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I Was a Sixth-Grade Nerd

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When I was in sixth grade, I loved science. I was intrigued by the scientific method: making observations, formulating a hypothesis, designing an experiment to test the hypothesis. My teacher passed out a flyer with a list of paperback books we could get for very little money. One book in particular caught my attention. It was a collection of science experiments you could do at home. I wanted that book.

I took the flyer home and asked for the money to get it. I’m sure it couldn’t have been more than 95¢. But we were poor, and the purchase seemed frivolous to my parents at the time. They said no.

But I wanted that book. I hit upon a daring plan to get it. My mom packed me a lunch every day, but she would give me a nickel (or maybe it was a dime) for milk. I started saving my milk money. When I had enough for the book, I filled out the form in the flyer and turned it in with my saved milk money. A few days later, the books arrived.

I was thrilled. I read and re-read that book and treasured it for years. It was my book in a way that no other book had been mine. I still remember many of the one- and two-page essays explaining and illustrating various principles in science. I learned how to use my watch as a compass—before digital watches, of course. I learned that you could easily set fire to a sugar cube just by rubbing a little cigarette ash on it first. I learned about the Bernoulli principle, which makes heavier-than-air flight possible. I learned how to tell a raw egg from a hard-boiled egg without cracking the shell. That book slaked my thirst for knowledge without quenching it.

I had a problem, though. I had gone behind my parent’s back to get the book. I knew they would not be pleased. I suppose I could have kept it a secret, but it was not in my nature. Besides, I loved my mom and dad and wanted to share with them the delight I had in discovering new things. I took the book home and told my mom what I had done. My mom took the book and said she would talk to my dad about it. I could tell she was disappointed, but I also thought she could scarcely keep the book from me when I had shown such resourcefulness in acquiring it and sacrificed drinking milk for several days to get it.

I don’t know what my folks said to one another, but they let me keep the book. Of course, they admonished me never to do anything like that again. Although I agreed, I was secretly proud of myself for defying them in the cause of knowledge.

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Fundamental Diversity

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“That’s just what I complain of,” said Humpty Dumpty. “Your face is that same as everybody has—the two eyes, so—” (marking their places in the air with this thumb) “nose in the middle, mouth under. It’s always the same. Now if you had the two eyes on the same side of the nose, for instance—or the mouth at the top—that would be some help.” Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Chapter 6, Lewis Carroll.

“The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.” 1 Corinthians 15:41

When I was learning about our solar system in school some 40 years ago, I remember seeing artist conceptions of the planets and their moons. The planets, for the most part, were featureless globes, varying one from another only in  color and size. Of course, Jupiter had its red spot, and Saturn had its rings, but there was no telling Neptune from Uranus or Mercury from Mars. The moons all looked the same, drawn after the manner of the only moon with which we were familiar, pocked with craters, rocky, and desolate.

What a difference 40 years makes!

Now we know a good deal more about other planets and their moons. Pick up a modern textbook about our solar system, and you will see much greater variety in the depictions of other planets and moons, especially the moons.  You’ll see images of Io, orbiting so close to Jupiter that tidal forces keep it hot enough to melt rock. It is covered with volcanoes, some ejecting plumes of lava as much as 500 km above the surface. Or you might see Europa, nearly craterless, but covered with fissures and cracks hundreds of kilometers long. You might also see Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, covered with a thick, cloudy atmosphere composed mostly of nitrogen but with enough methane and ethane in it that scientists speculate that combustible rains might fall on its surface. The moons in our solar system are so varied, from tiny Deimos orbiting Mars to Ganymede orbiting Jupiter, that it hardly seems right to call them all by the same name: moon.

The fact is, moon is an abstraction for natural satellites orbiting a planet. The process of abstraction always ignores differences and emphasizes similarities. One feature that distinguishes humans from other animals is an amazing capacity for pattern recognition, for an ability to abstract similarities and treat the abstractions in ways that uncover still more similarities, which in turn are further abstracted. This process is fundamental to human understanding and knowledge. It can’t be sidestepped or avoided. It is how we understand.

It is also responsible for many of our failures to understand.

For example, racism (or sexism, or any form of bigotry) can be characterized by abstracting information about a group of people different from ourselves often based on limited (or even no) direct experience and extrapolating that information to the entire group. My uncle, for example, who died many years ago, was in the Philippines during World War 2. While on patrol one evening, he was beaten and robbed by a group of African American soldiers. From this experience he conceived a terrible hatred for all African Americans. But why African Americans? Why not soldiers? Well, he himself was a soldier and knew he would not do as these soldiers had done. Due no doubt to other cultural influences of which he may have been only dimly aware, he seized upon skin color as the one defining characteristic that separated this group of soldiers from other soldiers of his experience and allowed himself to hate an entire group of people based only on their skin color.

Racism is an easy target since it is now almost universally despised. What about this sentiment from a recent Facebook post I saw:

If a group of workers organize to demand fair compensation, conservatives call it “communism”.
If a group of executives organize to buy politicians and manipulate markets, they call it “capitalism”.

Notice how it tars all conservatives with the same brush and refuses to see any differentiation among them. They are all the same. They are all contemptible. Of course, I could have just as easily used an example disparaging liberals or Democrats. We are all too willing to impute to our opponents the most self-serving motivations while claiming that we and our friends are motivated by love and justice. We are individuals, but they are an anonymous collective.  We are real people; they are manifestations of the hive mind.

