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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘knowledge

a discussion on scientific progress and scientism

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Pretty funny, but not much related to this post

Scientific progress depends on an expectation of continuous innovation, on encouraging an attitude of willingness to experiment, rejecting established authority of every sort, on the assumption that new experiments will bring out new realities and force us to revise our knowledge.’
Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia

Discuss ‘scientific progress’ in the light of this statement.

Canto: This is very interesting. As a ‘fan’ (remembering that this word comes from ‘fanatic’) of scientific progress, an evidence junky, and also a humanist, I can see, and have experienced, a collision between the scientific process, which involves a respect for evidence rather than people, and the strongly held cultural/religious beliefs of people, which they hold fast to as identifying and solidifying principles. For example, the Aboriginal belief, handed down and taught, that their people have inhabited this land for eternity, while scientists are trying to determine precisely when the first home sapiens arrived here, and how old the continent of Australia actually is, given the pre-existence of Gondwana, Pangaea and the rest. 

Jacinta: A belief probably not held by that many Aboriginal people, most of whom have been educated in institutions that treat science seriously. That’s to say, more recent generations, and this is a problem everywhere – ‘established authority’ can also mean traditional beliefs and practices, even the old established language. The tribal language, the local language, being abandoned everywhere for more global forms of communication. 

Canto: Yes I read yesterday an essay topic about the growth of English as an international language, often as a person’s second or third language – and I recognised immediately that the essay was out of date as it stated that about 900,000 used English that way. It’s well over a billion now and rising fast. 

Jacinta: And the language of science is largely English – plus mathematics. It’s funny that there are actual scientific endeavours to preserve many of the 7,000 languages that exist in the world, while scientific communication relies largely on a universal single language…

Canto: Yes, and a person can feel that contradiction, that kind of tugging both ways, within themselves. Like following Scottish or Jewish traditions at times of celebration, enjoying the fun, and then thinking – why am I doing this? I don’t believe in first-footing or plate-breaking or whatever. 

Jacinta: People follow these traditions because they work, or at least they think so, but not always in the traditional way. And many such followers are well aware of this – that these activities don’t work as lucky charms so much as social glue. But that’s the trouble with glue – you get stuck. 

Canto: You’ve heard of the missionary who tried to Christianise the Andaman Islanders and was speared to death for his efforts? Most people’s responses were of the ‘serves him right’ type. But wasn’t that because the missionary was just trying to substitute one set of myths for another? If he was trying to introduce a new fishing method, or, I don’t know, something modernising and scientific…

Jacinta: We’ll have to get onto so-called ‘scientism’ at some stage, but here’s the thing. Maçães writes about ‘rejecting established authority of every sort’, and Richard Feynman apparently described science as belief in the ignorance of experts, but when we come upon, say, the Piripkura people of Brazil’s Mato Grosso, whose continued existence in the face of western diseases and cattle-raising gunmen we’re not even sure about, converting such people into scientific modernists who should question why they’re having difficulty surviving and adapting, seems very arrogant somehow. 

Canto: This is where humanism comes in, and it’s a fraught kind of humanism. Many would say – look, all these tribes will disappear, because their way of life is outdated and ‘in the way’, which doesn’t mean the people will disappear, they’ll gradually get absorbed into the broader population, modernised, urbanised, educated and homogenised into our diverse modern world. If they’re lucky enough not to die of disease and gunshot wounds. 

Jacinta: And their expertise in traditional hunting, gathering and fishing will be found to be not so much ignorant as obsolete within the mechanised world of food production and consumption. And this is happening everywhere, from the Limi of south-western China to the Bushmen of Botswana. Could it be said that they’re the victims of scientific progress? It’s hard to distinguish science and technology from other aspects of modernism I suppose, but this is the complex other face of science’s otherwise refreshing respect for innovation, experiment and evidence rather than ‘experts’, or just plain old people. 

Canto: So what do you think of ‘scientism’, which is I think a rather vague claim about the steamrolling arrogance of science, and what about the possibly self-destructive implications of relentless scientific advancement?

Jacinta: You know there might be something in the criticism, because as I try to get my head around the complexities of, say, electromagnetism, or neurological interactions, I find myself less drawn to some of my earlier loves, literature and the visual arts. I don’t know if that means I’m arrogantly dismissing them, but I do know they’re not engaging me in the old way. I find science more exciting, and maybe that’s dangerous…

Canto: In what way? 

Jacinta: Well, the motto of this blog is ‘rise above yourself and grasp the world’, but that kind of engagement – in something so large if not abstract as ‘the world’….

Canto: The world isn’t abstract – it’s everything. Everything found in time and space. It’s absolute reality. 

Jacinta: Well maybe, but that engagement in ‘everything’, it rather detaches you from the smaller world of the people around you, and – and yourself. Rising above yourself entails escaping from yourself and you can’t really do that, can you? 

