Saturday, July 28, 2007

Acquiring knowledge

My article of 23 July 2007 entitled Wandering in a spiritual wonderland [display] includes a photo of an iron nugget that Alain discovered during our excursion to the Grande Chartreuse. Since then, Natacha and Alain have shown me several other mineral specimens they found while wandering around in another Carthusian site [which I've never visited personally]: the former monastery of Saint Hugon, about 40 km north-east of Grenoble, alongside the road to Albertville [in the Savoie département]. One of these specimens was a small rectangular fragment of iron whose surface was similar to that of the first nugget. The other day, the three of us sat outside at Gamone, under the linden trees, gazing at the mineral specimens on a table in front of us, and trying to understand their origins.

In this kind of situation, I've often had the impression that, if I were to concentrate sufficiently upon such-and-such an object that intrigues me, it would end up releasing some of its secrets, providing me with a better understanding of its nature. That was how I felt, a couple of years ago, when I tried to seize the nature of this mysterious object that I unearthed in nearby Châtelus, on the other side of the Bourne:

Since I found this object at a place where there's a legend about an ancient Roman settlement, I imagined it immediately as a sculptured fish. But it was equally likely that natural forces had given rise to this form. No doubt, if I were to show this "red fish" [as I call it] to an archaeologist and then a geologist, I would soon learn which of these two hypotheses is correct... but I've never done so. Instead, I've spent a fair amount of time simply gazing intensely at this object, hoping that it might suddenly send me a message revealing its nature. But no such message has ever reached me yet.

Getting back to the iron specimens from the two Chartreux territories, there were two basic questions:

(1) We referred to these specimens as "iron" because they were attracted by a magnet. But what was their exact geological nature?

(2) How come these specimens were lying around in open fields, waiting to be picked up by a passer-by with keen eyesight such as Alain?

In fact, once Natacha and Alain started out "thinking aloud" with me, I soon realized that they already possessed a good deal of information concerning such specimens:

— They had learned that there was a very special kind of iron ore in the vicinity of the monastery of Saint Hugon. What made it so special was the fact that the ore melted at a relatively low temperature, which meant that it could be transformed into iron by means of a simple wood-fueled furnace.

— The monks soon realized that the most profitable approach to marketing this precious raw material consisted of carrying out an elementary smelting process at the exit from their mines, using the ample timber resources they had on hand. Then the resulting crude iron could be brought down into the valley by mules, and subsequently transported to large-scale furnaces for final processing.

Little by little, as we talked about these operations, we started to obtain answers to our queries about the specimens placed on the table in front of us. They were fragments of crudely-smelted iron that had probably dropped off the back of mules on the way down to the valley. The special variety of iron ore found near the Saint Hugon monastery apparently existed also in the vicinity of the Grande Chartreuse. A final query: How come the two specimens have such a lovely smooth brown surface, with no traces of rust, even though they've been lying out in the open for centuries? There again, Natacha and Alain had acquired information that enabled us to obtain an immediate answer to this question. The ore of Saint Hugon contains a certain amount of manganese, which tends to give the resulting iron a kind of "stainless steel" quality. So, there we had a fairly good comprehensive picture of the context in which these two iron specimens had been found.

Now, why am I relating all these trivial anecdotes? It so happens that they take me back to my recent article about the work of David Deutsch entitled Brilliant book [display].

One of the four so-called strands proposed by the author for a future Theory of Everything is inspired by the philosophical ideas of Karl Popper. Scientists used to claim that they acquired knowledge by a famous process known as induction, which consists of examining things in the real world while hoping that the things in question will end up revealing spontaneously their inner secrets. One of the most celebrated examples is that of Isaac Newton watching an apple falling from a tree, and using this observation to induce the laws of gravitation.

Popper pointed out that the time-honored explanation of the creation of scientific principles by induction is a convenient piece of fiction. Nobody can truly acquire knowledge simply by waiting for real-world happenings and things to "reveal their inner secrets". Newton's apple didn't transmit enlightenment into his head. If there was a revelation, it came from Newton's brain, not from the fallen apple.

What really happens in a context of alleged induction is illustrated eloquently by the brainstorming carried out by Natacha, Alain and me concerning the two specimens of Carthusian iron. These objects did not radiate out magically a beam of information about themselves, enabling us to acquire knowledge about their nature. On the contrary, our emerging knowledge concerning the specimens was based upon information that was forged in our brains, and this information came from our reading, our talking, our experiences and our imagination. Rather than stating that the specimens gave rise to a phenomenon of induction, we can conclude that our brains created this knowledge, in much the same way that a writer invents a good story. And, talking of stories, maybe it's time I ended this one, which is becoming long and complicated...

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