Sunday, September 30, 2018

It's always more reasonable to affirm the obvious than to deny the obvious

I have this epistemological thumb rule that I live with pretty consistently, and I think you do, too. The thumb rule is this: We should always affirm the obvious unless we have good reason to deny it. Put another way, we should assume the world is just as it appears to be unless we have good reason to think otherwise. And, in fact, I think that's what we almost always do even if we don't think about this thumb rule explicitly.

Obviousness is a function of intuition. Sometimes you hear people say that something is intuitively obvious. That just means it seems to be so, it appears to be so, it's hard to deny, it seems absurd to deny, it seems reasonable to affirm, it's self-evident, etc. Intuition, in this context, isn't a hunch or a feeling that something is true. Rather, it's a rational insight that occurs through reflection. In other words, you just think about something, and it automatically appears true to you. For example, the way I know that two plus two is four isn't through experimenting with it in the physical world; rather, I know it by thinking about it. I can just reflect on it and "see" that it's true.

I often bring up this point in the context of morality. I believe in objective morality because I think it's more reasonable to affirm the obvious than to deny the obvious, and the existence of morality seems intuitively obvious to me. That is, when I think about morality, and I'm perfectly honest with myself, I cannot bring myself to honestly deny it. Apart from any proof against it, it appears more reasonable to affirm than to deny. So I'm just honest with myself, and I affirm the reality of morality.

Whenever I've stated this principle in discussions with people who disagree with me, they'll always try to show how unreliable our rational intuitions are. They'll point out all the many cases in which our rational intuitions failed us. Newtonian physics is very intuitive, but relativity and quantum mechanics are often counter-intuitive. These are examples of where things appeared to be one way but turned out to be another way. Another example people have given me is the fact that the world appears to be flat when you stand outside and look at it. But we know it's round.

Counter-examples like these are not sufficient to undermine the thumb rule, and there are three reasons. First, the thumb rule explicitly makes room for exceptions. The thumb rule does not make intuition out to be infallible. Rather, it says we should affirm the obvious unless we have good reason to deny it. In the case of quantum mechanics, we do have good reason to deny what initially appeared to be so and to affirm what is counter-intuitive. Of course intuition can be infallible, like in cases where we apprehend necessary truths, but intuition in general is fallible since for many things we intuit, it's possible for them to be false.

Second, the only way we could have discovered that the world was different than it appeared to be is by using the thumb rule. How do we know the earth is round? By making observations and inferences. The same thing is true of relativity and quantum mechanics. Unless we generally affirmed the obvious, we could never have discovered that the earth is round or that objects moving at different speeds move through time at different rates. We discovered these things through observations, calculations, and inferences. It appears, based on these tools, that the earth is round, and quantum theory is true, and so is general and special relativity.

Third, the denial of the thumb rule is self-refuting. The only way we could have known that subatomic particles behave in counter-intuitive ways is by making observations and calculations. That is, we must rely on appearances and how things seem to be. If we did not adhere to the principle that we should affirm the obvious unless we have good reason to think otherwise, we never could have discovered that anything is different than it appeared to be. So any argument against the principle that we should affirm the obvious is necessarily a self-refuting argument since it depends on the very principle that it attempts to refute. That's the problem with trying to come up with counter-examples to show that rational intuition is unreliable. If you deny that the world is pretty much the way it appears to be, you could never come up with an example of where the world is actually different than it appears to be.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

In the past, I've generally defended the claim that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" even against my fellow Christian apologists. Of course the claim can be picked apart, but I agree with the general idea of it. The general idea is that the more unusual or unlikely a claim seems at first to be, the better evidence you're going to require before you'll accept it. If somebody told you they got a flat tire on their way to work, you'd probably just take their word for it. But if somebody told you they ran into Nora Jones on their way to work, and they smooched, their word wouldn't be enough. You'd require stronger evidence. I still agree with that general principle. But I don't agree with how the principle is expressed as "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" because it's sloppy, and it's too easy to pick apart.

I think a better maxim is that any claim requires adequate evidence. Although not as pithy, it's more precise. Of course what's adequate will depend on the claim being made and whatever background beliefs you already have.

