Sunday, June 24, 2012

From my point of view the allegation that science is a delusion is as bizarre as Christians claiming to talk to Jesus every morning. It's as if we're standing in front of the pyramids at Giza, and you say they're a delusion. I have an urge to bang my (or your?) head on them until you agree they're real. I don't see how to proceed unless we can agree that the universe is real, and that its properties and behavior can be determined with increasing accuracy, given sufficient time and effort.

The Pythagorean theorem relating the three sides of a right triangle has at least 270 known proofs. If you somehow managed to disprove it, reality would come unglued. We'd be unable to measure the distance between two points. Maps would be rubbish. Astronomy and navigation would be impossible. Whole branches of mathematics would disappear, taking most of science with them. Social and physical structures built in accordance with Cartesian geometry would collapse in an avalanche. You might enjoy that, but I assure you it won't happen. The Pythagorean theorem is as true as anything can be. I propose to use it as a proxy for the definition of "truth" in the scientific sense.

People can claim whatever they like as personal, subjective truth, but that doesn't make it true for others. Science is concerned with explanations that are predictive, regardless of whether people believe them or not. Most people refused to believe Copernicus at the time, and Galileo was forced to recant, but even if the geocentric model were accepted today, it would still be false, because it always was. You can believe that the sun won't come up tomorrow, and if you're schizophrenic, maybe it won't from your point of view, but for the rest of us, it most assuredly will. Or as Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying, "You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts."

I find it disheartening and surreal to be debating such elementary matters in this day and age, and I increasingly empathize with the tribulations of science teachers, and not only in the red states. According to a recent poll, nearly half of American adults believe "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." This ghastly result did not vary significantly with degree of higher education, suggesting that whatever people are studying in American universities, it usually isn't evolution. See:

I wasn't kidding when I said we've included Pythagorean proofs in the messages we send to extraterrestrials, by the way. You might be interested to know what else we've sent. We've sent the atomic numbers of the elements hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus, which make up DNA, to demonstrate that we've grasped not only chemistry but also the chemistry of life. We've sent the relative position of the Sun to the center of the Galaxy and 14 pulsars, a diagram of our solar system, and many other hard-won truths which you apparently consider unimportant, delusional or both.

You also allege that science is an expression of shame at the ephemeral nature of existence, but again this indicates a crucial misunderstanding about science. In fact science squarely faces impermanence, far more so than any other human endeavor. Geology and paleontology routinely deal with events that occurred millions or billions of years ago. Cosmology investigates the origins of the universe, and predicts events in the distant future, long after Earth is destroyed by the sun. Scientists don't expect perfect explanations during their lives, or any number of lives. They do however hope for explanations to improve with time and effort. The scientific enterprise is cumulative, and must be sustained over many generations to be effective. Science thus depends on the continuity provided by civilization. Science is also communal: scientists collaborate, and both criticize and build on the work of their peers. If each scientist had to discover everything from scratch by himself, we wouldn't have made it past the Renaissance.

Regarding Jasper Johns, you misunderstand me. I am NOT claiming that his paintings are universal or in any way similar to scientific facts. Science has both required and enabled power, and the consequences have proved corrosive to traditional human ethical structures. Humanity may not be capable of adapting quickly enough to the disturbing, "disruptive" truths revealed by science. Some would plunge us into a prescientific dark age in order to avoid this outcome. From my point of view this is similar to destroying modern paintings because they're products of civilization. In both cases the impulse is regressive.

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