Is Science in as Good a Place as it Might Be?

Most people probably think that science progresses through all scientists diligently seeking the truth but that illusion was was shattered when Thomas Kuhn published “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Two quotes:

(a) “Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.”

(b) “Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change. And perhaps that point need not have been made explicit, for obviously these are the men who, being little committed by prior practice to the traditional rules of normal science, are particularly likely to see that those rules no longer define a playable game and to conceive another set that can replace them.”

Is that true, and if so, why? I think it follows from the way science is learned and then funded. In general, scientists gain their expertise by learning from a mentor, and if you do a PhD, you work for several years in a very narrow field, and most of the time the student follows the instructions of the supervisor. He will, of course, discuss issues with the supervisor, but basically the young scientist will have acquired a range of techniques when finished. He will then go on a series of post-doctoral fellowships, generally in the same area because he has to persuade the new team leaders he is sufficiently skilled to be worth hiring. So he gains more skill in the same area, but invariably he also becomes more deeply submerged in the standard paradigm. At this stage of his life, it is extremely unusual for the young scientist to question whether the foundations of what he is doing is right, and since most continue in this field, they have the various mentors’ paradigm well ingrained. To continue, either they find a company or other organization to get an income, or they stay in a research organization, where they need funding. When they apply for it they keep well within the paradigm; first, it is the easiest way for success, and also boat rockers generally get sunk right then. To get funding, you have to show you have been successful; success is measured mainly by the number of scientific papers and the number of citations. Accordingly, you choose projects that you know will work and shuld not upset any apple-carts. You cite those close to you, and they will cite you; accuse them of being wrong and you will be ignored, and with no funding, tough. What all this means is that the system seems to have been designed to generate papers that confirm what you already suspect. There will be exceptions, such as “discovering dark matter” but all that has done so far is to design a parking place for what we do not understand. Because we do  not understand, all we can do is make guesses as to what it is, and the guesses are guided by our current paradigm, and so far our guesses are wrong.

One small example follows to show what I mean. By itself, it may not seem important, and perhaps it isn’t. There is an emerging area of chemistry called molecular dynamics. What this tries to do is to work out is how energy is distributed in molecules as this distribution alters chemical reaction rates, and this can be important for some biological processes. One such feature is to try to relate how molecules, especially polymers, can bend in solution. I once went to hear a conference presentation where this was discussed, and the form of the bending vibrations was assumed to be simple harmonic because for that the maths are simple, and anyhting wrong gets buried in various “constants”. All question time was taken up by patsy questions from friends, but I got hold of the speaker later, and pointed out that I had published paper a long time previously that showed the vibrations were not simple harmonic, although that was a good approximation for small vibrations. The problem is that small vibrations are irrelevant if you want to see significant chemical effects; they come from large vibrations. Now the “errors” can be fixed with a sequence of anharmonicity terms, each with their own constant, and each constant is worked around until the desired answer is obtained. In short you get the asnswer you need by adjusting the constants.

The net result is, it is claimed that good agreement with observation is found once the “constants” are found for the given situation. The “constants” appear to be only constant for a given situation, so arguably they are not constant, and worse, it can be near impossible to find out what they are from the average paper. Now, there is nothing wrong with using empirical relationships since if they work, they make it a lot easier to carry out calculations. The problem starts when, if you do not know whyit works, you may use it under circumstances when it no longer works.

Now, before you say that surely scientists want to understand, consider the problem for the scientist: maybe there is a better relationship, but to change to use it would involve re-writing a huge amount of computer code. That may take a year or so, in which time no publications are generated, and when the time for applications for further funding comes up, besides having to explain the inactivity, you have to explain why you were wrong before. Who is going to do that? Better to keep cranking the handle because nobody is going to know the difference. Does this matter? In most cases, no, because most science involves making something or measuring something, and most of the time it makes no difference, and also most of the time the underpinning theory is actually well established. The NASA rockets that go to Mars very successfully go exactly where planned using nothing but good old Newtonian dynamics, some established chemistry, some established structural and material properties, and established electromagnetism. Your pharmaceuticals work because they have been empirically tested and found to work (at least most of the time).

The point I am making is that nobody has time to go back and check whether anything is wrong at the fundamental level. Over history, science has been marked by a number of debates, and a number of treasured ideas overthrown. As far as I can make out, since 1970, far more scientific output has been made than in all previous history, yet there have been no fundamental ideas generated during this period that have been accepted, nor have any older ones been overturned. Either we have reached a stage of perfection, or we have ceased looking for flaws. Guess which!

Science and the afterlife.

Science is not about a collection of facts, but rather it is a way of analyzing what we observe. The concept is, if you have a good theory it will predict things, then you can go out, do experiments, and see if you are right. Of course, in general it is not so easy to form a theory without resorting to nature, which means that most theories largely explain what is known. Nevertheless, the objective is to make a limited number of predictions of what we do not know. Someone then goes out and carries out the experiments, tests or whatever and if the theory is correct, the observations are just what the theory predicted. That is great news for the theoretician.