The reason I say that is because whether a claims seems extraordinary to you or not depends on everything else you believe. For example, let's say Jim tells Bob, "Hey Bob, I bought a bag of ice at the grocery store today." Well, if Jim and Bob are anything like us, neither will consider that an extraordinary claim. But suppose Bob lived in India three thousand years ago, and he's never seen or even heard of ice. He's never even thought about whether or not water can freeze. Then Jim says, "Hey Bob, I bought a bag of ice from an old woman at the market today." Bob says, "What's ice?" Jim replies, "Ice is solid water. When water gets really cold, it becomes a solid." Well, now Jim has made an extraordinary claim because it goes against everything Bob has ever known about water.

Now, there are undoubtably claims that most of us would consider extraordinary, but what does it mean for evidence to be extraordinary? Let's consider another scenario. Jim and Bob are just average guys who both work at Taco Bell. One day Jim says, "Hey Bob, I stopped at 7-11 on my way to work today and ran into Kate Beckinsale. And the craziest thing happened. Kate kissed me!" Well, Bob will probably think that's an extraordinary claim, and he'll naturally want more than Jim's word on it. So let's say Jim recorded a video with his iphone. The video first shows Jim whispering, "I just saw Kate Bekinsale." Then he turns the camera around and walks through until Kate shows up in the screen. It's her alright. As soon as she sees Jim she walks up to him. Jim faces the camera toward himself and Kate Beckinsale, and sure enough, she kisses him. Well, there's nothing in the world extraordinary about an iphone video. Everybody knows iphones are capable of recording videos in a 7-11.

So here we have an example of an extraordinary claim where the evidence is adequate but not really extraordinary. I say all this to say that the maxim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is too imprecise. I think the gist of it is true, but it's too easy to pick apart to be very useful, and a more useful maxim to go by is "Any claim requires adequate evidence." And what's adequate will depend on what the other person believes. If you already believe water can freeze, you'll require less evidence that Bob has ice than if you do not already believe water can freeze.

The same thing applies to Christianity. A person who believes the supernatural exists will have an easier time being persuaded that Christianity is true than a person who does not already believe the supernatural exists. A person who believes in God will have an easier time believing Jesus rose from the dead than a person who does not believe in God. So whether the arguments for Christianity will seem persuasive to you (i.e. whether the evidence will be adequate) depends on what you already believe about the world.

All of our beliefs are interconnected. Whenever you're presented with evidence for something you didn't previously believe, your ability to accept the truth of what is being shown to you will depend on how easy it is to accomodate that belief into the rest of your beliefs. It's almost never the case that you can change your mind about one thing without having to change your mind about a few other things. That's because beliefs are interrelated. For example, let's say I'm a naturalist, and I don't think anything but the physical world exists. And I don't believe resurrections are possible because that's not how the physical world works. But then somebody shows me evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. Well, it's doubtful that I could accept that Jesus rose from the dead without also having to change my belief about the natural world. So I would not only have to change my belief about whether dead people can come back to life, but I would also have to change my belief about the physical world being all that exists.

The fewer adjustments you have to make, the easier it is to accommodate a new point of view within your noetic structure (i.e. the sum total of all of your beliefs). The more adjustments you have to make, the harder it is to accommodate a new point of view.

It also depends on the strength of your other beliefs. The stronger they are, the less they'll budge, and the weaker they are, the more they'll budge.

So evaluating evidence is not a purely objective thing. There's a subjective element. This is even true in science where people do everything they can to remove the subjectivity from it. To do that, though, scientists have to begin with certain presuppositions--the validity of logic, the reality of the external world, the reliability of sensory perceptions, the assumption that the future will resemble the past, etc. As long as everybody agrees with these presuppositions, science can proceed, but a person who doubts any of these presuppositions isn't going to find scientific evidence for some view as compelling as somebody who does not doubt these presuppositions. So science only gets objectivity by stipulating a set of presuppositions.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Is consciousness an illusion?

I remember the first time I heard that Daniel Dennett said consciousness is an illusion. It was in the context of a criticism of Daniel Dennett, but I thought surely the person must be misrepresenting what Dennett was saying. Surely Dennett wasn't saying something as absurd as they were making out (and I don't remember who it was). I listened to a brief YouTube video where Dennett explained his view, and the most charitable spin I could put on it was that he wasn't denying that we experience consciousness; it's just that this impression we have that we are a unified self that has all of these conscious states is an illusion. In reality, our brain just produces a bundle of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, etc., then it tricks us into thinking there's a self behind it all who is experiencing it all. But then last year or the year before, I read a book by John Searle called The Mystery of Consciousness, and it confirmed that, holy cow, Dennett really was denying what we ordinarily think of as consciousness, i.e. first person subjective experience. There's an appendix at the end of the book that contains an exchange between Dennett and Searle.

