Monday, February 22, 2010

Not Even Wrong

I've read more than my fair share of general science books. I recognize them for what they are - a general summary of scientific knowledge of whatever field they cover. I recognize that there are people out there that have a hard time distinguishing between a general summary of conditional, provisional collection of facts and theories and unquestioned dogma. I say this because I have, over time, modified my thinking about certain books which went from (a near) acceptance of the contents of the book as (almost) unquestioned dogma, to, in some cases, a complete rejection of the contents of the book.

I think perhaps one of the more sane approaches I've read was by a cosmologist that reviewed the evidence for the Big Bang theory. The first thing he made clear was that there was no suggestion that a Big Bang actually occurred (despite what most people think). Rather, the evidence to date suggested that if you go back far enough in time (some 13.7 billion years, give or take) conditions get very, very crowded, matter gets hotter and denser, and the universe starts to look like it exploded at some time zero. Not, and this is important, that there was a big huge bang that started it all. But someone could surmise, from the evidence, that it looks like maybe a big huge bang occurred way back when.

There's a huge difference in the two statements.

The first statement (the evidence suggests...) sets initial limits on knowledge. The second (a big bang happened) sets initial limits on correctness - what knowledge is allowed and what is not.

This week, I'm going to try to cover belief. I'm going to try cover my increasing discomfort with what is allowed and what is not. What is considered "settled" knowledge and what is still open to interpretation or challenge.

I think, and will always think, that the scientific endeavor is the best set of skills we as a species have developed for accumulating and evaluating knowledge. It may often fail to describe what, in reality, something is, but it works quite well at helping determine what things are not. 

In short, it is our best tool when it time to Call Bullshit on something.

I think there are far too many people who feel that, since the science is in the science book, that all the facts and theories are now settled. There's no reason to question things. And they think this is the way Science works. "They got that figured out and That's That and now the Science Types are moving on to the next question".

This is not to suggest that Science is evolving into a religion. The very nature of the activities makes this impossible, because, quite frankly, theories have to fit the facts. Facts come from Nature. And Nature, like it or not, keeps us honest. Religion can make up any old silly thing and call it true.

And this is not to suggest that some things are not settled. There are lots of things are just plain wrong. There are things we can call Bullshit on. How do we know? The empirical evidence says so. (Nature keeps us honest).

But I am worried that I'm starting to see a form of fundamentalism develop. I'm worried that there are some brittle thinkers that are popularizers of science who perhaps should instead just shut the fuck up. And maybe I'm one of them.

But, I will attempt to explore science and tradition and faith and belief in a non-boring manner throughout the week.

So, tomorrow, I think I  will talk about I lost my faith in Number, and why numbers are not real, and why I think mathematical platonism is Bullshit.

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