Integration: Symmetry

"It would be hardly too much to say that modern science began when people became accustomed to the idea of changes changing, e.g. to the idea of acceleration as opposed to simple motion." Arthur N. Prior

Changing the whole idea of change has occurred a few times in the history of science. Transcendent moments where some quiet, previously undiscovered truth emerged from an unlikely place. Those who were trudging the straight and narrow were surprised, often angry. Several of these game-changing insights were not accepted or even recognized until their discoverer was long gone.

I just finished reading a remarkable book, Why Beauty Is Truth, A History of Symmetry by Ian Stewart (ISBN 978-0-465-08236-0, 2007 by Basic Books, NY). Stewart connects each transforming discovery with a simple concept: While beauty is no proof of truth, scientific truth is inevitably beautiful, at least so far.

The math he presents as beautiful doesn't make any sense to me, so I take his word that it is, indeed, beautiful. I'm no qualified judge. I am qualified, though, to pass judgment on the human stories he wraps his indecipherable ciphering with, and they are beautifully crafted.

But there's a battle raging within the sciences, and it has to do with elegance, which might or might not be an attribute of beauty, and so of truth. Several hundred years ago, for good social reasons, it was decided that science would henceforth be confined to those concepts provable with essentially a straightedge and compass or an algorithm. Following generations of religious warfare in Europe, it seemed only reasonable that rationality would at least improve the chances of agreement. In a startlingly short time, story-tellers and philosophers were escorted from the laboratory, where they had maintained well-respected places, replaced with a value-neutral perspective that was both internally consistent and quite elegant.

But this new science could not contain all truth. Relying narrowly upon material and efficient causation left out the stories that made the discoveries real for those of us not versed in the mathematics. When the social sciences came along, they quite naturally mimicked the physical sciences and started trying to prove stuff that didn't quite qualify as stuff.

Some of their discoveries were also beautiful, but beautiful in different ways. Darwin's theory was certainly not mathematically provable, but it did have a certain beauty about it. Paradox and contradiction have a beauty all their own. Ethics and morality are surprisingly beautiful, yet remain unprovable. In short, science stumbled into Yogi Berra's famous insight: In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. There's a lot of difference in practice.

Objectivity is the delusion that one could have an observation without an observer, and the observer is invariably human. Some human even designs the observant machines.

There is symmetry beyond the elegance of mathematical proof, and we all know it when we see it. Favoring the narrow symmetry provable only within a tautological validation system does not mirror how we live life. There was hope for the longest time that life could be explained by algorithm. Few serious scientists believe this now. Now, schools of study are blurring into consortiums, cross-disciplinary inquiry, yielding new, richer symmetries. The science imagined centuries ago to resolve a burning social need always was a myth:

"If we do think of ourselves myth-free, when we are not, that is (I am suggesting) largely because the material from which we construct our myths is taken from the sciences themselves. This situation is the one we meet in those trickiest of crime stories, in which the detective himself turns out to have done the deed: he is the last man we suspect. There are of course other reasons why we find it hard to spot our own myths. To begin with, they are hard to spot, as our own fallacies are hard to spot, just because they are our own fallacies, we are tempted to think are the faults on other people's arguments, and myths the queer ideas people used to have about the universe. Again, we are inclined to suppose that myths must necessarily be anthropomorphic, and that personification is the unique road to myth. But this assumption is baseless: the myths of the twentieth century ... are not so much anthropomorphic as mechanomorphic. And why, after all, should not the purposes of myth be served as effectively by picturing the world in terms of mythical machines as by invoking mythical personages? Still, in the main, it is because the contemporary myths are scientific ones that we fail to acknowledge them as being myths at all. The old picture of the world has been swept away; Poseidon and Waton have suffered death by ridicule, and people not unnaturally look to the scientist for a substitute." Stephen E. Toulmin Metaphysical Beliefs

"Aside from the demands of a system of dynamics meant to apply to the real world—as Newton's dynamics originally was—the only merit of rational mechanics was its mathematical elegance, regardless of factual correctness; and the abstract nature of rational choice theory puts it at risk in the same way and for the same reasons as rational mechanics. Elegance is not enough." Stephen E. Toulmin Return To Reason

It was a poet, not a scientist, who claimed that beauty was truth and truth beauty, but neither beauty nor truth are sufficient to sustain, let alone understand life as it is lived. There is a certain symmetry even to the bit of broken fence in my neighbor's yard which convinces me that it is both real and functional enough to not need any added elegance that might be found from fixing it.


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