Monday, May 31, 2010

The Tao of Physics

I posted one of these from Symphony of Science back in February. Now I see Sam Harris has tweeted this one, and I'm reminded again that they are delightful and profound.

I love the passion of the scientists, the awe that comes from contemplating what we truly know.

(It seems that Blogger's framing doesn't enable the video to show in its proper aspect, so I recommend clicking the link to the Symphony of Science site where everything looks proper.)


Anonymous said...

Come again? What is it that we truly know?

wunelle said...

Well, it's helpful to watch the video before commenting.

What we know is that elements needed to construct our very bodies needed to be forged inside stars; we know that the same building blocks are used in all things, living and inanimate; we know the universe to be unimaginably larger than we are wired to comprehend intuitively; on and on. They just say it much better than I (and with a little help here).

The point is that there is magic and majesty and mystery aplenty just grappling with actual data. Fairy tales are not required (and are counter-productive).

Anonymous said...

I did watch the video. I felt that what we "truly know" is not really knowing anything exactly, but how much we don't know - as you say, "...magic and majesty and mystery...". Wouldn't combining the meaning of these three words form "miracle"? And aren't "miracles" the stuff of fairy tales?

wunelle said...

If all you take from this video is an awareness of "how much we don't know," you've dismissed out of hand all that we DO know, especially when contrasted with the state of collected human knowledge from 500 or 1000 years ago. An honest assessment of what we don't know is essential to learning, and it's an indispensable part of the scientific method. And it points the way forward as we strive for, and systematically gain, knowledge and understanding.

A HUGE amount of what we currently know was declared not so long ago to be unknowable. Our collective increase of knowledge through science has reduced the zone of religious authority to the margins. Spheres like morality and ethics, topics still clung to by organized religion, are yielding to scientific understanding even now.

Miracles are indeed the stuff of fairy tales. "Miracle" is the word used by those who do not understand the bell curve of probability. To declare "miraculous" that which we do not yet understand is a complete abdication of science.

Anonymous said...

Last comment didn't post - all that work for nothing...

Anonymous said...

OK, let’s assess the last 1000 years. We travel faster. We live longer (on average). We have good shoes and Gore-Tex ™. We have sun screen. We have addressed tooth decay. We have pain killers and antibiotics (DNA: just look at it go!). At least in the developed world we have good surgeons with good tools that can repair eyes, organs and other body parts (and not the spine or the nervous system – yet). We have great entertainment thanks to written language available to everyone (books) and good cameras and semiconductors (TVs, media, computers), not to mention cool toys with engines. We’ve got wire and optic cable running everywhere so we can communicate like this. Have any of these discoveries earned us the arrogance to imply that there are no miracles? Unfortunately, the video reeks of “miracles”. It is just that these particular spokespersons have a common “bent” that prevents them from using the term.

By the way, how does one make an “honest assessment of how much we don’t know”? Is that even possible? If you have been reading any of the scientific journals (like Science) over the last several decades, you will find that the deeper the researchers dig, the more complicated nature becomes – as if it had an infinite structure. When will our learning end? Will it ever end? Ask a cancer researcher, “how’s it going?” (I did). If you don’t get an overwhelmed look, he’s up to something (and it’s not about his job). That field has become more about “job security” and less about “finding a cure”. From what I am told, they are not even close to a cure for any form of cancer, much less cancers as a group (but I am holding out hope that mankind can analyze and “repair” cancer too).

It is kind of contradictory to, on one hand, have your mind blown by the staggering complexity of nature, (and in so many words talk about “magic” and “mystery”) and on the other hand slam the word “miracle” because it might imply a distasteful association with religion.

As far as declaring something being miraculous as abdicating science – try saying that to anyone who has studied the biological flow from conception to childbirth – you would get few arguments on whether that is a miracle. A significant percentage of scientists and doctors today are Christians and believe in miracles. See where the “probability curve” fits in that chilbirth scenario - only in which zygote finds which egg - the rest is up to highly programmed micro-machinery - there is very little randomness to it. Analysis and statistics has little to do with it – human conception is clearly a product of "synthesis” – a topic in which all your heroes in that video appear to be extremely weak. Sure, people will analyze how humans are formed and may say they have actually built a computer model tracing every step, but will we ever figure out how it all came about? There is an astronomical difference between analysis and synthesis.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I don't think anyone would argue that we are made of stardust - our materials have to come from some place. It is how all that stardust got assembled that seems to create a big chasm in our culture with a very large group on one side, and a tiny group on the other. And only one side of that chasm seems to have the answer.

wunelle said...

You make a pretty trivial list of the last 1000 years, but OK. "Have any of these discoveries earned us the arrogance to imply that there are no miracles?"

