science and mystery


In this written series, we will be exploring the worlds of the scientist and the mystic, and challenging the assumption that they are mutually exclusive.  Because of the nature of this terrain, the style of language is very different to that used elsewhere in the site.

The articles are being published in blog format, with the most recent at the top.  However, the material will make most sense if read in order, oldest first.

science and mystery Archive

frame of reference

Stuff in the manifest world exists within the three dimensions of space.  Often the stuff is moving around, which means that its spatial location is changing in time.  The three dimensions of space and the dimension of time together constitute the space-time continuum.  This space-time is not, itself, stuff in the same sense as the manifest stuff that exists within it.  Rather, it is a frame of reference.

Usually a frame of reference is an unchanging domain, delineated with a regular metric of some sort.  The unchanging nature of the frame of reference gives it an absolute quality, at least for the purposes of describing whatever is going on within the domain.  Psychologically and philosophically, it is convenient that the frame of reference has this feeling of being absolute.  It allows us to accept it without having to refer to something else, even grander.  The absolute frame of reference provides a bedrock.  Another way of putting this is that stuff within the frame of reference does not alter the frame of reference.

For a long time, it was assumed that space and time were unchanging and therefore carried this absolute quality.  Then came Einstein.  His special and general theories of relativity, as the names suggest, declared that space-time is not independent of the stuff within space-time.  In other words, the frame of reference is relative, not absolute.  Stuff, specifically mass, changes the ‘shape’ of space-time.  As stuff is moving around, the shape of space changes over time.  Even more mind-boggling than that, time is also being stretched in the same way.  (One of the beautiful features of the general theory of relativity is that time is not distinguishable, mathematically, from the three dimensions of space.)

It seems that the human mind struggles with relativity.  We want there to be a bedrock.  Living in a relativistic universe is like discovering that your house is built on quicksand.  There is no foundation.  Nevertheless, all the science is indicating that we do live in a relative frame of reference.

If the theory of relativity is too much to grasp, perhaps an easier example is the theory of plate tectonics.  This states that the surface of the Earth is comprised of a set of plates which move around.  If I am standing on a particular plate then I could use a local frame of reference which applies over the area of that plate.  Within this frame of reference, I might seem to be standing still.  However, to an observer on another plate, who is also standing still within her local frame of reference, I will appear to be moving.  (Of course, this movement happens rather slowly by our human standards, so for practical purposes we can usually ignore it.)

Like space-time, the plate tectonic example is another case where people had previously assumed things (the layout of the continents) to be unchanging.  It seems that the thinking mind has a built in bias towards seeing things as static.  We want things to be unchanging.  It’s challenging enough when things within our frame of reference change.  The fact that our frames of reference are also changeable is more than most of us can come to terms with!

So far we’ve looked at rather physical frames of reference.  However, there are other sorts of frames of reference such as social ones.  All the rules of the society within which we find ourself constitute a frame of reference.  Such a frame is meant to apply to all the people within the society.  As long as everybody plays by the same rules, social life has a chance of flowing harmoniously.  The trouble comes when someone steps outside that frame of reference and lives by different rules.  The usual resolution of such a situation is to put the person in a cage.

Even more trouble happens at the boundaries where one social frame of reference butts up against another.  Typically this happens at the boundary of a nation state.  Just as the boundaries of tectonic plates are where earthquakes, subduction and volcanoes happen, the boundaries of nation states are where humans tend to club together to kill each other en masse.

One way of understanding spirituality is to see it as a search for the absolute.  It might be that this search is no more than another manifestation of that longing for things to be unchanging.  Certainly the mainstream scientific understanding at the moment is that there is no absolute.  And within the rules of science, that seems to be the case.  However, for the spiritual enquiry, we need not be bound by the rules of science.

