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Friday, May 17, 2013

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

Ball lighting. The rarity and lack of a natural paradigm for explaining ball lightnings made them a recurrent anomaly  (cortesy: commons.wikimedia.org).
Previous Post: "The Non-Observable Universe II"

Read the full article here (via SKL repository).

3. Scientific method and anomalies

Fig. 3 is an entity-relationship model of 12 phenomenological classes, that is the set of classes F(f), for f={1,…,12}. In this way, a f=1 class contains reproducible, periodic and observable occurrences, the easiest ones for scientific investigation on the base of evidences gathered by the human common senses. Difficulty seems to increases as j increases. A f = 2 phenomenon is irreproducible, periodic and observable. Events of this type range from a simple sunrise to the change of seasons. Sound beatings in a loudspeaker of a radiotelescope pointing to a rotating star – a pulsar – (D’Amico, 1999) correspond to f=11. In fact, its confirmation is only possible if a sensible (and expensive) device is at hand (and not only that, but also a theory based fully developed method of observation and analysis), otherwise the event is simply unverifiable.

Fig. 3
At this point, we make reference to a popular definition of the scientific method:

The Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. (Wikipedia, Scientific Method, 2010)

It is easy to see that the notion of observability and reproducibility are deeply established in the tradition of doing science. Thus the scientific method, understood in this way, is applicable only to a subset of F, as a consequence of natural selection process applied to the scientific development (Toulmin 1974; Hull, 1988). We can argue that observable and reproducible phenomena are the ‘fittest’ ones to survive scientific tradition in a stable form. It is undeniable that human knowledge has advanced as a consequence of such method, but, it does not follow logically from this observation that every natural occurrence has to fit the method in order to be scientifically valid (Bauer, 1987). A perception error is hidden in its core, forbidding certain phenomenological classes as described by the full F set. 

Given the definition of the F set, one can define a special type of anomaly (Bauer, 1988, 1989):

 Definition 5

(Public or type I) Anomaly: a special subset of F for which no explanation exists that is widely accepted.

Many people disregard anomalies because they defy ‘naturalistic explanations’, that can be understood as statements accounting for the existence of a natural occurrences in terms of definitions and causes accepted by the established knowledge. Other definitions for ‘naturalistic explanation’ exist (Giere, 1992), and they should not be confused with well-established theories. However, history of science shows that naturalistic explanations follow closely constantly evolving theories in order to accommodate new facts. Very often, the accepted knowledge on regard to phenomena of unknown causes is much more influenced by mainstream culture of a given time than by any truly scientific explanation that eventually becomes available in a later phase of theoretical maturity (Oreskes, 1999). Thus, naturalist explanations fit this picture as an immediate response of the established culture to certain anomalous experiences.  Let us consider other examples:
  • Take the f={11,12} set. These are non-reproducible, unobservable, invisible events. In the lack of any hint about their causes, they will be regarded as anomalies if, by chance, a method is discovered to register them. The situation will persist until a promising theory is found. 
  • Genuine cases of UFO apparitions (unidentified flying objects) (Swords, 1993, 2006) show that, without going into further considerations about their causes (remember, we are mainly interested in an explanation independent categorization), these are possibly f=4 events. This is exactly the same class of meteorite falls and, not incidentally, it is common to compare both phenomena. Not coincidentally, until the second half of the 19 century, meteors were anomalies for the scientific community. (Westrum, 1978). From the purely phenomenological point of view, UFOs and meteorite falls are analogous events, and the same the same can be said about ball lighting (Turner, 2003; Coleman, 2006). 
  • Still another example is the occurrence of transport phenomena (movement of objects) or psychokinesis (PK) in parapsychology literature (Braude, 1986; Rhine 1943, Schmidt, 1974). Many of these facts are public or f=4 cases.
f=4 phenomena are occasionally considered ‘physical’ in the sense of being public (Definition 1.1). Moreover, they are also many times rare. What distinguishes them, however, is the attribution of cause or phenomenological source, whose acceptance seems to depend on the prevailing culture of a time. As regard to meteorites, the theory of volcanic eruptions or fusion of terrestrial rocks by lightning (Sears,1975) was superseded by the acceptance of their alien nature, while the same is still not true for UFOs. However, the lack of a naturalistic explanation does not prove the validity of any claim about supernatural explanations. This is because the mere existence of an anomaly does not lead to any contradiction in the natural order, but only represents the influence of possibly unknown causes.

The meteorite of Bendegó. The first explanations to account for the existence of meteorites ruled out their extraterrestrial origin. Courtesy: National Museus of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

We can say that theories are models that allow us to understand the conditions for many natural occurrences. Theories that are well intertwined with the phenomena they purpose to explain are also capable of:
  • Explaining the four phenomenological features described above. A good theory is thus able to explain why a certain phenomenon is observable or not, why it is visible, periodic, sporadic etc. 
  • Providing orientation for building up analyzing devices and performing measurements. This explains the huge success of modern scientific theories, especially physics. 
  • Explaining a variety of associated events and not only a single particular occurrence. Again, physics is full of examples. With a reduced set of laws, classical mechanics was able to explain a large amount of facts. In the same way, several other areas of physics such as quantum mechanics or relativity were extremely successful in predicting phenomena before empirical verification. 
  • Most important of all, good theories fully specify the conditions under which a given phenomenon may be empirically observed, paving the way for their replication under controlled conditions.
Physics has become the guiding paradigm for other areas such as biology or even economy. However, is it possible to develop research programs in these areas in accordance with the methods of physics? The theories of physics share an important feature: they make extensive use of mathematical language in the form of methodological tools. It is not easy to see how other disciplines could benefit from the same methodology in face of such a variety of objects of study. Given the lack of exact descriptions correlating fundamental ingredients, a new research procedure must be developed to study f=11 and f=12 classes.


In view of our classification scheme, the set of events for which f={9,…,12} are only detectable in presence of theories that provide suitable empirical verification methods. Moreover, the opposite situation automatically puts a check on the acceptance of their existence: they become matters of belief or anomalies. We will see that the situation is even worse in face of natural occurrences that are not publicly available.

Next Post: "The Non-Observable Universe IV".

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this very interesting and insightful blog. I study philosophy at University and philosophy of mind, metaphysics and philosophy of science are some of the areas that interest me the most. Do you think there can be, really, any such thing as an item that is truly ojective and separate to observation, since we can only know items that pass through our minds- our understanding- and could therefore be augmented or even created by our minds? Biologist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake writes that laws of nature are 'more like habits of nature', and I would tend to agree. Has there ever been any experiment (with the exception of maths) that has been exactly reproducible?

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    1. Lauren
      I could never dare to solve the debate between realists and idealists, so my point of view, as a physicist is to agree that we only know Nature by experience, but this doesn't allow us to jump to the conclusion that things are entirely and solely dependent on our experience. So I do believe that there exists an objective (independent) reality as you say. As for Sheldrake observation, I tend to agree mainly because what we known as "nature's laws" are our own theoretical works and hypothesis so that, regarding the very essence of such laws we could never dream of understanding them completely and exhaustively (they are, in fact, approximations to the real thing...). Then, to us they might appear as 'habits of nature'. You are right, I think that we can only sustain that certain aspects of experiments are fully reproducible, the entire arrangement of experimental parts and pieces are never fully reproducible (there is always and unavoidable and uncontrollable noise...). Thank you for your comment!!

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