By "miracle" you mean to say (I think): Jesus' (or Yahweh's or Allah's or Zoaraster's or Shiva's, etc. etc. ad infinitum) intervention, no? What else is to be implied except to say that SOMETHING (supernatural) is to be invoked?

But to invoke the unknowable supernatural element is to provide no explanation at all; to invoke as an explanation something about which BY DEFINITION you cannot know anything is no better (no, it's worse) than saying the simple truth: we don't know why X happens, but we're working on it.

Reproduction by definition cannot be a "miracle" as it happens a buzillion times a day. That we might be in awe of the process is understandable; that we would invoke a necessarily MORE improbable explanation leaves us further from understanding than when we started.

Of course the more we dig the more we learn, to include uncovering further fields of inquiry! How could it be otherwise, and who would want it to be? It all represents the forward march of knowledge, and we have modern medicine and electronic communications and the computer you're typing on and paved roads and airplanes and hand-washing and catalytic converters and very low infant mortality rates and a billion other things to thank for it.

"How does one make an honest assessment of how much we don’t know?" We begin by admitting "we don't understand X," and doing so whenever we come against the limits of our understanding. The key is not to have a SUMMARY of what we don't know, but to have a willingness to express the limits of our knowledge. This is science in a nutshell, and the very antithesis of "revealed truth."

And how do you invoke cancer research as an example of what we DON'T know, when 300 years ago we didn't even know about cells and viruses and bacteria? Astounding! To imply that because our knowledge of X (say, cancer) extends only 20% it is therefore futile to continue studying is to bomb us intellectually right back to the stone age! What would you prefer? Praying? (Isn't that being done already? Isn't praying PLUS DRUGS statistically much more successful in fighting cancer--as successful, as it turns out, as drugs alone?)

Doctors are certainly not scientists, though they make use of the fruits of science. I have no idea what the percentage of doctors who believe in the supernatural is, but the National Academy of Science members are overwhelmingly atheist. In any case, it's not a democratic matter: the number of people voting for a particular explanation does not determine its truth (we know from basic statistics, for example, that a majority of the world's population is worshiping a lie).

Finally: if you invoke "miracle" for "majesty and mystery," then perhaps we're acknowledging a similar awe. I'm just saying that there's nothing supernatural about the mystery: it's all nature by definition. There's no "being" behind it; we have no reason to think so (and a zillion reasons not to).


"And only one side of that chasm seems to have the answer."

Actually, neither group has the answer. But one group is trying to learn.

Lunn Fisk said...

I am no longer "anonymous".

No way could I do justice to what we have accomplished in the last 1000 years - I just threw out some key items that have made our lives noticeably better today.

Uhhh...since when does the discovery (or analysis) of cells and viruses compare to the astronomical synthesis required to beat cancer. It's going to take a lot more than stronger optics...
You may be underestimating cancer.

And when does frequency define whether something is a miracle or not? I don't think that Dawkins' medieval man witnessing a 747 jet crossing the sky 100 times a day any less of a miracle to them. Irritating perhaps...

People will still worship the creator of something that is intelligently designed - just ask RD. At least now some of us realize the depth of what we are studying could possibly be infinite. I say, good for the analyzers - it gives them a lot to do and provides a lot of opportunities to improve our plight. But we can't lose sight of the fact that nature is here for us to study, and in that should come an immense appreciation for the work that went into constructing it. There is no "blind watchmaker" - which at this point is probably not even a credible term, knowing who coined it.

So if you say there is nothing supernatural about nature, then where did it all come from? Who wrote the conception program, for example? I keep getting these promises that "Science will figure it out.." I am patiently waiting...

Lunn Fisk said...

A reminder of what randomness actually "creates":

wunelle said...

Hello. It's nice to see a name attached to the discussion.

I don't grasp where you're going with cancer. Do you mean to say that it can only be beaten by appeal to a deity? How do you know which deity to appeal to? Is research pointless? Would you throw out current treatments, which have saved and / or extended so many lives? I just don't grasp your point here.

I think to invoke the supernatural in a discussion of cancer leads us inevitably to the burning question: what kind of creator ravages people, flawed and innocent, young and old, in this indiscriminate way? How can we praise the deity when our lives are saved and not curse and blame him / it when it takes a loved one? It can't be both ways, or the deity-explanation ceases to have any meaning whatsoever.

"So if you say there is nothing supernatural about nature, then where did it all come from? Who wrote the conception program, for example? I keep getting these promises that 'Science will figure it out..' I am patiently waiting..."

As for where it all came from:

1) Of course I don't know, and nobody else does either (and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying). We must learn to be at peace with not knowing, because it's just the fact of the matter. And it will remain so long after our deaths. Religious folks are always conflating that which is not known with that which cannot be known. But this is politics, not science.

2) Inventing an answer doesn't in fact answer the question. If you're truly inquisitive, it will take more than someone's declaration to put the mind at rest.

