Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Mysterious Black Box of Carl and Richard.


Imagine two friends, Carl and Richard, hiking together in the woods on a summer afternoon.  While stopping to rest on a tree stump, Carl happens to notice a peculiar object half-buried underneath some leaves and twigs nearby.  After clearing out the debris, the two boys are amazed when they discover a small, black, wooden box.  Intrigued by this discovery, they immediately begin to hypothesize over what the mysterious box contains.

“I’ll bet it’s treasure!” says Richard.  “No one would hide a box out here in the woods unless it contained something very valuable.”

But Carl disagrees.  “You are wrong,” he says.  “The box must contain the remains of someone’s pet.  Nobody buries treasure anymore.  It is just a little coffin.”

Yet Richard is un-moved.  “That makes no sense at all.  Who buries their pets out here in the middle of the woods?  No one, I say.”

Carl swiftly moves again to counter Richard.  “You’re just being stubborn.  Look around you.  It is obvious that the burial was intended to be in a natural environment.  Who wouldn’t want to bury their former pets in a place like this?”

However, Richard is insistent.  “Why are you arguing what you already know is wrong?  It is only stolen gold that makes any real sense.  The thieves obviously wanted to leave it slightly exposed so they could easily retrieve it later.  We just got lucky and found it first.”

Yet once again, Carl is quick to rebut.  “Use your reasoning,” he says.  “There are plenty of good hiding places for stolen treasure that would be far more accessible.  There is no logic in leaving it out here in the middle of the woods where random guys like us could stumble into it.  The odds are far too improbable.”

For hours, Carl and Richard continue in this cycle.  For every argument offered up by Carl about his dead pet theory, Richard forms a seemingly rational dismissal.  Then for every logical deduction offered by Richard that the box must contain treasure, Carl produces a well-reasoned retort. 

And all the while, the box itself remains unopened…

How many times have you witnessed an exchange that was similar to this?  From political debates to theological discussions, it is very common to find people engaging in dialogs that closely resemble the scene between Carl and Richard.  Yet no matter how confident either may be in their reasoning, it should be obvious that no amount of logical conjecture can ever derive the contents of the box.  The box might contain a deceased animal, or it might contain gold coins.  It might even contain both at once.  It might contain something entirely unforeseen or perhaps even nothing at all.  But when all is said and done, the ultimate arbiter of the box’s contents is the box itself.  So rather than spend hours arguing over what the box should logically, sensibly, or probably contain, a far more constructive endeavor is to simply open the box and inspect its contents directly.

Now let us consider a twist in the story of Carl and Richard.  Suppose instead that the box is locked, and neither one possesses the tools to pry it open.  Such a scenario is a very useful analogy for understanding human perceptions of nature.  For example, no one has ever truly seen an individual electron, and we cannot be absolutely certain that such things even exist, let alone of how they behave.  The entirety of quantum theory itself is, in fact, nothing more than a vast construct of human imagination.  It might be an accurate description of reality, or it might be dead wrong.  The realm of sub-atomic particles is so completely beyond our perspective that none of it can be observed in any direct fashion.  Consequently, no matter how hard we may try, some boxes can never be truly opened, and an absolute determination of reality is forever beyond our reach.

So what happens to the discussion now?  Given a locked box, are the boys forever doomed to pointlessly argue in ignorance about the true state of its contents?

Fortunately, the answer is no.  Even if we cannot directly observe the innards of the mysterious box, there are still other ways of determining its contents with a high degree of certainty. To see how, suppose that Richard were to pick up the box and shake it.   

In science, we call this act an “experiment.”  The goal of this action is to test the box for behavior that is consistent with a particular explanation.  If Richard is indeed correct about the buried treasure, then the expected sound should be that of hard metal objects clinking around inside.  If Carl is correct about the dead animal, then the expected sound should be that of a soft bag of bones sliding back and forth.

Once again, it is important to emphasize that the truth of the box’s contents is not a matter of logical debate or reasoned argument.  The final determinant of the box’s contents is still always the box itself.  The only difference is that now we cannot determine those contents with absolute certainty.  The very best we can hope to do is to indirectly infer the box’s contents by observing its behavior under targeted stimulus.


Now imagine that as Richard shakes the box, both boys indeed perceive the sound of clinking metallic objects.  What information is gained from this outcome?

First, it is important to emphasize that Richard is not necessarily correct about his buried treasure.  Just because the box emits clinking noises, there is no guarantee that the box actually contains gold coins.  For example, the box could just as easily contain something mundane like steel nuts and bolts.  Such contents would still emit a sound that is consistent with the buried treasure and yet be far removed from that explanation.  We can even demonstrate this physically by filling another box with those exact contents and then observing the reaction directly.  Nevertheless, such an outcome still tells us something very significant.  Because the reaction was inconsistent with the dead pet hypothesis, we can say, with absolute certainty, that Carl is wrong.

This thought problem illustrates two very fundamental aspects of proper scientific thinking.  The first is the idea that no theory or hypothesis can ever be positively proven to be true.  No matter how hard Richard may shake, smell, weigh, or otherwise probe the locked box, no set of positive results can ever conclusively demonstrate the reality of the treasure.  Without the ability to directly open the box itself, we simply cannot know for sure what the box actually contains.  Even if every experiment we ever run on the box were to perfectly coincide with our expectations, there will always exist the philosophical possibility of some other hidden object producing the same results.  All positive conclusions in science are therefore tentative at best.

The second concept to learn from our box scenario is crucial to scientific progress, though often overlooked when formulating ideas about reality.  Although we cannot know for sure what the box absolutely contains, we can say with absolute certainty what the box does NOT contain.  This concept has a name in science, and it is called “falsifiability.”  In order for an explanation to be considered scientific, there must exist some sort of test that has the potential to disprove its validity.  If the reaction coincides with our expectations, then the hypothesis is merely supported.  But if the reaction fails to meet our expectations, the hypothesis is immediately refuted.  No matter how much sense or logic a particular explanation may carry, the box itself is never wrong, and we would be wise to adjust our beliefs accordingly.

This concept of falsification is crucial to the process of generating knowledge in the real world.  Scientific theories are not held because they are “true” in any philosophical sense.  Rather, they are held because they are able to withstand a continuous barrage of attempts at falsification.  So even though the ultimate theory may still be fundamentally flawed, it eventually shares so much in common with the truth that it loses all practical distinction.  Once every conceivable hypothesis has been cut away, whatever is left over must contain at least some degree of correspondence with reality.

As a final twist in our story, let us now consider what would happen if the box were not resting on the ground, but were instead perched high up in a tree where the boys could not reach it.  So even if they did manage to devise a series of experiments to subject upon the box, the boys physically cannot ever hope to perform them.  At best, all they can say is that a box exists in a tree and that its contents are unknown. 

But let us take it one step further.  Suppose that, despite this setback, Carl still holds to his dead pet hypothesis anyway, and even lists a series of specific details about the box's contents.

"Not only does the box contain a deceased pet,” says Carl, “but the animal itself was a female calico cat named Fluffy.  She was especially friendly with children, she loved being scratched on her belly, and her favorite toy was a ball of yarn." 

As absurd as such a scenario sounds, it is still very analogous to typical human behavior when framing beliefs of a spiritual nature.  For example, how often have you watched people attempt to tackle heavy questions, like: Why is there something instead of nothing?  What happened before the Big Bang?  What is the meaning of life?  Despite the unverifiable nature of these questions, many people will happily invoke a mysterious deity with oddly specific properties in order to answer them.  For example, many Christians will tell you that a singular deity named Yahweh not only created the universe, but did so specifically with human beings as the ultimate goal in mind.  Not only that, but Yahweh is omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving, and deeply personal.  Yahweh is a He, not a She, and not a They.  After we die, our souls will be subjected to judgment by this Yahweh character and then sent to places called Heaven and Hell.

It is interesting how, despite all of these intricate details, there does not exist a single falsifiable experiment that would potentially invalidate any of them.  For instance, on what empirical basis are we to conclude that Yahweh is, in fact, a “He?”  Aside from the words written down by potentially superstitious, biased, and hallucinatory men in a series ancient texts, what observations support or invalidate the singular male gender of the supreme deity of the universe?  If anything, the very whole of Christianity itself is based on nothing more than blind speculation over the contents of a box that cannot even be accessed.  The only thing we can say for sure is that we do not yet know what the contents are, and that perhaps in the future we may eventually be able to subject the box to testing.

This simple analogy is, by far, the ultimate failing of all spiritual beliefs.  Without exception, religious faith is predicated on the idea that staunch certainty may be formed and upheld in the total absence of (or even in conflict with) physical evidence.  Yet without a potentially falsifiable foundation on which to build our knowledge, there is no functional difference between a God that genuinely exists in reality and a God that was fabricated out of pure imagination.  A box that cannot be opened or tested is a box that may as well contain anything or, just as easily, contain nothing.  It is a simple mathematical premise that the set of all conceivable realities is infinitely greater than the set of all physical realities.  Consequently, any beliefs formed in the absence of empirical rigor may be immediately deemed wrong by default. 

So the next time you find yourself taking part in a political, philosophical, or theological discussion, remember the lesson of Carl and Richard.  For every black box we may encounter in our lives, no amount of human reason, logic, or intuition can ever unlock the true state of reality.  No matter how confident we may be in our capacity for intellectual thought and common sense, empirical observation always supersedes human deduction. So if truth matters, knowledge must be grounded in proper empirical justification, lest we find ourselves locked in endless, pointless debates over the contents of an unopened, unexamined box.

4 comments:

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Thank you for admitting no one has seen an electron.

Neither has anyone seen the Earth circle the Sun.

(I am Geocentric, btw).

And your example of "content of an unopened box" is magisterial.

St Thomas argues that of certain things there is no science in the sense of necessary certitude.

1) Past contingent facts.
2) Distant contingent facts.
3) Hidden contingent facts.

Obviously, two plus two would make four (if relevant) even inside the box, even if we cannot verify its content.

Two classes of things, which overlap, can be known with certainty:

1) the here and now and accessible;
2) the necessary.

If the necessary were never also "here and now" it would not be known. It is known as necessary precisely because always being same way when observed here and now.

Martin Sandbach said...

Ah but what about the effects of the electron on other things.

BOOM done.

Remember the point where the black box was in their hands and they checked the sounds coming from it? That's like checking how the electron reacts with other known things.

But then the black box was seen up in the tree unable to be tested with other things.

You argued about the electron but failed to point out which hypothetical box you were arguing against.

Martin Sandbach said...

Earth around the sun.

Did you miss the falsifiable part in the post. It's almost as if you didn't read it all.

If it were true that the earth revolves around the sun and gravity exists we should be able to test that hypothesis against other things we observe. If those other observations conflict with the theory then we say that theory must be wrong.

But guess what, everything we observe to test the theory of the earth going around the sun fits the theory. It hasn't not been proven false after rigorous testing over hundreds of years.

Martin Sandbach said...

It hasn't not = has not