Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Some More Notes About Why Science Is Remarkable

As to what qualities make science remarkable in human history and different from other human traditions... chief among them is that it is a methodology that helps us help each other get our of our heads

most human traditions and activity is steeped in thinking that human interactions and events and stories are the most interesting and important things around.  and in fact we are still steeped in 1000s of years old traditions that have imagined that the entire universe was created and is governed by  something like a human mind.  and that mindishness is something kind of like vapor, not to be ANALYZED, taken apart.  and that our own experience is due to a vapor like soul that is trapped in corrupt physical bodies that are just dungeons of pain, corruption and death.

so to me science is so remarkable because it breaks out of this pattern in a few ways.

(1) Most people are more interested in human stories rather than stories about rocks and worms.  and if they are at all interested in rocks and worms it's maybe because they could use the rocks to build a house or use a worm to help cure their grandmother's cancer.  what makes science special (akin more to poetry perhaps) is to simply see rocks as COOL or wonder what the world is like from a worm's perspective, and to value bodies and stuff as much as human life-experience.

(2) science succeeds because it is a tradition of realizing that we can easily fool ourselves in our experiments because we are sloppy or subconsciously swayed by how WE WANT the experiment to turn out, and then it is a tradition of CIVIL DISCOURSE, that we build a network of publishing our experiments in detail and critique each other's experiments when we find instances of each other subconsciously fooling ourselves (worldwide network spanning languages and cultures).  It is a tradition where doubt is cultivated and admired. while many scientists are subject to human foibles just like everyone else, it is remarkable that this is a stated goal of science: to doubt and find where we fool ourselves even if it leads to discomfort.

(3) a predominant approach of science is to analyze seemingly monolithic experiences in terms of interactions between discrete parts (akin to its general interest in stuff), and even if the project is to analyze less mechanical phenomena like fields, waves, fluids, science is certainly steeped in paying attention to the interactions between discrete parts in the experimental apparatus used to study them.  and it is the interest in stuff, playing with a prism, wondering why the positions of the moons of Jupiter lag behind the published tables.. that lead to more abstract theories about less stuff-like electromagnetic fields.

It is this interest in stuff and explanation of phenomena in terms of interactions between parts that can lead to a world view that human soul/experience might be interaction between earthen parts as opposed to some alien vapor temporarily trapped by earthen shells (good riddance too them and the Earth in the world to come).  this is a valuable perspective.


TH said...

It sounds like you are talking about science as two different things.

1) A topic of study. Rocks and worms. Science as getting out of anthropocentrism and studying things that aren't human for what they are themselves, rather than for what they are to humans.

2) A method of study.

It's possible to have one of these without the other. The scientific method of study is used to study humans. That's social science.

And non-human things can be studied without a scientific method. As you allude to I think when you mention poetry.

An artist studying a rock, learning all its angles and colors, in order to be able to draw the rock. That is the study of non-human things, but it's not a scientific experiment.

So we have these two things: a method of study, and a topic of study. Are you saying that in order for it to count as science, both of these two things must exist? And are you saying that you like both of these two things, so that when one exists without the other, you still like it, even if it does not meet your definition of science?

I don't really think that's exactly what your saying. Because I think you would not say that making the topic of study human makes something not be science.

TH said...

The context behind this post was you love science, but you're not going to say that all humans should focus their kids' education primarily on science, and you're not going to say that science is the only worthwhile thing -- for example, you also value arts and crafts. You take a scientific view when you say there's not scientific evidence that societies which focus on science education are more successful than societies that do not.

I think one reason I've grown away from my previous interest in social science is that I don't buy into their measures. Let's say they are comparing two different high school curricula. Then they measure success by things like college GPA, college graduation rate, income level 10 years later, etc. And to me, that's not success. The things that are important to me are things that are harder to measure. To me a successful person is one who lives a life of integrity, compassion, kindness, intelligence, wisdom, and joy. And the things that are important to me are just the things that are important to me. They aren't necessarily the things that should be used as the objective standard of success.

barry goldman said...

it's not so much the desire to study rocks versus humans, but more to study the thing for its own sake rather than what it can do for us (or against us), even if you study a human. So even with people, you can take a non scientific or scientific approach:

non scientific: let our fears and desires of others, and our imaginations about what is going on inside someone else's head cloud our interactions with them

scientific: learn to become aware and help each other in the practice becoming aware of when our own desires and preconceptions are clouding our ability to encounter and relate to others. This is nearly buddhism. buddhism is similar to science though it has no interest in anything outside our own human lives. i suppose it advocates appreciating a rock for what it is, but the rock is not as important as our own enlightenment. i may be wrong there, i have not practiced it for very long. certainly the buddist teaching is also beware your desire for enlightenment.

at any rate, another way to characterise the science way, whether with rocks, higgs bosons or other humans is simply: having a mature relationship with the world around us. and one can even call science a mature love affair with the universe as opposed to an infantile relationship with the universe as mother/father.

barry goldman said...

and yes my love of stuff, the detailed rich texture and surprisingness of nonhuman stuff also makes me happy, regardless of whether i am approaching it scientifically or not. in fact i fully admit to and celebrate my nonbuddhist attachment to stuff like Earth itself.

barry goldman said...

ah.. you recall the context of my posting this. quite a detective. it's true that i have a subjective love for the science way, and also intuitions that it is valuable for humanity but i don't know if we can have data that it is ultimately valuable for humanity or that all human groups should choose it as their way.

as far as social sciences are concerned.. the brilliance of science is in realizing just how hard it is to do science. and thus science started off studying really simple systems knowing full well how hard it is to begin to learn to do science on more complex ones. and the extension of that is that science knows how easily we can fool ourselves and each other and so that the scientific study of other humans is REALLY hard and even really really harder would be scientific study of oneself (which the Buddhists gleefully tackle, god bless 'em)

so yeah, i think a lot of what goes on in social sciences - sociology, education, psychology, economics... is really sloppy and hard to do well. plus, what humans ARE is not necessarily what they ought to be allowed to WANT to be.

