The Scientific Method and the Little Teapot

 An ancient shepherd looks at the nighttime sky and wonders how the stars got up there. He wonders why they shift their positions as the year passes and why some burn white, some yellow, and some blue.

Using his intuition, he posits answers to these questions. When other men ask him what he thinks, he tells them his ideas.

Generations come and go and the shepherd’s ideas about the stars are repeated and repeated, usually with some minor modifications that suit the teller and in some way make the answers seem more plausible.

And they are received as plausible. Eventually, in fact, they are regarded as likely facts.

Over time, these likely facts become common knowledge. And with another hundred or a thousand similarly refined “likely facts” they become the common knowledge of the common culture. They become the common sense that allows people to understand their lives.

If a stranger wanders into town with an entirely different body of “common knowledge” he is seen as a madman or a troublemaker or a fool. If he’s thought to be mad, he’s relegated to the quadrants of the wandering mad. If he’s thought to be a troublemaker he’s run out of town or tarred and feathered or burned at the stake. If he’s thought to be a fool, he’s kept around for everyone’s amusement.

This is crude – but it’s how I believe most of the commonly accepted “truths” about our world and how it operates came into existence: they were born of limited observation, sparked into conjecture by wonder and turned into theories and then facts and then plain old common sense by the proliferation of their tellings.

This method of discover truth, I’m sure you would agree, leaves much to be desired. It feeds the imagination and can spark all sorts of impressive human inventions, but it is not a reliable method for ascertaining truth.

There is a better method – what we call the scientific method. It’s just as simple as this false method but it is more likely to lead us to facts. The scientific method goes like this:

We observe a phenomenon, wondering if there’s a natural law that governs it. Using our intuition, we posit a guess. We compute the consequences of that guess to see what it would mean in terms of predictable actions. Then we compare the results of those computations to nature using experiments or experience. If they jibe, we accept our guess as a scientific law. If they don’t, we reject it.

In trying to understand the nature and essence of being, this is the method we should use whenever possible. At the same time, we must be careful to avoid what Bertrand Russell called “intolerable propositions.”

Russell, one of the founders of analytic philosophy, came up with a clever analogy to illustrate the limits of logic – and to explain why you can’t have a meaningful conversation about anything if you begin with a presumption that is unacceptable in terms of human reason. Here it is…

Russell’s Teapot

 A man gets up in front of an audience of scientists and announces that there is a china teapot about an inch in size orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars.

The scientists are astonished. “How could that be?” they say. “How could it have been launched into space? How could it have survived the journey?”

“I don’t know,” the man answers, “but I do know that it is out there.”

A member of the audience stands and introduces himself. He is head of a research group that has access to the world’s most sophisticated telescope. “We have looked into this orbital area about which you are speaking,” he says. “I can assure you that we have detected no such teapot.”

“Well,” the man answers, “that tells me only one thing. The telescope you have is not powerful enough to detect this little teapot.”

“Not true,” the scientist answers. “Our telescope has the power to detect objects as small as a tenth of an inch.”

“Obviously then, I have made a mistake,” the man replies. “The teapot must be smaller than a tenth of an inch.”

However ridiculous this analogy may seem, here’s the point: The man’s presumption that there is a teapot in space cannot be disproved by the scientific method.

No matter what evidence science might bring to prove that no such teapot exists, the man’s blind faith will always produce a logic-proof refutation: in this case, that the teapot is obviously smaller than he thought it was. Some logicians call this “moving the goalposts.”

Thus, logic and the scientific method can help greatly in our search for truth – but they cannot disprove a proposition that is, as Russell called it, “intolerable.”

The theory of absolute motion – that there is such a thing as motion that can be measured and will always be the same however it is measured – is such an intolerable proposition.

Galileo, in claiming that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around, understood this. He recognized that the only thing we can say with certainty about the movement of any object – the earth, the sun, a ship at sea… anything – is that it is moving or stationary relative to something else.

(You could say that was really the first theory of relativity, hundreds of years before Einstein.)

In recent years, mathematics has become the preferred method for proving or disproving theories about the world around us. In his beautifully titled 1960 essay The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics, Eugene Wigner noted that the laws of nature (phenomena that repeat themselves reliably) are best understood and described by mathematics.

That may be true for mathematicians. But it is not true for the rest of the human population. For them some combination of logic and science and experience has to work in harmony. And given Russell’s tea pot problem, you can see why.

In this book we are going to use every tool we have at our disposal to describe a Theory of Life that is neither entirely scientific, mathematical, logical nor is it always common sense. It is a bit of this and a bit of that and our hope is that by including what science and math we understand as well as history and philosophy we remember with our own personal observations and wonderings and conjecturing.

And we will do all to bring to you as cogently and clearly as we can, a story (or perhaps better yet, a metaphor) for life – chiefly the life I have lived and hopefully the lives you have lived yourselves.