Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Postulates; or, Let There Be a Point

Life is an island here and now in a dying world. The process by which we living beings resist the general stream of corruption and decay is known as homeostasis. We can continue to live in the very special environment which we carry forward with us only until we begin to decay more quickly than we can reconstitute ourselves. Then we die. ~ Norbert Weiner - Human Use of Humans - 1948.

Science was an early passion of mine. Yet, rarely, if ever, did I question whether the study of science had much of an effect on religion as I understood it. While, for fun, I would wonder how representatives of all the species of animals could have fit into an ancient manmade boat, it never impressed me as some kind of massive contradiction that needed to be dealt with here and now, or else all was lost.

I took everything I learned about religion with a grain of salt because I knew the theory of evolution seemed to explain things a lot more clearly than the literal Biblical translations church folk were talking about. Back then, there did not seem to be a frenzied resistance to evolution. The theory was not really thought of as threatening religion, at least in the macro political world as I understood it.

Honestly, I took pretty much everything I learned with a grain of salt, even mathematics which did not seem grainy at first blush. Things just had to make sense to me as a child or I put them in the large "maybe" category, or the "probably" file. Maybe the Santa Claus debacle was good for something in my life, if only for kindling skepticism. Who knows?

Had you asked me as a child how life began on Earth, I would no doubt have said that I did not really know the answer but scientists theorized such and such. There is a alternate state of learning which many children, including myself, got into where they parroted answers because they wanted to get good test scores and could care less what "knowledge" was presented to them to memorize. For instance, "The cellular basis of life is the concept that all living organisms are made up of cells. The cell is the basic structure of life. The cell is the smallest unit of life that can be classified as a living thing." Now I could supply this on a test and not realize its significance at all. In fact, most of my grades were elevated by memorization of things I did not remotely understand and that I would never really carry with me in any meaningful way. Later in life I pondered the question of just how much emphasis we need to put on honing the skill of memorization as opposed to the skill of learning and being open to new ideas.

What my education decisively did not mean was the transferal of exclusive truth that forbade me to change my mind later. Teachers are flawed. Children know this, or at least I did. Similarly, whether evolutionary theory is taught in the schools with or without the inclusion of the fundamentalist Christian agenda of intelligent design in its proper context, to me, does not cause the world to spin in the opposite direction on its axis.

It seems the nation is arguing about personal principles. And principles can be taught in all sorts of foggy knowledge. These are just my insolent beliefs though. I believe that both kids and adults, when taught anything resembling critical thinking, can easily decide things for themselves. The idea that curricula are going to stunt them in some aspect if not done to the letter is nonsense to me, if those curricula encourage independent thought. What stunts people is the learned intransigence of "truth" that makes people so damned cocky.

My advice to atheists is to demand more courses on critical thinking, not fight some principled war with what the wording is or which subject something is taught in. This fight is wasteful of resources and nonproductive for your cause. The school system does not belong to lack of faith any more than it belongs to faith. I recited the Lord's Prayer every morning in school for years. Perhaps that was lost time. And perhaps it influenced me beyond understanding but I just do not think so. In almost the same respect I would also be a little suspicious of Captain Kangaroo’s effect on my life.

What is done can be undone. What is taught can be moderated through experience and further education. The truth will out in some form if we teach critical thinking.

If you have no faith in this idea of some innate human capacity to reason, think of where you ended up given the environment YOU grew up with? Aren't there a multitude of things you now disagree with, or have refined beyond recognition, that you were taught as a child? I can only mention Santa Claus so many times in the middle of the summer.

I'll guess that for the older of us we well remember religion being taught in school. We remember the pledge of allegiance to what I have finally realized is a rat hole of an idea. They did not teach me that American history is full of crappy people doing crappy things, but I know it now. Think of the time spent indoctrinating kids with blind patriotism and false history. That is far more disturbing to me than a small sentence saying some people disagree with evolution, the apparently important battle of our time.

But I want to get back to biology and the cell although I have a tentative education in that area. Since the cell is the basic structure of life, then you would guess cells were all similar in some way. But later, if you are lucky, you learn there are cells with nuclei and cells without nuclei that define two distinct forms of life. (1)  If you think about it, most people would believe that the two basic forms are plants and animals but their differences are minuscule compared to the actual differences in cells that can give us a look into the beginnings of life. Plants and animals both have the same structure and therefore likely evolved from a single one cell creature. This creature (formed by pure chance in theory) was the first cause. Bacteria is commonly thought of as the form of life without a nucleus.