So, let’s step into the slightly more poetic language needed to hint at deeper spiritual truths.  Gautam Buddha realized that everything is changeable and that nothing is permanent.  Buddhist teachings also emphasize the interconnectedness of all that is.  These realizations lead to a very relativistic understanding of life, when one is considering a part of it, such as oneself as a human being.  However. something curious happens when we accept that everything is changeable and relative.  The whole – everything – when viewed as a single, indivisible process, begins to have the feel of the absolute.  The indivisibility that is implied by the word relativity is a key characteristic of the absolute.  So, when things are completely relative, including the grandest frame of reference itself, the absolute is revealed.

Apart from stuff though, spirituality leads us to the absolute in another form: the formless.  The unmanifest lies completely outwith the scope of science.  As human beings we can touch the space of this source when, for a moment at least, our minds become still and silent.  In such a state of meditation, the unbounded space of empty, impersonal consciousness is all that is present.  Having experienced such a state, if experience is an applicable word, one feels that one has tasted something absolute.  This source of all that is becomes something like a frame of reference within which the dance of life is playing out.


From earlier articles, it is probably evident that a mystic regards everything as interconnected.  In this article we will explore this perspective further.

Quite often, the mind divides something in the world into a pair of polar opposites, such as day and night, male and female, light and dark, higher and lower, true and false, passive and active, good and bad.  This is the dualistic perspective.  It is generalized in the Taoist tradition with the yin-yang pair.  By dividing existence in two in many different ways, the dualistic view is sufficient for us to perceive the whole multiplicity of things.

In quantum physics, the term duality is used to refer to the (much more mysterious) fact that the fundamental bits of the manifest world behave as both particles and waves simultaneously.  There are some other beautiful examples of duality in quantum theory, for example matter and anti-matter, or pairs of entangled particles having complementary spin.

In common experience, the dualistic way of seeing things includes some important distinctions regarding oneself.  Firstly, there is a duality of me and you, or more generally, me and not-me.  This allows one to feel separate and regard oneself as having free will.

Another significant dualistic pair is mind and body, or consciousness and matter.  This is a particularly challenging duality for science and one worthy of a separate article at a later date.

In the field of spirituality the most significant dualities relate to the ground of being.  The source of all that is – God – can be viewed as separate to everything manifest – the creation.  This source, the ground of being, is then also regarded as separate from oneself.

The Hindu teachings of Vedanta include an assertion of advaita, meaning non-duality.  Specifically, this states that oneself (atman) is not actually separate from the ground of being (brahman).

Vedanta is not the only tradition to assert non-duality.  In general, spirituality can be regarded as a journey during which we transcend dualities.  Ultimately, there is a longing to be reunited with God, to no longer feel oneself as separate from the ground of being.

The understanding of the mystic is that all these dualities are creations of the thinking mind, superimposed on a non-dualistic reality.  And in a moment of truth, this is not only a mental understanding but also a felt reality.


In an earlier article, more on symbolic knowledge, we noted that the meaning of symbols (such as words) is usually determined with reference to other symbols.  Without such reference, a symbol is essentially meaningless.  This is reminiscent of ideas of emptiness and non-self in Buddhist understanding.  I am not a Buddhist scholar but I won’t let that stop me presenting my thoughts on such terms…

When considering symbolic knowledge, we can take emptiness to mean exactly what has already been highlighted: that a symbol in and of itself is empty of meaning, is meaningless.  Its meaning is in how it relates to other symbols.  However, of course, the same can be said for those other symbols.  So, in one sense, each individual symbol is meaningless.

The amazing thing is that, although in isolation every symbol is empty of meaning, it does not follow that the whole collection of knowledge is empty.  There is meaning given by the network of relationships between the symbols.  When taken holistically, there is meaning in the whole collection of knowledge.  It is when we try to isolate a part that the meaning disappears.

For a mystic, the concept of emptiness does not just apply to the meaning of symbols but also to things in the ‘real world’, manifest things.  We have to be very careful when thinking or writing about this because we use symbols (words) for communicating and thinking about the manifest world.  A disciplined mind is needed to maintain the awareness of the difference between the words and the manifest world.