Canto: The sciences of biology, neurology, genetics and so forth are the best ways of learning about ourselves. It all comes back to us in the end, doesn’t it? Our mathematical equations, our experiments, our discoveries of black holes, the Higgs boson, gravitational waves, they’re all about us, somehow. The things we do. And it seems it helps our understanding and sympathy. Science is about finding out things, like finding out about other people. The more we find out, the less we tend to dismiss or hate, or fear. Look at those who commit acts of terror. Surely ignorance plays a major role in such acts. A refusal or inability to find out stuff about others. A lack of curiosity about why people are different in the way they look and act. Science – or the scientific impulse, which is basically curiosity – opens us up to these things, so that we no longer hate or fear mosquitos or spiders or snakes or Christians or Moslems or Jews. 

Jacinta: Hmmm, so what’s the buzz about scientism? Let’s end this post by discussing a quote from an essay on scientism written for the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

It is one thing to celebrate science for its achievements and remarkable ability to explain a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world. But to claim there is nothing knowable outside the scope of science would be similar to a successful fisherman saying that whatever he can’t catch in his nets does not exist. Once you accept that science is the only source of human knowledge, you have adopted a philosophical position (scientism) that cannot be verified, or falsified, by science itself. It is, in a word, unscientific.

Canto: Well I’m not impressed with this argument, I must say, probably because I don’t agree with the implied definition of science it presents. Science, to me, is an activity, driven by curiosity, which provides dividends in the form of a greater knowledge which raises more and more questions. I rarely worry whether it’s the only source of human knowledge, because that raises the question of what ‘knowledge’ is, and I’m not so interested in that enquiry. Much more interesting to try and work out how life came from non-life, how our planet got covered in water, whether life of any kind exists elsewhere in the solar system, how different parts of the brain interact under particular circumstances, etc etc. I don’t know or care whether you call those enquiries ‘science’ or not, I only know that you won’t get answers to those questions by just sitting around thinking about them. I mean, you can start by thinking, forming a hypothesis, but then you have to explore, gather evidence, conduct experiments, test then modify or abandon your hypothesis…

Jacinta: I thought the ‘net’ analogy used in that quote was pretty inept. Of course it’s reminiscent of the old Kantian categories, the grid or net by means of which we know things, which separates the noumenal world of things in themselves from the phenomenal world of perception/conception. But Kant’s problem was that the noumenal world was just a hypothesis that couldn’t be tested, since we only have our perceptions/conceptions – enhanced somewhat by technology – with which to test things.

Canto: Probably another reason why so many scientists, especially physicists, seem dismissive of philosophers of science. Another problem with those that go on about scientism is that they insist that there are other ways of knowing, but you can rarely pin them down on what those ways of knowing are.

Jacinta: Yes they’re often religious or new-age types, and spiritual knowledge is their stock-in-trade. And if you don’t have that spirituality, which doesn’t need to be explained, then you’ll never understand, you’ll always be a shallow materialist. There’s no response to that view.

Canto: Yes, we’re obviously on the autism spectrum, though not so far along as real scientists. Meanwhile, let’s keep exploring…

Written by stewart henderson

April 15, 2019 at 9:27 am

fountains of good stuff 1: introduction

with 3 comments

Here is my first podcast in the new series, which I hope to continue with into the future, having worked out a simple format.

fountains of good stuff 1: introduction

Hi, my name is Stewart Henderson, and this is my introduction to fountains of good stuff, a series which will explore all sorts of things we’re learning about the brain, the galaxy, the past, the laws of nature, the strange behaviour of humans, and anything else that happens to take my fancy and which I think may be of interest to, well, somebody out there. In my fantasy world, I’d love to be constantly immersed in all this good stuff, learning about it, reading about it, talking to clever people about it, picking people’s brains about it, arguing about it, and just generally wallowing about in the stuff. Okay, with a dollop of sex thrown in occasionally. It’s a kind of lifelong learning thing, because you know, you’re never too old to learn, and learning is the best way to keep you young and enthusiastic, and to maintain the plasticity of your brain, apparently.

Now it just so happens that I myself am very very old, so I think it’s most appropriate that I should be presenting this ‘fountain of youth’-type series which I’m hoping will flow on and on and on unto oblivion, you know, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. And I’m hoping you can follow me along the downward spiral. Should be fun, n’est-ce pas?

So what’s the purpose of all this? Well, in my dotage, I’ve become very interested in knowledge, in finding things out, and also thinking about how we know things. Not in a philosophical way, but in a naïve, childlike way – a sense of wonder, often confusion, sometimes excitement, and sometimes skepticism. And maybe, this is philosophy, I don’t know. It seems to me that, as I get older, I become almost panic-stricken about how little I know about anything, as if I’ve wasted my life, or as if haven’t sufficiently explored and exercised this amazing thing I have inside my head.

There’s a funny story told about Pliny the Elder, a great Roman intellectual who had a servant follow him around all day, reading to him from works of natural history, the science of the time, so that when he was in his bath, sitting on the dunny, or at the dinner table, none of his time would be wasted, he’d be absorbing information during every waking hour. How he’d have loved the modern world of podcasting.

