The Recovering Scientist
People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them - that does not occur to them.
Ludwig Wittgenstein  (via sothethoughtgoes)

Science, however, cannot create ends and, even less, instill them in human beings; science, at most, can supply the means by which to attain certain ends. But the ends themselves are conceived by personalities with lofty ethical ideals and—if these ends are not stillborn, but vital and vigorous—are adopted and carried forward by those many human beings who, half unconsciously, determine the slow evolution of society.

For these reasons, we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.

Albert Einstein, Why Socialism?
The Problem of Problems

Contrary to popular opinion, the problem of world hunger is not hard. The problem of malnutrition in the third world is easy. The problem of the number of homeless in America isn’t difficult.

So, if it’s so easy, I’m going to tell you how to solve all these problems, right? Well, obviously no. I cannot solve the problem of world hunger. But I know what needs to be done to help hungry people. I need to feed them.

Well, duh, you say.  But think about the logistics of getting the food to all the people who need it! When the hungry are halfway around the world in countries with corrupt governments, think about how much will be lost to corruption!

Here’s the problem: The problem is that we’re looking at hunger as a problem. To be sure, problems are difficult to solve. But they are easy on us. They don’t require us to feel bad. They don’t require us to suffer.  It is much easier to look at the statistics on a sheet of paper that tell us how many people are hungry than it is to work at a soup kitchen or to take a minute to talk to and maybe help a panhandler on the street.  When we actually come into contact with the hungry, it hurts.  We see their suffering and we sympathize… and that’s uncomfortable.  Sometimes we feel guilty because we aren’t plagued by the same suffering that they have.  Sometimes we simply feel awkward and don’t know what to say.  Actually getting to know the poor and the hungry is hard.

But we all know that we should help the poor and the hungry.  And it is easy to sit in a board room and talk about the percentage of kids who don’t have food.  It is easy to look at the amount of money in our checking account and take out some of it (maybe even a substantial portion of it) and send it to another organization who will use that money to decrease the percentage of African children who develop malaria.  It is easy to listen to the percentage of Americans who will be uninsured under each candidate’s healthcare plan and pick the candidate who will have the lower percentage of uninsured people.

In short, it is easy to take steps to solve problems…. because problems are just numbers that need to be manipulated and changed.  Numbers don’t have feelings.  Numbers don’t feel pain.  And numbers stay on the sheets of paper.  Our experiences with numbers don’t change us.  A high number does not disturb us as much as seeing a person who is suffering.

We would much rather face abstract problems than real, concrete people who are suffering.  Problems are things we can approach with [mock] certainty.  We can look at them at a distance.  Actually feeding the hungry—that hurts.  That is uncertain.  We might not fix anything.  We might make things worse.  But this feeding the hungry is something that actually matters.  Playing with numbers doesn’t mean anything.

Of course, this in no way means that we are excused from giving money to charity, from trying to make institutional changes to help people, or any of that.  There is some efficacy in solving problems.  But we shouldn’t take our participation in the relatively easy business of problem-solving as something more than it is.

….And, of course, I write this post as if I’m someone who doesn’t hide behind the numbers.  As if I’m someone who actually helps people and does not merely solve problems…..  

I will leave it at that.

Our Flat Earth

I have touched a few times on the idea that science is—even in principle—impossible to complete and I have touched on its shortfalls. As background for those statements and others I am sure to make at some point, I feel the need to give a more careful and complete description of what I mean by this. In doing so, I am only really paraphrasing others, particularly Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend.

What is scientific progress?  The answer seems obvious, but let’s try to put words to it.  How about this: “If we make scientific progress, that means we know more about the world than we used to.”

Well, let’s take as a case study one of the most widely-cited examples of dramatic scientific progress: the progress away from heliocentrism to geocentrism by astronomers such as Copernicus and Galileo.  Surely, we know more after Copernicus and Galileo than we did before.

Well, not so fast.  Geocentrism was part of a vastly comprehensive theory of the universe… one far more comprehensive than modern science has come close to approaching.  Geocentrism was part of the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic philosophy, which accounted for—not only motion of planetary and terrestrial objects—but also for gravity, perception, time, morality, and religion.  Galileo’s theory described planetary motion better, but couldn’t account for any of these other things.  (Actually, that’s not even true… at the time of Galileo—as Kuhn and Feyerabend amply show—the data was more on Ptolemy’s side.  But let’s ignore that complication for the moment.)

What causes us to say that Galieo’s heliocentrism is progress?  It describes less than Aristotelianism did!  ”Well,” you say, “It’s simple.  As time has gone on, we’ve filled in the gaps and so that we see that Galileo’s theory was better.”  Ignoring for a moment the fact that this isn’t true (we still have no self-consistent theory that unites the modern fields of particle physics and chemistry, let alone psychology), this argument misses the point.