So, for a mystic, the actual existence of something in the manifest world is also empty, in the same sense as the meaning of a symbol is empty.  In other words, the existence of anything is totally interdependent on the existence of everything else that is manifest in the moment.

One way to approach thinking about this is to consider obvious material interdependencies.  For example, a tree is dependent upon sunlight for photosynthesis, and carbon dioxide in the air, and water, and nutrients in the soil, and certain microorganisms around its roots, and gravity, and a certain range of temperature, and a lack of particular toxins and predatory organisms, and, and, and…

However, such material interdependencies, though important, do not quite capture the mystic’s feel for the emptiness of things.  This feeling is more in the moment and more totally holistic.  So, for example, the existence of the coffee cup on the table in front of me, in this moment, is totally entwined with the existence of a leaf on a distant tree, also in this moment; as well as everything else in existence in this moment.  (Incidentally, we know that we are in difficult terrain when I resort to drinking an espresso!)

To use a scientific analogy for this mystical emptiness, imagine the whole universe to contain only particles which are in a state of quantum entanglement with each other.  Instead of the usual pairs of particles, imagine each particle to be entangled with every other particle.  That gives something of the feel for the level of emptiness that a mystic perceives in the world.

Hopefully from the comments so far, it is clear that emptiness is not a nihilistic state of affairs.  It is a holistic perspective.  We could equally well have used the word ‘fullness’.  One thing exists because everything else exists.

For a mystic, this view does not just apply to coffee cups and leaves.  It applies to everything, including you and me.  The individual human being is also empty.  We have the attribute of non-self, just like everything else.  This leads to the feeling-understanding of non-separation.  When put into words, this feeling is stated as “I don’t exist” or “there is no I” or “I am all that is” or even “I am God.”  Language fails us at this point.

why do things change

This is the third of the fundamental questions which science is not really suited to answer – why do things change?

Science often concerns itself with the ways in which things change.  In other words, science looks for patterns in time.  That does not really answer the more fundamental question of why things change at all.  As with the spatial distribution of stuff, a static universe where nothing moves or changes would seem much more likely than the reality that we find ourselves a part of, where everything is changing all the time.

Indeed, for time to have any meaning at all, there must be change.  (Similarly, space has no significance without the non-uniform distribution of stuff discussed in the previous article.)  This muddies the picture even further: there is a link between the stuff in space and the structure of space itself, and there is a similar link between things moving or changing and the meaning of time.

Relativity theory has taken this topic into mind-boggling terrain.  Not only is there no absolute space, with space itself flexing depending on the distribution of mass within it, there is also no absolute time.  Time distorts in the same way as space.  Indeed, in the maths of relativity, there is no difference between time and each of the three dimensions of space.

The differentiation of time from space seems to be tied up with our consciousness in some peculiar way.  We have a very strong intuitive sense of time passing and having a ‘direction’, ie. we have a completely different relationship with, or sense for, the future compared to how we relate to the past.  In science, though, our intuitive sense for things doesn’t count for anything.

There is one physical theory – the second law of thermodynamics – that seems to give time a special status.  This law states that entropy always increases.  Roughly speaking, this means that things are always tending to get more disorderly.  The significance with regard to time is that the law gives a way of distinguishing between time going forwards and time going backwards, that does not depend just on our intuitive sense of time.  It does, as expected, link time with change and it states that change is always in a certain ‘direction’.

So much for science.  How does a mystic understand time and change?

Recall that a mystic regards the subjective consciousness as the primary truth.  And our conscious experience is in the moment, now.  It is timeless.  We do, of course, have a strong sense of time because we have memory.  The recollection of memories, though, is always in the present moment.  So, strictly speaking, to a mystic, time is an illusion brought about by memory.

