Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Science doesn't have all the answers

In's religion forum I got this point (science doesn't have all the answers).

My answer:

"science doesn't have all the answers..."

Wrong framework. Science has all the answers that we've been able to figure out so far. Religious people claim that they have the answers science lacks, but in scientific terms none of them are answers, just proof that "hope clouds observation." Why should anyone assume human beings have any reason or right to expect all answers to all questions? Doesn't the very idea seem ridiculous once it's articulated?

Here's the right framework:

All human beings start out knowing nothing. But they quickly experience positive and negative tropisms--i.e., some things feel good, others feel bad. Drinking mother's milk feels good. Lying around in a dirty diaper feels bad.

Nobody ever really "knows" anything. Each of us is trapped inside our bodies, building our weltanschaung via senses, thinking, experiment. Watch babies over a year and you'll see this at work.

Many people assume they have knowledge--even certainty. They're fooling themselves.

For example, how do you know the entire universe didn't pop into existence two seconds ago, complete with the artificial memories you now have of your past? How do you know some metabeing isn't dreaming us, and we'll all instantaneously pop out of existence when it wakes up? How do you know you aren't the only sentient being, who's asleep and is dreaming the rest?

The most certain people know even less than the most skeptical scientist, because they don't know what they don't know.

Science enables us to achieve exactly as much certainty as it's possible for humans to acquire.

That said, I'm confident, through a lifetime of experience, that the universe really exists, I exist, my spouse exists, yada yada. I'm not certain of any of this, but my convictions about such things approach certainty asymptotically.

Other things I'm less sure about. For example, I don't know how smart humpback whales are. I think sentient technological beings on other planets look like us, but neither you nor I will ever be able to prove or disprove that.

I'm guessing that the Higgs boson exists, but no one knows for sure yet. Go Super Hadron Collider!

What religious people don't know most is that the emotional experiences they think only religious people have, and without which they imagine life must seem meaningless and utterly lacking in a moral compass, is in fact universal, without any exclusive connection to religion--or to spiritualism in its many flavors either, for that matter.

We evolved with those emotions tens of millions of years ago when we were still arboreal primates, but they got a big boost around six million years ago when we adopted a walking/running existence on the ground, and then got an even bigger boost a million or so years ago as we developed our big brains (long after getting our upright stance and hands with opposable thumbs and feet specialized for walking).

The intensity of those feelings--beyond what even other social animals experience (notably dogs/wolves) stem from the fact that our big brains necessitate women being more incapacitated (and endangered) by pregnancy and childbirth) than other animals, and our childhoods lasting waaay longer than other animals.

Because of these things we have powerful tribal and familial bonding heuristics hardwired into our brains. They can be overridden by genetic defects or natal injury (such as fetal alcohol syndrome) or largely erased by a horrific childhood. Othewise we all get these feelings.

Religious people add a layer of cognitive furbelows to these feelings, and then try to get a patent on them.

Which is like a pharmaceutical firm trying to patent a natural medicine some Amazonian tribe has been using for a millenium.

So yes, Lateef, we all have the feelings you can get in church. The first time I sang "How great thou art" I got choked up and couldn't finish it. Not because the blood of Christ cleansed my "soul" but because it tapped those heuristics. The same heuristics, combined with the phenomenon of consciousness, give us what religious people call a soul.

But really it's the "miracle" of evolutionary chemistry.

Not to mention the fact that most adult chmpanzees recognize that it's themselves in the mirror after about half an hour. That elephants do too, but in less time as I recall. That dolphins do. Monkeys don't and can't. I don't know about the other primates. I bet gorillas and bonobos do, and maybe orangutans, but probably not gibbons.

But even if, say, dogs don't recognnize themselves in a mirror, they certainly have rich emotional lives--and a sense of fairness. And crows can do two-step logic mentally, without physical expermintation being required. And at least one parrot gained a vocabulary of over 100 understood words.

The border between us and the consciousness of other animals is not a bright line. Even fish and some cephalopods can show evidence of learning--of rudimentary thinking. And they certainly can feel pain. They have specialized pain sensors, just as we do. (No, I'm not a vegetarian--just a realist).

People who want to Believe will find all this stuff about "inexplicable" events and circumstances and acts by "special" people. And scientific debunkers spend inordinate amounts of time patiently deconstructing them all.

But you have to realize that science is not open minded, because we are mortal. Few scientifically trained people are going to explain why the world isn't flat to anyone but a five year old. Nor are we going to look at something on YouTube about an alchemist turning lead into gold.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. We try to reach farther. We don't hop off those shoulders and run around spinning our wheels to indulge others, then try to climb up again. Science, as a profession, is kind of harsh--it does not suffer fools gladly. Again, because we're mortal,

Tick tock, tick tock.

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