When a Fervent Debate Meets a Meticulous Experiment Measurement –
Will the Sparks Fly?
Artificial Intelligence is emerging as one of today’s most dominant technological fields. It begins to impact many aspects of our lives with increasingly greater magnitude. At the same time its development brings together a number of 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 new sciences’ collaboration landscape, author proposes a new angle to a familiar question: How do we discover the truth?
There appears to be at least two, at first sight, diametrically different methods of research and inquiry: scientific method and debate or argument (discussion and rational argument).
In our understanding of the physical world around us natural sciences hold a central place. They are generally related to physics and laws of motion. Using scientific method many questions in engineering, architecture, and physics can be answered by solving relevant Partial Differential Equations (PDEs). The initial and boundary conditions for these equations are the gates for creative input of an engineer, scientist, or an architect. Nikola Tesla and his invention of AC electric motor, Wright Brother’s and their wing airfoil, or Zaha Hadid’s architectural masterpieces are just a few examples for this.
Proofs that scientific method actually works are continuous discoveries in medicine and successful developments in disciplines such as organic and inorganic chemistry, biochemical engineering, nanotechnology, pharmacology, just to name a few.
We can say that the method of inquiry is scientific if it follows one or more of several definitions of the scientific method, for example, by the following sources:
“Scientific method – 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” – from 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 hypothesis” – from Oxford Online Dictionaries.
“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.” – from Wikipedia.
Now, where humanities and social sciences stand in relation to these definitions?
Some would argue that art is not scientific, that philosophy, jurisprudence, politics or other social sciences are not real sciences, but rather pseudo-sciences, because they are not put on the firm foundation of mathematical formulae established from precisely structured, rigorous mathematical proofs or quantitatively explained by all-reaching physics laws using above defined scientific methods.
I want to explore another possibility and show that humanities and social, so called pseudo-sciences, including, for example, psychology, behavioural sciences, jurisprudence are based on the scientific method as well, even when the debate and argument are the part of the inquiry.
Most probably the main reason why there is this difference in views, and what might be a misunderstanding, is the confusion related to what is the focus of inquiry and what is the inquiry method itself. When people say “scientific inquiry” they mostly think of the domain of natural sciences, and how to explain the world around us through the classical and quantum physics and quantitative laws of motion. But, science is more a method of thinking than the domain of exploration. In case of natural sciences and mathematics, these two are too often put together; they are considered as an undivided unified whole, and whatever is outside that whole is non-scientific.
Hence, it might be futile to try to explain the social related phenomena with, or reduce to, physics’ laws of motion, even when these laws are called universal. For social sciences the subject and focus of inquiry and research is our human experience, what matters to us, what we value, as opposed to the inquiry about the motion of a physical object, be it a quantum particle or stone rolling down the hill. Furthermore, if we talk about inquiry about human behaviour, physics laws uniformly support all kinds of human behaviour, good or bad, morally right or wrong. It is in our minds where our human nature determines what is right and what is wrong – and not by analysing space trajectory of some physical object. 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 what is moral and what is not, what is ethical and what is not. So, there is a common ground in these matters, despite the perceived subjectivity. The Newton’s laws are not describing these things and are not relevant at all here. The other kinds of laws, our human experience laws, 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 subject matter that differentiate them from mathematics and physics laws. The fundamental reasoning and logic are the same.
Physics laws are closely linked to mathematics, and mathematics is quite specific how it obtains the truth and how to interpret events in our world. However, human action can have only one interpretation by the mathematical laws of physics, but can have hundreds of interpretations and meanings in the realm of 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 our human experience related issues is not necessarily the quantitative oriented inquiry we use to solve mathematical problems. Moreover, mathematics is only one direction of thought, and should not be considered as the fundamental basis for all other reasoning directions.
But, one may further ask, in mathematics everything appears to be so precise – proofs are rock solid, truth is undisputable. Or, physics laws are proven to be true, therefore they are not up for debate or argument like, for instance, the establishment of guilt and punishment in a courtroom, where lawyers argue, during trials, what truth is and what is not. Or other research results in social sciences, based on “questionable” (by natural scientists) behavioural experiments and statistical methods. Hence, one may think that social laws and, for example, whole judiciary system, are based on subjective truth which can change any time, which is “fluid,” and therefore the “truth discovery mechanism” is not scientific.
However, let’s contrast this with the method of proving mathematical theorems.
Sometimes it takes years to prove a theorem in mathematics. There is no formula to tell what will be the starting, winning point for your proof! This first premise, or first set of premises, with which you start your proof, 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, at the end, we should strive to have a rigorous approach). As per the American mathematician Reuben Hersh, intuition plays a very important role in mathematical proofs. In accordance to him, creativity should be exercised before a rigorous approach takes place. Reuben Hersh emphasised that if we were so rigorous about mathematics we would never launch a rocket to the moon, because we will be tied up in long and tedious mathematical proofs.
The 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! However, instead of debating, it’s often called informed guessing, experimenting, or in more fancy terms, postulating, making hypothesis, or making conjectures.
The most prominent debates are the debates that emerge around issues that matter to us. While we can debate anything, only the issues that are pressing, that are urgent, are usually the desired subject of a debate. We often tend to choose “hot” issues impacting society right now- legalizing marijuana, LGBTQ community rights, religious rights, health, education, environment, military budgets, etc. Compare this with mathematics where any direction of thought and research can be chosen. There might be a practical usage of the obtained mathematical results where they can impact technology which in turn impacts society within a shorter period of time, but, also, there can be a body of mathematical work that does not see practical usage for years, decades, or even longer. Yet that mathematical research is conducted. We can note that mathematics and physics are not always about pressing matters.
Here is one example where debates connect with mathematics. For instance, one can say two plus two is four, no matter how we feel, no matter how much we argue, and it is not up for debate. That is true, but why did you choose 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 usually cannot resolve the questions that enter this debate!
In any debate or argument, the postulates, 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 social sciences, are perceived to have “fluid” scientific approach. But, the goodness of inquiry method should not be judged only by an absolute, “rigid” list and predetermined sequence of steps in discovering truth from one class of disciplines, like natural sciences. A method should be called scientific when it is the best logical method that can be applied under given circumstances. Because of that, debate and argument appears to be the best approaches in humanities and social sciences, for example in philosophy, politics and jurisprudence.
In a trial we cannot project thoughts and memories of a defendant or a witness onto the screen on the wall in order to get the absolute truth about actions and events in question. Instead, in a trial, we have arguments – opening and closing statements by prosecution and defence; witnesses will be called to testify under oath and evidence will be presented along the way. Witnesses are cross-examined by prosecution and defence to determine their “credibility” and the truth and to show the jury certain points of view. Evidence can be, ”clear and 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 accuracy and repeatability of a physics experiment! Yet, the trial process is the best that can be done under the given 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 with. Although not immediately noticeable, still, the trial process, itself, contains strong elements of logic. The premises are outlined along the trial, and the proofs are constructed as best as possible, in due course. This resembles methods used for mathematical proofs. Because of human nature and enormous complexities coming from human behaviour, the verdict in a trial cannot be obtained by some simple quantitative formula. The guilt cannot be measured by a digital ruler or with some electrodes attached to the brain or using a fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging); 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 and not in a laboratory using a tape measure, laser, and voltage meters.
As physics laws can change with new research and science can advance in new directions, the trial court decisions can be overturned by appellate court. The opinion of the appellate judge will be compared with the opinion of the trial judge. While this comparison is not usually of quantitative nature, nevertheless the comparison is based on other merits and applicable 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 natural sciences, like physics, to social sciences, and say, human behaviour, and with concepts that exist in our mind only, as oppose to physical objects around us? Yes! There is, in fact, a link between Partial Differential Equations (PDEs) and human behaviour. At the biochemical level, when we make a decision, or when genesis of a premise takes place, we specify initial and boundary conditions for PDEs that govern the electro-chemical processes in our neural system, causing neurons to fire signals to each other, causing neuron’s ion channels to open and close, and neurotransmitters to flow in synapses that initiate receptors actions, which in turn result in our consequent actions: spoken word or a 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 moral, ethics, law, aesthetics, things that matter take over.
This might answer the question why is jurisprudence 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 results of chosen PDEs’ initial and boundary condition that result in these human actions. Despite this courtrooms are not about proving some physics law. They are there to prove what initial conditions were chosen and postulated, for those partial differential equations by individuals, reflected through their actions. However, instead of talking about neuroscience and directly about these initial conditions in quantum physics, lawyers talk about motivation and intent because the only realm we can see is human action taken and its consequences.
Hence, trial meets quantum physics at the moment lawyers start to argue the defendant’s motivation and intent – which kind of initial conditions for his brain’s biochemical reactions he or she chooses. And this is not directly measurable. It is reflected in the defendant’s actions. If this can be directly measurable we would not need trial, lawyers, and 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 a crime relates to physics laws and to a scientific method?
When someone commits a crime, the crime certainly occurred in accordance to physics laws 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 to strict laws of thermodynamics. The bullet flew through the air in accordance to the laws of aerodynamics, and in accordance to the relevant partial differential equation that governs the bullet flight.
Then, when does an action, that happened in accordance to physics 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.” Webster-Merriam Dictionary.
“..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.” – Dictionary.com
The concepts like offence, law, negligence, morals, crime, guilt, innocence, justice, punishment exist in our minds and not in the physical objects around us, for which the physics 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 physics law explains a physical action, like pulling a trigger, it cannot answer the question of whether the action was right or wrong. These physics 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, weighing the scale, when the physics (that metaphorically represents objectivity) are rarely consulted in trials (except perhaps when an expert witness testifies), and jurors base their decisions, not with their eyes closed, but, among other things, based on actively observing, not only the facts, but the emotional and behavioural reactions of defendants, demeanour of lawyers and witnesses, thus allowing, consciously or unconsciously, their deliberation and verdict to be influenced by these.
Scientific methods that exist as part of natural sciences, have a strong presence in the inquiries in social sciences and humanities 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 different domain and use the same logic to continue research. This is, for instance, the core approach to multidisciplinary projects that brings together natural sciences, humanities, engineering, and social sciences – like Artificial Intelligence, and many others.