The way modern scientists tell the story is this: The Church and the scientific institutions of the time were so entrenched in the traditional beliefs that they were blind to what the objective observations clearly showed.  Galileo was the only one who was able to throw off the shackles of tradition to see the truth.

Furthermore, scientists say the following about the scientific method:  In order for a new theory to displace an old theory, it must make a prediction that contradicts the prediction of the old theory.  Then, an experiment must show that this prediction of the new theory is correct.  Finally, the new theory must account for all of the parts of the old theory that had correct predictions.

Galileo met none of these conditions.  It made predictions, but Ptolemy’s theory had been perfected through the ages to make the same predictions.  The two theories were experimentally indistinguishable.  Furthermore, and maybe even more importantly, Galileo could not account for any of the things other than planetary orbit that Aristotle and Ptolemy could.  

At the time of Galileo, there was no scientifically legitimate reason for his theory to displace Aristotle and Ptolemy.

So why is it presented as the model of scientific progress?

There are several (legitimate) answers to this question that I may go over at some point.  But none of them fit into the simplistic description of science that we were taught in school—and, more importantly, the simplistic description of science that drives educational STEM initiatives and science-centric public and economic policies.  The enterprise of science—while a worthy one—does not really deserve the title of ultimate objectivity that it often claims for itself.

Scientific Theology

This is an idea I’ve been playing with recently, and I’m not sure how convinced of it I am. It’s also a bit on a tangent from what I’ve been writing about.  But, here it is nonetheless.

I’m going to go a little bit religious for a moment.  But I don’t think this is so religious as to turn off non-religious readers.  If it makes you more comfortable, feel free to replace the term “God” below with an equivalent atheistic term.*

I have often debated with various people the merits of systematic theology.  The biggest criticism that a lot of people (sometimes myself included, depending on my mood) have against systematic theology is that it takes the mystery away from God.  It turns Him into something to be “figured out.”  This, for example, is one reason that some confessional Protestants have a problem with Thomas Aquinas.  Thomistic theology—it is argued—looks at the Mystery of the Trinity and boils it down into something to be understood.  It makes God in the image of man.  Or, to use the language that I have been using here, Thomistic theology (and systematic theology more broadly) is an example of scientism—of taking the intricate beauty of God and then sterilizing it and packaging it into a set of axioms and doctrines.

Part of me wonders how differently we’d be thinking about this a hundred years ago… namely, pre-Scopes trial.  At that time, wasn’t at least part of the problem with evolution that it took the intricate beauty of a God who created the world ex nihilo and sterilized and packaged His power into a set of mere natural occurrences?

And even farther back than that, wasn’t the problem that people had with a heliocentric universe the fact that the heavens were no longer something more perfect than our world, but instead were sterilized and packaged to fit into the same laws of nature that governed things here on the ground with us?

Perhaps, then, would it be fair to say that systematic theology as practiced in the Middle Ages was not really scientism?  On the contrary, wasn’t it the best intellectual way to ponder and explore the uncertain Mystery of God and His Universe at that time?  Science couldn’t fill that role of seeking Mystery because science de-transcend-ified everything.  It made God less unpredictable and more easy to understand.  Only theology could lead to the mind to lofty thoughts of uncertainty and transcendence.

If I am right in everything that I have said so far, then it seems to me that in our age science (at least when it is kept free from scientism) has the potential to fill the same role in our intellectual scheme that systematic theology filled in the Middle Ages.  If science continues to recognize its own limitations as something that can only encounter but cannot fully know or explain the universe, then it has the potential to be our age’s door to the lofty thoughts of uncertainty and transcendence.  Science approaches the uncertain Mystery of the Universe and recognizes that the universe is hard—probably impossible—to fully understand.  (Just ask Feynman and de Grasse Tyson).  In doing this science fills precisely the same role that systematic theology used to play.

In a sense, the roles of science and systematic theology have flipped.  The former used to be (under and prior to the Newtonian conception) a pursuit of fixed certainty.  It was hostile to uncertainty.  Systematic theology was the only intellectual way to dialogue with uncertainty.

But for some people today, the way we read systematic theology tends to be more hostile to uncertainty than it used to be.  We often read it as making God easier to understand.  In other words, even though the church of the Middle Ages might have read Aquinas as a way to dialogue with uncertainty, we today sometimes tend to read Aquinas as a dogmatist who is trying to make God easier to understand and less mysterious.  On the other hand, modern scientists recognize that science actually makes the world harder to understand—at least in the sense that no explanation we ever give to it will be good enough.  

Maybe in our age, then, modern science is less hostile to God than Thomas Aquinas is.

