The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World (5 page)

BOOK: The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World
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In general, when theories are easily variable in the sense I have described, experimental testing is almost useless for correcting their errors. I call such theories
bad explanations.
Being proved wrong by experiment, and changing the theories to other bad explanations, does not get their holders one jot closer to the truth.

Because explanation plays this central role in science, and because testability is of little use in the case of bad explanations, I myself prefer to call myths, superstitions and similar theories
un
scientific even when they make testable predictions. But it does not matter what terminology you use, so long as it does not lead you to conclude that there is something worthwhile about the Persephone myth, or the prophet’s apocalyptic theory or the gambler’s delusion, just because is it testable. Nor is a person capable of making progress merely by virtue of being willing to drop a theory when it is refuted: one must also be seeking a better explanation of the relevant phenomena. That is the scientific frame of mind.

As the physicist Richard Feynman said, ‘Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves.’ By adopting easily variable explanations, the gambler and prophet are ensuring that they will be able to continue fooling themselves no matter what happens. Just as thoroughly as if they had adopted untestable theories, they are insulating themselves from facing evidence that they are mistaken about what is really there in the physical world.

The quest for good explanations is, I believe, the basic regulating principle not only of science, but of the Enlightenment generally. It is the feature that distinguishes those approaches to knowledge from all others, and it implies all those other conditions for scientific progress I have discussed: It trivially implies that prediction alone is insufficient.
Somewhat less trivially, it leads to the rejection of authority, because if we adopt a theory on authority, that means that we would also have accepted a range of different theories on authority. And hence it also implies the need for a tradition of criticism. It also implies a methodological rule – a
criterion for reality
– namely that we should conclude that a particular thing is real if and only if it figures in our best explanation of something.

Although the pioneers of the Enlightenment and of the scientific revolution did not put it this way, seeking good explanations was (and remains) the spirit of the age. This is how they began to think. It is what they began to do, systematically for the first time. It is what made that momentous difference to the rate of progress of all kinds.

Long before the Enlightenment, there were individuals who sought good explanations. Indeed, my discussion here suggests that all progress then, as now, was due to such people. But in most ages they lacked contact with a tradition of criticism in which others could carry on their ideas, and so created little that left any trace for us to detect. We do know of sporadic traditions of good-explanation-seeking in narrowly defined fields, such as geometry, and even short-lived traditions of criticism – mini-enlightenments – which were tragically snuffed out, as I shall describe in
Chapter 9
. But the sea change in the values and patterns of thinking of a whole community of thinkers, which brought about a sustained and accelerating creation of knowledge, happened only once in history, with
the
Enlightenment and its scientific revolution. An entire political, moral, economic and intellectual culture – roughly what is now called ‘the West’ – grew around the values entailed by the quest for good explanations, such as tolerance of dissent, openness to change, distrust of dogmatism and authority, and the aspiration to progress both by individuals and for the culture as a whole. And the progress made by that multifaceted culture, in turn, promoted those values – though, as I shall explain in
Chapter 15
, they are nowhere close to being fully implemented.

Now consider the true explanation of seasons. It is that the Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted relative to the plane of its orbit around the sun. Hence for half of each year the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun while the southern hemisphere is tilted away, and for the other half it is the other way around. Whenever the sun’s rays are
falling vertically in one hemisphere (thus providing more heat per unit area of the surface) they are falling obliquely in the other (thus providing less).

The true explanation of seasons (not to scale!)

That is a good explanation – hard to vary, because all its details play a functional role. For instance, we know – and can test independently of our experience of seasons – that surfaces tilted away from radiant heat are heated less than when they are facing it, and that a spinning sphere in space points in a constant direction. And we can explain why, in terms of theories of geometry, heat and mechanics. Also, the same tilt appears in our explanation of where the sun appears relative to the horizon at different times of year. In the Persephone myth, in contrast, the coldness of the world is caused by Demeter’s sadness – but people do not generally cool their surroundings when they are sad, and we have no way of knowing that Demeter
is
sad, or that she ever cools the world, other than the onset of winter itself. One could not substitute the moon for the sun in the axis-tilt story, because the position of the moon in the sky does not repeat itself once a year, and because the sun’s rays heating the Earth are integral to the explanation. Nor could one easily incorporate any stories about how the sun god feels about all this, because if the true explanation of winter is in the geometry of the Earth–sun motion, then how anyone feels about it is irrelevant, and if there were some flaw in that explanation, then no story about how anyone felt would put it right.

The axis-tilt theory also predicts that the seasons will be out of phase in the two hemispheres. So if they had been found to be in phase, the
theory would have been refuted, just as, in the event, the Persephone and Freyr myths were refuted by the opposite observation. But the difference is, if the axis-tilt theory had been refuted, its defenders would have had nowhere to go. No easily implemented change could make tilted axes cause the same seasons all over the planet. Fundamentally new ideas would have been needed. That is what makes good explanations essential to science: it is only when a theory is a good explanation – hard to vary – that it even matters whether it is testable. Bad explanations are equally useless whether they are testable or not.