TH said...

I've known people who value getting beyond fears, desires, imagination and preconceptions, people who think that we all ought to be objective, rational, and logical, and that to be otherwise just shows clouded, unclear thinking. I've seen this in Buddhists, atheists, humanists, and Muslims. These people seem to view the world with a coldness. But for you it's not coldness. You see miraculousness surrounding us, in a mushroom, in a katydid, in things other people don't even see.

You call me a detective -- to me, I was just seeing what was under my nose. When you see mushrooms, you are the same -- you are just seeing what is under your nose. But no one else sees them, so that makes you a detective.

You like science because science helps us see things for themselves, rather than seeing them for how we're going to use them or what we want them to be. That raises two questions.

1) Is science unique in this? Doesn't art have the ability to do this too?

2) What makes it a good thing to see things for what they are? One answer you give has to do with the soul as being of earth, rather than of alien vapor. (That's pantheism there.) Another answer perhaps comes from the background: that you love science, but that you will not say all humans should be educated primarily in science. Thus, you are saying what you love, not what you prescribe for the human race. So, the value you place on seeing things for themselves is what you love, now what you prescribe for the human race.

One of the values I see in seeing things for themselves is sort of contradictory. You mention getting out of our heads. I like to get out of my head. I can get carried away fretting about my life, and it's refreshing when I can get absorbed in something that makes me forget about all that. For me, going on a nature walk, going to dance practice, preparing a playlist, or compiling photos will absorb my attention. Such times are a refreshing relief.

And this is where the contradiction comes in: for me, one of the values in seeing things for what they are rather than how they are useful to me is getting out of my head. Getting out of my head is useful to me, because it makes me calmer. Therefore, looking at things for what they are rather than for how useful they are to me, is useful to me in itself.

So even when we are seeing things for themselves and not for their usefulness to us, it comes back to usefulness to us. And it seems to come back to usefulness for you as well, when you write, "lead to a world view....this is a valuable perspective."

TH said...

That's funny, when you say God bless the Buddhists.

barry goldman said...

seeing things for what they are in themselves rather than what i fear them to be or wish them to be is for me ultimately a matter of respect, whether it is towards other people or Earth etc..

and yes ultimately doing that and also getting out of our heads is good for us. it. you see a paradox there. it is sort of but i think it is what the buddhists mean when they say you should not desire enlightenment, should not strive for it. the enlightenment may be good (may be bad, it is also brutally hard) but becoming attached to your quest for enlightenment is most certainly not the way

barry goldman said...

on this science way and buddhism leading to coldness (i don't understand why anyone would want to call themselves an A-theist)

to a certain extent i think living a way of non attachment to life, to the particulars of humanity, Earth, is a bit cold, i myself choose to celebrate my painful attachment to these things, to me it is what makes us human. but i will admit i don't fully understand the buddhist way.

but the other way that non-attachment makes you not cold, but warm, is a major buddhist teaching: when you encounter another human, if you head is full of what you fear and desire that human for, you won't be fully present too that person and won't be able to exhibit full empathy and compassion for them.

and to me this is what the science way gives us too.

but i can see that going too far, and in fact when some people come to me out of some abstract almost more than human acceptance for me out of some kind of religious zeal, they seem too inhuman and it puts me off.

TH said...

From "The Rainbow" by Peter Mayer:

I dream I reach the end of the journey I've been on
And all I finally find is a smiling leprechaun
So I ask a wee impatiently, "tell me have you seen a pot of gold?
And he says “have you seen the rainbow?”

Have you seen the colors gleam
And shimmer on a silent sea?
Have you seen the colors shine
Brightly in another's eyes?

Have you seen a firefly, have you seen a lark?
Have you seen the light burning in your beating heart?
Have you seen the way the morning glows?
Have you seen the red and green and gold?
Tell me, have you seen the rainbow?

Up and down the countryside
You can see me hurry by
Passing diamonds on the road
Just to find a pot of gold

TH said...

I do get uncomfortable when someone is too zealous in accepting me, liking me, helping me. But for me, such people are not "going too far" in seeing me for who I am. For me, the reason they make me uncomfortable is because they are actually doing the opposite. They are not seeing me for who I am at all. Sometimes they can't see me because they are consumed by their desire to be a helpful, generous person. Sometimes they can't see me because they imagine me to be someone else. They come to me to absorb serenity, purity, and wisdom, because that's what they think I have, and they don't allow me to be mischievous, neurotic, or funny.

barry goldman said...

ah... that is another extreme..