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By the way, I don’t think I necessarily have anything against systematic theology, as long as it is not viewed as scientism.  As I said, I think that Thomas Aquinas read himself very differently than 21st-Century anti-Thomists read him.  I also think that it is not impossible for us 21st-Century people to read Thomas Aquinas “correctly”—that is, as someone encountering uncertainty and not as a dogmatist.

I guess all I’m really trying to say is that if it is true that in certain circles Aquinas (and systematic theology in general) tends to be viewed through a lens of scientism, then maybe modern science is a better way to go.

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*Try “truth” or “the way things objectively are.”  I think if you replace either of these terms for “God” you get the same gist from reading this post.

Reprise on Beauty

In relation an earlier post

On the Origin of Species and Ideas

I’m going to take a slight detour from the discussion of beauty that has almost exclusively been my topic up until this point.  (However, a careful reader might notice that this post is no less about beauty than any of the other posts have been.)

It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Theory of Evolution to assume that natural selection always chooses the better, more advanced species over the worse, less advanced one—and that, therefore, the history of life is one uninterrupted march toward more advanced, smarter, better lifeforms.  Of course, it might be true that we homo sapiens—the latest lifeforms in our branch of the evolutionary tree—are the most advanced, smartest, and (I hesitate to say) best species in the history of the world but we should not take this to mean that our existence was evolutionarily predetermined.

No, properly understood, natural selection does not choose species which are objectively superior; it merely chooses those species which are best adapted to the current environment in which they live.  Environments tend to change over time, however, so a species that may be better suited to the environment at a certain location in one era may not be in another era.  Therefore, it is possible—and there are plenty of examples of this in the fossil record (so the biologists tell me)—that a less “advanced” species might beat out a more “advanced” species simply because it is better suited to the environment at that point in time. 

Moral of this story: a species that is more evolved is not necessarily more advanced or better than a species which has not evolved as much.  (e.g. there might have been some dinosaur more “advanced”—however we might define that—than the modern lizard.)

Going off of an idea sparked by a similar metaphor that Thomas Kuhn uses in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I would like to apply this thinking about the history of life provided by the Theory of Evolution to the history of ideas.  Namely, I would like to say that more highly evolved ideas—that is, ideas that have come later in time—are not necessarily better or more advanced than older ones.

We tend to assume that our modern set of ideas, our modern worldview is more advanced and better than the worldviews of the past.  Today, after all, we understand that the earth is not the center of the universe, that the spread of disease is caused by germs, that we are made of atoms and those atoms are made of quarks, etc, etc.

I contend, however, that this modern worldview is not necessary more advanced or better than those of the past.  This worldview is certainly better suited to this modern environment in which we are interested in sending unmanned spacecraft to planets, overcoming disease through medicine, and building giant beam colliders to discover the Higgs Boson.

However, although we understand these things and have made great discoveries, we live in a world where we value our families less, where humans beings doing dignified work must denigrate themselves to the title of “unskilled laborers” who are expendable “human resources” in order to feed their families, where we view the poor as the cause of their own problems as an excuse for our lack of care for them.

So, it is probably true that our modern worldview is the one most well-suited to the modern environment.  But perhaps, just maybe, our modern environment is screwed up.  And, if that’s the case, maybe our modern worldview is less advanced than, not as good as, some of the worldviews of the past.

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[I ought to point out that I have nothing against sending unmanned spacecraft to the planets, nothing against medicine, nothing against building the LHC, nothing against science in general.  It is quite possible—probable, actually—that a world which valued the practice of science could also value these other human concerns.  I just tend to think that the overarching modern worldview as it stands does not value both these things.]

Would we even want “perfect knowledge”?

We’ve established that science cannot be finished and that, therefore, “perfect knowledge”—at least in the scientific sense—is a meaningless term.  Thus, it seems that we’ve rendered our question incomprehensible.  (Can somebody with perfect knowledge of something appreciate the beauty of that thing?)

However, for the sake of argument, let’s define “perfect knowledge” as the Newtonian I discussed last time would define it… That is, let’s assume that our scientific theories of the world are the way the world really is and not this more nuanced idea that scientific theories are pretend things whose consequences are similar to what we experience in the real world.  If this were the case, could someone with perfect knowledge of science appreciate the beauty of science?

I think the answer is no.  Someone who has attained this perfect knowledge is done.  He has nothing more to work at.  And beauty is not something achieved; it is something experienced.  (Thus, I am quite glad that the Newtonian philosophy is wrong!)