3) What do you propose? That some entity "made" it? How does that fix anything? A) you can't possibly know anything about the entity; B) saying "he did it" has absolutely no meaning when we can't know the meaning of any of those three words ('he,' 'did' and 'it'); and C) you must then explain the existence of an entity who could create a universe and all the improbable things in it that cause you to invoke him in the first place! HE will require an explanation considerably more than the universe will.

He has oddly chosen to create a world that looks exactly like it would look if he were no part of it.

I think you'll have to cede the Dawkins "admission." You imply he's given away the store, and it just isn't so. If you would discredit RD (which is absolutely fair game), you must debunk his arguments. If his book "The Blind Watchmaker" is bunk, I'd be interested to know how you think his arguments are flawed.

Lunn Fisk said...

I am not saying that researching cancer is pointless – you are right, people’s lives have been extended and saved when the cancer is caught in time. I am saying that the reason we haven’t cured any form of cancer yet is that the complexity is overwhelming. A cure for cancer isn’t going to rely on a “discovery”, per se, it is going to rely on creative synthesis, much like the way DNA was formed in the first place. There are too many variables to solve for when trying to decode why the human body decides to attack itself. It will not only take an understanding of the layout of the human genome (and perhaps each individual’s genome, as current research is showing), it will take understanding of how this massive matrix works, and all the interdependencies. Call it “creative analysis” if you will. People will have to continue to run countless simulations with live DNA to see the repercussions. Sometimes multiple variables will have to be changed at the same time because it might take an eternity to change one at a time. It is very unlikely that a straight analysis will reveal some sort of “Achilles heel” that will allow us to vanquish cancer. Creative design of experiments is what science should be all about. Without that, and only with myopic analyses we may never get there. (I know I have taken several "design of experiments" classes - the cross-correlations will get you every time). The point here is that God gave us CREATIVE abilities to tackle problems. Randomness never solved a problem, nor has anything ever been witnesses where randomness actually created anything (except for when Robert Pennock intentionally misled the Dover Trial courtroom by citing a paper that “proved” evolution, but was in fact a computer program simulation – keep in mind that both the program and the computer were created by someone.

I'll address your second paragraph when I get back.

Lunn Fisk said...

I have to go for your last paragraph first - too tempting! If RD hasn't given up the store, then we can use his analogy one more time: we know for a fact that there was no "blind watchmaker" that built the Boeing jet. Thousands of smart engineers with fully functioniong eyes and hands painstakingly designed that jet over many years. Systems engineers installed and customized the latest control algorithms. Machinists labored over making parts from aluminum, titanium and steel. Electricians pulled miles of wire through the framework. Technicians meticulously assembled every part checking for fit and function. Test pilots risked their lives flying a prototype that previously did not exist. This was no blind effort. But when you compare the 747 to DNA, it is like comparing a crudely carved rock to a, well, man has not made anything yet that is within the scale factor of this analogy.

As far as God allowing suffering...
Creating a world where there is free will and no possibility of sin is a self-contradiction. In a truly free world, people can choose evil over God, with suffering as a consequence. The overwhelming pain in the world is caused by our choices, among others, to kill, to steal, to slander, to be selfish, to stray sexually, to break our promises, to enslave others, and to be reckless. And religious people are not guiltless when it comes to any of these sins, I'm sorry to say...but there is more to that story...

As far as your paragraph 3) - you are covering a lot of ground there and will take time (perhaps tomorrow) for me to discuss. On the surface, it appears this paragraph borrows much from Dawkin's writings. It might be time for you to get a little different perspective...

wunelle said...

Ah. So the cancer sufferers are to blame for their "sins." That would be an abominable god indeed.

The 747 analogy is dead and buried. Dawkins has made a whole career explaining why over and over again. Again I point you to The Blind Watchmaker. You've got a grip on a non-entity with this whole Collins-747 business. If you would rebut Dawkins, you must confront his arguments and not someone's misunderstanding of them.

Lunn Fisk said...

The way the Bible deals with sickness is that it is considered to be the product of a fallen world. God never guaranteed that we wouldn't get sick. Getting angry at God for people getting sick is pretty much futile. Our biological machinery, while for the most part is ideally made, does have weaknesses. While I cherish the time I have on this planet, it is short compared to eternity, where consequences of my decisions here on earth can result in something far worse than getting sick and dying.

We do have some say in the cancer issue, however, with some studies saying 60% of it is preventable. And sure, God allowed computer viruses to happen...

I started out on the 747 analogy only to show that Dawkins is an ordinary person who makes mistakes and is not unflappable. I can imagine that from an atheistic standpoint his statement is a fiasco. I can understand why any atheist would want to sweep this statement under a rug and pretend that it never happened. In Dawkins defense, you may want to point out a specific reference of some writings Dawkins has done where he actually contradicts his foible - perhaps an example where mankind has worshipped something that bears no evidence of intelligent design. Otherwise, his published analogy stands as it is - either a mistake or a Freudian slip.

