Science as a Clue

Verified and Proposed, the Similarities

I spent a large part of my youth wondering something that is likely uncommon for children to wonder. I wondered: why is it possible for us to design?

I remember the last time I asked myself the question. It was a winter night, and I was staring up at the orange-hued bulbs of the streetlights up above. I wasn’t a child anymore. I knew that streetlights harnessed electricity, but I had never understood why it should be possible for us to trick nature into behaving in so many useful ways. It did not seem to me that there should be a most efficient way of doing something, as if there were other ways of doing it that were incorrect. Even the word “way,” in and of itself, implies design. That’s when an answer occurred to me, and it is the answer that I rely upon today—we can design because the universe itself has design. It is this way, rather than some other way. Therefore, it is possible for some specific thing to have a special and unique relationship to one particular manner of accomplishing it.

I find that there are similarities between scientific practice and religious belief. I do not mean to suggest that religious beliefs are true simply because they bear similarities to science, under the pretense that science is a sound and unquestionable thing. What I do mean to suggest, is that religious beliefs are a legitimate response to the truth.

Science is a wonderful thing, but it does not contain reality. It does not even accurately describe reality—it merely describes it in ways that are useful, which we are content to dub “accurate,” inasmuch as we require accuracy. The models of the universe that we have built are merely names and symbols given to the inexplicable circumstances that we find ourselves in. They are based on the assumption that things happen for a reason, and these reasons do not change.

No thinking person today will claim that religion contains reality. For all the accusations of heresy levied by the pious against each other, they know deep down that their religious convictions are only a method of dealing with the reality of God himself. To suggest that religion is an accurate description of reality is to suggest that humans, by understanding their own religious beliefs, understand the mind of God. This has always been a heretical thought, regardless of the era.

Why is it that we permit change in science, but not in religion? When science changes we rejoice in the advancement. When religion changes we wonder how it could possibly be true, as if it should have been correct from the start. The Newtonian understanding of physics that so many of us have learned is, strictly speaking, wrong. Yet nobody has argued its usefulness, and nobody calls it inaccurate. As we further refine our understanding of physics, we now find that the models are only inaccurate when they are used for the most esoteric purposes. Similarly, there are some questions that religion cannot answer for us. But it describes much of the human experience quite well.

The deeper you dig, the more counter-intuitive science becomes. At the superficial level, we appreciate concepts such as momentum and energy. We do not easily appreciate relativity and superposition. Similarly, we appreciate the idea of a loving God who has a plan for us. We do not easily appreciate predestination, or why any of this is happening in the first place. In short, the fundamental discoveries of science have often been counter-intuitive. It is not so surprising that religion does not make any sense to us either.

I am fed up with those atheists who insist that the universe makes sense. I believe that there is no more insecure and blind a person than he who claims that “most of what we know is actually quite logical.” These people have buried their heads in the sand, and would not even have required Richard Feynman’s advice when he said:

Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, “But how can it be like that?” because you will get “down the drain,” into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.

Things are definite, things can be categorized. We believe based on experience. Things are strange, things are unimaginable. We refine our understanding of the truth, we inevitably fail to capture it—but at no point were we chasing anything besides the truth. We create images and systems to facilitate our relationship with the truth, full well knowing that it is a thing we will not comprehend in this lifetime. Yet one need not comprehend something in order to properly experience and act upon it.

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9 Responses to “Science as a Clue”

  1. Your mistaken assumption seems to be that there is an accurate standard of truth which exists objectively.

    To say science doesn’t accurately describe reality is only true if you mean that it doesn’t lead you to metaphysical truth, something I would argue exists only as a human ideal, and is itself not reflective of reality.

    It is difficult to argue that science doesn’t reflect reality, as we see very clearly that the scientific method delivers us insight into the rules which govern the universe.

    It is true that for pragmatic reasons we must begin with the assumption that there are rules at all and that they remain constant, however every advancement in knowledge derived from the scientific method is yet more evidence that this is the case.

    It is true that religion describes the human experience more aptly than science. However the word religion is interchangeable. Replace “religion” with “philosophy” or “literature” and the statement still rings of truth.

    The reason for this is that the purpose of science was never to describe human experience, it is man’s abstract modelling of nature. Literature, philosophy and religion are all man’s abstract modelling of his own experience.

