better story if this went all dark and blighted my life from then on but it didn't and I turned out fairly normal. But the idea still lurks and surfaces fairly often. Since it didn't blight my life I guess it won't blight yours either so I will share it.

There is a series of books by James Blish called 'Cities in Flight' about whole cities converted to space ships and lifted off the earth along with their industrial factories etc. They move from planet to planet selling their services to the inhabitants, all originally from Earth as well. Blish took this story into the far future. At times it is a metaphor for the Okie phenomenon in the 1930s and the cities are the itinerant tramps hawking their labour for meagre wages. They even call themselves Okies sometimes. In the final book he makes several sly references to Gulliver's Travels and around then the dangerous idea emerges not as a key part of the story, just as an aside. The image shown here refers to the second book in the series.

I should add that these books contain fascinating ideas, especially for something written in the 1960s, but the characters are mostly cardboard things with no depth, so not great literature.

In the last book one of these characters expresses a belief in something called 'stochasticism' which is a term that crops up in the real world in discussions about quantum effects and the unpredictability of various other things. Blish's character explained that his stochasticism view held that everything is random and the laws of the universe are an illusion. In a big enough universe that is truly random chances are there will be pockets of something that looks like order. We just happen to live in one of those pockets.

For now.

The orderliness of our particular part of the universe extends to as far as we can see, which is a long way but the universe is really, really big so that doesn't help. It is ordered at this point in time, for this few million or billion years or so, and that might change at any moment and everything we know would fall apart.

Is this just nonsense? Don't we know better?

Well, as far as I can tell, we don't. Science has done very well for us and scientific method is probably the most useful thing we have invented, but even without being very scientific we make assumptions about the consistency of the universe all the time. People who thought the earth was flat still assumed the sun would rise in the morning. Consistency, see? And we observe this consistency over and over, so it must be right, mustn't it?

Well, only if we can justify something called induction, which is what we are doing when we assume the observations we made in this lab on this date will apply in a different lab on another day. David Hume seems to have been the first to point out that we have no logical basis for that assumption. No matter how many times we observe something, as Karl Popper pointed out, there is always the possibility that the next observation will break our theory. And if the universe is really random we have even less basis for it regardless how often we have observed it before. It is an awful thought and if you tried to base your life on it you probably wouldn't bother getting out of bed in the morning. This is the dangerous idea.

To make things a little more awkward the rules of science hold that theories must be kept as simple as possible. This is Ockham's Razor. Which is simpler: the completely random universe which has natural pockets of seeming order, or the one with universal laws? It seems to me that the former has less to explain itself.

Of course no one does actually believe this. We continue making our observations, noting patterns in the way the universe seems to work and telling ourselves these are universal laws that apply across all time and space. Naturally some places have more gravity or more radiation etc than others so we're not saying all time and space is exactly like Earth is today, but we are saying that we can figure this out because there is something to figure out.

No, don't tell me there must be universal laws because they've been observed empirically. If you still think that you haven't been paying attention. Go back and read what I said three paragraphs ago. 


If I have explained this well enough you should now be convinced that, while the dangerous idea is a valid enough and, by the rules of science and philosophy, can be argued as preferable, there is no way you are going along with it. You are damn well going to believe in those universal laws because the alternative is simply awful.

Fine. I completely agree. I'm not going to endorse it either. I'm going to live in a universe where there are universal laws even if I can't prove there really are universal laws. Which reminds me of something:

I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” - C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair”
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