|03-30-2007, 05:20 AM||#1 (permalink)|
Join Date: Nov 2006
Location: Seattle, Washington, USA
Smoke and Mirrors: The Science of the Mysterious
I have no idea where I'm getting the time to write all this, but here I go.
There is a remarkably obnoxious debate raging back and forth that doesn't end because everyone continually reuses old arguments to throw back and forth. I cannot count the number of times I have heard the false dichotomy drawn line a scrimmage line between science and religion, as if they were indistinguishable, as if one mandated a particular view of the world, as if they were easily remarked upon. False dichotomies and overgeneralizations: taking the word of one scientist and belaboring the rigid blindness of all scientists, or hearing one crazy religious nutjob and lamenting the fall of civilization and a withdrawal into the Dark Ages. And therein lies the third fallacy: slippery slope.
Let's begin with definitions.
Science: a body of knowledge consisting of conclusions, which were derived by the scientific method, that have been empirically tested and confirmed. In the case of "hard" sciences, the hypotheses involved are typically founded upon mathematical speculation. Examples of this range from the modern-day string theory back to Newton's study of planetary motion. In the case of "soft" sciences, such as psychology, sociology, or anthropology, hypotheses are typically founded on observation and imagination. Recent examples would include Zimbardo's Lucifer Effect, six degrees of separation, and the vast majority of medical knowledge.
Put simply, science is what happens when you try to narrow down and isolate the cause of an observation. It is founded on the expectation that, if something is the cause of a phenomenon, repeating the cause in similar conditions will repeat the phenomenon. This is called repeatability, and when filtered down to pop culture, often incorrectly called reliability.
Logic: a system by which truth is derived from truth. Logic formalizes a set of rules by which a statement can be analyzed based on the assumptions it begins with. Let's say that we disagree that a particular object, a wine glass, is a certain color. I say it's purple and you say it's pink. Because of this, any conclusion drawn from this fact is questionable by the other party.
However, let's say that we agree that the wine glass is, in fact, orange. In this case, supposing that we both agree on any other assumptions, I must accept any conclusion you draw, or at least admit that I can find no problems with your logic. If I cannot accept it, then I have to either discover what is called a logical fallacy (a conclusion drawn by breaking the rules of logic) or I have to seek an assumption that you make that I disagree with.
Putting a falsehood into logical rules outputs gibberish. For instance, if we agreed that it always rains on Thursday, and today is Thursday, then it would be logical to conclude that it will rain today. The problem is that the first premise is false, so the conclusion, while logical, cannot be guaranteed to be true. But it also isn't necessarily false: it could rain. It just won't be because it's Thursday.
Faith: a set of propositions considered self-evident. A self-evident proposition is not logically deduced, nor can it be ultimately tested scientifically. A non-religious example is "I think, therefore I am," a twist of which is in my signature. Other examples are those that make up belief in subjective reality, the existence of God in whatever form, and so on.
These beliefs cannot be proven wrong, because they cannot be tested. Neither can they be considered illogical, because there are no logical fallacies involved in their instatement. They have the capacity to undermine science and logic, because science and logic are, in and of themselves, self-evident propositions.
Failing to agree on self-evident propositions immediately makes a conversation pointless: many adolescents consider it self-evident that women are interested only in jocks and jerks, for instance, and thus cannot be logically persuaded otherwise, or proved scientifically wrong. Only when they hold logic and science above these other propositions--that is to say, when a contradiction shows itself (women are logically not interested in only jocks and jerks: here is evidence of at least one woman (counterexample) who is interested in someone who is neither a jock, nor a jerk)--they ultimately agree with the logical statement.
Aside from science and logic (which are inextricably intertwined, though completely different beasts), there are very few well-known methods of examining statements for truth. Maxims like "In vino veritas" suggest a few, whereas old shamanistic answer-seeking (like bibliomancy) are also remembered, but the ultimate reason that science has come out on top of these is because it depends on repeatability, and thus enables accurate prediction. Because the equations describing phenomena successfully predict the future with almost no failure, we find ourselves capable of relying on them more and doing more because of them.
The Sun Also Rises.
The most prevalent example of the "clash" between these is the rising of the sun, or any other event that we expect to occur on a regular basis, like breathing, or assumed knowledge, like the existence of China despite never having visited.
By using the definitions above, you can see that such events and knowledge are not matters of faith. They are not self-evident. Let me show you why.
Will the sun rise tomorrow? It is self-evident, here, that there will be a tomorrow. But why will the sun rise? Scientifically, we have confirmed that the earth is a ball of rock that spins on an axis. Logically, we can thus conclude that, if this planet continues to spin, the sun will "rise" because the rays of light from the sun will eventually shine upon our bit of the earth again at dawn tomorrow.
We further recognize the conditions that it won't: if the Earth stopped spinning, if the Sun disappeared, if we were displaced far away, if some opaque obstruction prevents us from seeing it, and so on. These are additional assumptions which we generally agree on, whether confirmed scientifically or proposed as self-evident.
(As an interesting addendum, faith in a God is typically not self-evident, though this is the primary and most acceptable argument made for the existence of such. The typical habit is far deeper. God exists not because it is obvious that he must, but rather because people with authority believe he does. However, most intelligent believers do ultimately take the existence of God as self-evident or discard the notion. Such a belief, after all, is or isn't: there is no real middle ground.)
There is no dichotomy.
People often make the mistake of conflating "science" or "logic" with "linear thinking", and "faith", "religion", or "spirituality" with "holistic thinking". There are other conflations, but the ultimate result is the creation of a duality that did not need to exist, and doesn't.
The three components listed above--self-evident propositions, a process for determining truth value, and a process to confirm causality--are not mutually exclusive at all. They are, in fact, interdependent: science and logic are assumptions we make.
What is logic, anyways? Underneath it all, it's just a formalization of common sense. Little is more blatantly obvious than "If P, then Q. P. Therefore Q." But few people think that way, which is why it's been codified, so that it's easy to match statements up against it and say, "This works," and "This doesn't."
What about mystery?
And finally, what moved me to post in the first place. We have been obsessed, in today's day and age, with understanding how things work. This is not hard to believe, considering that the more we understand, the more we're capable of doing. Knowledge is power, after all. But this drive to know has been countered by the recognition of mystery as a driving force in the human psyche.
Feynman has been made more famous by his remarks on mystery than by his incredible achievements in the field of physics, so I won't bother repeating him here. Instead, I will complement him by remarking on why I started this essay.
There has been a lot of respect shown for mystery lately, but there has been a serious mistake in understanding what it is. Mystery is not, as people would have it, an ignorance of the world. Or more accurately, it is not just an ignorance. What mystery is instead is the permission to discover things on your own.
Contrary to being an ode to ignorance, the appreciation of mystery involves the realization just how much a person could discover. Mystery is a catalyst of action, inviting investigation and analysis, not a passive reception of the unknown. A good mystery novel is not a discussion about ignorance; it's an adventure detailing how a person acquires knowledge.
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