Ordinarily, I think people take consciousness to be the having of first person subjective experience. So if anybody experiences thought, sensation, perception, desire, emotion, etc., then that person is conscious.

Of course there is a more colloquial way of defining it. Colloquially, it just means "awake" as opposed to "asleep," even though when people are asleep, they have dreams in which they have first person subjective experiences.

I sometimes wonder about people who are confused about what consciousness is. My inclination is to think that everybody knows what consciousness is because everybody is immediately aware of their own conscious states. So maybe the difficulty they're having is not in knowing what consciousness is but in articulating a definition for it. It would be hard to explain consciousness to a computer, for example, because computers aren't conscious. You'd have to be conscious to know what the other person was talking about. Explaining consciousness to something that wasn't conscious would be kind of like explaining colour to a blind person (except that at least the blind person would be capable of understanding in the first place). You have to experience it to understand it.

Other times I wonder, "What if there really are philosophical zombies???" I used to think about that all the time when I was a little kid. I didn't think of it in terms of "philosophical zombies" because I had never heard the term, but I did wonder if I was the only one who had a mind. I guess you could say I was toying with solipsism. This idea first occurred to me when I was seven or eight years old, and it persisted all the way through high school. I'm not saying I actually believed I was the only one who was conscious. I just toyed with the idea, wondering about it. Because if all we are is physical stuff, then it seems like we'd behave exactly the same even if our physical stuff did not give rise to minds. It would explain why people seem to struggle with the question of what consciousness is when it seemed perfectly obvious to me.

I also used to wonder if maybe everybody WAS conscious, but they were using a different language. It sounded like English to me, and it had meaning in English, and their behavior did seem to correlate with what the words meant in English, but I imagined that in their minds, it all meant something completely different, and it was just a coincidence that their behavior also corresponded with whatever that foreign meaning was. So maybe I could sit there and have a conversation with my brother, but to him the conversation was about something completely different than it was to me.

Let me come back to what I said a minute ago--that if all we are is physical stuff, it seems like we'd behave exactly the same even if our physical stuff did not give rise to minds. After reading how Searle treated Dennett, it made me think that what Dennett was doing is taking materialism (the view that all we are is physical stuff) to its logical conclusion. There's a method of arguing called reductio ad absurdum. That's where you assume a point of view for the sake of argument. Then you deduce conclusions from it. If the conclusions turn out to be absurd, then that casts doubt on the premises that lead to that conclusion. It's an effective way of arguing because if you can show somebody that their point of view logically entails absurdities, then you can get them to doubt their point of view.

But some people are immune to reductio ad absurdum arguments. Instead of conceding your point, they'll just embrace the absurdity. I was talking to a relative one time (whose identity I'll conceal), and he said something that implied that he was a hard empiricist. He said you couldn't know that anything exists unless you can experience it with your five senses. So I asked him if he thought his wife had a mind, and I explained that a mind consists of first person experience which you can't, even in principle, observe in a third person way. He can observe her behavior, but he can't observe her mind, so how does he know that there's any mind behind her behavior at all? I told him that his epistemology logically leads to solipsism since his own mind is the only mind he can be aware of. Instead of conceding my point, he basically said, "Okay, solipsism it is." Now that's just stubborn.

I suspect that may be what's going on with Daniel Dennett. Consciousness is a hard problem for materialism. In fact, philosophers call it THE hard problem. It's a hard problem for idealists and dualists, too, but not in the same way. I think Dennett recognizes that consciousness, as ordinarily conceived, does not fit into a materialist worldview, so instead of getting rid of his materialism, he's attempted to solve the hard problem of consciousness by getting rid of consciousness. He's embraced the absurdity that reductive materialism leads to.

His view is absurd because the fact that we are conscious is one of those few things we can know with absolute certainty. We know it because we have immediate access to that information. Whereas most things we know are known by inferring them from something else--that is, we know them indirectly--we know about our own conscious states immediately upon reflection. We don't infer this information from anything prior. We know it directly and infallibly.

And that includes metacognition. Not only do I know that I'm thinking, but I even know that I'm thinking about my own thoughts. I can't reflect on my own thoughts and not know that they're happening. They cannot be an illusion because that presupposes that they don't actually exist. But as long as I'm at least thinking that they exist, then my thoughts do exist. If I'm having an illusion of anything at all, including my own consciousness, then there has to be some first person subjective experience going on. That's true by the very meaning of "illusion." Illusion is a kind of perception, so illusion itself is a first person subjective experience.

