Friday, September 28, 2012

Thinking Makes My Head Hurt! Part 3: Scientifically Minded

Plato was right: People would rather watch their own shadows flicker on the cave walls than step out of the cave into the light.

Have you ever played with Legos--and really, really enjoyed it? Have you ever taken something apart, such as a cell-phone, computer, or car engine just to see how it worked? Have you ever made a baking-soda and vinegar lava volcano with your child, not only because of the fun you had doing it when you were their age, but because you wanted to understand with "adult eyes" exactly how the chemical processes worked? Have you ever been amazed that your iPhone is actually a much better device than anything Captain Kirk or Captain Piccard ever used?

This is basically what science is. At least, it is the spirit of science. To get down to the bottom of how some real world process works, and then learn to understand it fully, completely. In this way, science gives us one of the most powerful tool for gaining positive knowledge ever invented!

But this spirit is often sadly lacking in people. People so often take science for granted (the above image depicts this well enough). They use their smart phones, plasma screen TVs, and drive their cars with state of the art GPS navigation systems built right in, and they take it all for granted. One of the reasons they take the fruits of science for granted is that they don't understand it. This often creates the weird case where these same people will grow extremely skeptical of science.

Sometimes they even go as far to deny science has any practical value, or that it doesn't relate to their daily lives. Perhaps this argument could have worked fifty years ago, but it's the 21st Century! Now is *not the time to grow downright disillusioned with science. 


There's no two ways about it: the anti-science attitude is harmful. 

It teaches you the wrong things about science, a negative smear campaign concocted by monkeys that don't know anything simply to leave their ignorance intact. Over the past half decade I have noticed a growing divide, especially in my home country of the United States. There seems to be a large segment of the population who is keeping up with the science, they are up-to-date. Whereas another large portion is completely in the dark.

Needless to say, this rift has created a strange rift. I don't know if religion is to blame here or not (since it always seems to be those most skeptical of science are also the most religious), or if this trend simply denotes a lackadaisical mind-set within a large majority of the population. All I know is, it's not good. But it can be remedied! 



How? By getting better acquainted with science, what it is, and how it works. This doesn't mean you have to become a serious scientist. Just be scientifically minded. The same could be said of sports fans. You don't need to play a sport to be a fan and know every play by heart. If people watched science programs even half as much as sports programs, society would be better off.  

What do I mean by being better off? Well, I feel that scientific ignorance is probably the biggest reason for why science detractors feel like they need to nag about science anytime they are confronted with it. Which is a lot. Hey, we live in a scientifically advance culture, and gradually, the whole world is growing scientifically capable. It pays to be literate. But those who aren't sure love to complain.

"Science can't explain love," they'll say. Or, "Science can't explain how the tides come in and go out," they'll say. In actuality, both statements are horribly embarrassing because they reveal a scientific ignorance so great that it actually has caused the person to say something worthy of being shamed. So instead of listening to Bill O'Reilly, we need to start listening to Bill Nye the Science Guy. In fact, if Bill O'Reilly would have had the basic, bare minimum, amount of scientific literacy, he would have never said such mind-numbingly stupid things. 



Scientific ignorance/illiteracy at its finest.

Does science provide better insights into what love means? Can is answer what the purpose of our life is? You know, the real deep questions that people often feel is important? And I think the answer is: yes

Science gives us a guide to understanding the world better. Understanding ourselves better.

Here's the thing though. When I say science can provide us with the answers to deep and meaningful questions like, what does it mean to be loved or to love someone, and what is our purpose in life, I am talking about the spirit of the science applied to everyday life. When I talk about gaining a practical understanding of how something works, and the causal reasons behind it, I am talking about the practice of science.

What's the difference you might ask? Well, as I have come to see it, science consists of two separate parts. 



  • First, there is the philosophical aspect to science, which comes out of our desire to ask the "why" questions. It stems from our need to understand not only the world, but our place in it. The spirit of science, then, is the mentality we gain when we pride the value of applying the philosophy of science to our daily lives. It's a way of thinking. A lifestyle choice. 
  • Then there is the pragmatic aspect to science. The part which dares to boldly answer the "how" questions. How and why are the questions which science addresses.


I only point out the distinction, because it seems many who are skeptical of the abilities of science think they should dismiss it simply because they don't see how it can provide insight into the "why" questions which they, for some reason, value above the "how" questions. These are separate parts of the whole, and it is a confusion to criticize one when you mean the other. A mistake, I find, many people make.

"Science might tell you how a plane stays in the air," they will say. "But it doesn't tell you why I love my daughter. It can't explain love!"


Actually, this is where the distinction is vital. Science first addresses the how. Love is a complex human emotion, but with recent advances in science, from biology to nuerology, from chemistry to psychology, we can understand "love" in its most rudimentary form--at the level of the brain. 

The why question follows the how. If this, then why this? Or why not this? According to science, there are very specific evolutionary reasons for why we love our children. These reasons can be explained and understood using science. 


[Note: It's important to remember that the order never changes, since one cannot ask why before knowing how. This is a casual relationship between witnessing an event and then asking what the ramification or implications of it might be. How comes first. Why people are simply putting the cart before the horse.] 

