Saturday, July 01, 2006
Making Jello a la Darwin
My last post ended where Darwin discovered as the “why” answer that natural selection was nature's strategy for the survival and continuance of life. You might inquire, do all “why” questions lead to such ground breaking conclusions and deep understanding ? The answer of course is no. We could ask “how” did the chicken cross the road? The answer being by putting one foot in front of the other. Then you might say “why” did the chicken cross the road? Well I’ll let you answer this question. The point is the question in itself, on its own does not have the power. It is where it is asked. When it is applied to the inquiries of the natural world it can lead to profound insight. The problem being that it is not asked very often by modern science.
The question now is how did we get to this point where science and philosophy have parted company? There are actually a few ways to look at this. If you asked a scientist of today they would most likely say that it is because science has become so specialized and complex that the philosophers are not able to keep up with it all and therefore cannot meaningfully contribute. This however is a dodge, for it avoids why the scientists themselves are not looking at their work from a philosophical perspective. Many scientists are of the opinion that to pose the “why” question suggests motive or intent plays a role in the nature of our world. I’m going to be bold here for I am convinced the vast majority of scientists believe that there is no motive or intent or to put it another way a scheme of nature. Many may point to Darwin’s Theory which I just outlined and say it shows a process where random is a element and this suggests that there is no scheme to nature. Equally, many philosophies, some of which are described as religions rail at the very same point for they believe that this also indicates there is no scheme in nature and so therefore it must be wrong. Despite their opposed views, on this point to they both agree. But are they correct to think this way?
To examine this let’s draw an analogy between nature's process for the survival and continuance of life to making a bowl of jello. When you make jello you take a bowl you put in some water plus jello powder along with some sugar. Then you stir, after which you put the whole lot in the refrigerator for a while and wait for it to set. Now in Darwin’s theory nature takes a world (the bowl) adds in primitive life along with a ever changing environment (the ingredients) then allows some random changes (the stirring), then waits for some time (sitting in the frig) and there you have it, life as it is recognized today. So what then is there in Darwin’s theory that is so convincing to many scientists and so unacceptable to some philosophers? Well it’s this random aspect. Both groups consider that random process shows that there is no scheme to nature and yet what is the act of stirring when we made the jello. Most would say it was a quick and easy method to get all the ingredients evenly mixed or distributed. In truth though you accomplished this by use of a process that evokes random. Now what did nature do? To assure that life was given the benifit of trying out numerous possibilities in terms of making it viable, nature invokes a scheme that involves random as part of the process. Now I would ask both the scientists and the philosophers, is it logical or reasonable to restrict nature in such a way? If this were true then they should also insist that I couldn’t make jello properly unless I purposely and accurately located all of the jello powder and the sugar within the water. If one looks at it this way it doesn’t make much sense. There is more to be said about this random aspect to nature and its implications for science and philosophy. This however I will leave for future posts.
In a word: Academia, aka "The System."
The System doesn't reward scientists for Platonic thinking, except at the largest Institutes for Advanced Study. They reward their members for Publishing, aka, Doing. Publish or Perish. We have gotten SO far away from The Academy and The Lyceum it's ridiculous.
Good news: there's an out. ALSO at Academia there is a department called The Department of Philosophy. People like your mentor, and Tim Maudlin at Rutgers for example. They know Physics too. It's up to them to combine the two. It should be up to the Physics Departments at the same institutions to aid in that unification as well, to meet them halfway, but again these Physicists feel pressure from their superiors to answer the Socratic HOW, and the Platonic WHY be damned.
Case in point: Roger Penrose. He's an example of an established Scientist who can do anything he wants, and IS, in the sense of trying to promote his dust-particle tabletop experiment 3rd-type of Quantum interpretation idea as opposed to Copenhagen and Many-Worlds. But he's the exception, not the rule. Were there were more like him.
All good points, which in part is explained by today technology and fundamental science being confused as the latter only useful in terms of serving the first. However I’m also to wonder how many are there who truly have the heart and soul of a Einstein or Penrose in terms of their motivation as to what might truly come to be known by the scientific method. I compare the difference as being similar to that of a good craftsmen as opposed to an artist, with there being many more craftsmen then artists, with the first making the best out of what he has while the later creates what never existed before. I think then the greater challenge is not how to make scientists more sympathetic to such thinking, yet rather how to identify as to be able to cultivate the few that have what’s required.