Apart from our normal understanding of the word ‘memory’, there is another aspect of our mind that gives us a sense of time flowing and that is thinking.  When we are thinking, there is a stream of words in our conscious experience.  That stream of words has a syntactic structure and the understanding of the words relies on us having awareness of more than a single word at a time.  It’s as if we have awareness of a few seconds of thought as directly as if it is all in a single moment.

If you have ever meditated and experienced a mind without thoughts, you will know that our sense of time is very tightly linked to thinking.  A moment without thoughts is a timeless moment.  That is the subjective feeling of it.  This leads to a strange phenomenon in organised meditations:  If one’s mind has been very quiet during the meditation, when the chimes sound to signal the end of the meditation, the perception is typically that one has only been sitting there for a few minutes, when in reality an hour has passed.

Apart from thinking, our perception of time is even more directly linked to conscious awareness itself.  When we are unconscious – for example in deep sleep – that period of time simply doesn’t exist for oneself.

Here we started out with a question about change and soon veered into the tightly related topic of time.  To come back to change, a mystic does not really think in terms of change.  Each moment is understood to be spontaneously arising in an acausal manner, without reference to past or future.  With such a perspective, the concept of change vanishes along with time.

why is stuff not uniformly distributed in space

In the previous article, we considered one fundamental question that science cannot answer.  Here we take a look at another.

When we look at the distribution of stuff – matter and energy – in the universe, we find that it is distributed non-uniformly.  This applies at the cosmic scale of clusters of galaxies, right down to the microscopic scale.  This is an odd situation to have arisen.  It seems much more likely that stuff would be exactly evenly distributed.

Once there is a tiny perturbation in the field, chaos theory allows for things to get really wild and diverse.  The question is, how or why did a tiny variation creep into the system?

From the moment of the big bang, as the universe expands, the scientific approach is looking for physical theories which apply across the whole of space.  (This requirement of spatial invariance was discussed in an earlier article.)  There can not be a theory which applies in a spatially invariant way and at the same time explains spatial variation coming into existence in a hitherto uniform field.  It is another fundamental question which is simply outside the scope of the scientific approach.

This is a deeply significant question because without spatial variation, the whole universe would be filled with a uniform soup of energy (and matter, if it is possible for mass to come into existence in a uniform field, which seems unlikely).  In such a uniform field, there could never be any structure: no galaxies, no stars, no planets, no lifeforms, no you, no me.  It would be a very uninteresting existence.

Once there is some perturbation in the universe, once some variation has come into existence, then science can explore how that evolves with time.  Like with the last question we considered, it’s the first step which is fundamentally problematic for science.

Once again, the mystic simply states that we will never be able to answer this question.  It is, and always will be, a mystery as to why stuff in the universe is not distributed uniformly.

why is there anything at all

In this and the following two articles, we will take a look at three fundamental questions which science cannot answer.  It is not that science hasn’t yet found an answer to these questions.  They are questions – important questions – which science has no way of answering.  They lie outwith the scope of science.

The first is this rather simple looking question:  Why is there anything at all?  It seems infinitely more likely that there would be nothing, no existence.  The fact that the universe exists at all is a complete mystery.

Science might be able to trace everything in the universe back to the big bang.  That still doesn’t answer the question of why (or how) all that energy was there in the first place.

To probe further into this dilemma, it is worth looking at what we mean by ‘why?’  A scientist tends to answer such a question by looking at what has caused the thing.  In other words, we can look back in time and see what has led up to the current situation.  An example of a question where this sort of answer would be appropriate is, ‘Why is the Earth’s climate changing?’

Another way of answering ‘why?’ questions is to look into the future and see how the current situation is likely to affect the future.  This sort of answer is most meaningful if there is some intention at play.  An example question is, ‘Why should we reduce emissions of carbon dioxide?’

Yet another type of answer is of a functional or relational flavour.  An example question is, ‘Why does a car have a gearbox?’