But I shouldn’t be so immediately dismissive, because there might be more to appreciate.  But I think that appreciation only comes when the perfect knowledge is applied to a situation in such a way that we no longer actually have perfect knowledge of that situation.  Such a situation might occur when a scientist applies his perfect knowledge to a situation so complex that he cannot really comprehend it.  (For example, assuming that Feynman has perfect knowledge of electromagnetic radiation in the clip I mentioned earlier, he is able to experience the beauty of the “tremendous mess” of waves that is more than he can comprehend.)  Or, perhaps, if a scientist were to see in his perfect knowledge of a situation a question that were to take him beyond his theory. (For example, Newton—though he might have believed himself to have near-perfect knowledge of mechanics—nonetheless saw in the elegance of his system the question of why it worked so well.  He believed it pointed to something beyond his own comprehension: the work of a Creator who could have invented these laws.)

So, I guess the point I’m trying to make is that we can only experience beauty when we get outside of ourselves.  “Perfect knowledge” is inside ourselves—it is a boiling down of the richness of Nature into natural laws and abstractions that can fit into our puny minds.  We experience beauty when we realize that reality is bigger than our conception of it.

Earlier, in a comment, I used the Iliad as an example of beauty to be experienced.  Scholars discuss the Iliad and find more and more connections and interpretations in it as time goes on.  It is intuitively obvious that the Iliad is not something to be “figured out”—something to achieve “perfect knowledge” of.  Even if achieving this “perfect knowledge” were possible, that would not be the Iliad's beauty.  Its beauty is in experiencing the story, in discovering more and more ways to read and interpret it, and in recognizing that there is more to it than any of us will ever be able to understand.  Likewise, the beauty of science is in experiencing nature, discovering the patterns that it seems to exhibit, and recognizing its enormous complexity.  Anything less—for whatever it might be—cannot be considered beautiful.

Can Science be Finished?

An important question came up after last post in which I claimed that you can only find beauty in things that are uncertain.  The question is: Can somebody with perfect knowledge of something appreciate the beauty of that thing?  My knee-jerk answer was no, but I’ve had to think hard about why the answer is no.

I’m going to try to answer that question in the next few posts.  But first, what is “perfect knowledge”?  

I believe “perfect knowledge” to be a meaningless term.  But hopefully we can explore some important things by investigating why it is a meaningless term.

As a first step in answering that question, here’s a quick pseudo-history of the scientists’ philosophy of science.*

Pre-twentieth century Newtonian physics enjoyed (and suffered from) an illusion that most scientists now discredit: the idea that the theory of physics is identical to the reality of physics.  Let me explain what I mean.

Newton believed that all things were made out of atoms: impenetrable, hard spheres that are ruled by the laws of nature.  These atoms, for Newton, were not abstractions—not things that represent reality—but things that really exist.  And these atoms were actually ruled by Newton’s laws.  Therefore, it was in principal possible for physics to eventually be completed.  All that was needed was to finish the list of laws.  (Actually, they say—though this may be urban legend—that right before Einstein came along, many physicists thought that they were almost done, and people were actively discouraging new students from entering the field because they were only three or four “minor” issues away from having the world entirely figured out.)  

If you talk to any serious scientist today, they don’t believe this.  They say that the world seems to behave as if it were made of atoms, which seem to behave as if they are made of electrons and protons and neutrons and that the world behaves as if it were ruled by the laws of nature.  You would be hard pressed to find a scientist that would strongly disagree with you if you said that quarks aren’t real things—provided that you were persistent enough and didn’t try to give your own crackpot theory of what is really there in place of the quarks.

Of course, it is very useful to pretend that quarks exist. This is useful because the world behaves as if these quarks do exist, and there are no other theories that do as well at explaining the world than quarks do.  

(It is true that you will sometimes hear scientists use a shorthand way of speaking in which they say omit all the as if’s and pretend's that I just included, but most scientists—if you pressure them into being careful—know that the as if is there even if they don’t say it.)

This modern idea about science means that science can never—even in principal—be finished because there is no end goal.  Where Newtonian physics sought to get to what is, modern science has accepted the fact that we don’t know and can’t find out what is: all we can do is come up with theories that are like the way the world behaves.  And since those theories never can be identical to what is, they can always be improved.**  

Thus, a first-order answer to the perfect knowledge question is: perfect knowledge [at least in science] does not exist because there is no end goal which would correspond to perfect knowledge.

Stay tuned for more!

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*A “psuedo-history” because I’m not an historian; and a “scientists’ philosophy” because it’s the philosophy that scientists are trained to have, which may or may not be equivalent to the philosophy that the philosophers of science are trained to have.

**Actually, improved is a tricky word because it implies an end goal…  Theories can’t improve in any strong sense; they can only change or “improve” in a narrowly-defined sense.  But that’s a subject for another post—also the subject of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, if you’re interested.