But for a person who is not scientifically literate, such claims sound absurd. In fact, t
hey often will remind us, and correctly so, that science doesn't have the answers to everything.

That's true for two reasons. 1) Science is limited by how precise we can observe a phenomenon, and 2) how much we can learn from that observation. 


What this means is, if our understanding is lacking, the observation may simply not matter until we can realize what it is we are seeing. 

Other questions fall into the realm of what is known as metaphysics. Metaphysical questions are hard for science to answer, because metaphysics deals with assumptions that may never be proved. Such assumptions are matters of faith. Science also makes assumptions, sure, but then it attempts to validate those assumptions. 

That's the difference between faith in, say, God and faith in the scientific method--and whether or not that faith rests on assumptions which can be proved true or false.

I often hear the word "scientism" get thrown around by those who are under the false impression that science somehow failed to answer their deep and meaningful questions, or that are envious of the people who understand science enough to talk about its benefits. They feel science is competing for their beloved religious beliefs, and in a way it is. But people who promote science to the nth degree are not being "scientistic." They are being realistic.
Where religion faiths to explain something, science succeeds. Where they both fail, they both fail equally. With but one caveat, science may surprise us and suddenly come up with an answer while religion continually proves incapable of doing so. Religion has no means to test and verify/falsify supernatural claims. That ability comes from science. That alone puts things into perspective. 

Thus we have to be careful. Much of the metaphysics which religionists (or supernaturalists) purport science cannot address are impossible precisely because those metaphysics are unfalsifiable. It's true to state science can't answer everything, but not for the reasons they commonly give.


Metaphysics (and by extension the supernatural) is a realm where many claims are unfalsifiable, and as such, it remains a realm where science has very little to say.

So those who invoke the term "scientism" as a failure on the part of science or the proponents of science have simply confused their own limitations of understanding for restrictions on what they perceive science can or cannot say about the world. Ultimately, they think science fails because it fails to answer for what are, ultimately, unanswerable questions. 


So you see, it's rather absurd to ask an unanswerable question and then ask why science can't answer it. I think this is where Richard Dawkins' point that there is such a thing as a stupid question comes into play. 

Other times, and perhaps this is a third category, there simply may not be any good reasons for the "why" questions. Why does the universe exist? (Just to use one example.) Maybe it just does. Science is working on the how. Remember, the order we ask the questions in matters. Until we know the how, we can't ask the why. Until we know the how, the proper response simply is: why not?

My personal goal, then, has been to try and apply the values of the scientific method to my daily life, to the best of my abilities. I am not a trained scientist, so there is a lot of trial and error. But the more familiar I get, with science, the easier it becomes to implement it in my life. It's a very powerful tool. But like any tool, it takes practice to get good at.


Me trying to be "Scientifically minded."

My list of three scientific principles that I strive for: 


  1. To truly embrace the value of science and scientific mindedness, one must strive to be scientifically literate.
  2. The scientific method, the way in which it asks us to test things, can be applied to our beliefs and basic assumptions as well.
  3. By bringing science to the forefront of our lives, our understanding of the world will increase, we will gain valuable knowledge which will be vital to help us navigate an every increasingly complex universe, and we will never again be as naive to think that science doesn't have the power to answer the "why" questions.


Like Kant, I too believe our very understanding of reality depends on our experience of the world around us. Science not only enhances our perceptions, thereby making our experience more vivid, it also allows us to collect data, analyse, and study these experiences, text them, compare them, and take only the most reliable and disregard the rest. In other words, science helps us grow our knowledge and refine our understanding on just about darn near everything.

I didn't used to be scientifically minded. I used to be skeptical of the powers of science--but that's because I had a flimsy, almost nil, understanding of science. It is expected that people who simply don't get science will often feel compelled to write it off. They just don't see how it affects every aspect of their lives. I, for one, do not think the human race can afford to be so naive any longer. As the t-shirt slogan goes: "Science works. Deal with it."


Over the past five years, I have tried to strengthen my scientific literacy by becoming more familiar with science. I promised myself I would read at least one science related book a month until my eyes failed me and I could no longer read (and then I'd switch to audio books until my cybernetic eyes are ready to be installed).

Of course, this has blossomed into somewhat of a passion for learning about science, and my reading of one book a month has blossomed to three or four science related books per month.

Now I have a steady feed of science based articles flooding my mail box daily. I follow with interest NASAs missions and projects. I follow stories on cutting edges science, from black holes, to DNA computers, to nanite technology, to space-time crystals.  

I try and keep up on the science.

Why?

Because it helps me to see the world differently. No, correct that. It helps me to see the world more clearly.

Personally, I don't see that there is any other alternative, since it is vitally important to have at least some small semblance of scientific literacy. And I am not just talking about losing vitally important sceince-based jobs and research to the Chinese and other Asian countries. I am talking about opening our minds up--and having the tools available to make sense of all the new information. And this tool is science.


I'm talking about a quantum leap in our ability to understand the universe around us. And science will take us there.

Meanwhile, the alternative consists of people asking the same old silly "why" questions, but all the while ignoring genuine science. The alternative looks like this:


"Why not this?" some scientifically illiterate person once asked.




Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist