Separating Science and Religion

I read this article for school:
Lightman’s The Accidental Universe

When asked to write an essay about it, this is what came out. I don’t normally post essays like this, but I’ve been meaning to write a post much like this for a while anyways, so it’s convenient.


Lightman descends into the realm of religion, masking his language with a thin film of scientific consideration, but none of its hard, decisive, rational edge. Lightman never even touches the basic principles of science, but uses philosophical arguments to parade a seemingly-scientific theory around.

Falsifiability is a method for evaluating scientific theories popularized by Karl Popper. It contends that a theory cannot be proved by showing evidence in favor of it. A theory may be shown to be strong if it can make empirically confirmable and correct hypotheses, but a theory can never be proved – only disproved. So to be a scientifically valid, a theory must have a way to be disproven (thus by not being disproven, it continues as the dominant theory). This is one of the problems with the multiverse theory, the theory of intelligent design, and even string theory: it is most likely impossible to disprove them. If an intelligent creator revealed itself, such a turn of events would not inherently make the multiverse theory wrong, per se (a multiverse theory can coexist with intelligent design). It would only make it irrelevant. Of course, this reveals an even bigger fundamental problem with those theories: they don’t explain the mechanics behind physical phenomenon in the traditional sense. Instead, they provide a framework of thought into which actual scientific theories can be slotted. But the multiverse theory is only one framework among many, and there is no way to show that one framework is strictly better than another.

Is it not just as reasonable, just as falsifiable (or not, as the case may be), to conclude that the universe as we know it is the only one, albeit a very lucky one? One could posit that it is indeed accidental. How does this postulate contend with the others on the battlefield of scientific thought? In some regards it may triumph over its opponents, because it relies on any contrary observation to disprove it, while both the multiverse theory and intelligent design can be valid even in the face of one or the other being true. So really, the Random Chance theory is more falsifiable, and thus more scientific.

But of course the Random Chance theory is completely unpleasing to the philosophical human mind. A much more palatable theory is the multiverse theory, which, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, slips in among the legitimate scientific advancements and completes a scientist’s world view satisfactorily. But is a scientist’s world view scientific? No. Science is a tool for developing a physically accurate view of the world, and we employ it because the human mind is not built to obey scientific rules. Our capacity for cognitive dissonance is astounding. Thus a scientist can in good conscience accept a non-scientific belief to assuage his existential conflicts by slathering the belief in the manner of other physics theories.
Another such unfalsifiable belief system is string theory. String theory is a self-consistent way of interpreting physical data using notions that fall out of mathematical equations but have no basis in experimental science. Indeed, string theory exists only as a way for some physicists and mathematicians to unify all of reality under some Platonic mode. But it is only that; a way to think about the universe, to help explain the Great Unexplainable, as Sax Russell calls it. String theory cannot produce hypotheses that can be tested to confirm the mode of thought. It can explain the observed, but only as well as previous existing theories. While it is nice that it can bring physical laws under a single wing, niceness is not a necessary quality of scientific theory. It is a subjective human measurement applied in the realm of philosophy.

Philosophy is not useless. It is a tool, like science, for examining the world. However, instead of measuring and describing physical phenomenon objectively, it takes human concepts or unimaginable realities (such as that beyond the realm of science) and compresses them down and creates a set of rules for the human mind to follow. It generates modes of thought that allow us to function and think about that which might otherwise turn us into quivering lumps of existential dread.

But assembling a philosophical system of thought only to pass it off as a product of science is dangerous. Besides preying on those incapable of evaluating the modes of thought on their own, it tricks the creator as well. Thus we can see the inevitable and unending conflict between the “rational” scientist and the “faithful” man of religion. Neither of them realizes that they are jousting with philosophical ideas, and as a result keeps hitting his opponent not at the weak spots, but at the bastions of his belief. The scientist calls his mode of thought “scientific truth” (a misleading term in and of itself), and the religious man calls his mode of thought “religion”.

