Thursday, February 28, 2008

Control Over Experiments - Alchemy

Just to be clear about where we are right now (!), we are still in the introductory phase of this blog, discussing the second of three ways that "natural philosophy" - physics and by extension the other hard sciences - differ decisively from its progenitor, philosophy. The first difference was an emphasis on experimental verification. The second difference, which we are discussing now, is restriction of our attention to experiments which are repeatable at will (under our control), accompanied by standards for "scientific truth." The third difference we will discuss later is physics' emphasis on numbers. But before we get there we will spend some more time on difference number two, experimental control.

A few blogs ago I listed a number of deficiencies in arguments that have been used to wash physics' hands entirely of all responsibility for the abuses of power over people and nature which have arisen in modern times. On the other hand, physics and indeed all the sciences have an inherent value and must not be abandoned even though they contain certain built-in defects. The only way forward therefore is to get to know physics' defects better, which in my opinion have a lot to do with experimental control, and its close connection with power.

I will give some examples of what is suspicious about physics, with the goal of providing an intuition rather than providing a water tight argument. It is noteworthy that some of the first natural philosophers were alchemists, a type of magician dedicated to changing ordinary materials to gold. They were just like pirates except that they wanted even more power than pirates do - they wanted to shape reality itself, remake nature in their own image. They had no respect for nature, claiming that certain substances were "base" and others "noble." Perhaps the only thing different today is that we (secretly or not so secretly) feel that all atoms are "base", now completely in our power to understand, predict, isolate, mix, move, tweak, and rip apart, and therefore simply mere atoms.

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