Unless I've got some horribly massive misunderstanding about what Dennett is saying, his point of view is not only false, it's necessarily false. It's not even possible for it to be true. It's completely absurd. I know with certainty that it's false.

But I am still open to the idea that I've just got a misunderstanding of what his view is. In all fairness I haven't actually read any of his books. I've seen him talk on YouTube, I've talked to some of his devotees on the internet, and I've read his exchange with John Searle, but that's about it.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

A quicker and dirtier argument for God

On that forum I told you about a few posts back, you get a limited amount of space to post your responses. The quick and dirty argument for God post actually required me to use multiple posts to get it all in. The subject came up again two or three days ago, so I thought I'd see if I could make a case for God in just one post. After writing the initial draft, I had to edit it down quite a bit, but this is what I ended up with.

Here's a few arguments. These are developed in more detail in books, but this is a basic outline.

The kalam cosmological argument

  • Whatever begins to exist has a cause to its existence.
  • The universe began to exist.
  • Therefore, the universe had a cause to its existence.

You already said you believe in the big bang in your response to somebody else. Well, the big bang was the beginning of the universe. But there are other reasons to think the universe had a beginning, too. There's the second law of thermodynamics. The universe is constantly heading toward thermodynamic equilibrium. That's when all the heat and energy in the universe is evenly distributed, and everything dies down. Cosmologists call this the heat death of the universe, and they say it's inevitable. Well, if the universe had been here for an infinite amount of time, it would've already reached heat death. The fact that it hasn't means it had to have had a beginning a finite time ago.

There are philosophical reasons to think the universe had a beginning, too. There are three I can think of off the top of my head, but let me give you one.

  • If the past had no beginning, it would be composed of an actually infinite collection of equal intervals of time.
  • An actually infinite collection of equal intervals of time cannot be formed by successive addition.
  • The past was formed by successive addition.
  • Therefore, the past cannot be an actually infinite collection of equal intervals of time.
  • Therefore, the past had a beginning.

The universe is all of space, time, and matter, so if the universe had a beginning, then it was an absolute beginning. In other words, it couldn't have come from some previously existing stuff. It had to have come into existence out of nothing at all. And that brings me to the first premise. It's impossible for something to spontaneously pop into existence uncaused out of nothing at all. The reason is because if nothing at all existed, there couldn't even be any probability that something would pop into existence since "nothing" doesn't have properties. Without even the potential for something to come into being, nothing could. The only way something could is if it had a cause.

So there was a cause to the beginning of the universe. That cause couldn't have been anything physical because the universe is all that's physical. So the cause of the universe had to be something completely outside of space, time, energy, and matter.

Christians say that God is a spirit, and a spirits are non-physical. So while this argument alone doesn't prove God, per se, is does point in that direction. Something like God created the universe. I'll call it god with a little g for simplicity.

These arguments for the beginning of the universe don't apply to god because god is not physical, and god doesn't exist in time. So the question of what caused god to come into existence doesn't apply.

Argument from contingency

A contingent truth is a truth that didn't have to be true. It's a truth that could've been false. The statement, "I have a cat," is true, but it could've been false because I didn't have to adopt him. So me having a cat is a contingent truth.

A necessary truth is a truth that could not have been otherwise. It's impossible for it to be false. Take the statement, "Two plus two is four." That's a necessary truth because it's true in all possible worlds.

In either case, you can ask, "Why is it true?" or "What makes it true?" In the case of necessary truths, it's true because it's impossible for it to not be true. It's necessity alone is a sufficient explanation for why it's true. In the case of contingent truths, it's true because of something else that's true. The reason I have a cat is because I adopted him. So with contingent truths, there's always another truth that explains why the contingent truth is true.

In the same way as there are these two kinds of truths, there are also two kinds of beings--necessary beings and contingent beings. If a being is necessary, then the reason it exists is because it's impossible for it to not exist. If a being is contingent, then the reason it exists is because of something else that exists and that explains why the contingent thing exists.

The universe is a contingent thing. There are lots of reasons, but I'll just give two. One reason is because anything made of parts is contingent, and the universe is made of parts. Composite entities can always be disassembled, and those entities will no longer exist. My desk, for example, can be disassembled, and my desk will no longer exist.