When answering existential type questions, a materialist can only really give the first type of reply, referring to the past causes.  However, there is no knowable time prior to the big bang.  That is why it cannot have been caused, or at least can never be shown to have a cause.  Science cannot answer the most fundamental question about existence.  This has led to the first cause interpretation of God, who is deemed to have created the energy of the universe, together with the fundamental laws of physics, and then left the whole thing to play out in a mechanistic way.

A theologian might well answer existential questions in one of the other ways, assuming some intention on the part of a creator god.  As has often been pointed out, this merely shifts the unanswerable questions from the universe to the god:  Why is there a god?

A mystic simply states things as they are:  Existence is a mystery.  We don’t know why anything at all exists.  We can never know why there is a universe.

more on symbolic knowledge

In an earlier article, we asked ‘what is knowledge?’  Here we shall explore the nature of knowledge further.

As previously discussed, knowledge is a symbolic model of something else.  To construct such a model, we need symbols.  In natural languages, these symbols are words, typically rather loosely defined.  In science, the symbols are technical terms which are, ideally, rigorously defined.  Either way, the definition of a symbol is a curious business.

One way to define what a symbol represents is to point to it in the real world.  If someone were to ask the meaning of the word ‘car’, I could point to a car and state, ‘This is a car.’  Note that to define the word rigorously by pointing, I would have to collect all the cars in existence (including past and future cars) and state that everything in this set is a car and nothing else is a car.  Of course that is impractical, and for natural languages, we make do with a few examples and assume that we are all going to extrapolate the full meaning in roughly the same way.  Science, on the other hand, demands rigour, so pointing at things is typically not of much use.

Apart from pointing at things, a symbol can be defined in terms of other symbols.  This leads to a rather odd characteristic of almost all symbols: a symbol cannot stand alone.  In itself, it is devoid of meaning.  It’s meaning is almost always in reference to other symbols, which in turn are meaningful only in relation to yet more symbols.  Let’s consider a few examples.

What is a car?  This question can actually be answered in different ways.  One way is to refer to a more general symbol: a car is a type of vehicle.  It would then be desirable to define what attributes distinguish a car from other vehicles: a car is a vehicle designed to transport a small number of people.  Sometimes a definition can be made in the opposite way, by enumerating sub-types, for example a vehicle might be defined as a car or a bus or a lorry or a motorbike…

So far, we’ve considered definitions with regard to sets of objects.  There are other sorts of definitions though.  One is structural: a car is comprised of a chassis and an engine and some wheels…  With such a definition, there also needs to be some definition of how the parts are connected to one another.  Another approach is a functional definition: A car is a machine designed to transport people along roads.

There are other flavours of definitions too.  One refers to the historic causes leading to the thing: an oak tree is a plant which has grown from an acorn.  The opposite of this is to state what is going to become of something: an acorn is a seed which, after germination, grows into an oak tree.

Regardless of the flavour, any definition of a symbol is relational.  The meaning of a symbol is determined by how it relates to the meaning of other symbols.  This inter-dependence of symbolic meaning has many ramifications.

One consequence of symbolic inter-dependence is that totally abstract languages and models can be constructed, that are formally disconnected from the material world.  Pure mathematics is the quintessential example of this.  This sort of abstraction is thinking at its best: honest thinking in its own domain, that doesn’t pretend to be a direct reflection of reality.

In an abstract model, truth is determined by whether a statement follows syntactic rules and can be proved to be consistent with other statements known to be true in the model.  The proofs themselves have to follow strict logic, which itself forms part of the model.  This type of system requires some foundation statements – axioms – which are not in themselves proven.  Everything else is derived logically from the axioms.  In mathematics, the need for axioms is accepted without any debate; it's obvious that some foundation is needed.  In the non-scientific arena, we also need foundation beliefs which are, in themselves, unproven.  Oddly, some scientists seem to think that this invalidates all knowledge derived from one’s core beliefs.  A more accurate view is simply to accept that the truth of knowledge is dependent on the truth of the core beliefs.  A mystic is someone who sees all this and simply accepts that no knowledge can be shown to be truthful in any strictly meaningful sense.  Everything is fundamentally unknowable.

