There is a great similarity between small and distant.
Once, in a dream, I was standing in a completely dark space while a bright ball was hovering in front of me. At some point I noticed how the ball was beginning to shrink, but I couldn’t tell if it was getting smaller or moving away. Confused, I woke up.
Today, many years later, I still cannot tell. And who knows, perhaps the ball stayed unchanged, while it was I who was getting bigger or moving away.
Here, in this short text, I will try to explore the possibility to define a position that is moving away from science, placing itself outside of it, but at the same time still reflecting it, still remembering science. If it is possible to define such a position, then it would have the properties of meta-science (the way it has been defined in the recent writings by Walter Benjamin). Not exactly like meta-physics in the Aristotelian sense, which is a position next to (after) or beyond (books on) physics. In the case of meta-science, it is not only on the outside of science, but it also remembers/reflects science, and furthermore its constitutive notions could not be the same as those of science. While the primary subject matter of science is nature, the primary subject matter of meta-science would be science itself. In some way this relationship might resemble, let’s say, the story of early Christianity according to which the primary subject matter of Jesus was God, while the primary subject matter of Paul and the evangelists was Jesus. As if Paul was looking at God indirectly, through the eyes of Jesus.
If it is possible to establish such a position that would be meta in relation to science, then this position should not only be outside of science, but the constitutive notions of this meta-position should also be different, and according to Benjamin, even opposite (antithesis) of what are the constitutive notions of science.
First, we should identify the constitutive notions of science:
Causality – an interpretation of an event that is based on a cause-consequence relationship. It is an explanation of a certain natural phenomena by some other natural phenomena, with the complete exclusion of any kind of super-natural (divine) notion (explanation). The earliest recorded case of causality was introduced by Thales of Miletus (620-546BCE).
Experiment – a staged event that demonstrates the (in)correctness of a certain proposition (hypothesis) under a controlled set of procedures that could be repeated. As a method, for the first time introduced by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in his observations of falling bodies.
Scientist – both the observer and the interpreter of what is being observed. As the active role was introduced by Galileo, and most of the natural scientists have played a similar role since then. However, the importance of the observer, not only as a witness, but as an active component of what is being observed, was indirectly introduced perhaps for the first time by Nicolas Copernicus in his interpretation of the Solar system by moving the referential point (observer) from the Earth to the Sun. This was dislocation of the observer through space. A few centuries later Albert Einstein relativized the position of the observer through space and time. Then Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg introduced the observer as an active (not neutral) part of the observation process. According to the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle the very act of observing could change what is being observed.
History of Science → just like any other history, according to Benjamin, it is a story based on chronology and uniqueness of its characters, artifacts and events, that traces the development of a certain scientific discipline, its methods, instruments and results, or the scientific thought in general.
What constitutes an experiment?
a) the goal of the experiment → to measure the time two bodies need to fall from the same height relative to their mass.
b) the method/procedure → to let two bodies with different mass fall from the same height simultaneously.
c) the technique (apparatus) → two bodies with different mass, the Earth, the Tower of Pisa, and two hands holding and releasing two bodies.
d) the measurement/observation → releasing two bodies so that they start falling at the same time and registering the moment they reach the earth.
e) the result → two bodies with different mass dropped from the same height felt on the ground at the same time.
f) the conclusion/interpretation → any two bodies, regardless of their mass, released from the same height at the same time will reach earth at the same time (excluding air resistance).
Or, in the recent case of the Higgs boson:
a) the goal of experiment → to find the Higgs boson, to prove its existence
b) the method/procedure → accelerating a large number of particles to extremely high energies, very close to the speed of light and allowing them to smash together, hopefully producing a particle with the properties of the Higgs boson. c) the technique/apparatus → the Large Hadron Collider, protons and lead ions(lead nuclei)
d) the measurement/observation → a large number of protons and lead nuclei accelerated close to the speed of light smashing together, and looking for signs of Higgs boson.
e) the result → an occasional appearance of a particle that has the anticipated properties of the Higgs boson was detected.
f) the conclusion/interpretation → proof of the existence of a particle that has the properties of the Higgs boson theoretically described and anticipated a few decades earlier.
It is interesting to notice that both described experiments, the earliest one we know about (Galileo) and the latest technological spectacle (Higgs boson) involve collisions of moving bodies. In the case of Galileo, between two falling balls and the Earth, while in the case of the Higgs boson, between groups of protons and lead nuclei. The difference is in the orders of magnitude between the sizes of the objects, and the speed/energy involved.
It seems that at this point there is no reasonable position to be found that would be meta in relation to the scientific experiment as described above. However, there is a possibility that at some point, under the proper circumstances, it might be possible to define a position(or procedure) that has the properties of a meta-experiment. This would probably involve multiple non-trivial observers, or observes observing the observes that are conducting the experiment. Another candidate for a meta-experiment would be a “thought-experiment”, that doesn’t need to be conducted in a laboratory. Like the well-known Einstein’s “train-and-platform” thought experiment, that includes two observers, in two different positions/states, observing the same event. This of course implicitly includes a third observer – us, observing both observers in the experiment simultaneously.
Of course, science doesn’t consist only of experiments; they are primarily producing data (information, facts) that should be interpreted following, first of all, the causality principle. It is well known that often the same fact could be subject of different, even opposite interpretations arriving to very different conclusions. The Sun-Earth relationship could be interpreted as the Sun rotates around the Earth, as it is perceived from the Earth every day, or that it is the Earth that rotates around the Sun, an opinion that is widely accepted today. In fact, both statements are correct, it is just a matter of the position of the referential observer. For that matter, a single person on Earth could be treated as a fixed/referential point, and even walking could be interpreted as pushing the entire Earth in the opposite direction. What we perceive as walking would become a movement/rotation of the Earth beneath the fixed observer, together with the entire Solar system, the Milky Way… In fact, the entire Universe would move around this observer. The smaller the fixed observer is, the less energy it needs to move the Universe around itself.
It might be more meaningful to think about possible definition of meta-science in terms of observations and interpretations of the results of experiments. Scientific thought and scientific method in explaining natural phenomena are perhaps the main achievements of the Enlightenment. It removed God as the only and ultimate explanation of the Universe. However, because of all its achievements (in spite of a certain dose of naiveté), science gradually assumed the monopolistic position in explaining the world. The belief that we are observing the world and examining it directly, without looking into the properties of the observer itself, was perhaps the main omission of science and the Enlightenment. The monopolistic position of religion in interpreting the world was substituted with another one, the monopolistic position of science.
The fundamental principle in interpreting the scientific results is causality, which is a time-based relationship between the cause and an effect. First comes the cause and then the effect. Perhaps one version of meta-causality could be defined as a reverse process, in which the effect comes first and the cause after, as if what was previously an effect is now the cause of the cause. This order of events could be illustrated with a film being played in reverse. Even in that case we, as outside observers, should have an experience and memory of the event recorded on the film sequence in the right direction in order to recognize when it is being played in reverse.
Another definition of meta-causality would perhaps allow the introduction of an unknown cause to “explain” some known phenomena, without unknown ever becoming known.
Or, it could be a position outside of a cause-effect relationship that itself is not based on causality, but somehow reflects the causality principle.
As mentioned before, perhaps the most interesting and productive could be a concept of the meta -observer, an observer who is not observing the phenomenon/event X directly, but who is observing other observers observing X. In this case those primary observers should be non-trivial, meaning that each observer would give us as many different picture/interpretation of X as possible. These observers should differ in size, or in time unit, sometimes by the orders of magnitude. How would Galileo’s experiment look like to an ant-size observer on one of the falling balls, or the Higgs boson experiment to a tiny observer flying on one of the protons inside the Hadron Collider? How would the uncertainty principle stand if we could find a much smaller particle than the photon (if such a particle exists at all) to throw it on a moving electron? We could assume that in this case the movement of the electron would remain unchanged and we would be able to measure both, its position and the momentum – like in the case of photons falling on a moving baseball. On the other hand, it seems that the uncertainty principle could apply even in the macro-world, if we, instead of photons, threw bullets on the moving baseball in a dark room.
