Monday, January 18, 2010

String Theory - a new myth for our age

It is amazing how in life if one waits long enough that things tend to come full circle. And this is true of the development of science itself.

In earlier times, science was much influenced by the intrusion of confused holistic notions of a spiritual nature that significantly impeded proper analysis of physical behaviour.

For example in the middle ages, largely to serve theological requirements, the Earth was believed to be the centre of the solar system. Therefore when Galileo supported an alternative viewpoint (based on objective empirical analysis), he was forced to detract his opinions so as to preserve religious orthodoxy.

So it is only in the last 400 years or so - largely as a result of the monumental contribution by Newton - that science has successfully differentiated itself from subjective beliefs based directly, or indirectly, on religious notions.

Indeed one could argue that the prevalence of the aether (which Einstein finally discarded in the early 20th century), represented an important remnant of such confused understanding i.e. where a holistic spiritual notion influences the nature of analytic investigation.

In this context it is interesting to compare an earlier story of the nature of creation from that emerging from modern science (in the form of string theory).

In the Christian Bible we are told in Genesis (the first book of the Old Testament) that God created the world in 6 days. Now as an acceptable scientific account, amenable to modern tastes, this account is greatly lacking from an analytic perspective. However it is really designed to convey a deeper qualitative (holistic) meaning.

6 was well known in the ancient world as the first perfect number. It is no accident therefore that God creates the world in 6 days as this is designed to convey the deeper significance of His creation as perfect.

So the story of creation in the Bible properly constitutes a myth (though admittedly of a significant nature). And it is the very nature of myths that explanatory symbols that are used are designed to convey holistic - rather than strict analytic - meaning.

Now when we contrast the Bible story with a modern attempt - such as string theory - to explain the nature of creation, we are presented with the opposite extreme.

In other words - precisely because of its analytic exactness - science has now managed to divest itself almost completely of holistic qualitative notions.
However this had led to a significant new problem (which is not properly recognised).

Analysis by its very nature is suited to partial investigation i.e. where part of a system can be investigated (in isolation from the whole).

Thus when we attempt to investigate the whole framework (as distinct from its parts), scientific analysis loses its effectiveness. Indeed - by its very nature - it can only attempt this task in a reductionist fashion i.e. by attempting to reduce the whole to its partial elements.

Because of the ambitious designs of string theory to obtain a whole explanation of reality through formulation of a Theory of Everything (TOE) it is especially open to this reductionist charge.

Thus what we are seeing now with string theory is precisely the opposite problem that affected earlier mythical accounts of creation.

Whereas the design of these accounts was to to principally provide a holistically satisfying explanation (conveying qualitative meaning), the design of a modern scientific account - such as string theory - is to provide an analytically satisfying explanation (of a quantitative nature).

However just as the former accounts were greatly lacking from a satisfactory analytic perspective, string theory is also greatly lacking from a satisfactory holistic perspective.

In other words string theory as it stands cannot provide any coherent intuitive account of the nature of its concepts and this is a truly major issue that has not been properly faced.

Even with respect to standard mathematics, mere rational explanation does not constitute meaningful understanding.

For example if I rationally demonstrate the Pythagorean Theorem to a student, actual understanding does not materialise until the appropriate intuitive connections are likewise made. Only then can then student literally "see" what the Theorem is about.
Fortunately however, at the macro level of appreciation, intuitions are designed to conform to accepted common sense notions of reality (dictated by linear type understanding).

Likewise with respect to string theory, mere rational explanation does not constitute meaningful understanding. However the big difference here is that the confirming intuition to literally "see" what is meant by the theoretical explanations is not actually provided by linear type understanding.
And string theory - as presently constituted - has no means of providing this qualitative intuitive component.

So for example when Edward Witten announces that string theory fundamentally operates in 11 - rather than 10 dimensions - this strictly represents an abstract mathematical finding (based on linear understanding). However it lacks any true qualitative coherence with the holistic nature of physical reality (which at the required level of appreciation requires going substantially beyond 1-dimensional interpretation).

At a deeper level, the implication is that science has now come full circle.

Initially - as we have seen - analytic investigation was greatly impeded through being confused with rigid holistic notions (based on religious beliefs).

Especially since the arrival of Newton, science has made enormous strides with respect to analytic understanding through successfully differentiating itself from confused holistic notions. And of course this aspect of science will continue to flourish for some considerable time to come!

However in the attempt to deal with universal type explanations (pertaining properly to the whole of reality), the limitations of analytic science are exposed.

Therefore I would see that we are at the dawning of a great new stage in scientific understanding where we can now at last begin to deal with universal holistic type issues in a successful manner. However this will require an entirely different qualitative approach that is utterly distinct from present appreciation.

Then eventually when this holistic side of science has been properly appropriated, a truly comprehensive approach to science can then at last unfold (combining specialised analytic and holistic type appreciation).

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