Esbee said...

*tiptoes in*

Hi, Wunelle!

*tiptoes out*

wunelle said...

So you're happy "understanding" disease by reference to a religious document? All due respect, but that's risible in 2010. "Disease is a function of the inscrutable will of an incomprehensible deity." That is no answer at all.

And how then are our attempts to cure cancer not meddling with you god's will? Or is it god's will that we meddle with his / its will? And how would you know a god's will? Preposterous.

Out of town; the rest will have to wait.

I want nothing to do with any such "spirit."

wunelle said...

Hi Esbee!!! I must saunter over for a visit!

wunelle said...

LF: Please do me the courtesy of cutting & pasting the exact Dawkins quote where he declares himself a creationist. I can't find it.

And are you now claiming that RD is a friend to believers in all their myriad stripes? By all means, I say then, let's have all churches assign RD's canon as required reading.

If you'll agree to that, I'll agree to call him a friend of mythologists.

Alex said...

Lunn Fisk,

You state "only in which zygote finds which egg" in a previous post.

Can you make sense of this incomprehensible assertion? I certainly can't. I wasn't aware that zygotes are cruising around in the uterus looking for eggs.

From Wiki:

"Zygotes are usually produced by a fertilization event between two haploid cells — an ovum from a female and a sperm cell from a male — combine to form the single diploid cell."

From a long list of logical fallacies that you have so far promulgated, I can now add a lack of knowledge of basic biology. For one who is so quick to dismiss the volumes of Dawkins' peer reviewed articles and books — based on your opinion that he made a Freudian slip — you certainly wasted little time (and blog space) showing that you lack any sort of credibility.

-A. Random

Lunn Fisk said...

Granted, I'm no expert in biology (or anything for that matter), and was hasty in putting in "Zygote" instead of "Sperm Cell" (Good catch - what would we do without Wiki?), however, the "choice" made by the sperm is a still random process. I do, however, appreciate experts in their fields, but as experts, they shouldn't they at least be consistent in their assertions and beliefs in their area of expertise if they are to remain "experts"?

Since it seems that Dawkins' "Blind Watchmaker" is the reference for those placing their faith in "randomness", I have just checked it out of the library. While I had avoided it in the past due to its repugnant title (which is contradiction to Dawkins' own published analogy), I will read it in great interest to learn more about biology (assuming there is substantial supporting material in that area) and where Dawkins is coming from. While trying to be unbiased in reading this book, my natural curiosity will be to see if Dawkins can reconcile his creationist tendencies with his atheistic tendencies. If I don't find it in there, fine - at least I may learn something and find out what all the fuss is about.

wunelle said...

I won't check the teeth of the gift horse. I'm happy that creationists are now embracing Dawkins. If all creation-myth-believers were like Dawkins, I wouldn't have to despise them for having made the US a laughingstock to educated nations.

As for the apparent need to explain the metaphor in RD's book title, I'll leave that to his own writings.

Alex said...

Mr. Fisk, do you actually believe that your only error is your lack of knowledge of basic biology? I find it astonishing that you have based your assertions regarding Dawkins alleged "creationist tendencies" on some supposed slip of the tongue by Professor Dawkins, and that even after repeated requests, refuse to disclose his statement here. It would be a simple matter even for you, who claim to be no expert on anything, to simply cut and paste Dr. Dawkins quote to this blog so that we can analyze and discuss its implications without all the metaphysical nonsense you continue to spew. Your smug insistence that we should somehow continue to keep making the same request for evidence of Dr. Dawkins statement -- as a platform for you to sermonize about your superstitious worldview -- is stunning.

It is your lack of being forthcoming that indicates to me that you really have no basis for your criticism of Dr. Dawkins. It is because you realize that said revelation would not be nearly as damning as you wish it to be. You understand on some base level that after tens of thousands of pages of published scientific works, even a slight (alleged) error in phrasing does nothing to diminish anything that has gone before or after. If you have a message to convey, sir, I suggest you set aside your fixation on Dr. Dawkins so we can analyze your "expert" opinion on one of the many points you've made here.

I wanted to make it clear to you when I pointed out your factual error regarding eggs and zygotes that it is painfully easy to make mistakes, even when one has the time to do a modicum of research on a particular subject. I do hope that seventh grade biology is not beyond your grasp and suggest Wikipedia as an excellent source for you as you try to understand the dense works of Dr. Dawkins.

I have a suggestion: you may want to try to understand the meaning of the word "faith" before you bandy it about as you have done. A foundation of science wouldn't hurt, either. I can suggest a link or two to help you in that regard.