It is in fact the smallest particle we could find to use as an observing medium/vehicle that will determine our observational limits. Today it seems to be the photon.
We could try to imagine an observer that is 103 light years large, or another that is the size of an electron. The world would look very differently to these two observers. In a way, this resembles the well-known story about Gulliver travels. But in this case Gulliver, as an observer, does not change size, it is the world around him that does.
To observe a certain phenomenon it is necessary to define various non-trivial and relevant primary observers. Trivial observers are those that will give almost the same picture of the observed phenomenon, like a set of observers that could see only the visible light spectrum. It would be sufficient to have only on of them. But if there is an observer that could see infrared light, that would be a non-trivial case. A relevant observer is one that corresponds to the observed phenomenon. If we are observing light, then a relevant observer is one that can register electromagnetic waves. An observer that can not do that is an irrelevant observer for that phenomenon.
The more relevant and non-trivial primary observers we are able to find for observing a certain phenomenon, the more we will learn about it. In a way, it is an asymptotic process in which we could get as close to the “real nature” the observed phenomenon as possible.
However, we will never be able to learn everything about it, regardless how many non-trivial primary observers we could find or define. There will always remain a part of any observed phenomenon that could never be observed.
It will be also necessary to define the basic medium/vehicle through which an observer interacts with its environment/world. In the case of a human observer those are phenomena registered by the five senses. Beyond the Earth’s atmosphere these are predominantly electromagnetic waves registered through the eyes and skin. In some way telescopes and microscopes are extensions of the eye, or some kind of simple pseudo-observers, but they could also become a foundation for constructing more complex, more sophisticated primary observers. Clearly, the primary observer could be human or machine, while the secondary observer, one that brings together and interprets the primary observer’s results, is the meta-observer and, it seems, has to be human.
A meta-scientist would be most likely some kind of anonymous or a collective entity, opposite to the scientists as distinct individuals and main characters in the history of science. It might correspond to the secondary observer, one who doesn’t observe the phenomena as such, but its reflections/ interpretations through the “eyes” of the primary observers.
Finally, perhaps the last aspect of meta-science would be meta-history of science. This would be some kind of story that remembers/reflects history of science, but it is not based on notions of chronology and uniqueness. It could have a form of a tale or a myth, but could have a timeless web-like structure.
Reading this text I wonder if it presents convincing arguments for a position we could call meta-science. However, the way we see and interpret the world(and us) today, the present paradigm, is not going to last for long, and the new paradigm will emerge. It could completely forget the existing one, and we would have a new story that has nothing to do with the present one. Everything we know today will have to be re-invented and re-discovered. Like in the case of some major global cataclysm. Another option is to have/develop a very different story than we have now, a story based on new sets
of principles, but one that remembers the present paradigm. In that case we would keep most of the knowledge we have today, but it would be radically re-interpreted. That would be a meta-paradigm in relation to the existing one, and it would most likely get its own name, like the previous ones: Christianity and Enlightenment. According to Benjamin’s interpretation, from the meta-paradigm position we would be able to look at the Enlightenment and through it, indirectly, at Christianity as well. From the same position we could also approach Christianity directly, independently from the Enlightenment, but without necessarily being within the religious raum. And together with all other segments of the present paradigm, science will undergo a fundamental change and probably transform into something that will most likely have the characteristics of meta-science. At the same time parts of science will continue to exist as a practice still producing useful results, although based on its “primary observer point of view” approach.
One evening I was standing in front of the Notre Dame looking at the long line of visitors waiting to enter the church. At some point my eyes turned up toward the countless stars above me. Then a thought crossed my mind: only a few centuries ago, people standing at the same spot would look up and see a crystal sphere sprinkled with thousands of candles. Perhaps one evening, a few centuries from now while standing at the same place, someone would look up at the same sky and think how people once believed they were looking at the endless universe filled with billions of stars and galaxies, not knowing that it is in fact also a micro-world, just seen from the “other side”.