Posts Tagged ‘Science’

As we all know, the scientific way of seeing the world has brought immeasurable benefits to all mankind ; so many benefits, in fact, that many decent people cannot bring themselves to see the world in any other way.  They just know that the only realities are those which arrive to us through our physical senses.  If a thing may be seen, touched, heard, tasted or smelt then it is real ; if not, then it is fantasy.

The principle that underlies this way of living is the very respectable m.k.s. system.  The m.k.s. stands for metres, kilogrammes and seconds, which are the standard units of length, mass and duration – the very bedrock of good science.

Once upon a time, when people were generally better educated than they are today, it was understood that this way of seeing the world was intended to provide a very specialised form of knowledge – scientific knowledge.  Such knowledge was never intended to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Universe and all the things in it.  A scientist’s specialised way of understanding the world was no different, in principle, from a carpenter’s specialised way of seeing the world ; or a plumber’s, or a farmer’s, or a train-spotter’s.

But, with generally falling standards of education, a truly extraordinary state of affairs has arisen.  It is now seriously proposed that, if a thing can be measured, weighed and timed, then it is real.  And many people of a scientific disposition now say that, if a thing cannot be measured, weighed and timed, then it is illusory ; and they add that anyone who believes otherwise is either mad or evil.

Mr Gradgrind would have thoroughly approved of all this, of course – before his daughter, Louisa, through her sufferings and by God’s grace, came to his rescue.  If he were alive today, he would be ashamed.

One of the sadnesses that arises out of today’s scientific outlook is that its more zealous believers are now quite incapable of seeing in any other way.  For them, life has lost its meaning ; in place of life, they have mere existence.  But there is hope, even yet ; for a few of them are asking, “Why is our civilisation in decline?”  In decline at the very time we should expect it to be entering a new phase of development.


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The great Oracle at Delphi once told a young Athenian that Socrates was the wisest man in the world.  When the youth asked Socrates why this was, he replied, “I suppose it is because I know nothing, but I do have opinions on many things!”

We can see that Socrates was using the word knowledge in a special way here ; what he meant was that he had no certain knowledge of anything ; he did not know reality.  This kind of humility was thereafter a persistent character of most of the writings of learned people right through antiquity and up to the modern age.

Then something new happened.  First, we discovered (or invented perhaps) powerful mathematics ; then we invented what we now call the scientific method.  The mathematics enabled us to make statements about the material world that were more or less precise and in a way that had hardly been attempted previously, and the second enabled us to investigate the material world in a highly particular systematic way.

To begin with, these two aids to investigation allowed us to produce a vast amount of information about the world ; and then allowed us to use that information to manufacture new powerful technology – including the technology to make more powerful means of studying the world more closely.  By the end of the nineteenth century, we had a veritable explosion of information in physics and in its technological fruits.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that scientists of every stripe were eager to emulate the methods of the physicists

Now there was nothing wrong with this emulation and there still isn’t anything wrong with it as long as we remember that the methods of physics are directed at the material world ; particularly at the non-living world.

But man is a forgetful creature ; also much given to speculation, and easily deceived by appearances.  Thus it was that he forgot the original purpose of physics and the scientific method, and it was this forgetting that turned initial successes into a disaster.  For he began to see living things in purely physical concepts ; and, from there began to perceive living things as machines.  Biological machines.  Perhaps this new way of seeing things was epitomised by an enthusiastic late eighteenth century stock breeder ; he asked, “What is a sheep but a machine for turning grass into meat?”  Few people then imagined that Man would be characterised as a machine that happens to turn shepherd’s pie into thoughts.

But that is where we are today.  Man is a machine which is governed entirely and exclusively by the laws of physics.  Gone is the mind, gone is the psyche, gone free-will, gone is personal responsibility ; banished is the soul and the spirit together.  We are simply machines, assemblies of particles, at the mercy of our material environment (however you might try to dress it up in the exciting tales from quantum mechanics!).

