Monday, October 29, 2012

Counting out -- 3

Science, like the games of children, is a form of make-believe. The physicist Bruce Lindsay puts it bluntly: "Science is a game in which we pretend that things are not wholly what they seem in order that we may make sense out of them in terms of mental processes peculiar to us as human beings…Science strives to understand by the construction of theories, which are imaginative pictures of things as they might be, and, if they were, they would lead logically to that which we find in actual experience."

The physics student who spends hours working problems involving frictionless pulleys and weightless strings is well aware that she plays "let's pretend." The world of scientific theory is an imaginative one whose forms reflect the forms of the real world, but only in an imperfect and somewhat arbitrary way. They satisfy, however, those same deep-seated instincts for order, pattern and escape from the "ordinary" that were first satisfied with nursery rhymes on the parent's knee.

The French philosopher Roger Caillois says of play: "The structure of play and reality are often identical (dolls, toy soldiers, Monopoly, etc.), but the respective activities that they subsume are not reducible to each other in time or place. They always take place in domains that are incompatible." The child who hears the nursery rhyme is at one level aware that no real dish will run away with a spoon, just as the physics student must suspend belief to work with weightless strings. But the world depicted in the illustrations of the child's Mother Goose is not altogether removed from the child's "real world." The child psychologist Jean Piaget (another of those authors on our required reading list half-a-century ago) showed us, for example, how artificialism (the moon is for jumping over) and animism (spoons that run) are common characteristics of the young child's view of reality (as they were for our pre-scientific ancestors).

In the nursery rhyme or the playground game the world is abstracted and in a make-believe way that mimics aspects of the "real" world and creates a momentary and arbitrary order. The rhyme and the rules are paramount. Similarly in science it was by making believe, for example, that the planets move on some combination of circles that Ptolemy and Copernicus were able to make the planets "play by the rules."

Kepler came along and broke the rule. By tossing the circles and introducing the ellipse he both complicated the rules and simplified the game. His "playground" innovation set the stage for Newton's theory of universal gravitation, one of the most successful "make-believe" stories of all time.

I have more to say on this theme. Forgive my pedantry. I promise to wrap this up tomorrow. Unless Hurricane Sandy pulls the plug.