A century or so ago, it was assumed that mathematics could be made formally complete.  It was believed that a mathematical system could be defined where everything was internally consistent and that any mathematical statement could, in principle at least, be proved to be either true or false.  This is the sort of rigour that a scientist is always striving for.  Unfortunately for rigour, Gödel proved that any formal system that is powerful enough to be of any use is, fundamentally, incomplete.  By incomplete, it is meant that it is always possible to construct a valid statement in a formal language which cannot by proved to be either true or false.  Even a formal system has paradox as a characteristic: there are statements which are both true and false at the same time.  Or they can be interpreted as neither true nor false.  Or it can be said that their truthfulness is undecidable.  In any case, we now know that it is not possible to construct a formal system that is logically complete in the way that had been previously been assumed.  Despite this, everyone (including scientists) continues to use maths because it’s practical and works as long as one steers clear of the paradoxes.  This practical approach is reminiscent of the acceptance of scientific theories that have singularities, discussed in a previous article.

I’ll leave it at that for this article, though the mind has that intangible feeling that there is more to be said on this topic…

the understanding of a mystic

In preceding articles, we’ve looked at the scientific approach to knowledge.  In this piece, we’ll outline the perspective of a mystic.

A mystic believes that life is fundamentally a mystery, that ultimately it cannot be understood through rational thinking.  Within this broad definition, there is a range of beliefs – various flavours of mystics.  Here we’ll look at some of these beliefs and flavours.

One flavour of mystic does not deny rational knowledge (including scientific knowledge).  However, all rational understanding is seen as a secondary phenomenon, only approximately modelling reality.  Such a mystic basically has the same world view as a scientist.  The only difference is that the mystic likes to spend a lot of time feeling the mystery of the moment, whereas a scientist likes to spend a lot of time finding and improving the models that describe the moment.  The difference is where the passion lies, rather than a difference of belief.

A stronger flavour of mystic, and one which is more at odds with the endeavours of science, claims that existence is fundamentally acausal.  In other words, this moment is seen as arising spontaneously, not dependent on what has gone before and not relevant to what will come next.  With this belief, the strong causality claimed by science is seen as something of a distraction with, at best, some sort of rough heuristic truth value.  This acausal belief leads the mystic to be even more focussed on the present moment.  Why bother thinking about the past or the future when the past is finished, no longer relevant even to this moment, and the future is yet to come, not determined by the present moment?  Basically, thinking about the past or the future is seen as missing the point.

This acausal view has some ramifications.  Not only does it lead to the mystic being focussed on the present moment, it also simplifies the moment considerably.  Our thought patterns are almost always dancing between the past (memories) and the future (predictions).  One could say that the whole purpose of thinking is to predict the future based on memories triggered by present sensations.  Dropping the obsession with making predictions, thinking is effectively redundant, and the conscious experience becomes focussed on direct perception of the senses in the moment.

Curiously, even if thinking in symbols (words) is not happening, there can still be an emotional response to the moment.  For example, whilst simply looking at a flower there can be a feeling of beauty and love.  All of this can happen without any thoughts as words.  The reason that a mystic is passionate about living moments in this way is that without the distraction of thoughts, these emotional responses are felt much more intensely.  There is a wonderful intimacy in looking at a flower with full awareness, yet without thoughts.  With such direct perception, our awareness is on the reality, or as close to it as our sense organs will allow, rather than on our model of reality.  And reality is somehow more juicy, more alive, than any model.

Although causality is one of the basic assumptions of science, there are situations in which even science has to admit that strict causality no longer applies.  One example of this is those quantum events which occur spontaneously, such as a pair of entangled particles coming into existence out of nothingness.  It is an acausal event, fundamentally unpredictable by scientific modelling, and yet science concedes that it happens.  So at least at the quantum scale, acausality is a reality for some events.