You might say that whereas the desk wouldn't exist, the parts would still exist, and maybe the parts are necessary. In the case of the universe that leads to odd results. The universe is made up of stuff--protons, neutrons, electric fields, space, gravity, etc. Some people think everything is made up of tiny vibrating strings. If the universe is made up of parts that are each necessary beings, then the number of them is also necessary. That means there couldn't be one more or one less. But that is very odd, so probably the parts of the universe are not necessary beings, and neither is the universe as a whole.

If the universe is contingent, then ultimately it has to be explained by something that is not contingent. So there has to be a necessary being of some sort that's behind it all--that explains it all. So again we're back to something that exists apart from the universe. Not only would it be non-physical and a-temporal, but it would also be a single simple thing not composed of parts. This would fit the description of God--a non-physical (and therefore non-composite) single being without peers (since there can't be more than one), that is the basis of everything else that exists. So we're getting closer and closer to what theists mean by God.

Moral argument

There's one more argument--the moral argument. It goes like this.

  • If there is no god, then there are no objectively true moral facts.
  • There are at least some objectively true moral facts.
  • Therefore, there is a god.

Let me explain what I mean by objectively true moral facts. Consider these two statements:

  • Vanilla ice cream tastes great.
  • The earth is round.

These are two different kinds of statements. One is objective, and the other is subjective. One depends on the subjective preferences of the person making the claim, and the other depends on the properties of the object itself. I'm sure you can tell which is which.

Now let's look at this statement.

  • It's wrong to torture people just for the fun of it.

If it's a subjective statement, then it's just an expression of the personal preferences of the person making the claim. It doesn't actually apply to anybody except the person making the claim.

Here's another similar statement.

  • You ought not be cruel.

This is a statement of obligation. If it's objective, then it applies to people whether they want it to or not. If it's subjective, then it doesn't apply to other people. It's just the sentiment of the person making the claim. But we never treat these kinds of statements as if they were subjective. When we judge other people--which we all do--we treat them as if these moral obligations actually applied to them, which means we all take them to be objective. If I have any obligations at all that I cannot simply opt out of by adopting a different point of view, then there are objectively true moral obligations.

You have to be honest with yourself about morality. It's one thing to say you're a moral relativist, but it's another thing to actually believe it and live consistently with it. If you saw somebody skinning a cat alive just to laugh and watch it suffer, could you honestly say that person wasn't doing anything wrong?

If there were no sentient beings of any kind--just stars, galaxies, astroids, etc.--then nothing could be right or wrong. Stuff would just happen. So the only way there could be right or wrong is if sentient beings exist.

So morality depends on persons. But if morality originated in humans, that would leave us with cultural relativism or individual subjectivism. Morality wouldn't be objective because it would depend either on each individual or on each culture.

That leads to counter-intuitive results. It would mean that no culture is better than another, and no culture can improve morally. A slave culture is different than a free culture, but neither is morally better than the other.

There can't be objective moral facts unless there's a moral authority that transcends humanity.

Morality is the law above all other laws and by which other laws can be judged. A law is unjust when it violates a moral principle. For example, a law that said white people can own property but black people can't would be an unjust law because it would violate a moral principle. So moral laws are above every law that people can make. That means the authority behind the moral law is higher than any human institution.

But what kind of person or persons could have that kind of authority? No matter where we go in the universe, it's still wrong for us to be cruel to each other, so the authority is universal. Well, look back at my first two arguments. There, I argued that there is a being who stands outside of the universe and who created the universe and is responsible for its existence. That is a perfect candidate for the moral law-giver. It explains how he could have moral authority over the universe. It's because he created the universe, and there is no god over him, and he is a singular being without peers. He's a necessary being, and everything else gets its being from him. He owns it all, and he rules over it autonomously.

So it seems like some sort of God with a big G exists.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

If a fetus is a parasite. . .

This morning somebody made the argument that if a mother doesn't want their fetus, then the fetus is a parasite. Although he didn't explicitly say so, he seemed to think that was some kind of justification for abortion. Even if that's not what he meant to imply, I have seen people who use this is an argument in favor of abortion.

The assumption behind this argument is that the fetus is a distinct organism from the mother. I don't know if pro-choice people think about that when they make this argument. A parasite is a distinct organism that invades another organism, so if you say the fetus is an organism, then you'd have to give up the idea that in having an abortion, a woman is doing what she wants with her own body. She's doing something to a different organism.