But I began with astronomy, and I want to return to the physical sciences to pose a question: What if electron differs from electron? What if quark differs from quark? What if the fundamental particles that we treat as abstractions (in part because we can detect them only indirectly or not at all) are as individual as different people? One consequence is that science can never explain everything, not even in principle. Science must abstract qualities like mass and charge from reality, treat them mathematically, and make predictions based on the mathematics. The process of abstraction ignores individual differences. It must; two things cannot be similar unless their differences are minimized. No matter how complete our knowledge of reality or how accurate our models, we can never capture everything in a system because the very act of creating a model requires that we ignore some of the information. In fact, we could say that reality is characterized by this fundamental diversity. No two real things are ever exactly alike; being exactly alike is a hallmark of the artificial, of the mass produced—though even here reality intrudes and causes slight variations in the things we make. The ideal of what is made is exact correspondence to an idea in the mind of the maker, and the idea is always an abstraction.

There are consequences for philosophy, too. Kierkegaard sharply criticized Hegel for trying to create a fully integrated system that would explain all of reality. He pointed out that every arena of knowledge has its own appropriate vocabulary, precepts, and arguments that both define and limit that arena. Extending any arena of knowledge to make it universal also makes it into a kind of madness. It’s not that the project can’t be done; it’s that insisting on completeness and consistency does violence to fundamental human experience. A misplaced faith in the power of reason leads to madness because reason fundamentally deals with abstractions, not with realities. So reason is good and essential to understanding, but it must not be allowed to insist on understanding everything and making everything fit into its systems. For everything can be made to fit, but only by a Procrustean solution—stretching some things and lopping off others.

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Thoughts on Science and Religion

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Read and comment on my blog.

I’ve always had an interest in science. Even as a very young child, I can remember puzzling over day and night. How does the sun get back to the east to rise? What are the stars? I remember imagining that the night sky was really a huge inverted colander. The sun would make its way back to the east outside the colander, and we would see the sun’s light coming through the holes. My interest in science arose from what I took to be a universal desire to understand the world in which we live. I understood science to be a systematic inquiry into the world for the purpose of understanding it.

One of the things I’ve learned as a parent is that characteristics I thought were universal were merely personal. None of my children has the least interest in science. I do not know why. The desire to understand is so much a part of my very being that I cannot grasp being without it. One of my sons recently told me he hated science. I asked why.

“It’s boring,” he said.

Boring?! How can science be boring?

“It has nothing to do with life,” he continued.

My son is a bright fellow. He knows full well that the technology he enjoys so much comes directly from science. But, as he pointed out, he doesn’t need to know how a computer works—or an iPod or a smartphone—to use it. None of my children have much curiosity about how things work. It is enough for them to know that they do work. Perhaps most people think the same way. I do not know.

As for me, I am always curious about how things work. I also have tremendous faith in my own capacity to understand how things work.

I wrote a while ago about the difference between scientific thinking and magical thinking. When I wrote it, I was sure that most people can tell the difference between magic and science. Now I am not so sure. Without a curiosity about how things work, why should anyone seek evidence for or against their own thinking? What difference is there in the thinking of most people between belief in electricity, gravity, or the nuclear strong force and belief in fairies, gnomes, or sprites? For those with a purely instrumentalist view of knowledge, the question is not, “Is it true?” but, “Does it work?”

I have to admit, I am more interested in truth than in utility. Not that the truth and utility are necessarily opposed. But they are not the same thing. One can easily imagine investigating the utility of a concept without coming close to discovering its truth. It is also possible, I suppose, to investigate the truth of a concept without discovering its utility. Nevertheless, I believe that the significant advances that have been made in technology result from scientists earnestly seeking the truth about the universe we live in. Technology takes the discoveries of science and makes them useful, but there is no enterprise that takes the usefulness of things and makes them true. So science is preeminent.

Many people who unthinkingly use technology every day criticize science as if its objectives were fundamentally flawed. Among evangelical Christians, for example, it is common to disparage biological evolution as if biologists were motivated solely by a desire to discredit God. Certainly there are some scientists so motivated. However, the desire to discredit God is not fundamental to science; it is fundamental to rebellious man. Biologists are motivated by a desire to understand living things. Out of that desire, mixed with countless hours of observation, experimentation, testing of hypotheses, and all the other activities of science, a consensus has emerged among scientists that all life on earth is descended from the same source, that all living things are connected by heredity. This consensus is not wishful thinking. It is not dishonest or unscientific as some Christians have claimed. It is good science, supported by a wealth of evidence from disciplines as diverse as geology, genetics, paleontology, and biology.

Science is a human enterprise for understanding the world we live in. Understanding is always about truth; you cannot understand something without believing what you understand to be true. (You can, of course, believe something to be true without understanding it, but the reverse is not true.) It is not the only enterprise for understanding the world. Religion also makes truth-claims about the world and also provides a way of thinking about the world and understanding it. But religion concerns itself with spiritual reality, while science concerns itself with physical reality. There are some who deny spiritual reality, as if the capacity to understand were not itself a spiritual reality. Human ideals, philosophy, ethics, love, justice, faith—these all belong to the spiritual world. To deny that world is to deny what makes  us human.

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