Bear in mind also that science asserts that everything is made out of fundamental particles, that quantum physics is the reality that underlies everything.  It follows that any acausal events at the quantum level introduce a degree of acausality at larger scales.  Another way of stating this is that all our knowledge of larger scale phenomena is, strictly speaking, statistical knowledge, rather than of a deterministic nature.

Another example where science must acknowledge an acausal event is where there is a singularity in time.  The big bang might be the only example of this.  However, given that science understands that everything that has happened in the universe has been a consequence of the big bang, there is a sense in which existence as a whole is acausal.

Returning to the mystic, another understanding is that deeper truths about reality can be encountered through direct conscious experience, without recourse to thoughts.  This is really why mystics meditate or practise other disciplines.  There is an understanding that there is a route to uncovering truth which does not involve making a mental model of things.  Such a mystical truth exists only in the moment it is being experienced.  Afterwards the mystic might try to put the truth into words but that is already a movement away from the truth.  For this reason, the words of mystics often have a very poetic feel to them.

One particular truth that the mystic might experience is the non-separation of all that is.  More specifically, it is possible to have the direct experience of no separation between oneself and whatever one is perceiving.  The apparent duality between the observer and the observed can disappear.

Once one has experienced for oneself the reality of non-duality, then the dualistic description of things is seen as a consequence of symbolic thought, rather than being a fundamental characteristic of reality.  In other words, reality is a continuous energy field and it is the use of symbols which necessitates an arbitrary dividing up of that continuous field.  Science (along with all other symbolic knowledge) can only exist with an imposed dualism.  The use of symbols creates the appearance of duality.

Although most scientists would probably take issue with the mystic’s assertion of non-duality, there are hints of it in science.  As mentioned in a previous article, the fact that making an observation affects the state of a quantum system means that the observer and the observed are not as cleanly separated as a scientist might like.  Another example, at the grander scale of things, is that the local warping of the space-time continuum is affected by all matter in the universe.  The warping of space-time in turn affects how things behave locally.  So, strictly speaking, all behaviour locally is dependent on everything that exists.  With such total inter-dependence, is it meaningful to think of things as separate?

Here we’ve looked at a few aspects of the world view of a mystic and made some comparisons with the scientific view.  In some later articles we will consider some questions which are problematic for science, where the perspective of the mystic seems to be undeniable.

what does science create

From the previous articles, we can see that what science creates is a model of the material world.

In practice, there are many models, each concerned with one aspect of the world around us.  In some cases, it is demonstrated that these models are compatible with one another and in other cases this is assumed to be the case without formal proof. Occasionally, a pair of the generally accepted models are known to be incompatible.  One example of this at present is the incompatibility between general relativity and quantum theories.

Incompatibilities between models, or other difficulties such as singularities, serve as a reminder that scientific theories are always a work in progress.  The standard model in quantum physics, for example, is understood to be the best model that we’ve come up with so far.  That is not to say that it is the last word in the matter.  In a sense, every scientific theory is of an interim nature, valid until a better model is found.

This is not a defect of the scientific method.  On the contrary, it is its main strength.  Scientific knowledge keeps getting better and better because of it.  Sometimes these improvements are incremental, when an existing model is adjusted to honour some observations that did not fit with the old version.  In other cases, a whole new theory comes into being which overturns completely the knowledge in that realm.  The two great twentieth century physics theories – relativity and quantum theory – are both in this category.

There is a sense in which a scientific theory is never strictly proven to be true.  A hypothesis can often be shown to be false: a single inconvenient observation is enough to do that.  As we cannot actually observe every particle in the universe, at every point of time, we can never be 100% certain that a scientific theory is true.  We can only say that it is extremely probable, if it accords with all known observations, when many observations have been made.

