Seeing is Believing

What is the basis of human belief regarding the existence of independent objects? When it comes to the sciences the basis is often that classic (yet often misused) word ‘proof’ … but what is it that constitutes proof in the scientific world? Humans like to take what we can see as quite solid evidence for the proof of an external object’s existence. If we see a chair in front of us and then we sit down upon it and it performs its dutiful function of upholding our weight then we can quite confidently take this as proof that the chair actually exists. This is the commonly held philosophical viewpoint known as realism. But what about when it comes to objects like electrons, protons and quarks – we definitely cannot see these entities with a microscope, let alone the human eye, how then do we infer proof of their existence?  These quantum scale objects can be grouped under the term ‘unobservables’ and we will come back to them shortly.

There are other categories of entities such as ‘unobserved observables.’ Can you think of an object that we as homo sapiens have not observed but theoretically could be observed? A good example is a dinosaur – definitely big enough to see with the human eye yet unobserved due to extinction events long before our lifetime.  Why do we believe in dinosaurs? The belief derives from what philosophers like to call ‘Inference to the Best Explanation’ –  thanks to the skills of our paleontologist friends we find fossilised bones and teeth, which we can combine with our geological knowledge of the Earth millions of years and infer the best explanation; the existence of a creature composed of such pieces that would thrive in the conditions of the pre-historic earth. This is ‘Inference to the Best Explanation’ – taking all the data we know and constructing the most likely theory. Now what about total unobservables? How do we explain the existence of these entities?

So let’s take electrons, how do we follow this procedure of logical deduction to assume their independent existence? Well, the most pertinent school of thought in philosophy of science is called Entity Realism. We cannot see quarks directly however what we can see is the effects they have on larger entities. The proponent of Entity Realism, Ian Hacking, reasons along these lines. He argues that we understand the properties of the electrons and even though we cannot see them we can change variables in the system to manipulate their behaviour in order to produce effects on larger observables which we can can see. Now this manipulation of the unobservable entities and their produced effects is though to be proof enough of their existence. As long as we can manipulate and intervene on scientific entities in a laboratory to create phenomena we expect, we are justified to believe in their existence as the causal entities at work in the observed effects. This is similar to the Inference to the Best Explanation argument in that it uses a deduction process to assume the belief in the existence of an entity using pieces of information we can directly observe. As was the case with the dinosaur where we had the fossils, with the electrons we have the behaviour of the larger phenomena of which we know the electrons are the cause.

So Hacking summarises that “If science is able to use its posits as tools for experimentation, then the posits are real. If not, then they are merely hypothetical. An implication of this view is that one can be realist about electrons, but not about quarks or weak neutral currents”.

Overall I like Hacking’s argument a lot – relying on a degree of practically and what we can do in the physical world with entities in order to accept their existence. However both these arguments still rely on the ability of human observation and human manipulation to some degree. To me again this resounds with a degree of human hubris – why should the independent existence of objects rely on what we can see with our tiny eyeballs or what we can manipulate with our level of technology. If our technology so increases to be able to manipulate a quark, was the quark non-existent before? I think not. This reminds me of a similar philosophical line which equally gets on my grind ‘if a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?’ Of course it doesunless you believe the laws of nature are entirely dependent upon the perception of a particular species living on one planet.

Now here is another problem with this way of thinking – there is a different type of unobservable, one which comes on the extreme opposite length scales to the quarks, electrons and protons – astronomical length scales. Can you guess what we are talking about this time? Black holes. Hacking concedes that his theory falls short on these scale ‘When we use entities as tools, as instruments of inquiry, we are entitled to regard them as real. But we cannot do that with the objects of astrophysics”. We cannot directly see a black hole and we certainly are not at the stage of advancement yet where we can manipulate its properties. All we can do is infer its existence from the effects it has on the objects surrounding it e.g the speed of gas clouds orbiting the region, glowing of matter and rapidly moving stars in the gravitational field.  But all this understanding depends on our theoretical models of the behaviour of matter, spacetime and gravitational fields being correct – all these things we assume to be correct but does this consistent direct proof of the black hole itself?

For decades the concept of black holes remained a theoretical construct, a by product of Einstein’s general relativity when Karl Schwarzschild worked out that for an object of any given mass, there was a specific radius at which light would be unable to escape. However now they seemed to have moved into the realm of reality as our astrophysical observations have increased in quality and we can see the effects on surrounding objects. So again we see the proof for their existence to be a case of Inference to the Best Explanation, like the case of the dinosaur. We use all the information we have  to deduce the most likely conclusion – the existence objects we call ‘black holes’ which have a class of properties which cause the observed behaviour. We draw this conclusion without direct observation or manipulation of the objects themselves. If you are an Entity Realist however you really can’t have it both ways… you can’t see or manipulate these astrophysical objects and thus have no ground for claiming they are real. For an Entity Realist like Hacking, Black Holes are not real.

So to re-cap the thoughts, when we leave the world of common everyday objects like chairs and tables to the tiny realm of the electrons of mammoth realm of black holes we need to accept different methods as opposed to directly observing to accept their existence. Both these methods depend heavily on the theory that applies to the realm, quantum theory for the quarks, electrons and positrons and general relativity for the black holes. But, here’s the big snag; who is to say our theories represent the true nature of reality, who is to say our theories are right? Our best theories regarding entities have been very wrong in the past – scientists once believed in something called phlogiston theory; the idea that water was an element, i.e. made up of one entity ‘the water element’ yet now we know it is made up of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom. So previously  there was belief in the existence of a water element – now, after our theories have developed, we know this is false! This entity does not exist in the universe. So who is to say our theories won’t evolve in the future to disprove the existence of quarks, electrons and positrons or black holes for that matter? Belief based on theory and not direct observation requires faith in the current theory and thus, it can be argued, cannot be taken as proof.

So maybe it seems seeing after all, is the only way for humans to wholeheartedly believe, a belief that can exist without having to invest faith in the truth or accuracy of a scientific theory. This is not to say that objects don’t exist without our observation (remember a tree does make a sound when it falls in a forest)  but that we can never have the same degree of confidence in our personal human belief about them. As strong as our theories may seem how can we ever be sure about what goes on in the murky waters of the invisible…

[I should note that this article assumes the popular realist interpretation of the world – that objects and reality do exist independently of the mind and are not constructs of our consciousness. This is a fair assumption to make, unless we want to fall into the rabbit hole of the truly weird and wacky philosophy of reality. Musing for another post.]

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42 responses to “Seeing is Believing

  1. Very interesting concept and something to think about, when all these hypotheses are coming up trying to explain the universal phenomena and we’re not quite able to prove those hypotheses beyond all doubt. It’s important to infer what can be considered real and what yet can’t be, what’s within our perception and what’s not. Maybe one day with the advancement of technology, scientists can manipulate and entity realists will come to believe in black holes too! 🙂

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    • Thank you very much for your comment – yes you’re quite right our perception is crucial to the whole issue! Though therein lies the rub, why should the existence of objects depend on what we can make perceivable with our level of technology. Philosophy of science is a murky topic indeed but extremely worth thinking about, very glad you enjoyed the post!

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  2. I enjoyed your explanation and I sure it is valid. Science in in the business of extending our senses not questioning them. As it extends our senses it extends our control of the world for our benefit. Unfortunately the word benefit is the stumbling block for we have a powerful adversary in nature who is amoral. Also our own morals may well be called into question for what benefits a few may not benefit the majority.
    The scientific Adam came out of Africa but by all accounts his survival was touch and go.

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    • In the sense that science extends our senses by providing tools to probe where our biological senses cannot take us I agree; but they are of course the conclusions listed above. To say science cannot question our biological senses I cannot agree with; I actually think the opposite it is the role of science to do so. I agree with you r.e. benefits but fear I may stray wildly into social science, which whilst fascinating, off topic!

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      • Mekhi has the right path to scientific progress if we question our senses then all our extended senses are called into question and progress could be held up on a pointless quest. Let’s not look for absolutes which may not exist and are not going to add to progress.
        Science was born when men began to trust and enhance their senses. Much has been achieved now is the time to assess and direct our achievements to benefit humankind. Investigation for its own sake could well lead to disaster in our present precarious situation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I would argue that science always has – and always should be investigation for its own sake. Newton didn’t discover the secret of the comets orbit because it would make society (which was much worse of than it is today) and richer, and Einstein most certainly didn’t bring us relativity to benefit humankind. The majority of concepts at the forefront of modern Physics have no direct application to human benefit today – and yet understanding them is the only defense we have against the inevitable extinction events of the future. I have always championed study for no other reason than the joy of the process – as the quote says:

        “Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”

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      • Thanks very much for your thoughts kertsen! I reiterate Joe’s points again here really, I would say science actually helps reveal to us that relying on our senses alone can at times be deceiving (example dreaming can seem like reality, though the phenomena is now better understood by neuroscience). Regarding progress, I guess it all depends on what you mean by ‘benefiting humankind.’ As Joe said again, relativity may not have bought direct benefit to human with regards to tangible things like health, environment, society it did bring about an intangible benefit that being – a tremendous leap in the understanding of the nature of our universe. This to me, in the grand scheme of things, is extremely worthwhile and such intangible leaps can only be achieved through investigation for their own sake.