But there is hope.  Physics as it is done today has almost exhausted itself grappling with the myths of the sub-particular world ; and, having led their colleagues astray, it will be the physicists who start breaking out of the prison they have made for us all.  This repentance began about a century ago with such luminaries as Rutherford and Planck, who sounded the warnings and offered the keys of the prison.

Was it not Rutherford who said, “Whether we like it or not, we live in a spiritual world.”  And was it not Planck who said, “Consciousness is everything.  Matter is derived from consciousness.”

But did their colleagues listen?  No.  For the physical sciences are easy to do ; no great wisdom is required.  And they are profitable ; research grants are readily forthcoming, if only for the sake of the saleable technology.

On the other hand, a science of humanity takes the harder road ; the road trodden by Socrates and most of his successors ; the road of modesty.

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Man is a creature of habit.  If he did not have habits, he would need to spend a lot of time consciously thinking about what he has to do.  He would have to evaluate every thought before he spoke of it and before he acted upon it.  He would have to evaluate every course of action before committing himself to it.  Life would be tedious.  But a habit, an automatic response to a thought, saves much time and mental effort ; it is productive of swift action and the satisfaction that goes with it.

It is perhaps small wonder that the most successful people tend to be more bound to their habits than the less successful.  Men and women who act with the minimum of thinking are the ‘achievers’ in this world, and they are rewarded accordingly.  Those less given to habits are the ‘philosophical’ types ; interesting people, but not noted for making their mark in the world of action – the world of trade and industry.

Scientists, too, tend to be creatures of habit.  Once a method or a theorem has been accepted, it takes hold of the scientist’s thoughts and becomes difficult to change.  Not impossible, but difficult.  A method or a theorem is difficult to change because it is productive ; it is productive of further research and is productive of new technology.  In other words, it is productive of wealth and so is a powerful motivator.

But there are some risks attached to scientific habits.  Perhaps the most obvious risk is that they lead to a canalising of research ; the easier lines of investigation are chosen at the expense of the more difficult.  And these lines lead on to other lines.  And as long as these particular lines of research are productive of quick material gains, they are pursued ; science is literally paying for itself.  But only superstition can presume that the easier investigations will lead to greater truths.

But there is a more sinister risk.  The present scientific method was first applied to astronomy and then developed to aid physics.  It was developed and refined to study the inanimate world ; the world which was properly regarded as a mechanism ; i.e., a world where motion is key, and the motion determined by forces external to the body being moved.  All this makes sense in physics.

The method was so successful that scientists then applied it to living things.  Living things were thus classified as machines, which ‘worked’ entirely by forces acting upon them.  So productive was this method of study that many inventions were made to improve the performance of the living machines.  Gradually, almost without anyone noticing, the habit of thinking of living things as machines grew in man’s mind.

The habit grew until many of those of a scientific persuasion came to believe that living things were nothing but machines.  It is now taken for granted by many scientists that man himself is just a machine.

I wonder how many of those scientists have set their habit aside for a while to consider the consequences of it?  What is the future for humanity if we are simply machines, whose every thought and every word and every action is the result of the blind forces of nature acting our bodies?

Where now is the concept of Truth?  of Justice?  How are people to be held accountable for their actions?  On what grounds may one praise a useful machine?

What credit or criticism may one give to somebody’s opinion, if that opinion is nothing more than the result of impersonal natural forces acting on his or her body?

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It’s always fun to analyse things.  We do analysis so readily because it is easy ; synthesis (imaginative thinking) is a lot harder.  Science makes such good progress because it involves mostly analysis.

But, easy though it is, the results of analysis are still a puzzle.  For example, we might do a hundred experiments in which an object is raised above the ground and then dropped.  In every experiment we observe that the object falls towards the earth.  We then reason through the event.  And our reasoning leads us to infer that something must be causing the object to fall as it does.  Then we give a name to  that something ; we call it gravity.

But note : nobody has ever seen gravity : nobody has ever heard it.  We know of it only by the effects it has on objects, including the effects it has on our own bodies.  Mystery.

And then we can try a different experiment ; not quite as simple, because we need the right conditions.  Let us shine a powerful, narrow-beamed searchlight into the night sky.  Let’s choose a clear night when there is no dust or moisture in the air.  If we stand behind the light and look along its length, we see nothing.  The light is quite invisible.  It becomes visible only when it shines directly in our eyes ; or when some of the light is reflected back into our eyes by dust or moisture.  So, the light is not a property of the beam.  So what is it that is coming out of the searchlight?

Then we might take a pair of billiard balls ; a white one and a red.  If we cue the white ball towards the red one, we see it roll across the green table ; then we see the white ball and the red move off in different directions.  We infer that the white ball caused the red one to move.  But we can look as hard as we like, and yet never see that cause.  The cause is ours, not the ball’s.  Did the white ball really cause the red one to move?  or is that just what our minds made of it?

In each of these experiments, we have inferred something ; we have reasoned about what we have seen.  And it is interesting to note that the results of our reasoning are not self-evident.  We can be sure of this because, when we investigate the findings of people who have quite different cultures to ourselves, they come up with different results ; and that is not due to their faulty thinking ; it is due to their having quite different ways of thinking.

We might wonder whether, as human consciousness evolves, what other ways of thinking there might be awaiting us.  Will we still be doing the same kind of science ten-thousand years from now?

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It cannot be seriously doubted that nowadays people are more scientific than at any previous time.  Despite its obvious shortcomings, the technological successes of science have seduced millions into believing that it is the only way to describe the workings of the world properly.

One of the most unfortunate things to emerge from our love affair with science is that it has encouraged the more extreme believers into using the scientific method as the only way to describe people properly.   In the departments of the learned, gone are such words as soul, spirit, will, love, hate, and so on.  In biology, genetics, medicine, and even in philosophy, people are more and more regarded as physical machines, meat machines, in which the only processes are the ‘bottom-up’, causative ones ; the ‘top-down’, purposeful processes are not even considered worthy of study.  Even the lovely, tragic Psyche has been dismissed from psychology.

I wonder if the more enthusiastic believers have thought deeply about what follows from their infatuation with this view of science?   It seems to me that supposed causative determinants of personality and behaviour have two major sources : the first is the genes : and the second is behavioural conditioning.

In the case of genetics, it is supposed that our bodily character is determined by the arrangements of certain molecules and their interactions ; and this bodily character is the only character we have.  These genes, these arrangements of molecules, are themselves composed of simpler molecules which have their recent origins in the soil and ultimately come from stardust and the Big Bang.

However we dress this belief up, on its own it cannot account for moral behaviour without involving a lot of faith in unspeakable mysteries.  One may contemplate a molecule or an atom or an electron for ever and have no hope of discerning any sign of personality – nor any hint of moral behaviour – in them.  Nor any sense of purpose.  Atoms, etc., just do what atoms do.

In the case of behavioural conditioning we encounter something similar.  The child, the collection of genes, behaves in ways that are determined by its environment – principally by its parents and other influences.  And the parents, et al, are themselves no more than assemblies of genes.

What distinguishes a saint from a sinner?  The mere arrangement of his genetic molecules and/or the conditioning he has received.  And he has had no control over either ; and he can never have control over either.

In the best traditions of the best novels, I will leave it to you, dear reader, to work out where such extreme beliefs will lead ; to work out the consequences for a society that accepts these beliefs without some serious questioning.

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I suppose that, like most people, I grew up largely in a state of wonder.  I wondered constantly at the way the world is and how it came to be and how it might come to be.  Of course, a child does not articulate this wonder consistently, accurately and persistently ; it consists mainly in fleeting, silent questions which seem to come from nowhere and are soon gone, to be replaced by other thoughts.

