Nature Answers the Questions We Pose

Nature Answers the Questions We Pose

I have not read A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I know there is a point where a character asks what’s the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and receives a response of 42. The answer was certainly not what anyone was expecting, but it was an answer. Much of science is like the answer 42. We ask grand questions of nature and receive answers we didn’t quite expect and can’t always make sense of.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl writes, “Nature is like a genie that answers exactly the question we pose, not necessarily the one we intend to ask.” We learn by making observations about the world. We can make predictions about what we think will happen given certain conditions and we can develop and test hypotheses, but the answers we get may not be answers to the questions we intended to ask. I frequently listen to the Don’t Panic Geocast and the hosts often talk about scientific studies that go awry because of some unexpected interaction between lights, between an experimental set-up and the sun, or because an animal happened to have messed with equipment in the field. Real results are generated, but they don’t always mean what we think they do on first look. The hosts have a frequent line that, “any instrument can be a thermometer,” to note how subtle changes in temperature can cause misleading noise in the data.
Pearl’s quote is meant to demonstrate how challenging science can be and why so much of science has taken such a long time to develop. Humans have often thought they were receiving answers to the questions they were asking, only to find out that nature was answering a different question, not the one the scientists thought they had asked. Pearl states that randomness has been one of the ways that we have gotten past nature, but writes about how counter-intuitive randomized controlled trials were when first developed. No one realized that the right question had to be asked through experimental set-ups that involved randomness. On the benefits of randomness he writes, “first, it eliminates confounder bias (it asks Nature the right question). Second, it enables the researcher to quantify his uncertainty.”
In the book, Pearl takes observations and statistical methods combined with causal insights to a level that is honestly beyond my comprehension. What is important to note, however, is that nature is not obligated to answer the questions we intend to ask. It answers questions exactly as we pose them, influenced by seemingly irrelevant factors in our experimental design. The first answer we get may not be very reliable, but randomness and statistical methods, combined as Pearl would advocate, with a solid understanding of causality, can helps us better pose our questions to nature, to be more confident that the responses we get answer the questions we meant to ask.
Seneca on Quotes

Seneca on Quotes

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “give over hoping that you can skim, by means of epitomes, the wisdom of distinguished men. Look into their wisdom as a whole; study it as a whole. They are working out a plan and weaving together, line upon line, a masterpiece, from which nothing can be taken away without injury to the whole.”

 

I really like this quote and the idea that Seneca presents. He is saying that simple quotes and sayings are insufficient if we hope to actually build knowledge and construct a concrete mental framework for thinking about life. There are many inspirational quotes from famous and influential people, but reading them in isolation is often inadequate for developing a real philosophy of life.

 

This is an idea that I agree with. I actively try to avoid individual quotes, even though I present quotes from books, writers, and thinkers on this blog. My hope is that diving deeper into the meaning for an interesting quote and exploring the ideas it represents will help the quote be more valuable and meaningful for me and anyone else. I try to present some context and how a quote may or may not relate to different aspects of life or perspectives on the world.  Based on Seneca’s quote, I suspect he would approve of this approach. What he would not approve of is simple quotes in isolation, or layered over background sunrises.

 

Individual quotes in isolation become trite, and trying to attach undue meaning to an individual quote or phrase can be harmful, especially when it is taken out of context or applied in an overly broad way. Quotes can only truly be helpful when we consider them within the larger body of work of the individual or culture from which they originate.

 

Seneca’s writing is less valuable on its own than when it is considered alongside other stoic thinkers such as Marcus Aurelius or modern day writers who have a similar focus like Colin Wright or Ryan Holiday. Deep study is what helps us truly understand the world and develop a better understanding of how ideas relate to the world around us. Deep study is necessary if we want to develop our own framework for the world – an amalgamation of quotes from across the web won’t do.

Social Constructionism in Physics and … Everything!

I just finished a semester at the University of Nevada focusing on Public Policy as part of my Masters in Public Administration. Throughout the semester we focused on rational models of public policy and decision-making, but we constantly returned to the ways in which those models break down and cannot completely inform and shape the public policy making process. We select our goals via political processes and at best develop rational means for reaching those political ends. There is no way to take a policy or its administration out of the hands and minds of humans to have an objective and rational process free of the differences which arise when we all have different perspectives on an issue.

 

Surprisingly, this is also what we see when we look at physics, and it is one of the big stumbling blocks as physicists try to understand quantum mechanics within the framework of physics laid out by Einstein and relativity. Throughout her book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter introduces us to the biggest concepts and challenges within the world of physics and how she and her dad attempted to make sense of those concepts within their own physics studies. A major influencer on the world of physics, and consequently on the adventure that Gefter took, was John Wheeler, who seemed to bring this idea of social construction to the rational and scientific world of physics. Wheeler described the idea of the self observing universe, to say that we are matter, observing other matter, creating our reality as we observe it. This idea is exactly the idea of social construction that I touched on in the opening note, but Gefter quotes a note in one of wheeler’s notebooks, “Add ‘Participant’ to ‘Undecidable Propositions’ to Arrive at Physics,” which sounds a bit like social construction to me as someone who studies public policy.

 

Social Constructionism is a theory from the social sciences. It is used to describe the ways in which a society or group comes to understand the problems it faces: who is at fault for the problem, who receives a benefit from our solution, who has the right to complain about a problem, and in what order should we attempt to solve our problems? These are all serious questions to which there is no perfect answer. We cannot identify a perfectly rational answer that will satisfy everyone. Our individual preferences will always be at play and our interactions in the decision-making process will shape the outcomes we decide we want and the solutions we decide to implement to reach those outcomes. In a sense, these large political questions are like the undecidable propositions in physics described by Wheeler. Politics is the outcome we arrive at when you add participants to undecidable propositions in society, and physics is what you arrive at when you add participants with limited knowledge and limited perspectives to the observation and understanding of major questions such as how gravity works.

 

We use questions of social science to inform the way we think about our interactions with other people and how we form societies. Social Constructionism reminds us that what seems clear and obvious to us, may seem different to someone else with different experiences, different backgrounds, different needs, and different expectations. Keeping this theory in mind helps us better connect with other people and helps us see the world in new ways. Similarly, physics informs the way we understand the universe to be ordered and how matter and energy interact within the universe. Recognizing that our perspectives matter, when it comes to politics, science, and even physics, helps us to consider our own biases and prior conceptions which may influence exactly how we choose to model, study, and experiment with our lives and the universe.