The cells with nuclei and the cells without nuclei can possibly be along the same evolutionary path. But as I learned after my later schooling, there is a third type of cell that questions everything we thought before the time of its discovery. It also does not have nuclei but had to develop completely independent from the first two. (2)

The really suspicious thing about the third type of cell according to some scientists has to do with the DNA which would have had to develop in an entirely different way than plants and animals (nuclei) and bacteria (no nuclei). This third type is not clearly part of the same evolutionary line. Worse, if these new cells developed at the same time as the others but separately, the very small chance that life would happen spontaneously... has to happen twice.

Had you asked me how life began in school, I would have said that against all odds, by pure chance, one organism developed out of the primordial soup. That was what I was taught. Evidence may now suggest this is fairly unlikely or at least the soup is unlikely to occur without help outside of our planet. So many things in science are unlikely but somehow they occur. Elements necessary to put together the building blocks of life are so just incredibly unlikely to be created. The tolerance of the conditions necessary to create life is like a lottery ticket win. And we must believe it happened two times to the same guy, um, planet. We find that DNA and RNA are so sophisticated in their structure that it is hard to imagine that pure chance put them together with all that encoding that we have yet to decipher.

Of course life is here, so something must have happened. That, I believe, is the logic of science. Knowing, actually, knowing for a fact, the event of creation and what happened is, at this point, so theoretical it is astounding, but something happened and it cannot be supernatural because those are the rules of science. I am even willing to throw alien activity in there as a more logical conclusion than that of modern scientific creationism.

Before I go on, please understand that science has proven to my satisfaction that fundamentalist literal Christian interpretation of the Holy Bible is incorrect. I hate to be so blunt to those who believe in it but I cannot ignore so many facts. I don't even think I need to prove this, it is so obvious but maybe I'll take a stab at it in an entry even more boring than this one. Fundamentalist Christians should start realizing that metaphors are very powerful and that Biblical metaphors which are followed in our lives can transform an individual, transform the world. Your alternative is to lose the argument to those with critical thinking skills and watch your influence on changing the world slowly diminish as you try to use alternate approaches like the power of politics to force people into your mold.

I think I assume here that people with critical thinking skills will grow in number. I have always been very impressed by the "tree of knowledge" metaphor in Genesis, as well as many other metaphors from the Bible, rather original or not.

The problem as I see it for those who use science as a weapon against religion is that science is based on the original assumption that no supernatural power was responsible. It is postulated. For instance, there are "postulates" in mathematics that are astoundingly mindblowing. Take the "point-line-plane postulates," please.  I struggled so much with those concepts which seemed ludicrous. There is an infinitely small point, an infinitely thin line. A defense attorney would be nonplussed if the thin blue line were infinitely thin.

Nothing is proven to me if everything taught rests on an assumption. I can follow the logic. I can do great things. Mankind can do great things. But, can we really forget that it was all based on an out and out assumption? I personally see a subtle evasiveness in the definitions of science that, to me, can only be the result of constant argumentation with religious theorists.

Science: (from Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. In an older and closely related meaning, "science" also refers to a body of knowledge itself, of the type that can be rationally explained and reliably applied. A practitioner of science is known as a scientist.  – Wikipedia (3)  ["a systematic enterprise"?  What is this "knowledge" of which you speak?]

Science: knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.   Merriam-Webster  (4)  [Again, science can mean the method or the knowledge gained. What is this "natural" of which you speak?]

Knowledge: a familiarity, awareness or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning. Knowledge can refer to a theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. It can be implicit (as with practical skill or expertise) or explicit (as with the theoretical understanding of a subject); it can be more or less formal or systematic. In philosophy, the study of knowledge is called epistemology; the philosopher Plato famously defined knowledge as "justified true belief." However, no single agreed upon definition of knowledge exists, though there are numerous theories to explain it. [my emphasis]  (5)

If you are not uncomfortable yet, I would chalk that up to a lack of experience with the more disappointing aspects of life, which is that one has to put one's green tinted glasses on to enter the Emerald City.

This linked article is clever about Britain's Science Council's struggle with a "new" definition for science. link

Christian creationism is really the big bad beast to many. While I am not sure which came first, the chicken or the egg, I am sure anyone with familiarity, awareness or understanding can see that there is a huge reaction on the part of religion to science, and equally of science to religion in the modern day. Actually, this was pretty much always so. It is fair to say that science has had religion biting its back since its inception, and visa versa. Still, the problem is that I am not really sure how "systematic" anyone has been about resolving the conflict.

It is mostly in the field of creation or the explanation of existence where science most bothers me. I don't mind all the cataloging of plants or planets (the decataloging of planets) or whatever. There are plenty of wonderful things about science. I have every respect in the world for what science can actually do.