That is all very well, but what happens when there is a phenomenon that cannot be the subject of an experiment. In a previous post (http://wp.me/p2IwTC-6q ) I remarked that my Guidance Wave interpretation of quantum mechanics permitted, but by no means required, life after death. This cannot be experimented on and reported, however there are a number of reports of people who claim to have “almost died” or momentarily died and who have been revived and then given quite strange and explicit stories. What can science say about them?

One comes from a book I was given to read. Written by a pastor Todd Burpo, it tells of what his son, who was just short of four years old at the time, reported after he had nearly died in hospital. The son made several statements, all of which entailed an “out of body experience” and most involved a short visit to heaven to sit on Jesus’ lap. However, two of the descriptions were of more interest to me, because they described how the “out of body” boy saw his parents, each in a different room, and described what they did. In principle, there is no way he could have this information. The story also has a very frustrating element. The boy described the marks on Jesus’ hands, from the crucifixion. The pastor took that as clear evidence, because how would the boy know where the marks were? The most obvious reply is, he lived in a religious house and there probably were images around. Further, and this is the frustrating part, the standard Roman crucifixion did not have nails through the hands, so the boy was wrong, right? The problem is, Jesus did not have a standard crucifixion. What usually happened was that the victim was left on the cross until the flesh had more or less rotted away or had been picked by the crows, then the residue was disposed of, but not given a burial. To cut the body down and give it for burial was never done, except this time. Accordingly, if it were non-standard, it may have been the soldiers put the nails where it would be easier to get them out later. In short the killer evidence essentially ends up as useless. There is then the added complication that if true, Jesus may have given the image the pastor wanted.

The second is also interesting. Harvard neurosurgeon Dr Eben Alexander was in a coma for several days caused by severe bacterial meningitis. During his coma, he too had a vivid journey, first into other rooms, from which he described people’s actions that he had no possibility of knowing about through his physical body, and then into what he knew to be the afterlife. Now he had previously been a skeptic about this, and considered such accounts to be hallucinations, but in his own case his neocortex was non-functional during his coma, and furthermore, he gives nine different scientific reasons why what he experienced cannot be due to such hallucinogens or imagination. Since I am not an expert in brain function, I cannot comment usefully on his analysis. On one hand he is a prominent neurosurgeon, and should be an expert on brain function, so his analysis should be taken seriously, nevertheless, as Richard Feynman remarked about science, the easiest person to fool is yourself.

Perhaps the most spectacular accounts have been presented by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, a psychiatrist. She had noted that if children have this experience, they always see their mother and father if the parent is dead, but never if they are still alive. Christian children often see Jesus; Jewish ones never do. One particularly unusual account came from a woman who described what people were doing trying to resuscitate her after an accident. She claimed to have had this out of body experience and had watched everything. What is unusual about this is the woman was blind; the out of body “her” could see everything, but when she was resuscitated, she reverted to being blind. Another unusual report was from someone who met one of his parents in this “afterlife”, who confirmed being dead. This parent had died only one hour previously, five hundred miles or so away.

At this point we should look at the structure of a scientific proposition. There are two conditional forms for a statement that apply to a proposition under a given set of conditions:
(a) If the hypothesis is correct, then we shall get a certain set of observations.
(b) If and only if the hypothesis is correct, then we shall get a certain set of observations.
The difference lies here. In (a) there may be a multiplicity of different hypotheses that could lead to the observation, such as a hallucination, or a memory dump. This would apply to observations that the person could have recalled or imagined. In (b) there is only one explanation possible, therefore the hypothesis must be correct. Obviously, it is difficult to assert there is only one possible explanation, nevertheless, seeing something in another room when nearly dead seems to only being explained by part of the person (the soul, say) travelling out of the body into the other room.

So, where does this leave us? Essentially, in the position that there can be no proof until you die. Before that it is all a matter of faith. Nevertheless, as I argued, my guidance wave interpretation of quantum mechanics at least makes this possible within the realms of physics, but it does not require it. Accordingly, you either believe or you do not. The one clear fact though, is that if you do believe, it will almost certainly make dying easier, and that in itself is no bad thing.

Life after death

The issue of whether there is life, or consciousness, after death is one of those questions that can only be answered by dying. If there is, you find out. My wife was convinced there is, and she was equally convinced that I, as a scientist, would quietly argue the concept was ridiculous. However, as she was dying of metastatic cancer we had a discussion of this issue, and I believe the following theory gave her considerable comfort. Accordingly, I announced this at her recent funeral, in case it helped anyone else, and I have received a number of requests to post the argument. I am doing two posts: one with the mathematics, and one where I merely assert the argument for those who want a simpler account. The more mathematical post is at (http://my.rsc.org/blogs/84/1561 ).

