By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: The Great Courses
Narration by: Professor Steven Gimbel
Measurement and consolidation are means and ends for modern science in Steven Gimbel’s lectures. In a wide-ranging explanation of “Redefining Reality”, Gimbel cleverly combines arts and sciences to explain the interconnections of thinking, being, and acting. For a student of liberal arts, Gimbel’s lectures occasionally befuddle but on balance his lectures intelligently summarize advances of science that inch humanity toward an understanding of reality. It seems an infinite journey. Gimbel shows (to paraphrase Emerson) “Science is a journey, not a destination”.
Gimbel systematically summarizes the history of metaphysics, mathematics, cosmology, physics, psychology, and sociology to report on current perceptions of reality. Without doubt, there has been progress but each scientific discipline seems constrained by measurement difficulties. Gimbel begins with metaphysics, a branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things. Plato drives for understanding of reality through reasoned definitions of good and evil. Aristotle, one of his students, grows to believe observation of the basic elements of life-“earth, water, air, and fire”-will reveal reality. Aristotle’s approach becomes the basis for scientific analysis. With Aristotle, the journey of science begins. The principles of measurement and experiment are added to the principle of reason.
Science becomes a method of investigation “…commonly based on empirical or measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning” (a translation of Newton’s study of natural philosophy). Gimbel notes that measurement and reasoning are the means of science. Present day sciences seem mired in difficulties of measurement; i.e. measurement capable of providing repeatable experimental results that define reality.
Gimbel explains mathematics works in one set of environmental conditions and fails in another; i.e. requiring two types of mathematics to measure reality, leaving one wondering which mathematics are correct.
Cosmology is limited by halting progress in identification (Higgs-boson discovery at Cern on 7/4/12 is a first step), let alone measurement, of dark energy and dark matter. Dark energy and dark matter make up more than 75% of the known universe. Physics is mired in the quandary of quantum physics that show observation distorts the act of measurement and flies in the face of correlation between cause and effect.
Psychology is caught between science disciplines of mind mapping, psychiatric “talking therapy”, and behaviorism. The complex nature of genetics and its interface with environment make reliable measurement of causal relationship sketchy, if not impossible. Sociology is a confused mess of studies that often conclude with conflicting results based on subjective interpretations of measured results. Sociologists rely on statistical analysis of subjectively designed questionnaires, while others rely on interpretation of statistical studies based on questionable data.
Gimbel argues that Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s pursuit of a unified field theory, and Maxwell’s combination of electromagnetic and magnetic field theories are examples of modern sciences’ effort to redefine reality by compatibly consolidating Sciences’ theories. Gimbel argues that reality is redefined by discoveries that reveal encompassing truths; i.e. truths that combine with and become an expansion of other sciences’ discoveries. Gimbel believes all sciences gravitate toward one understanding, one unified field that describes the nature of reality. He offers as evidence the recognition that human beings are a part of earth’s ecosystem and a smaller part of the cosmos. Damage to the earth is damage to every individual on earth. Gimbel argues that great leaps in understanding reality are based on Sciences finding the same reality through different disciplines.
Gimbel explores the origin and meaning of life and how the reality of those conceptions has changed. Not completely separating religion from science, Gimbel notes how the idea of the big bang encouraged biblical believers in the origin of life. But, Gimbel systematically erodes belief in a Prime Mover by explaining how science reinforces an argument that life comes from a chemical combination of elements that hark back to Aristotle’s observation; with the addition of modern Sciences discoveries. Gimbel refers to a confluence of physics, chemistry, and biology discoveries that offer entirely plausible scientific proof for the origin of life; with no magic, mysticism, or religion.
In Gimbel’s final chapters, he evaluates the impact of the internet on the redefinition of reality. Gimbel argues that cyberspace encourages notional extremes. He suggests that cyberspace has become another home to individuals and a virtual neighborhood for like-minded anonymous friends. The individual now has a forum in which he/she can vent feelings in, what is perceived as, an anonymous environment; without recrimination and with the potential for recruitment of extremist followers. A false sense of anonymity allows one-sided conversations unhampered by considered discussion. Gimbel’s observation strikes at the heart of this blog and other bloggers who blithely spin their opinions about books, politics, and world events without fear of contradiction. Gimbel argues that cyberspace and the internet encourage extremism. He implies that cyberspace anonymity is a proximate cause of modern societal discontent.
The other side of Gimbel’s cyberspace argument is that metadata, via internet use, is being collected by the government and corporations. That collection provides power and influence over others. Metadata is a modern tool of “Big Brother”; i.e. “Big Brother” is any organization that has the power to collect, analyse, and use metadata to create their own reality.
Though Gimbel loses some who are not driven by, or educated in science, his references to literature, art, and culture draw all listeners into his lectures. Gimbel offers an informative and enlightening overview of the history and progress of science. In the process, he explains how reality is redefined by science, and how important that revision is for human survival and evolution.