Archive for the 'philosophy' Category

Faith in Science

August 31, 2008

When discussing religion with believers, I often encounter the accusation that science is just another religion, complete with dogma, blind faith, etc. This is a misguided idea. Science is set apart from religion in that it is verifiable by everyday experience. It is also fluid in the sense that scientific facts are falsifiable and theories are subject to change according to the most current observations. Religion, on the other hand is static and considered infallible. Believers are expected to have faith not just in the absence of supporting evidence, but also when the evidence blatantly contradicts the religious tenets.

Someone who considers the validity of any scientific principle has the benefit of being able to verify the claim to their satisfaction. Anyone can retrace the logical steps of any successful theory or repeat any successful experiment and see the results for themselves, but this is not always practical. Because scientific theories and experiments have the tendency to be too complicated and labor intensive for the average person to experience for themselves, many people do take scientific principles on faith alone.

But what is the nature of that faith? I have faith that if I jump off of the side of the cliff, I will fall down and probably be killed. This faith is not blind, it is established from prior evidence—my daily experience with gravity, that one time I threw a rock off of a cliff and watched it bounce violently down, and stories I have heard of tragedies involving bodies and cliffs. I haven’t personally experienced falling off of a cliff, so I do have to have faith regarding the end result, but it isn’t a great degree of faith. It would take a lot more faith to believe that when I jumped off of the cliff I would be miraculously unharmed, that there would be some sort of divine intervention, like a host of angles sent to protect me.

Similarly a person unfamiliar with physics and math would have to take it on faith that the Theory of General Relativity explains that gravity is the result of a curve in space-time. There is a compromise to be made here. Even though it is counter intuitive and confusing, anyone can open a book or two and learn about the theory along with its proofs. They can learn that many physicists and mathematicians have repeated and confirmed Einstein’s calculations. They can also learn that the effects of General Relativity can be viewed during a solar eclipse when a straight beam of light coming from a distant star appears to curve as space itself curves due to the mass of the sun. They can learn that the theory even has practical implications, for example the fact that we have to account for the principles of General Relativity when coordinating signals to and from satellites in space. Suddenly something that was taken on faith alone, that was considered abstract and beyond comprehension, becomes something understandable and something that makes sense logically.

I personally find this second-hand evidence sufficient proof for General Relativity because it follows a logical progression. I am satisfied with the observations of others because of the structure and nature of the scientific process. In order for a theory to be accepted as the scientific consensus it must pass the rigors of peer-review. This means that I can be assured that something like General Relativity isn’t just accepted by a few scientists, but by the vast majority of the scientific world. Virtually everyone who is able to understand Einstein’s calculations agrees with them. But I don’t have to be satisfied with the observations of others. I could get a PhD in physics and learn how to do the calculations myself.

When someone goes around touting their belief in Relativity, Big Bang Cosmology, or the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection without fully grasping the evidence for these phenomena, they are taking a leap of faith and are indeed no better off then their religious counterparts. The difference between religion and science is that, where science is concerned, nothing has to or should be taken on faith.

Co-written by orDover and cross-posted at The Art of Skepticism

Knowledge

August 17, 2008

As it is the aim of this blog to explore the extent of what we humans know about our universe, our world, and ourselves, I thought it would be appropriate to begin with a discussion about the nature of knowledge itself. Before we address how we know what we know, let us first ask how we know that we know what we know.

Bertrand Russell, Philosopher

Bertrand Russell, Philosopher

At the outset, it seems that there are three ways that one can gain knowledge of an event: first hand perception, written and verbal communication and logical deduction. In an effort to economize our discussion, we can ignore communication for the time being, as first hand perception of an event is a prerequisite for the communication of knowledge of that event. Similarly, in order to apply the rules of logic to the data that we gather from our surroundings, we must first gather that data. Thus we can say comfortably that all of our knowledge is based on the perceptions of individuals.

That said, it is often argued that the flaws inherent to individual perception negate any possibility of true empirical knowledge. If all of our knowledge and experience of the universe is the product of our senses, and our perceptions are nothing but chemical events in the brain, then isn’t it possible that the external world doesn’t exist anywhere but in our minds? Hallucinations, which to some degree are experienced by all people, are perceptual events with no stimuli external to the brain. Is it possible that the whole of human experience is a grand hallucination? I don’t think so.

First of all, that entire line of reasoning is founded solely on the cognitive sciences, which, in turn, are based entirely on perceptions and hence deemed unreliable by the very same line of reasoning. Therefore, the hypothesis cannot support itself.
If followed to it’s logical end, this system of thought seems to deny the existence of matter, energy, space, time and the forces of nature. After all, we can only become aware of these characteristics of the universe through our senses. This leaves us not only with no stimuli for our brains to perceive, but also with no brains to perceive them with.

The alternative is a more sensible, materialistic theory of cognition. If you are an average, healthy person you probably find that your five senses are generally in agreement. For instance, if you are standing on the side of the road at a bus stop and you see a bus approaching, you have probably come to expect to hear the engine of the bus as it gets closer and, as it stops next to you, you may even be able to smell the exhaust before you climb inside. The more our senses agree about a common phenomenon, the more confidence we ascribe to our assessment of that phenomenon.

Our senses provide information about matter and the way that it interacts with space and time, and we generally observe that similar configurations of matter and energy tend to behave in similar ways. This allows us to make predictions about how matter will behave in certain situations. For example every time I drop a rubber ball over a hard surface, the ball falls to the ground and bounces. We also apply this logic to other human beings when we assume that because they have similar sense organs to us, they must also be capable of providing accurate reports of their surroundings.

We live in a world of individual percepts, both those of our own and those of others that we become aware of through communication. This does not conclusively prove that there is no world beyond our perceptions. It does, however, mean that if such a world does exist than it is utterly beyond our reach and will remain, as it should, forever in our imaginations. We haven’t proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that our universe is not illusory, only that we may as well not doubt what we commonly call “reality”, because it’s the only reality we have.