Unfortunately for the world, nobody (certainly not the loud ones) seems to realize that science and religion are not diametrically opposed. Religion is not taken entirely on faith; while it does depend on some unfalsifiable core, it builds up a philosophical belief system around that which, beyond the basic axioms, is self-consistent and pretty damn useful. The scientist, used to tackling scientific theories, thinks that by attacking the core tenets of religion, he can bring down the entire system. But the core is unfalsifiable, so the methods of science are useless. Science and religion shouldn’t even overlap in their realms of explanation. In truth, they don’t. But unfalsifiable philosophy is given the title of science, and physical explanations are given the title of religion, so two incompatible systems are faced against each other. It would be better for everyone if both sides retreated to their realm of the human experience, but since they won’t, we get tripe like Lightman’s essay.

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A Forum for Original Thought

Nowadays, people hunger for original analyses and theses. Their pangs are reflected in the popularity of video series like The Idea Channel, Extra Credits, The Big Picture, and TED talks. Essentially, these are just spoken essays and presentations. They don’t really utilize the video medium, other than by coupling speech with a slideshow of images and (occasionally) video clips. Yet more and more these videos are supplementing written forms like blogs and columns. The intersection of unquenchable desire for consumable media (i.e. videos) and a veritable drought of mental stimulation makes spoken essays a desirable form of idea transmission.

Perhaps the number of quick-fact “educational” videos (e.g. Minute Physics, Smarter Every Day, CGPgrey, Vsauce, numberphile) stimulated the Internet’s interest in science. Indeed, there seems to be a vibe coursing through the tubes that “science is cool”, even if the way science is taught in schools isn’t. The realization that the scientific realm, learning, and, more generally, intelligent thought can be interesting has made people desire an influx of original analysis. It stimulates the brain, giving way to more thought in a way that other media has (mostly) failed to do.

In a world with an endless volume of consumable content, our brains may have become starved. Long periods of rumination can be painful and boring, so we flood it with cheap, throwaway media. Yet these times of inward reflection may serve an important purpose. Unfortunately, our over-stimulation by Internet videos, TV, movies, video games, and music has left us unable to focus on content-delivery platforms like text. We thirst for mental stimulation, yet cannot bear to gain it by taking a step backwards. This conundrum gave rise to the popularity of “spoken essays”. They inject creative, original thought quickly and painlessly. As we mull over this gem, we can further explore the subject in the video comments. Such discussion is evidenced by the considerable quality of comments on the aforementioned videos. Trolls, raging arguments over politics and religion, and insults have given way to (somewhat) thoughtful debates about the video’s analysis. Occasionally the next video in the series might make mention of some interesting points or surprising overall consensus concerning the previous video.

But is the classroom going extinct as a forum for intelligent discussion? Does it have a place in the furious online world? Perhaps. Although quick-fact videos give information, they very rarely delve into the depths of the subject and explain it in a way that lets the viewer solve entirely new problems on their own. They give the information top-soil, but hold back any sort of theoretical bedrock. A viewer might come out feeling smarter, but she will not have gained any tools in her arsenal of critical analysis and problem solving. This is partially due to the medium. Spending a longer amount of time to explore the subject drives off the initial appeal of the videos: quick learning.

However, some video series manage to seriously teach a subject while staying interesting. Crash Course has series on biology, literature, ecology, US history, and world history, served up by the eponymous vlogbrothers. They don’t necessarily go into the same depth that a yearlong course would, but that’s not really a problem here (it’s called “Crash Course” for a reason). The fact that dozens of videos are being spent exploring one subject is a start. Another faux-classroom video venue is Udacity. Udacity is a different beast; it is much more of an exploration into online courses than Crash Course. The physical classroom is woefully unfit to teach computer science. Udacity takes a stab at creating a classroom environment that takes advantage of its medium to deliver a more fitting CS education to a much greater volume of people, while still keeping a basic academic form.

Ultimately, I see a rise in the popularity of systems like Udacity, as well as series like Extra Credits and The Idea Channel. If educators want to truly grab the interest of new generations, they need to examine that which is already capturing attention. Rather than lamenting the advent of consumable, throwaway media, embrace it. There is a place for education in online videos and video games.

Zones of Thought

I recently finished a book by Vernor Vinge called Children of the Sky. It was the sequel to A Fire Upon The Deep. They are part of a continuing series called the Zones of Thought series, which has overtaken the Known Space (by Larry Niven) series as my favorite series of books.

The series is based on the premise that the galaxy is divided into these so-called “Zones of Thought”. They dictate the level of automation and intelligence physically allowed in that region of space. They are an inherent property of the galaxy, but their boundaries can shift, either slowly over thousands of years or rapidly in “zone storms”. They radiate out from the center of the galaxy.