Whether the fetus is a parasite or not doesn't have anything to do with whether it's wanted or not. Think of people with body dysmorphic disorder where they are sometimes so uneasy with their own body parts that they try to amputate them. A person will cut off their own leg. Well, the leg isn't a parasite just because it's unwanted and it's taking nutrients from your body or using the rest of your body to stay alive. Your leg is part of your body. The fact that you might not want it is irrelevant.

And a parasite doesn't stop being a parasite just because a person does want it. There's some medical procedure I heard about a few years ago where people intentionally have themselves infected with a worm temporarily. Then there's also leaches, which people use to get the blood flowing again once they've reattached a severed limb. In both of these cases, people want the parasite. But just because they want them doesn't mean they're not parasites.

So desire has nothing to do with whether or not the unborn are parasites. If you define a parasite as a living thing that is using your body to stay alive or drawing nutrients from your body, then your hands are parasites. All of your body parts are parasites. But if you define a parasite as a distinct organism that uses your body to stay alive, then yes, a fetus is a parasite, whether it's wanted or not. That also implies that it's a distinct organism from the mother, and we have to ask the question of what kind of organism it is.

I don't think a fetus can properly be called a parasite, though. Using the body of another organism is a necessary condition for being a parasite, but it's not a sufficient condition. Something more is needed. A fetus is the mother's own offspring. The womb is its natural habitat. Reproduction is the natural means by which humans propagate. So I don't think it's proper call a fetus a parasite. But if somebody does use this move, I'd be sure to point out the implications of it since it does tacitly support the pro-life argument that the unborn is a distinct organism from its mother.

Friday, September 07, 2018

The applicability of math argument

There's an argument out there for God that sorta kinda fits under the teleological umbrella. It's the argument that the universe can be explained by math. There's an equation for everything. Sometimes one can figure out realities in the physical world just by doing math. But math is an abstract thing, and the physical world is a concrete thing, so why the connection? It's an inexplicable coincidence unless God designed it and wrote the laws of nature in the language of math.

I have heard both atheists and theists marvel at this. But I have to say that it doesn't impress me, and I wonder if it's because there's something I'm not seeing. First of all, I can't conceive of a world where math would not be applicable to the physical world. Consider simple math, like addition. Is it conceivable that the principle of two plus two equals four wouldn't apply to the physical world? It seems to me that in any possible world you can dream of that has objects, two of those objects, plus two more of those objects, add up to four objects. Of course the laws of nature are more complicated than that, but they are just extensions of those same basic principles. So I don't see how it's possible for there to be a physical world that does not cohere with math or that cannot be described by math.

Also, not all math is applicable to the natural world. Math uses all kinds of tools and devices that serve as tricks to solve difficult problems but that don't actually map on to the real world. Two off the top of my head are the notions of imaginary numbers and infinity. I remember using imaginary numbers to solve difficult problems in my third calculus class in college, but by the time we reached the solution in the end, we were back to real numbers. The imaginary numbers were just sort of place holders that allowed us to use certain tricks in solving the problems. I wish I could give you an example, but I've forgotten just about everything I once knew in calculus. Infinities are always treated as limits or idealizations, and they allow us to solve certain problems, like Taylor polynomials. But that doesn't mean there can actually be an infinite number of anything in the physical world.

So there's math that doesn't apply to the physical world, but some does, and surely that is surprising? I don't see why. The fact that we can derive equations or discover subatomic particles purely by doing math is a matter of logical deduction. Math is a kind of logic, and it operates by necessity. Logic and math both work by symbols. If P, then Q; not Q; therefore, not P. If you include true propositions in place of the symbols, then you will get true conclusions. So if you start off with a handful of equations that are already known to apply to the physical world, it's a matter of deduction to manipulate those equations until you arrive at a piece of new information that either describes a new phenomenon or a new particle, and as long as we haven't made any mistakes along the way, we should expect to be able to find the new particle or phenomenon in nature. It can't be otherwise if we've deduced the conclusion from true premises using necessary inferences.

I'm not totally convinced that absolutely everything in the physical world can be described with an equation either. Most things can, of course, but things like what it's like cannot. That may be because sentience isn't a physical thing in the first place, but it's certainly part of the physical world in some sense because I'm a physical being, and I have mind that thinks about things like math, physics, and what it's like to think about them.

For further reading:

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner

The Applicability of Mathematics by William Lane Craig