|Subject:||Your "Review" of my Letter to FPS|
|Date:||Thu, 14 Jun 2001 10:40:25 -0400|
|From:||"Dr. Scott C. Smith"|
I sincerely hope that you obtained permission from the APS Forum on Physics and Society to reprint my letter to them, because you certainly did not obtain such permission from me. You should be aware that the reproduction of published material, even if it is published on the internet, represents a violation of copyright law. I am particularly offended that my work has been reproduced and unjustly criticized without my knowledge (indeed, I would still be ignorant of this affront, were it not for the fact that my cousin ran across your web page and informed me of its existence). Furthermore, you had the temerity (and simple rudeness) to include a link to my e-mail on the page, but provided no means of contacting the author of the critique.
That said, I must say that I think your analysis provides an excellent example of the kind of deconstructionist nonsense that I was attempting to refute in the original letter. I can't say I know what Doug Renselle's qualifications are, but from the vantage point of one who holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics, I have to say that I feel he has failed to truly grasp the basic concepts of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics does not, as it is commonly misconstrued, imply an inherent dichotomy in all things. Quantum mechanical systems can and do exist in well defined states in which certain properties are precisely specified. The fact that other, complementary, properties are not well defined in these eigenstates does not render them intrinsically unknowable or unmeasurable, as any measurement of such a property will change the state of the system to one for which the property is well defined. Difficulty only arises when simultaneous determination of two such complementary properties (position and momentum, for instance) is attempted. This in no way invalidates abstract concepts such as true and false, nor does it make it impossible to apply those concepts to physical systems, even quantum mechanical systems.
The ability to falsify hypotheses is central to all scientific inquiry, including quantum theory. Quantum calculations can yield explicit predictions for the behavior of physical systems, and these predictions can be tested through experimentation and direct measurement. This process is carried out thousands of times per day throughout the world. Verification of these predictions strengthens the existing theory by providing further evidence that it provides an adequate description of physical phenomena. Whenever results fail to match predictions, it reveals a weakness in the theory, and points the way to an improved understanding of the underlying mechanism being studied. We rely on the inherent predictability of quantum systems every time we turn on an electronic device, as the transistors and integrated circuits that we utilize so copiously in modern society are fundamentally dependent on the quantum behavior of electrons moving in atomic lattices.
While I will not waste the time to refute all of Mr. Renselle's comments point-by-point, I must emphasize that falsifiability of scientific hypotheses is neither subjective nor impossible. This is because it is the nature of scientific theories that they can be used to derive predictions of the outcome of certain measurements. If the results of carrying out those measurements are not in agreement with the predictions, the theory is falsified. A single counterexample is sufficient to render a theory false, and despite the uncertainty involved in measurement or inherent in the system itself, it is usually possible to obtain results that are unequivocal and indisputable.
Take, as an example, a (false) theory: "All objects fall to earth with the same acceleration." (This is actually a common misstatement of Galileo's formulation of the law of gravity, as Galileo had the insight to add the caveat, "If air resistance can be eliminated," which greatly improves its accuracy.) If we carry out measurements with dense objects such as golf balls, rocks, etc., we will obtain results that are consistent with this statement to the level accuracy of our measurment. If we start comparing feathers, confetti, and helium balloons, however, we will obtain wildly divergent measurements that cannot be reconciled with the simple minded statement of the theory. The theory, as stated, is false. If we amend it to Newton's formulation that, "Any two bodies will attract each other with a gravitational force that is proportional to the product of their masses divided by the square of the distance between their centers," then we obtain a theory that has stood up to every measurement that has thus far been performed. Yet there are still scientists who continue to devise new and more precise experiments to test this hypothesis, and until all of the infinite possibilities have been tested, it is impossible to say that the theory is true (though, again, a single experiment is capable of proving it false).
It is also important to note that there is a fundamental difference between inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning. Renselle states that,
What he is describing here is deductive proof, reasoning from stated assumptions to conclusions using accepted logical rules. Deductive logic can only be applied to reality in as far as those axioms conform to reality. As an example, consider the fact that it is possible to derive a wide variety of different geometries, some finite and some infinite, by modifiying a small set of axioms. Ultimately, only of those geometries describes the universe we live in. At this point in time, we are not truly certain which one, and astronomers continue to make measurements aimed at making that determination. Science is a fundamentally inductive process, with only one real axiom: that our senses, extended by technology and instrumentation, provide us with data that corresponds to reality. The task of scientific inquiry is to interpret and organize that data in such a way that it is possible to formulate a small set of principles that provides a framework capable of describing the entire data set and accurately predicting additional data points. In short, to abstract a set of rules that describes the way the "real world" works. Any rule in that set that fails to conform to reality, as determined by direct experience, is by definition false.
Finally, I'd like to point out that I never indicated that, "Newton's Aristotelian-based ontology is false." I merely indicated that his formulation of the laws of mechanics has been falsified, in that it failed to accurately describe phenomena at all scales of size and energy (the very small and the very high energy realms necessitated the developments of quantum mechanics and relativity, respectively). That falsification, and the development of the theories that extended mechanics into these new realms, were all based on the same Aristotelian ontology, which continues to form the basis of all scientific inquiry. Our understanding of physics has changed, but our understanding of the nature of knowledge remains subtantially the same.
Dr. Scott C. Smith