Artificial intelligence (AI) is emerging as one of today’s most dominant technological fields that is beginning to impact many aspects of our lives with ever greater magnitude. At the same time, it is bringing together diverse disciplines previously isolated from each other by their methods of inquiry and the domains of research, for instance, humanities and physics or engineering.
In light of these exciting changes in the scientific landscape, this author proposes a new angle to a familiar question: How do we discover the truth?
From biophysics to a philosophical argument, this investigation reveals unexpected bridges along the human path to understanding. For example, when does the motion of atomic particles on the biochemical level in our neurons become a thought, and when does that thought become an inquiry? Why do we have to, sometimes, debate and at other times measure and experiment in order to uncover the truth?
The writer also explores the nature of the (often frictional) contact between the humanities, social sciences and physics (or mathematics), and asks why these fields have become so interdependent in many of today’s multidisciplinary endeavours—one of which is artificial intelligence.
Keywords: philosophy of science, artificial intelligence, knowledge, philosophy, philosophical inquiry
At first sight, there appears to be at least two diametrically opposite methods of research and inquiry: the scientific method, on the one hand, and debate or argument (discussion and rational argument) on the other.
In our understanding of the physical world around us, the natural sciences hold a central place. They are generally related to physics and the laws of motion. Using the scientific method, many questions in engineering, architecture and physics can be answered by solving the relevant partial differential equations (PDEs). The initial and boundary conditions for these equations are the gateways for the creative input of an engineer, scientist or architect. Nikola Tesla’s invention of the AC electric motor, the Wright Brothers’ wing airfoil, and Zaha Hadid’s architectural masterpieces are just a few examples of this.
It is in our minds that our human nature determines what is right and what is wrong, not by analyzing the trajectory of some physical object in space.
Proof that the scientific method actually works are the continuous discoveries in medicine and successful developments in disciplines such as organic and inorganic chemistry, biochemical engineering, nanotechnology and pharmacology, just to name a few.
We can say that the method of inquiry is scientific if it accords with one or more of the following definitions of “scientific method”, for example:
Principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses—Merriam-Webster Dictionary
A method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses
A body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry is commonly based on empirical or measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.
Now, where do the humanities and social sciences stand in relation to these definitions?
Some would argue that they are not scientific—that philosophy, jurisprudence, politics or other social sciences are not real sciences, but rather pseudo-sciences—because they are not based on the firm foundation of mathematical formulae established from precisely structured, rigorous mathematical proofs or quantitatively explained by the natural laws of physics using the above-defined scientific method.
I want to explore another possibility and show that the humanities and the social so-called pseudo-sciences such as psychology, the behavioural sciences and jurisprudence are based on the scientific method as well, even when debate and argument are part of the inquiry.
Most probably the main reason why there is this difference in views—and what might be considered a misunderstanding—is the confusion regarding what is the focus of inquiry and the method of inquiry itself. To most people, the term “scientific inquiry” relates to the natural world and how to explain it through classical and quantum physics and the quantitative laws of motion. But science is more a way of thinking than a domain of exploration. In the case of the natural sciences and mathematics, for example, these two domains are too often put together as an undivided whole, and whatever is outside that whole is unscientific.
Hence, it might be futile to try to explain social phenomena in relation to (or reduced to) the physical laws of motion, even when these laws are universal. In the social sciences, the subject and focus of inquiry is our human experience, what matters to us, what we value, as opposed to an inquiry about the motion of a physical object, be it a quantum particle or a stone rolling down a hill. Furthermore, when we talk about inquiry into human behavior, the physical laws uniformly support all kinds of human behavior, good or bad, morally right or wrong. It is in our minds that our human nature determines what is right and what is wrong, not by analyzing the trajectory of some physical object in space. Since these are the concepts that reside only in our minds, they might be called subjective and hence “truth elusive”, but we, as humans, often manage to overcome this perceived subjectivity and agree on certain things, no matter how difficult it can be. For instance, we try (and often succeed) to agree on what is moral and what is not; what is ethical and what is not. So, there is common ground in these matters despite the perceived subjectivity. Newton’s laws do not describe these things and are not relevant at all here. It is the other kinds of laws—the laws of our human experience—that are in question.
Although these laws appear to be so different than, say, mathematics and physics, they are strongly based on logic. It is the kind of premises and the scope of the subject matter that differentiate them from the laws of mathematics and physics: the fundamental reasoning and logic are the same.
The laws of physics are closely linked to mathematics, and mathematics is quite specific as to how it obtains the truth and how to interpret events in our world. Human actions can also have only one interpretation according to the mathematical laws of physics, but they can have hundreds of interpretations and meanings in the realm of the humanities and social sciences, and in our human experience. The truth, in these cases, can be obtained by different methods, some of which are debate and argument.
The kind of inquiry we use to solve issues related to our human experience is not necessarily the quantitative type of inquiry we use to solve mathematical problems—and neither is mathematics the only direction of rational thought, nor should it be considered the fundamental basis for all other reasoning.
But, one may ask, in mathematics everything appears to be so precise: proofs are rock solid, truth is undisputable. Therefore, since physical laws are proven to be true, they are not up for debate or argument in the same way that the establishment of guilt and punishment in a courtroom is up for debate, for instance, when lawyers argue what is true and what it is not. Similarly, in the view of natural scientists, other research results in social sciences are based on “questionable” behavioural experiments and statistical methods. Hence, one may think that social laws (and even the whole judiciary system) are based on subjective truth, which is fluid, and can change any time, and therefore that this type of “truth discovery mechanism” is not scientific.
Let us now contrast this with the method used to prove mathematical theorems. Sometimes it takes years to prove a theorem. For a start, there is no formula to tell what will be the starting, winning point for your proof—this first premise, or set of premises, is up for debate! Moreover, these initial premises can come not only from a debate or argument, but also from intuition, from trial and error, from previous experience, even from dreams, where our unconscious mind helps us to answer the pressing questions! Many science authors today agree that mathematics is more fluid than we think and that intuition and creativity are often more important than the rigour (although, in the end, we should strive to have a rigorous approach). According to the American mathematician Reuben Hersh, intuition plays a very important role in mathematical proofs, and creativity should be exercised before a rigorous approach can take place. As an example, he said that if we were so rigorous about mathematics we would never have launched a rocket to the moon because we would be tied up in long and tedious mathematical proofs.
There might be practical uses for mathematical discoveries that influence technology, which in turn may affect society within a short period of time, but also, there can be a body of mathematical work that has no practical use for years or decades, or even longer.
Debate and argument are present in engineering as well. How would we otherwise name the step of choosing initial and boundary conditions for partial differential equations? That’s open to debate too! Instead of debating, though, here it’s often called informed guessing, experimenting, or in more fancy terms, postulating, forming hypotheses, or making conjectures.
The most prominent debates are those that emerge around issues that matter to us. While we can debate anything, generally only issues that are pressing or urgent are the chosen topics for debate. We often tend to choose hot issues that are impacting society right now, such as legalizing marijuana, LGBTQ rights, religious rights, health, education, the environment, military budgets, etc. Compare this with mathematics where any direction of thought and research can be chosen. There might be practical uses for mathematical discoveries that influence technology, which in turn may affect society within a short period of time, but also, there can be a body of mathematical work that has no practical use for years or decades, or even longer. Yet that mathematical research is conducted. We should note that mathematics and physics are not always about pressing matters.
Here is one example where debates connect with mathematics. For instance, we can say “two plus two is four” and, no matter how we feel, no matter how much we argue, it is not up for debate. That is true, but why number two? The selection of that starting number may not come from the mathematical world at all. It can be a product of a debate and argument! And what would you do with number four? If you counted apples, would you give four apples to a person who was hungrier, or less hungry? Would you give them to a mom with two children or to a mom with four children? What is the right thing to do? What is the moral and ethical thing to do? Newton’s laws and mathematical theorems can’t help here! Quantification cannot usually resolve the questions that enter this debate!
In any debate or argument, the postulates, or assumptions, are created on the fly; premises are outlined dynamically in the course of the debate, and the logical consequences of such assumptions—their truthfulness—are determined through discussion. (The participants in a debate might agree with what is true and false to start with, and that will help the clarity and accuracy of their arguments.) This appears to be the most effective way available, under the given circumstances, to determine the truth.
Despite this, debating and arguing (especially in the social sciences) are perceived to be fluid and not scientific. But the goodness or otherwise of an inquiry method should not be judged only on the basis of an absolute, rigid list and predetermined sequence of steps that may be used to discover the truth in one class of disciplines, such as the natural sciences. A method should be called scientific when it is the best logical method that can be applied under any given circumstances. Consequently, debate and argument appear to be the best approach in some disciplines in the humanities and social sciences (e.g., philosophy or politics or jurisprudence).
In a trial, we cannot project the thoughts and memories of a defendant or witness onto a screen on the wall in order to get the absolute truth about the actions and events in question. Instead, we have arguments: opening and closing statements by the prosecution and the defence are made; witnesses will be called to testify under oath, and evidence will be presented along the way. Witnesses are cross-examined to determine their credibility and the “truth”, and to show the jury certain points of view. Evidence can be convincing or not, explanations and interpretations of actions are consistent or inconsistent with some view. Compare this with the targeted rigour of a mathematical proof or the accuracy and repeatability of a physics experiment! Yet, the trial process is the best in the circumstances because of the complexity of human nature and human behaviour. This is the most rigorous approach we can devise, and the strictest logic we can come up with. Although it may not be immediately apparent, the trial process contains strong elements of logic. The premises are outlined during the trial and proofs are constructed as best as possible, in due course. This process resembles the method used for mathematical proofs. Because of human nature and the enormous complexities arising from human behaviour, the verdict in a trial cannot be obtained by applying some simple quantitative formula. Guilt cannot be measured by a digital ruler or by electrodes attached to the brain, as in an fMRI; it has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt, which is the best possible measure under the circumstances. Guilt, justice, punishment exist in our minds, and not in physical objects or nature around us, and it is in our minds where these issues are resolved, not in a laboratory using a tape measure, laser or voltage meters.
Just as the laws of physics can change with new research, and science can move in new directions, so trial court decisions can be overturned by an appellate court. The opinion of the appellate judge will be compared to the opinion of the trial judge. While this comparison is not usually of a quantitative nature, nevertheless the comparison is based on other merits and the application of logic, thus advancing the law in general and delivering the best possible form of justice under the circumstances.
Given these differences in the methods of inquiry, and the domains of inquiry, is there a way to connect the natural sciences (say, physics) to the social sciences and (say) human behaviour and with concepts that exist in our mind only, as opposed to the physical objects around us? Yes! There is, in fact, a link between PDEs and human behaviour. At the biochemical level, when we make a decision (or when the genesis of a premise occurs), we specify the initial and boundary conditions for PDEs that govern the electrochemical processes in our neural system. This triggers neurons to fire, the neurons’ ion channels to open and close, and neurotransmitters to flow through synapses that initiate receptor actions, which in turn results in our consequent actions: spoken words or physical behaviour. At that moment of action, we exit the world of physics and enter the realm of human experience—the realm of what we value, what matters to us; and this experience exists only in our mind. In this realm, our innate sense for morality, ethics, law, aesthetics—things that matter—take over.
This might answer the question why jurisprudence is necessary: because of the mentioned chain of events, where bridging between quantum physics and human behaviour happens, we need lawyers and courtrooms to deal with the consequences of our chosen PDEs’ initial and boundary conditions that result in these human actions. Despite this, courtrooms are not about proving some physical law. They are there to prove what initial conditions were chosen and postulated, for those partial differential equations by individuals, reflected in their actions. However, instead of talking about neuroscience and specifically about these initial conditions in quantum physics, lawyers talk about motivation and intent because the only realm we can see is the human action taken and its consequences.
While the laws of physics can explain a physical action such as pulling a trigger, they cannot answer the question of whether the action was right or wrong.
Hence, a trial meets quantum physics the moment lawyers start to argue about the defendant’s motivation and intent—that is, which initial condition for his brain’s biochemical reactions he or she chooses. This is not directly measurable but is reflected in the defendant’s actions. If it were directly measurable, we would not need a trial, lawyers and a jury. Because of that, counsels need to prove to the jury or to the judge beyond reasonable doubt that events happened in a certain way, driven by a certain motivation and intent. The measure here is “beyond a reasonable doubt” and not a reading from some digital scale. This is all done through argument.
How is a crime related to the laws of physics and the scientific method?
When someone commits a crime, the crime certainly occurred in accordance to the laws of physics that have been discovered by scientific method. The gun trigger was pulled in accordance to Newton’s law of action and reaction. The combustion inside the cartridge occurred in accordance with strict laws of thermodynamics. The bullet flew through the air in accordance with the laws of aerodynamics and in accordance with the relevant partial differential equation that governs the bullet’s flight.
Then, when does an action, which happened in accordance with physical laws, become a crime?
Here are some definitions of crime:
An action or omission that constitutes an offence that may be prosecuted by the state and is punishable by law.
An action or an instance of negligence that is deemed injurious to the public welfare or morals or to the interests of the state and that is legally prohibited.
Concepts like offence, law, negligence, morality, crime, guilt, innocence, justice, punishment exist in our minds and not in the physical objects around us, to which the physical laws apply. Again, all these concepts come from our human experience. The same physical action may be a crime under one set of circumstances, but not under another; or a physical action may not be a crime at all. As I mentioned, an action has only one interpretation under the laws of physics, but many more interpretations and meanings in the realm of social sciences, here specifically jurisprudence. While the laws of physics can explain a physical action such as pulling a trigger, they cannot answer the question of whether the action was right or wrong. These laws will support any action, indiscriminately, be it right or wrong! It’s up to us humans to use our minds to determine whether an action was a crime or not; was it right or wrong?
While the judicial system ideally should determine the truth, it deserves some criticism. As John Grisham wrote in his thriller The Racketeer:
The trial was a spectacle, a farce, a ridiculous way to search for the truth. But, as I learned, the truth was not important. Perhaps in another era, a trial was an exercise in the presentation of facts, the search for truth, and the finding of justice. Now a trial is a contest in which one side will win and the other side will lose. Each side expects the other side to bend the rules or to cheat, so neither side plays fair. The truth is lost in the melee.
It is ironic that outside each courtroom there is a statue of a woman with closed eyes, holding the scales of justice, while in the courtroom itself physical laws that metaphorically represent objectivity are rarely consulted (except perhaps when an expert witness testifies), and jurors base their decisions, not with their eyes closed but (among other things) by actively absorbing the facts, the emotional and behavioural reactions of the defendants, and the demeanour of lawyers and witnesses—so allowing (consciously or unconsciously) their deliberation and verdict to be influenced.
Scientific methods that exist as part of the natural sciences have a strong presence in their inquiries as well. Because the underlying logic is the same while only domains of inquiry differ (for instance physics vs. jurisprudence), you don’t need mathematics, as many educators would claim, to learn correct and powerful ways of reasoning. You can study law and still solve a problem in physics. Using the universal logic you discovered in one knowledge domain, you can choose a different domain and use the same logic to continue your research. This is the core approach to multidisciplinary projects that brings together the natural sciences, humanities, engineering and social sciences; Artificial Intelligence is one such example, and there are many others.