First, is there any evidence at all? There are numerous accounts of people who nearly die but do not, and they claim to see a tunnel of light, and relations at the other end. There are two possible explanations:
(1) What they see is true,
(2) When the brain shuts down, it produces these illusions.
The problem with (2) is, why does it do it the same way for all? There was also an account recently of someone who died on an operating table, but was resuscitated, and he then gave an account of what the surgeons were doing as viewed from above. The following study may be of interest (http://rt.com/news/195056-life-after-death-study/ ) One can take this however one likes, but it is certainly weird.

What I told Claire arises from my interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is significantly different from most others’. First, some background. (If you have no interest in physics, you can skip this and go to the last three paragraphs.) If you fire particles such as electrons one at a time through a screen with two slits, each electron will give a point reading on a detector screen, but if you do this for long enough, the points give the pattern of wave diffraction. This is known as wave-particle duality, and at the quantum level, an experiment either gives properties of a particle or those consistent with a wave, depending on how you do it. So, how is that explained? Either there is a wave guiding the particles or there is not. Most physicists argue there is not and the electrons just happen to give that distribution. You ask, why? They tend to say, “Shut up and compute!” Einstein did not agree, and said, “God does not play dice.” What we know is that computations based on a wave equation give remarkably good agreement with observation, but nobody can find evidence for the wave. All we detect are the particles, but of course that is what the detectors are set up to detect. It is generally agreed that the formalism that enables calculations is sufficient. For me, that is not sufficient, and I think there must be something causing this behaviour. Suppose you cannot see ducks but you here a lot of quacking, why do you assume the quacks are just the consequence of your listening, and there are no ducks? There is a minority who believe there is a wave, and the pilot wave concept was formed by de Broglie.

Modern physics states the wave function is complex. In general, this is true, but from Euler’s theory of complex numbers, once (or twice) a period (which is defined as the time from one crest, say, to the next) the wave becomes momentarily real. My first premise is
The physics of the system are determined only when the wave becomes real.
From this, the stability of atoms, the Uncertainty Principle and the Exclusion Principle follow. Not that that is of importance here, other than to note that this interpretation does manage to do what standard theory effectively has as premises. My next premise is
The wave causes the wave behaviour.
At first sight, this seems obvious, but recall that modern quantum theory does not assert this. Now, if so, it follows that the wave front must travel at the same velocity as the particle; if it did not, how could it affect the particle? But if it travels at the same velocity, the energy of the system must be twice the kinetic energy of the particle. This simply asserts that the wave transmits energy. Actually, every other wave in physics transmits energy, except for the textbook quantal matter wave, which transmits nothing, it does not exist, but it defines probabilities. (As an aside, since energy is proportional to mass, in general this interpretation does not conflict with standard quantum mechanics.) For this discussion, the most important consequence is that both particle and wave must maintain the same energy. The wave sets the particle energy because the wave is deterministic, which means that once the wave is defined, it is defined for every future with known conditions. The particle, however, suffers random motion and has to be guided by the wave in my theory.

Now, what is consciousness? Strictly speaking, we do not know exactly, but examination of brains that are conscious appear to show considerable ordered electrical activity. But if electrical activity is occurring, that is the expenditure of energy. (The brain uses a remarkably high fraction of the body’s energy.) But since the movement of electrons is quantum controlled, then the corresponding energy must be found in an associated set of waves. Moreover, it is the associated wave that is causal, and it alone can overcome the randomness that may arise through the uncertainty of position of any particle. The wave guides the particle! Another important feature of these Guidance Waves is they are linear, which means they are completely separable. This is a general property of waves, and is not an ad hoc addition. It therefore follows that when we are conscious and living “here”, there is a matrix of waves with corresponding energy “there”.

Accordingly, if this Guidance Wave interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, then the condition for life after death is very simple: death occurs because the body cannot supply the energy required to match the Guidance Waves that are organizing consciousness, and the random motion of particles in the brain, due to heat, overpower the order that bodily consciousness requires. The body now is no longer conscious, and hence is dead, and useful brain activity ceases. But if at the point where the brain can no longer provide its energy contribution for consciousness, the energy within the Guidance Wave can dissociate itself from the body and maintain itself “there”, and recall that the principle of linearity is that other waves do not affect it, then that wave package can continue, and since it represents the consciousness of a person, that consciousness continues. What happens next depends on the conditions applicable “there”, and for that we have no observations.

Is the Guidance Wave interpretation correct? As far as I am aware, there is no observation that would falsify my alternative interpretation of quantum mechanics, while my Guidance Wave theory does make two experimental predictions that contradict standard quantum mechanics. It also greatly simplifies the calculation of some chemical bond properties. However, even if it is correct, that does not mean there is life after death, but at least in my interpretation of quantum mechanics it is permitted. That thought comforted Claire in her last days, and if it comforts anyone else, this post is worth it.