[On a related tangent, oddly enough, I am bothered by the technology without values that science produces. I enjoy a nice movie with great sound effects, a clean warm house, and the ability to travel from here to there in simply amazing ways. I do not like man-made climate change. I like medicines that keep me feeling good but I do not like the for profit big pharmaceutical companies that are in the field for a profit rather than the welfare of people. I have plenty of reasons to be upset with modern science, and I hope you would see the logic of that as well. If not, your assignment is to watch Jurassic Park again, or better, read the book, and think metaphorically.]

I must do a bit more explaining as to why I have particular problems with the black box "creation" aspect of science as much as I do that aspect of religion. The problems are many but let me just quote a bit because I am tired of writing. Wikipedia on axioms:

Axiom: An axiom, or postulate, is a premise or starting point of reasoning. A self-evident principle or one that is accepted as true without proof as the basis for argument; a postulate. As classically conceived, an axiom is a premise so evident as to be accepted as true without controversy.

[Later in the same article:]

 Axioms play a key role not only in mathematics, but also in other sciences, notably in theoretical physics. In particular, the monumental work of Isaac Newton is essentially based on Euclid's axioms, augmented by a postulate on the non-relation of spacetime and the physics taking place in it at any moment.

In 1905, Newton's axioms were replaced by those of Albert Einstein's special relativity, and later on by those of general relativity.

Another paper of Albert Einstein and coworkers (see EPR paradox), almost immediately contradicted by Niels Bohr, concerned the interpretation of quantum mechanics. This was in 1935. According to Bohr, this new theory should be probabilistic, whereas according to Einstein it should be deterministic. Notably, the underlying quantum mechanical theory, i.e. the set of "theorems" derived by it, seemed to be identical. Einstein even assumed that it would be sufficient to add to quantum mechanics "hidden variables" to enforce determinism. However, thirty years later, in 1964, John Bell found a theorem, involving complicated optical correlations (see Bell inequalities), which yielded measurably different results using Einstein's axioms compared to using Bohr's axioms. And it took roughly another twenty years until an experiment of Alain Aspect got results in favour of Bohr's axioms, not Einstein's. (Bohr's axioms are simply: The theory should be probabilistic in the sense of the Copenhagen interpretation.) (6)

I ask you: how many people continue to believe that Newton was correct?  How many even know that Einstein corrected Newton? And then how many know that John Bell found Bohr's axioms to be more accurate in describing nature than Einstein's? Yet, most importantly, the mathematics now used to explain the existence of any given thing is currently based on probability theory. This leads to string theory which... well, I will have to take that on later in my blog. Really, I am bushed.

It seems to me that science assumes "natural" explanations. I think this is what Einstein was aiming for by pursuing a deterministic explanation of things. But the problem to me with this is that any weird explanation that is defined as "true", even if it would be considered supernatural to us now, would become "natural" after being proven or even thought of kindly by scientists in my opinion. Truth may well blow all our minds and be on some level we cannot even begin to comprehend. We may never know, we may be incapable of understanding... doubt seems likely to me to be the obvious postulate to work from. Zen, anyone?

Science said, “Let there be postulate.” And it was so.

Meanwhile, can we rely on the resultant knowledge of the scientific method? If new evidence is found, disproven theories, no matter how beloved, are discarded. And ANYTHING can be discarded. "Answers lead to more questions," as I was taught in grade school. Well what the hell? Could it possibly end up at questions we do not now know to ask? Well, hell yes.

For someone to use science to stifle any thought, strange though that thought may have seemed in the 1600's or may seem in 2014, is unimaginable to me. It is not just the librarian in me but also some humanitarian ideas I have about freedom of thought. Science was the answer to the freeing of the mind from the religious cronies of the past. Yet, science, to me, is abhorrent when used to restrain thought after that triumph. To me, that is not just the definition of irresponsibility but the definition of insanity-- to take on the methods of those one criticizes.

I began this with a quote made in 1948 by a brilliant man about conclusions that can be drawn from the theory of entropy (a fairly standard theory then and now).  Face it, it is odd that life exists here on our planet.

 [I will also write more on the concept of "superstition" later. The word "superstition" is used as a cudgel against those who have other ideas. Suffice it to say quickly that it is not superstitious to believe in the existence of the unknown, or (shall I say it?) have "faith" in a possible higher power. But it is probably superstitious to believe that holy water will cure your cold. It is also appears superstitious to believe strongly in something that will likely be proven wrong later, for that matter.]



by Michael DeVore