Monday, March 18, 2013

I - The Non-observable Universe and a General Classification of Nature's Phenomena

by Ademir Xavier

Read the full article here (via SKL repository).

1 Introduction

The development of modern science, starting in the 16th century, (Shapin, 1996) led to a world view in which almost everything should be explained in terms of rational or so called ‘scientific’ concepts. According to this view, all knowledge, in order to be true, must be tested in the laboratory, and, therefore, must be publicly available (Chalmers, 1999). The scientific method was conceived as the need of exhaustive and repeatable testing, data analysis together with the postulation of simple explanations in face of a universe that was definitely proved to be rational in their underlying structure and organization.

An ongoing debate was then established between a community that is regarded fully rational in their judgments and a large contingent of people who still lives in a world filled with supposedly unfounded, marginal or rejected beliefs. This debate closely follows the conflicts between Science and Religion (Segre, 1994; Pakdemirli 1993). Whatever does not fit the notion of a fully logical, rational and publicly available Universe is, at best, regarded a ‘metaphysical speculation’, and therefore, a matter of belief.

While such Universe conception acquired rationality, some developments in modern science (Verschuur, 2007; Papantonopoulos, 2007, Peebles, 2009) – notably and not coincidentally in physics – are not in accordance with notion that all phenomena should sensitize the ordinary senses. Modern theoretical physics and its aftermath predicted new phenomena (Anderson, 1933; Casimir 1948) leading rationalist ideas to a climax. It became clear that a wide range of events would never be discovered were not for the existence of theories to explain them (Lakatos, 1980; Franklin, 2003). From developments in electricity and magnetism in the 19th century (Whittaker, 1953), it was shown that phenomena exist (in fact, the immense majority of Nature´s phenomena) that demand equipments for their observation, i.e., they are inaccessible to the human senses. The need of equipments to measure and record phenomena is today naturally accepted by professionals and people trained in a particular science. Such devices are regarded as sense ‘extensions’, without realizing that their developments involved theories and, therefore, hypothesis or systems of thought for their validation. Thus, although the use of such devices for phenomenological observation is a valid procedure, it does not follow that they have the same ‘status’ of direct observations which are able to convey a different impression to the observer (Bechtel, 1990).

Our concern here is to sketch a distinct categorization of natural phenomena, taking into account recent discoveries that do not directly impress the senses. The goal is to establish a broad classification scheme that is independent of underlying phenomenological causes. Such classification has the advantage of providing a territory expansion by considering potential and new events that must receive suitable attention from the scientific community, given the lack of theories to explain and validate them (Szostak, 2005). So, in Section 2, we start by regarding the phenomenological picture revealed by normal science and then proceed to anomalies (Section 3). 

Section 4 deals with the topic ‘private anomalies’ or events suggesting an extension of the ordinary senses. This topic will be further developed in Section 5, where we discuss the notion of ‘meta-observable phenomena’ and the importance of their acceptance for the development of a ‘science of anomalies’ such as those of pyschic origin. Finally some conclusions are presented in Section 6. The author is aware that the subjects of this article are related to epistemology or philosophy of science. It is also connected with much deeper subjects such as realism, or the philosophical position sustaining that our best scientific theories correctly describe both observable and non-observable aspects of the world (see Section 7) because the theoretical entities they assume to exist do exist in reality. We agree with the fact that the accurate design of experiments demands the coordination of pre-existing theories in terms of which data analysis will take place. However, the seizure of many anomalous experiences (and we are not referring here to those arising within the context of existing theories) is many times undertaken by ‘observers’ (witnesses) rather than by ‘researchers’ in a theory free or ‘non-academic’ context. Many anomalies occur without being ordered, they are perceived as they manifest themselves, because operational conditions are not known a priori. Thus, the epistemological view of the scientific process as organized and managed by theories seems to be of little value in those cases, since recent epistemological theories have little to say about how to do science in the presence of anomalous events of this sort. In this sense, our study here is a superficial analysis in order to determine what course of action would be minimally necessary (without claiming to be sufficient) in order to develop new scientific paradigms of anomalous phenomena.

2. Publicly available phenomena

The universe contains different strata of phenomena. Some of them are cyclic or periodic while others are sporadic or non-periodic. Moreover, it is a well-established fact that only a small fraction of natural phenomena is accessible to ordinary observation, i.e., accessible to the senses (Rinia, 2006). Thus, regardless the field of inquiry (physics, biology, chemistry, etc.), we can separate phenomena in distinct classes, according to the degree of ‘accessibility’ to the human ordinary senses:

Definition 1

1.    Observable phenomena: events fully accessible to the human senses. They make up our immediate neighborhood in the form of life experiences. Note that by ‘observable’ we make reference to events that are accessible to human senses without any intermediate medium;
2.       Non observable phenomena: the vast majority of natural occurrences belong to this category. Only a small fraction of natural events are available for the human senses. We can only speculate that this is due to limits imposed by natural evolution (Kaas, 2007), so that human senses are still evolving. This class can be divided in two:
a.       Visible phenomena: unobservable events that may become ‘visible’ by using special equipments. Examples: the eclipses of Jupiter's moons; bacteria in aqueous solutions through a microscope, Biophoton emission by living bodies (Creath, 2005) etc. Microscopes and telescopes produce amplified or enhanced images of objects with small apparent sizes. ‘Visible’ here means  ‘which is able to sensitize any of the five human senses’;
b.       Invisible  phenomena: Unseen, unobservable events that cannot be registered by the human senses through any kind of amplifying device. However, in special conditions, transducers can be used to convert certain non-observable signals or radiations, so that they may become detectable. Examples: Geiger counters (Frame, 2004) record the incidence of charged elementary particles and convert the signals to audible sounds. In this case, the correlation between the input (charged elementary particle) and the output is a technical artifice. Radio frequency receivers transform electromagnetic waves into acoustic signals and ‘infrasound’ transducers (Evers and Haak, 2009) convert inaudible sound frequencies into the audible range etc.

There is no generally accepted agreement about the ‘ordinary human senses’; their functional characterization still depends on ongoing research about body sensors and the peripheral nervous system (Brynie, 2009; Hubel, 1995). For simplicity, we use a notion originally attributed to Aristotle and regard only the ordinary five senses. 

Another important dimension of the phenomenological description of natural events is the frequency of occurrence:

Definition 2

1.    Periodic phenomena: events that occur periodically, as the name indicates. E.g.: eclipses of the Moon, Sun, tides etc;
2.     Aperiodic or sporadic phenomena: events that do not exhibit any pattern of regularity. E. g.: meteorite falls.

The occurrence rate plays an important role in the scientific acceptance of a previously unknown occurrence. Nobody will consider as real an event that happened only once or even a few times in history. In fact, science has difficulties in formulating theories for non-reproducible and rare events. There is a clear preference in the scientific community for periodic events, since it is considerably easier to find a cause for them. Cyclical phenomena are probably correlated to cyclical causes sharing the same replication frequency. Rare events are common in astronomy for example. However, since the Universe is very large, in many cases, the rareness and randomness observed in a single occurrence is counterbalanced by a large number of sources that increase the detection probability. A typical example is the detection of hydrogen in space using radio waves at the wavelength of 21 cm (Carilli, 1995). 

Fig. 1 A first classificaton of Nature's phenomena according to Definition 1 and 2.

Extremely rare phenomena can be periodic or aperiodic as it is natural to conceive. However, in the lack of a theory to guide experimental research, this brings almost insurmountable problems to the task of finding a cause and, therefore, in providing a suitable explanation. In a sense, rare phenomena, that are both periodic and aperiodic, are indistinguishable from the empirical point of view because evidence takes a long time to accumulate. An unobservable and invisible phenomenon that is barely detectable by any known technique is particularly interesting. Add an unknown occurrence rate and we have one of the most difficult events for science. We clearly see that such a case is at the threshold of scientific inquiry and has great chance to be taken as an anomaly.

A graphical representation of the above definitions and their relationship is seen in Fig 1. There are several ways to organize the relationship among the many phenomenological features. In Fig. 1, we start with ‘observability’ and further subdivide the class using other features. The final diagram in not unique and results in a particular hierarchical distribution of features that can be used to categorize natural occurrences.

All references will be presented in the last post.

Next post: "The Non-Observable Universe II"