So, science is creating an ever-more-accurate set of models of the material world.  What it is not providing is an absolute truth.

implications of invariance

As mentioned in an earlier article, science is identifying patterns which are invariant in time and space.  This allows scientific assertions to be tested by different people at different times and places.  This requirement of invariance creates one limitation to the scientific method.

If a phenomenon is not invariant, it is not amenable to scientific description.  In other words, if something happens a particular way only once, or strictly randomly, or only in specific regions of space, the scientific method cannot be applied.

Some scientists believe that all phenomena are invariant, so the difficulty will not arise.  However, there is no particular reason why everything in the universe should behave consistently.  It is an unscientific belief that things are such.  Note that it might be the case that everything behaves consistently.  We just don’t know that.  And we can’t know that in a scientific sense.  It is an unprovable hypothesis, ie. a belief.

This highlights one of the difficulties of science.  Sooner or later, we always reach a point of belief – irrational belief.  A theist believes in god.  A scientist might believe that all phenomena are invariant.  They are both irrational beliefs.

When a scientific theory mostly holds true but is known to fail in a particular situation, that situation is labelled a singularity.  One example of a singularity is the centre of a black hole, where the mathematics of the general theory of relativity break down.  The theory seems to work everywhere else in the universe, so it’s quite useful, but it doesn’t apply in a black hole.  So, the fabric of space-time does not quite behave with invariance.  Some people simply gloss over this issue, whilst other scientists understand that the theory is therefore incorrect and will eventually be replaced with something better, just as relativity theory itself replaced Newton’s laws of motion.

A black hole is an example of a singularity in space. Scientists also know that there is at least one singularity in time, namely the moment of the big bang.  Physics describes things quite well from a time soon after the big bang; very soon indeed after the big bang.  At present, I believe that theory has got a handle on things from a time of about 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds after the bang.  Considering that was 13 or 14 billion years ago, most of time is covered, so again the theory is very useful.  Like in the case of black holes, though, it is known to break down in that first fraction of a second.  With further research, the theory might be developed to cover time even closer to the big bang.  However, it seems unavoidable that the actual moment of the big bang will always remain a singularity.

Quantum physics has raised some other challenges for the scientific method.  One is the uncertainty principle, which states that the position and momentum of a particle cannot both be determined precisely at the same moment.  This is a fundamental characteristic of the quantum world, rather than merely a restriction due to current technical capabilities.  To put it another way, physics has ascertained that there is a fundamental limit to how precisely we can know the state of things.

To complicate things further, in quantum physics a particle exists as a probabilistic wave function until it is observed.  At the moment of observation, the wave function collapses and the particle’s attributes become decided.  It is not that we are simply ignorant of the attributes until observation; rather, the particle actually exists in a probabilistic form, with all possible attributes, until the moment of observation.  This means that the act of observing phenomena is not passive; making the observation actively affects the state of things.  Strictly speaking, this means that no knowledge is purely objective, and yet objectivity is one of the foundations of the scientific method.

The behaviour of things at the quantum scale raises another significant difficulty regarding invariance:  Quantum events can occur at random times.  For example, an individual radioactive decay event occurs randomly, which means that it violates the requirement to be invariant in time.  As with the uncertainty principle, it is not that we are simply missing some measurement which would tell us when the event will happen.  Rather, the timing of the event is genuinely random and, fundamentally, cannot be predicted.  Quantum physicists handle this difficulty by resorting to statistics.  These random events collectively follow well defined probability distributions.  Again, this allows the theory to be very useful, even if there are some specific things it cannot (and will never be able to) predict.

So quantum theory has declared that some things are fundamentally unknowable.  Another word for things that are fundamentally unknowable is mystery.  A mystic is someone who believes that the whole of existence is fundamentally a mystery.  Given that the big bang is a fundamental singularity and that quantum physics underlies the whole of existence, it turns out that physicists are actually mystics!