The world of physics has been surprised by results that have emerged from the CERN laboratory, where they have conducted experiments that suggest that particles, known as neutrinos, may travel faster than the speed of light.
The results have been published in the hope that they will be scrutinised – then either validated or else the errors be exposed.
Physicists who have been asked to comment about these latest findings have, for the most part, kept an open mind saying that it is most likely the results are incorrect and caused by experimental error. But, they added, if the results were shown to be correct it would mean a complete rewriting of the way physics has been understood for a century. Even the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe is underpinned by this physics – and many people assume this is fact, and not theory.
Non-scientists will find this stunning, since the Big Bang theory, the speed of light barrier, E=mc2 and Einstein’s theory of general relativity are all accepted as facts – even by those of us who don’t actually understand them properly – largely because there is a trust in what the scientists tell us.
Scientists, however, do not view orthodoxies such as these – which they may sometimes present to the rest of us as ‘truth’ or ‘fact’ – as unshakeable truths. They know that they are merely the most statistically likely probabilities based upon the experimental evidence. They also know that all scientific experimentation is subject to errors, confounding factors and specific conditions.
In many cases, the results have been repeated so many times through so many experiments that the statistical significance of the hypothesis under test being true is very high. It is usually in such cases as these when scientists accept the conclusions as orthodoxy – and they move forward building upon these conclusions to answer more questions about the universe under observation. The words ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ are then casually used as shorthand for ‘most likely’ or ‘most probable’.
Yet, we repeat, honest scientists know they are not unshakeable truths.
Isaac Newton, who famously acknowledged that his landmark discoveries were built ‘upon the shoulders of giants’ who came before him, founded laws that became orthodox physics for two centuries. Newton’s laws described the visible universe consistently, in a way that matched the realities he could observe. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, people found evidence that the world of sub-atomic particles did not follow Newtonian laws.
The ‘truth’ of Newtonian physics was no longer held to be absolute. It did not hold true at very large and very small scales, where it was replaced by quantum mechanics and relativity respectively.
It was Einstein and others who described this new world; and this led to a new set of orthodox beliefs that became the basis of physics for the next century. The work of Stephen Hawking, Peter Higgs, Michael Green and almost every other particle physicist of the past century have been built upon these conclusions, which may have now been called into question.
Even despite that new orthodoxy, physicists have struggled to establish a unifying theory – one that can tie together the ‘truth’ of the Newtonian world and the ‘truth’ of Einstein’s.
Whatever the conclusions of the current debate about the findings from CERN, there is an important lesson here – most especially for those who have a profound respect for what science can teach us, but who themselves are ignorant of scientific methods. That is the limitations of what science teaches us.
The scientific method is a branch of more basic method of thinking called the rational method.
A rational method merely means that our conclusions are reasoned from things we sense directly – linked to what we already know to be true.
The nature of the scientific method – which has undoubtedly led to much technological advancement over the few centuries – is that is cannot answer every question, and even those it does answer, it cannot be said to do so with certainty. For many western philosophers, this reinforces the idea that there is no such thing as absolute truth – and that a degree of scepticism about everything is a healthy thing.
This may be true of many things that science teaches us, but there are many things that we can know – through a rational approach to the universe – which are truths. Indeed, there are also some matters that even scientists will attest to being facts – i.e. rational deduction which has led to conclusions that are consistently correct over countless realities.
An example that clearly illustrates the scientific method is a branch of rational thinking is where ‘scientific’ [meaning technologically advanced] tools can help advance our sensation of things around us – so allowed our conclusions to be reasoned with greater strength.
This is distinct from the claim of scientific methods to solely use empirical methods, where there is the testing of theories by experimentation. Of course, the preliminary information for the scientific study is not empirical; rather it must be through sensation of reality. In other words, the preliminary or previous information to initiate the scientific study must come from a rational approach. Further this process also reaches conclusions linking the information from the experiments to what we know already as opinions – that which came from the ‘giants’ whose shoulders we stood upon. Hence the scientific method is not a basis in itself, but a branch that builds on the rational method to attain knowledge about the nature of things.
Observation and testing are subtly – but importantly – different; and one striking issue where the two methods of thinking come in to conflict is over the issue of whether or not the universe was created by an external force or emerged from forces within itself.
An empirical approach can never answer this – for one cannot test this scenario, where the universe came into existence from nothing, let alone the external force that one cannot tangibly sense. The most that those who reject the idea of a creator, because they insist on proof based on some form of experimentation, can offer are theories for an alternative explanation to the process of the origins of the universe. Hence, the recent propositions by Professor Stephen Hawking based on the idea of ‘String theory’ [an interesting idea for which there is currently no experimental proof but for which he hopes proofs will emerge from experiments in CERN].
By contrast, using a purely rationally approach there is a robust argument that can be reasoned from an observation of the universe – observations that are true whether by the naked eye, or by radio telescope, or by electron microscope, or in particle accelerators – or indeed in any situation.
Observation through such means can lead to some definitive conclusions. Consider this: all material things have limits; they cannot emerge from nothing; they do not last indefinitely; and nothing is entirely independent.
All particles are finite in their content of energy, mass or other properties. The sum of all these particles [vast in number but not actually infinite] is also finite. And all finite things share the above qualities of being limited in size, age [i.e. having a start and eventual end point], and dependency upon something else for its existence.
These are matters that apply as much to the world of particles and the cosmos as they do the Newtonian world. To subsequently conclude that all matter must therefore have been created by something other than itself is the only rational possibility. Though it should be stressed, this approach can only reason the existence of a creator, and not much about the nature of a creator.
So the rational approach can conclude with certainty about the existence of things (subject to the rigour of the application of the thought process of course) – though not necessarily their nature.
A scientific (including empirical) method, whilst excellent at helping up understand the nature of matter and processes governing matter – also has great limitations when it is attempted to be applied to complex human behaviour or societies – where confounding variables are too vast to allow for any sound experimental conclusions. Indeed, disallowing rational truths has in fact stifled and misdirected social science research in some cases.
None of what we are saying here is an attempt to rubbish neither the scientific method nor the work done in places like CERN. It does not even deny the respect for those who try hard to understand the processes that drive the universe and the nature of things – as Newton and Einstein both did.
However, it is worth reminding ourselves of the limitations of science and the limitations of the conclusions one can infer from it. To apply science beyond its remit is bound to bring unnecessary disrepute to the field and its practitioners. And the recent news, is just another reminder what is ‘truth’, what is ‘theory’ and what is ‘science’.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at [email protected]
Dr Abdullah Ahmed has a PhD in Theoretical Physics and is also a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir.