CrackpotteryFritjof capra

Capra’s “Third Stage” of Scientific Method

If rational knowledge is associated with science, and if this kind of knowledge is one component of Eastern mysticism, then, so Capra argues, there must be some kind of a parallelism between physics and Eastern philosophy. How does he establish this parallelism? He divides scientific research into three stages. The first two stages consist of gathering experimental evidence (observation) and correlating that evidence with mathematical symbols (theory). But now Capra adds another stage:

Capra 3750666… eventually, [physicists] will want to talk about their results to nonphysicists and will therefore have to express them in plain language. This means they will have to formulate a model in ordinary language which interprets their mathematical scheme. … the formulation of such a verbal model, which constitutes the third stage of research, will be a criterion of the understanding they have reached.

This quote, despite its innocent appearance, is a conniving artifact designed to legitimize Capra’s argument for the parallel between Eastern mysticism and modern physics. The “third stage” of the scientific process, which he introduces here and uses repeatedly in his book, is entirely self-fabricated! The obligation forced on physicists to convey their science to the public is meant to equate the inaccessibility to the public of the mathematical formulation of physical theories with the imposed unspeakability of the Eastern mysticism.

The translation of modern physics into ordinary language is an impossible task because of the sophistication of the mathematical framework and experimental gadgetry employed in current physics research. Needless to say, at earlier times, the required level of sophistication was minimal. The first authoritative work on electricity and magnetism was William Gilbert’s book De Magnete. Published in 1600, this book contained the results of the frontier research in the field, yet it was all written in an ordinary language, Latin. Anybody educated in Latin and interested in the subject could read the book and understand most of it. Two hundred seventy three years later, James Clerk Maxwell published A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, which nobody except a handful of physicists and mathematicians could understand. And the degree of  sophistication and specialization has increased exponentially ever since. Nowadays, irrespective of how educated one is, or how much interest one may have in physics, one cannot understand the results of theoretical and experimental discoveries unless one knows the language of physics, namely mathematics and the experimental techniques.

If you want to truly understand Persian poetry, you’ll have to learn Farsi. Persian poets are not held responsible for translating their poetry into English or any other language. Similarly, physicists should not be held responsible for translating their work into ordinary languages. While it was possible for Edward FitzGerald to write a great (but not perfect) English translation of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, it is impossible to translate nature’s language into any human language. Persians learn Farsi and its poetry from a very early age. Can the public learn the language of nature from a very early age?

Imagine a utopia! A world in which children start to learn the language of nature immediately after they start learning their mother tongues! A world in which calculus is taught in the second grade and differential equations in the third! A world in which high school graduates are fluent in Newtonian dynamics, electromagnetic theory, and quantum physics, as well as the technical details of how a cell phone, a computer, a GPS, or a satellite works. This utopia is not absolutely unreachable! Human brain has a remarkable capacity of absorbing knowledge like a sponge, even if it means changing its anatomy in the process, such as creating a physical location – which did not exist 150000 years ago – where vocabularies and rules of language are stored. So, while the mathematical utopia may seem ridiculously out of reach, education and the passage of eons can make it possible. In such a utopia, physicists will have no need to translate their findings into the human languages, because humans already speak the universal language of physics as fluently as their provincial mother tongues.

But we are not living in that utopia; and no one, except a minute fraction of the population, speaks the language of nature. And we know that an exact translation of physics into ordinary languages is impossible. So what are physicists to do? Should they simply ignore the laymen, and put the blame on them for not learning the language? Quite the opposite! Due to the unavailability of physics to the public, it is the duty of physicists to make as much of their knowledge available to the public as possible. This demands an expertise in the art of translation, for which no physicist is trained and not every physicist is trainable. Fortunately, every generation of physicists has a handful of such “artists” who convey the excitement of discoveries to the public by writing books and articles in ordinary languages and, nowadays, by developing multimedia presentations. The implicit purpose of crudely translating the sophisticated theoretical and experimental techniques in ordinary languages is recruitment. For the discipline to survive, the younger generation ought to be informed of its beauty, excitement, applications, and relevance, in the hope that a fraction of the generation will “carry the torch.” However, this is not a stage of physical research.

What about the communication of the results to fellow physicists? Isn’t that done in an ordinary language, and therefore, a stage – albeit an implicit one – of the development of the discipline? Communication to fellow-physicists, at its most fundamental root, is an evolutionary instinct which tells a physicist that his/her discovery should be made available to the scientific community for further progress. Even the Egyptian and Babylonian priests/scientists knew that understanding the universe was not the task of a single person or a single generation; that knowledge gained by one person should be disseminated to the rest of the community and recorded for posterity so they can start at the new level of understanding and advance that level.

Two physicists, whose professional tongue is the common language of mathematics, can talk to each other even though they may have different mother tongues. An American physicist who doesn’t know Chinese can communicate professionally with a Chinese physicist who doesn’t know much English! Mathematics, being a language, is expressed in symbols. Fortunately, the symbols used by physicists have been more or less universalized, so that almost all physicists adhere to the same set of symbols to express their mathematics. An American physicist, writing in this, and only this, language can convey his/her thoughts to a Chinese physicist. However, if the equations were interspersed with a minimum amount of ordinary language, it would make a much smoother and faster reading. That is why physics articles do contain some ordinary language – which has turned out to be English. But the structure of the English used in physics articles is so simple and the vocabulary so meager that almost all the physicists in the world master it very quickly. The bottom line is that

communication among physicists takes place in the language of mathematics, and that ordinary language plays the role of a catalyst in this communication. Capra’s “third stage” is only a Machiavellian ruse used to draw a parallel between Eastern mysticism and modern physics.

If rational knowledge is associated with science, and if this kind of knowledge is one component of Eastern mysticism, then, so Capra argues, there must be some kind of a parallelism between physics and Eastern philosophy. How does he establish this parallelism? He divides scientific research into three stages. The first two stages consist of gathering experimental evidence (observation) and correlating that evidence with mathematical symbols (theory). But now Capra adds another stage:

… eventually, [physicists] will want to talk about their results to nonphysicists and will therefore have to express them in plain language. This means they will have to formulate a model in ordinary language which interprets their mathematical scheme. … the formulation of such a verbal model, which constitutes the third stage of research, will be a criterion of the understanding they have reached.

This quote, despite its innocent appearance, is a conniving artifact designed to legitimize Capra’s argument for the parallel between Eastern mysticism and modern physics. The “third stage” of the scientific process, which he introduces here and uses repeatedly in his book, is entirely self-fabricated! The obligation forced on physicists to convey their science to the public is meant to equate the inaccessibility to the public of the mathematical formulation of physical theories with the imposed unspeakability of the Eastern mysticism.

The translation of modern physics into ordinary language is an impossible task because of the sophistication of the mathematical framework and experimental gadgetry employed in current physics research. Needless to say, at earlier times, the required level of sophistication was minimal. The first authoritative work on electricity and magnetism was William Gilbert’s book De Magnete. Published in 1600, this book contained the results of the frontier research in the field, yet it was all written in an ordinary language, Latin. Anybody educated in Latin and interested in the subject could read the book and understand most of it. Two hundred seventy three years later, James Clerk Maxwell published A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, which nobody except a handful of physicists and mathematicians could understand. And the degree of  sophistication and specialization has increased exponentially ever since. Nowadays, irrespective of how educated one is, or how much interest one may have in physics, one cannot understand the results of theoretical and experimental discoveries unless one knows the language of physics, namely mathematics and the experimental techniques.

If you want to truly understand Persian poetry, you’ll have to learn Farsi. Persian poets are not held responsible for translating their poetry into English or any other language. Similarly, physicists should not be held responsible for translating their work into ordinary languages. While it was possible for Edward FitzGerald to write a great (but not perfect) English translation of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, it is impossible to translate nature’s language into any human language. Persians learn Farsi and its poetry from a very early age. Can the public learn the language of nature from a very early age?

Imagine a utopia! A world in which children start to learn the language of nature immediately after they start learning their mother tongues! A world in which calculus is taught in the second grade and differential equations in the third! A world in which high school graduates are fluent in Newtonian dynamics, electromagnetic theory, and quantum physics, as well as the technical details of how a cell phone, a computer, a GPS, or a satellite works. This utopia is not absolutely unreachable! Human brain has a remarkable capacity of absorbing knowledge like a sponge, even if it means changing its anatomy in the process, such as creating a physical location – which did not exist 150000 years ago – where vocabularies and rules of language are stored. So, while the mathematical utopia may seem ridiculously out of reach, education and the passage of eons can make it possible. In such a utopia, physicists will have no need to translate their findings into the human languages, because humans already speak the universal language of physics as fluently as their provincial mother tongues.

But we are not living in that utopia; and no one, except a minute fraction of the population, speaks the language of nature. And we know that an exact translation of physics into ordinary languages is impossible. So what are physicists to do? Should they simply ignore the laymen, and put the blame on them for not learning the language? Quite the opposite! Due to the unavailability of physics to the public, it is the duty of physicists to make as much of their knowledge available to the public as possible. This demands an expertise in the art of translation, for which no physicist is trained and not every physicist is trainable. Fortunately, every generation of physicists has a handful of such “artists” who convey the excitement of discoveries to the public by writing books and articles in ordinary languages and, nowadays, by developing multimedia presentations. The implicit purpose of crudely translating the sophisticated theoretical and experimental techniques in ordinary languages is recruitment. For the discipline to survive, the younger generation ought to be informed of its beauty, excitement, applications, and relevance, in the hope that a fraction of the generation will “carry the torch.” However, this is not a stage of physical research.

What about the communication of the results to fellow physicists? Isn’t that done in an ordinary language, and therefore, a stage – albeit an implicit one – of the development of the discipline? Communication to fellow-physicists, at its most fundamental root, is an evolutionary instinct which tells a physicist that his/her discovery should be made available to the scientific community for further progress. Even the Egyptian and Babylonian priests/scientists knew that understanding the universe was not the task of a single person or a single generation; that knowledge gained by one person should be disseminated to the rest of the community and recorded for posterity so they can start at the new level of understanding and advance that level.

Two physicists, whose professional tongue is the common language of mathematics, can talk to each other even though they may have different mother tongues. An American physicist who doesn’t know Chinese can communicate professionally with a Chinese physicist who doesn’t know much English! Mathematics, being a language, is expressed in symbols. Fortunately, the symbols used by physicists have been more or less universalized, so that almost all physicists adhere to the same set of symbols to express their mathematics. An American physicist, writing in this, and only this, language can convey his/her thoughts to a Chinese physicist. However, if the equations were interspersed with a minimum amount of ordinary language, it would make a much smoother and faster reading. That is why physics articles do contain some ordinary language – which has turned out to be English. But the structure of the English used in physics articles is so simple and the vocabulary so meager that almost all the physicists in the world master it very quickly. The bottom line is that

communication among physicists takes place in the language of mathematics, and that ordinary language plays the role of a catalyst in this communication. Capra’s “third stage” is only a Machiavellian ruse used to draw a parallel between Eastern mysticism and modern physics.

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