Most accounts of the differences between myth and science make too much of the issue of testability – as if the ancient Greeks’ great mistake was that they did not send expeditions to the southern hemisphere to observe the seasons. But in fact they could never have guessed that such an expedition might provide evidence about seasons unless they had already guessed that seasons would be out of phase in the two hemispheres – and if that guess was hard to vary, which it could have been only if it had been part of a good explanation. If their guess was
easy
to vary, they might just as well have saved themselves the boat fare, stayed at home, and tested the easily testable theory that winter can be staved off by yodelling.

So long as they had no better explanation than the Persephone myth, there should have been no need for testing. Had they been seeking good explanations, they would immediately have tried to improve upon the myth, without testing it. That is what we do today. We do not test every testable theory, but only the few that we find are good explanations. Science would be impossible if it were not for the fact that the overwhelming majority of false theories can be rejected out of hand without any experiment, simply for being bad explanations.

Good explanations are often strikingly simple or elegant – as I shall discuss in
Chapter 14
. Also, a common way in which an explanation can be bad is by containing superfluous features or arbitrariness, and sometimes removing those yields a good explanation. This has given rise to a misconception known as ‘Occam’s razor’ (named after the fourteenth-century philosopher William of Occam, but dating back to antiquity), namely that one should always seek the ‘simplest explanation’. One statement of it is ‘Do not multiply assumptions beyond necessity.’ However, there are plenty of very simple explanations that
are nevertheless easily variable (such as ‘Demeter did it’). And, while assumptions ‘beyond necessity’ make a theory bad by definition, there have been many mistaken ideas of what is ‘necessary’ in a theory. Instrumentalism, for instance, considers explanation itself unnecessary, and so do many other bad philosophies of science, as I shall discuss in
Chapter 12
.

When a formerly good explanation has been falsified by new observations, it is no longer a good explanation, because the problem has expanded to include those observations. Thus the standard scientific methodology of dropping theories when refuted by experiment is implied by the requirement for good explanations. The best explanations are the ones that are most constrained by existing knowledge – including other good explanations as well as other knowledge of the phenomena to be explained. That is why testable explanations that have passed stringent tests become extremely good explanations, which is in turn why the maxim of testability promotes the growth of knowledge in science.

Conjectures are the products of creative imagination. But the problem with imagination is that it can create fiction much more easily than truth. As I have suggested, historically, virtually all human attempts to explain experience in terms of a wider reality have indeed been fiction, in the form of myths, dogma and mistaken common sense – and the rule of testability is an insufficient check on such mistakes. But the quest for good explanations does the job: inventing falsehoods is easy, and therefore they are easy to vary once found; discovering good explanations is hard, but the harder they are to find, the harder they are to vary once found. The ideal that explanatory science strives for is nicely described by the quotation from Wheeler with which I began this chapter: ‘Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, that when we grasp it – in a decade, a century, or a millennium – we will all say to each other,
how could it have been otherwise?
[
my italics
].’ Now we shall see how this explanation-based conception of science answers the question that I asked above: how do we know so much about
unfamiliar
aspects of reality?

Put yourself in the place of an ancient astronomer thinking about the axis-tilt explanation of seasons. For the sake of simplicity, let us assume that you have also adopted the heliocentric theory. So you
might be, say, Aristarchus of Samos, who gave the earliest known arguments for the heliocentric theory in the third century
BCE
.

Although you know that the Earth is a sphere, you possess no evidence about any location on Earth south of Ethiopia or north of the Shetland Islands. You do not know that there is an Atlantic or a Pacific ocean; to you, the known world consists of Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia, and the coastal waters nearby. Nevertheless, from the axis-tilt theory of seasons, you can make predictions about the weather in the literally unheard-of places beyond your known world. Some of these predictions are mundane and could be mistaken for induction: you predict that due east or west, however far you travel, you will experience seasons at about the same time of year (though the timings of sunrise and sunset will gradually shift with longitude). But you will also make some counter-intuitive predictions: if you travel only a little further north than the Shetlands, you will reach a frozen region where each day and each night last six months; if you travel further south than Ethiopia, you will first reach a place where there are no seasons, and then, still further south, you will reach a place where there are seasons, but they are perfectly out of phase with those everywhere in your known world. You have never travelled more than a few hundred kilometres from your home island in the Mediterranean. You have never experienced any seasons other than Mediterranean ones. You have never read, nor heard tell, of seasons that were out of phase with the ones you have experienced. But you know about them.

What if you’d rather not know? You may not like these predictions. Your friends and colleagues may ridicule them.
You may try to modify the explanation
so that it will not make them, without spoiling its agreement with observations and with other ideas for which you have no good alternatives. You will fail. That is what a good explanation will do for you: it makes it harder for you to fool yourself.

For instance, it may occur to you to modify your theory as follows: ‘In the known world, the seasons happen at the times of year predicted by the axis-tilt theory; everywhere else on Earth, they
also
happen at those times of year.’ This theory correctly predicts all evidence known to you. And it is just as testable as your real theory. But now, in order to deny what the axis-tilt theory predicts in the faraway places, you have had to deny what it says about reality, everywhere. The modified
theory is no longer an explanation of seasons, just a (purported) rule of thumb. So denying that the original explanation describes the true cause of seasons in the places about which you have no evidence has forced you to deny that it describes the true cause even on your home island.

BOOK: The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World
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