Of course, this is based on the notion of the brain as a great big bucket which you can pour contents into until it’s full up and you know everything, but the brain doesn’t work like that, and Pliny would’ve been well aware of that, he would’ve known that memory is unreliable, that we forget more than we retain and so on, but I can certainly sympathise with his hunger for more knowledge, perhaps in the hope that it would all somehow combine together in his mind, and even that his mind would transform it into more than the sum of its parts, like an oven does to the ingredients of a soufflé. Incidently Pliny, Jupiter bless him, was exactly my age when he died, overcome, so it’s said, by the fumes of Vesuvius, on the same day that it buried Pompei under its lava and ash.

Now where was I? Knowledge. I’m no scientist, in fact through most of my life I’ve been an arty-farty bludger type, but I’ve always been impressed, in fact in awe, of the achievements of science, and I’ve certainly always been interested in the questions science seeks to answer. What does it mean to be alive? Why do we sleep for so much of our lives? How did the world we live in come to be? What do we mean by ‘the world’? Is that an obsolete term or does it still have its uses? How is it that my pet cat has the same shape face as a lion, or a tiger? Exactly how is it different, and how the same? Why does my shit smell so bad, though not as bad as that of other people? Why am I so struck by the beauty of women, while noting that beauty’s infinite variety? How long will our species last? Is there life elsewhere in our solar system?

The number of questions is infinite, of course, or potentially so, and some of these questions we already have answers for, though there may turn out to be better answers, and there are some questions we’re close to finding answers for, and some questions that are unanswerable, or badly framed, or not worth worrying about, or too much of a worry. There are questions we can answer in a jiff via Wikipedia, and questions we wonder if anyone has ever asked before.

Whatever the questions, they all have something to do with knowledge, and it seems to me that science can always be let in to lend a hand. I don’t think science is anything mysterious or scary, it’s simply the way to knowledge. At least, the knowledge I’m interested in. Science is whatever generates reliable knowledge about the world. I’ve heard people say that ‘science doesn’t know everything’, as if science was a person, probably male, obsessive and slightly mad. They say this as if they think this science bloke is getting too big for his boots and needs to have a wadge of humble pie stuffed down his throat. But if you just treat science as an attempt to arrive at reliable knowledge, you’ll see how absurd this statement is. People try to arrive at reliable knowledge because they don’t know everything. And I would say that the vast majority of scientists are happy to admit that they don’t know much about anything. That’s what makes it such a challenge and so much fun, that there’s so much to learn and so much to think about. And if you can think of any other approach to knowledge that is of any use at all, please let me know, I’d be fascinated.

I know some philosophers say there’s no such thing as the scientific method, and I agree. There’s nothing you can point to, or write down, or put into a formula, and say, there’s the scientific method. I think of science as using an open-ended set of methodologies, each one more beautiful than the other, for arriving at reliable knowledge. They generally involve a lot of prior knowledge, a fair degree of creativity, and a balance of open-mindedness and skepticism. Now, I think I understand the Darwin-Wallace theory of natural selection. I can’t say that I fully understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but I know enough about it to be pretty sure that the methods Einstein used to arrive at his theory have pretty well nothing in common with the methods of Darwin and Wallace. In fact I’d say that even Darwin and Wallace arrived at much the same theory using different methods, according to their different natures and experience. That’s the beauty and creativity of science, and there’s plenty of that around.

Science is essentially a way of life, and it’s the best diversion from the perils of self-absorption ever devised.

So I want to celebrate science and its achievements from my lay perspective, very much in the spirit of Bill Bryson in his wonderful book ‘A short history of nearly everything,’ and I immediately identify with Bryson when, in the beginning of his book, he recalls a text-book diagram from his school-days, which cut through the Earth’s inner layers, and the text told him that the inner core was made of molten nickel and iron, at a temperature something like the surface of the sun, and he asked himself – how did they know that? And still asks himself, as I do. How do they know that light travels at about 300,000 kms per second? How do they know that Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to us apart from the sun, is 4.24 light years away? How do they know? Well, it’s not really a mystery, and I’m hoping, as maybe old Pliny did, that it’ll all come together in my mind one day. With a bit of work.

I won’t always be talking about scientific knowledge, though, and how we come to know things. I have an interest in history, in biography, and in religion, its psychology, its history, and its claims to knowledge and influence. I’ll be talking about important and fascinating figures in intellectual history, from Hypatia to Antoni van Leeuwenhoek to Harry Hess. I’m doing it for self-education and for communication, so if you hear any of these talks, and think you’ve learned something from them or been stimulated by them to learn more, I hope you’ll recommend them to your friend. And some people, I hear, have more than one.

So that’s my introduction to these fountains of good stuff. I hope it wasn’t too discombobulating, and I’m hoping that one day, if I get rich, or meet someone who’s a techno wizard with a bit of time on their hands, that I’ll be able to add a few bells and maybe even a whistle or two, to make it all sound really cool.

Meanwhile, I hope you tune into my first fully gushing podcast, which will be about dolphins and their brains. See you then.

Written by stewart henderson

November 11, 2012 at 1:15 am