A map of the Zones of Thought

A map of the Zones of Thought

The zones are as follows:

At the center of the galaxy are the Unthinking Depths. Intelligent thought is impossible, and computers fail. Humans turn into animals.

Beyond the Depths is the Slow Zone. The speed of light is the ultimate cap on speed and hyper-intelligence is impossible. Computers cannot become sentient.

Above the Slow Zone is the Beyond. In the Beyond, faster-than-light travel and communication is possible, and automation becomes much more capable. The Beyond falls into layers; FTL drives increase in capability as you get “higher”. Machines built in the High Beyond will work less efficiently or fail in the Low Beyond. Most of interstellar civilization exists in the Beyond.

The highest Zone is the Transcend. The Transcend is the subject of much study in the Beyond in the field of Religion. This is because the Transcend is populated by hyper-intelligences called Powers that are essentially gods. Products manufactured in the Transcend are often sold to the Beyond, such as anti-gravity fabrics, machinery, etc. Powers sometimes interact with Upper Beyond civilizations by sending “emissary ships”.

A Fire Upon The Deep is based around a malevolent Power that is awakened from an archive in the Low Transcend that is the subject of a human expedition. The Blight, as it is called, proceeds to wipe out local civilization in the High Beyond. Only a single human ship escapes from the “High Lab” in the Low Transcend, and it carries a portion of the archive that, if reunited with the Blight, will destroy it. The Blight recognized this (it had been defeated in a similar way long in the past) and set out to destroy the Countermeasure.

Another human group figures this out and, with some help from another Power that is subsequently murdered (nobody is quite sure how Powers work) by the Blight, escapes the Blight’s invasion and travels to a world at the bottom of the Beyond where the ship carrying Countermeasure has taken refuge. The Blight pursues them, causing havoc in that part of the galaxy.

In the end, Countermeasure uses some strange Transcend technology to harness the system’s star (it actually goes dark for a little) and cause a massive Zone storm that extends the Slow Zone to engulf the world and the Blight (30 light years out from the world) and much of the Beyond in that part of the galaxy. This traps the Blight and the humans in local space, giving the humans a century or more to build up the technology of the civilization on the planet before the Blight builds ramscoops and comes to destroy its nemesis once and for all.

What really interested me about the book was the world the humans become stranded on. It is inhabited by an interesting alien race. Each alien is composed of 4-8 individual “members”, and so they are referred to as packs. Each member is a dog-like animal that communicates with the others using “mind sounds”. This raises some interesting consequences; for one, two packs cannot get extremely close to each other without losing consciousness; it is very hard for packs to work collaborate and thus it is hard for new technology to be made. Their civilization has been stuck in a medieval state for a long time. Packs also live for a very long time. They replace old members either through inbreeding (within their own pack) or by breeding with another pack. The only way for a pack to die is if all of the members die, which pretty much only happens in combat (or sickness). Packs can also split into two or merge. Also, each member contributes different aspects of personality to the pack. This means that packs can be planned, called broodkenning. Essentially, people can be “built”. Of course, when the first four humans land on the planet, all hell breaks loose.

The four humans from the High Lab are a family, with a small boy and a adolescent girl. The two parents are killed in an initial attack launched by the militaristic northern kingdom the humans set down in. A pair of traveling packs see the attack and kidnap the wounded girl, taking her back to a more understanding, peace-loving kingdom (ruled by “Woodcarver”) in the south. The boy is captured by the northern “Flenserists”. He doesn’t realize that they are malicious though, and ends up befriending a pack that was built entirely from puppies (usually such packs become autistic). The two are manipulated by Flenser and start communicating with the human rescue expedition. Woodcarver’s kingdom has a dataset from the girl, and they use it to build cannons and prepare for war with Flenser in the north. However, Flenser has the support of the rescue party (since they don’t know that Flenser is evil). Eventually Woodcarver defeats Flenser in a battle just as the rescue party arrives.

Vernor Vinge always creates interesting aliens. There are others in his series, such as the Spiders in A Deepness in the Sky and the Skroderiders (sentient plants, essentially), who are space traders in A Fire Upon The Deep. I draw a lot of inspiration from his stories, both in character design and plot creation.

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