But a few of these questions pop up often enough to become habits ; they are always there and, at first we are conscious of them.  But, as the habit entrenches itself, the questions become unconscious and, as such, simply form an influence on our character.  The point about unconscious thinking is that it shapes our character without our being aware that we are even doing it, and so we are largely unaware of why we are the way we are.

So it is, too, that while one person might feel attracted to being a mechanic (say) another is attracted to being a writer.  It is easy enough to infer that one has had some early encouragement towards mechanics, while the other has not.  But it also happens that some people develop interests which have been actively discouraged in early life.   And, in either case, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly what early thinking was going on.

For most of us, we are reasonably satisfied with our personality or character.  After all, it has ‘worked’ for us, hasn’t it?  We have largely enjoyed our lives.  But it happens that we do become aware of certain dis-satisfactions also ; in which case, we might feel inclined to take an interest in our character-formation.  Indeed, we might feel a need to undertake a little character-reformation.  And our starting point might well be with our unconscious thinking.

I remember from long ago  wondering why it is that some people tend to see ultimate reasons for things, while others see ultimate causes.  There is certainly a fundamental difference in the kind of thinking going on here, and many people take these things very seriously ; some even devote their lives to the study of ultimate things.  I guess that a person of a theological persuasion will be interested in ultimate reasons, while an astronomer (for example) will be more interested in ultimate causes.

It seems that a certain tradition has grown up within each way of thinking about the world.  The person in search of ultimate reasons looks mostly inward, while the one in search of causes looks outward.  Thus it is, perhaps, that the theological type sees evidence of his Ultimate Reason for things wherever he looks within his own mind and in its rational functioning.  On the other hand, the astronomer sees evidence of his Ultimate Cause wherever he looks outward into in the sky ; everywhere he sees evidence of the big bang, whether it be in the orderly arrangements of the stars or in the ‘debris’ from the great primal event itself.

Saint Francis was an inwardly-looking man:

God be in my head
And in my understanding

God be in my eyes
And in my looking

God be in my mouth
And in my speaking

God be in my heart
And in my thinking

God be at my end
And at my departing.

St Francis

Taken, I am told, from a Book of Hours – a 1514 service book used in Clare College, Cambridge

After Psalm 121:8 : May the Lord keep our going out and our coming in from this time on and for evermore.

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Having been in engineering for most of my life, I have also found the attractions of science to be almost irresistible.  There is something neat about it.  The scientist begins by making an observation and proceeds to ascertain the causes of it.  After many such investigations, and when sufficient data has been accumulated, he then feels confident enough to propose a law which will account for his observations.  And, using that law, he then feels able to make some predictions of a more general nature.

Let me say at once that I see nothing wrong with this method.  It is, after all, the foundation a good deal of our technology ; and that technology can be seen to work.  The weakness of science does not lie in its method but in attitudes towards it.  The method has proved so successful that it has seduced many into believing that it is the only valid method of describing the natural world.  So successful has it been that many, perhaps the majority, of people pour scorn on any attempt to devise another.  This is especially true, I think, of the people of the West.  But there are objections to it, and there are many of them, so they will need to be severely summarised.

In the first place, science investigates the causes of natural events ; but there is no mention of purposes.  A scientist will perhaps tell us what happens, but is silent on why a thing happens.  A scientist will tell us of a natural physical law, but offers no opinion on why the law exists.  Also there is the question of what is observed.  Out of all the events occurring in an experimental condition, only certain of them are selected for observation.  Thus science deals with abstractions, with simplicities ; and by its nature is partial in the data it considers worthy of investigation.

So, all in all, science as it is done now is successful in what it attempts to do ; but its methods are limiting and, therefore, it cannot offer more than an abstract view of the world.  Therefore it cannot provide complete knowledge of nature, however hard it tries.

The physicist, AN Whitehead offered this insight : science is the application of commonsense to an idealised world.  But the world is not ideal ; it is not a laboratory ; and there is much going on in nature that science knows nothing of.

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