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      • We have nothing else to rely on as far as we know all information comes to us through our senses directly or indirectly via our own extension of them. Take care you are not beguiled into thinking it is all in the Mind. The mind is what creates our picture but it is from the senses that it derives its conclusions. It could be that the Mind deludes us but we must not go down that dangerous road.
        As for benefit it depends how you view our present situation. Some scientists believe it is precarious and although a mere amateur I am in that group. So we need to concentrate our efforts and resources to avert fragmentation of the emerging global society. Doing what we want won’t do that but limiting growth as suggested by the Club of Rome will greatly help.

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      • My issue with the Club of Rome interpretation on growth is that I find, along with many such projections variables are cherry picked. You attach an exponential model to your finite resources and you attach a linear model to your technological progress and watch the world blow up. But the world isn’t like that – technological progress between 1916, the middle of WW2, and 2016 has been anything but linear. Don’t get me wrong – I for one think there is much that is going on in this world that could threaten the existence of our species and there is far too much brain power being lost. That said, we are a slow learning but tenacious species and I cannot subscribe to the most extreme gospels of doom – which I fear the Club of Rome may at times be guilty of indulging in (note: I do agree with much of their thoughts).

        I don’t agree that the mind and the senses are in any way separable, I actually think it is all in the mind. In computing terms they are just inputs – like the sense that a microphone can input (or “hear”) sound but it is the computer that does anything meaningful with in, our ears can detect sound, our hands can feel, our eyes can detect em radiation but non of this is relevant without the mind; that is where the magic happens.

        I am really enjoying these discussions!

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  3. Since I have dealt with problems of art for a long time this problem of acceptance of reality has been a basic concern for me. Artists of various kinds are reality technicians and, as any stage magician will tell you, believing is seeing. The internet also is well experienced in using belief of ghosts, flying saucers, all sorts of conspiracies to see them and the whole advertising industry is no slouch in the matter as well as all sorts of religious and cult dynamics. Richard Feynman once remarked “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” There are lots of fat politicians, used car salesmen and business executives who walk and talk like ducks but anyone stocked with minimum perception and Google can quickly spot they have neither the wit nor the basic intellect of ducks.

    Fundamentally, the torrent of events surrounding us is far too dense and rapid for any brain to dissect and understand so we pick out what we think is valid and important and assemble those fragments into what we accept as reality. Experience shuffles and discards and adds to that continuously, and, as any perceptive scientist will confirm, greased pigs have nothing like the slipperiness of reality.

    What we all have are tools to try out and get a modicum of success with for a while until, when you wake up next morning, somebody has figured out something better.

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  4. Who is to say that the tree makes a noise in the forest or not, how can you be sure with out the observer? Maybe it does and only the bacteria or insects were the ones to see, feel, or in someother way sense it. We humans we think we know so much but these bags of skin and water are really limiting. That is why we need sceince to infer what we can and cannot directly observe ourselves. And when all happenings are dependant on observation to be real then there is no true and independant existance to speak of.

    QP

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    • Thank you very much for your thoughts QP. I’m afraid we just have rather different philosophical views of reality – I believe that reality is not observer dependent and events do occur and objects do exist without an observer having to be present to view them (and their proceedings follow the laws of nature i.e if a tree falls it hits the ground, a sound wave is created, a noise is made etc). However philosophical views of reality truly are the most fundamental views that exist and who is to say that my view or your view is correct. I just wrote this article with my assumed view and added a little note as the end stating this – but I very much accept that although this is the most popular interpretation of the way the world is, it is but one of many. Thanks again!

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      • Especially in philosophy language plays a large part of what we mean and understand. The tree falling problem involves the definition of noise. If an air compression does not hit an eardrum is that noise? No one denies the existence of the pressure wave but noise may be defined as what a nerve system perceives. Just as a light wave from the planet Mars may not hit a telescope or other instrument so can that be accepted as an image? Is a radio broadcast tune that is not received and converted into sound still music? It’s a matter of language.

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      • I also think it may be helpful in a discussion such as this to clearly define the word “observer.” Personally, in the context of the physical world, I think of an observer as not just a conscious being but as any object considered in relative terms to another object. So, in this case, all the objects interacting with the tree as it falls (air molecules, other trees, grass, dirt, etc.) are its direct observers. In their unique combination, they give uniqueness — and, therefore, reality — to this particular fall of this particular tree.

        Interestingly, this makes us indirect observers because the tree falling changes our physical relationship to it, and it’s through all such relationships that the unique reality of a given thing/event is solidified.

        So reality isn’t dependent on us observing it, but it is, of a kind, observer-dependent.

        This is just relativity, really. The parts of a system, whether the most elementary or large-scale, exist in mutual “observation” of each other.

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      • I agree with the point that reality is not dependent on it being observed but indeed relative. With the tree I think taking it most literally it is not a fruitful discussion; if you want me to believe a tree falling to the ground on Earth does not compress the air to produce a sound-wave that just won’t happen. Human detection of the wave may verify the existence to us but honestly sound-waves don’t care about us. They don’t exist to serve the human ear. If however you use the tree falling in the forest as a metaphor for if the observed universe behaves in the same manner as the unobserved then I do think you are in the realms of some very interesting discussion with clear application to quantum mechanics

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      • Hi, Jospeh. Just to clarify, I’m in complete agreement with you regarding the sound wave. Whether or not it’s detected and processed by a conscious being is secondary to its existence. And you’re correct, I am indeed trying to use the tree falling scenario to illustrate how the stuff of the unobserved universe has equal reality to that of the observed universe.

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      • Great discussion everyone. I’d just like to add what I think is an important clarification with the term observer that Joseph mentioned and I really should have included. In this post we talk about macroscopic phenomena i.e a tree falling – being observer independent. However with quantum phenomena, as touched on in other posts (Why skin a cat at all?) reality may be thought to be observer dependent after all as a popular quantum belief is that observation causes wavefunction collapse! But here we just stick to macroscopic phenomena and the main debate is the philosophical one of realism vs. anti-realism – does reality exist independently of the mind? I hope so and have assumed so in this post!

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  5. Very interesting. Here we have a philosopher requiring more proof than scientists.

    I have to admit, I understand the Entity Realist’s point of view to some degree. There are times when I find myself wishing scientists would acknowledge the simple “belief” that has to be mustered, however small an amount, in the advancement of theories regarding unobservables. It might help to keep things more flexible, or adaptable, which could be good for the world of science (as a generalization).

    Anyway, great food for thought. Thank you!

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    • Yes you’ve made a very good point. Very often it is the case that scientists just accept the theory and the belief of the entities that the theory postulates, which yes can be good to speed up progress of science. (If scientists sat around musing like philosophers all day over whether these things actually existed as opposed to using them as tools, granted they would not get much done!) But yes the philosophers of science are important, in their own right, to perform checks on the actions of the unruly scientists – to remind them that their theories may not reflect the true nature of reality after all! Scientists should not dismiss the philosophers too hastily! Thank you very much for your comment.

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  6. mekhi.. it is like we postulate hypotheses.. then we work on it like it is the null hypo. experimentally and statistically prove the results finally…and there could be many such unknown theories kept in a dark space as it couldnt be proven so far..

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    • Indeed and when these come to light they may well then refute entities we have postulated in earlier theories. We should revel in the success of our scientific theories but always remember they may only be a small piece of the puzzle and their implications may not necessarily reflect truth.

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  7. As a confirmation of my indication that truth is rather plastic and varies greatly with our observations and how we integrate those observations see the article today at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/10/161021123238.htm wherein the Nobel prize awarded for determining that dark energy exists and is accelerating the expansion of the universe is brought into doubt. I will concede that perhaps there is a universal solid truth but I have strong doubts as to its certainty.

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    • Thank you very much jiisand! I agree with you that truth does seem to be a very loose notion, which is again perhaps tied to the problem of language you mentioned before. I’m going to read this article over breakfast tomorrow.

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  9. Philosophically speaking, that’s the problem of perception: it is always dependent on what we can perceive and how. When it comes to the subatomic world, our perception relies on sophisticated tools to be able to perceive it. Same goes for God: unobservable and yet believers are everywhere. So the question is: should we only consider as truth what can be held through our eye perception? science just disagrees. So does religion. Whereas philosophy is more free about this answer. Anyway, I am a big fan of your blog guys! Keep up the good work for it is always a pleasure to read you!

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    • Very astute comment maylynno! Indeed, our limited perception is the problem & the nature of philosophy is to keep an open mind and critically assess what we (often science) can assume to know in areas when our perception is weakened. Thanks a lot for your support to the blog, great to have you on board!

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      • In general philosophy and science lay out the battleground between possibility and probability. Science determinedly hangs closer to probability until observation changes that, more or less.

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  10. There is no such thing as psychologically real, only logically ideal. Paraphrasing Johannes Hessen and Karl Popper. My concept of truth is “the conjecture that resists most tests”. All of our knowledge is conjectural, and “belief” is a simple matter of paradigm. As Thomas Kuhn made clear on The Essential Tension: belief can only exist if we train ourselves to doubt. That’s what scientific communities do!

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  12. Maybe science needs to recognise it is just producing models of ‘reality’, and today’s models are likely to be superseded tomorrow. The model is like a map, and the map is not the territory.

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  16. I myself tend towards an agnostic realism.

    “Tends” is an operative word there. I have only tentatively held beliefs on the matter. As for agnostic, I tentatively believe that it cannot be known for certain whether anything outside our minds is real. But on the issue, not of knowledge, but of belief, I cast all caution to the winds (I so love to live dangerously!) and come down on the side of realism.

    That is, I do not know whether anything apart from the mind exists, but I believe something does exist.

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