    There is an issue with making religion and science analogous in the way you did. It assumes that both are equally as intelligible, however they are not. All that is amenable to the scientific method can be understood. The same cannot be said for those truths with religious predication.

    I considered continuing, but each time I fear to assume more of the author’s opinion than I already have.

    Thank you for the interesting essay.

  2. Well, hello there.

    As to the first four paragraphs, I should clarify what I meant: that the description of the universe we acquire through science is incomplete. Even if there is no accurate standard of truth which exists objectively (and I fail to see why this assumption should be simply called mistaken–objectively, truly so–in favour of the simple antithetical assumption that there is not), we know that science has changed drastically over time, and that it is an approximation. It reflects reality, but it is not the thing itself. We say: “the ball falls because of the law of gravity,” when, in fact, we invent the law of gravity because balls fall.

    I was not attempting to show that religion is superior to philosophy or literature, but that some of our significant experiences with science are not unlike our experience with religion. This is significant precisely because of how different the two are from each other.

    I noticed that you separated “nature” and “our experience.” While we all have the overwhelming urge to make this distinction, I’m not sure that it’s a rigorous one. We have no access to anything but through our experience–and if we are going to say that it’s really out there (without us), we are already talking about objective standards of truth.

    In saying that “All that is amenable […] those truths with religious predication,” I’m not quite sure what you mean. I’d need your definition of “understood.”

    To express my opinion in terms of negatives: we should not ask for things from religion that science does not provide. That is, a “model” that needs no revision, perfectly captures the thing, and makes a deeply satisfying amount of sense.

    Thank you for writing.

  3. I would agree that the description of the universe we have is incomplete as of now, but that does not speak to the ability of the scientific method provide us with complete understanding. It is not clear that there are things to be known about the universe outside of what is amenable to scientific scrutiny.

    To clarify my point on metaphysical truth: in science, as you likely know, everything must be treated as a probability. It would be incorrect to state that anything is “true”, only that a thing is most likely to be true considering the data available currently.

    Thus, metaphysically speaking, science does not provide us with the truth. However there is no system of knowledge which is more effective than science in describing the natural world. It must then follow that we are incapable of attaining metaphysical truth. I would argue that metaphysical truth is a concept analogous to the perfect circle; an idealization of reality.

    I don’t think anyone would say that a model of nature crafted using the scientific process IS the thing it describes. It is most certainly an abstraction. However you cannot then say that it doesn’t accurately describe reality. The law of gravity describes a real force, gravity. We have named it gravity but that doesn’t mean we created the force out of a need to explain why things fall down.

    I make the distinction because there must be something that exists outside our experience which we experience. Science describes that reality.
    There is a subjective reality, things which exist only in the minds of conscious beings, which cannot be described by science. This is why we have literature and certain branches of philosophy.

    As for the definition of understood: I can state that I have a brain and it controls my movement. We can test this and prove it to be true (as near as you can prove anything to be). We can study the brain and learn how it controls movement through rigorous experimentation. However, if I were to state that I have a soul there is no data I could provide which would prove it. There is nothing I can study which will give me a better understanding of it. It provides no information itself from which I can derive any conclusions. If this is true it can neither be said that I understand nor that I ever will.

  4. Without getting too divergent: I would indeed say that we created the force of gravity out of a need to explain why things fall down. I don’t see how it could be framed any other way. All we have are observations–the things we say about them are a different story. Gravity is only a real force in that it is the concept best suited to describe our observations, and even our concepts (so far) fail at a certain level of scrutiny.

    I am not downplaying the virtues of science by alluding to something beyond it. I am noting that there are no known truths that meet the standard we sometimes ask of religious truth, and that truth is always defined in a way that suits human needs. If a quality of the truth is completely beyond us, we leave it well enough alone.

    I conflate “nature” and “experience” because there is no proof that anything exists outside of our own minds. All our experiences that we relate to science are still passed through the same channels. If we cannot observe something, it cannot be said to have a definite existence (or state).

    I understand what you mean. However, it’s impossible to invent something out of thin air–there is always data to explain where people got the idea. The idea of the soul comes from consciousness, to be distinguished from inanimate matter. Furthermore, there is real data concerning what we might call a soul. In the most well-documented case, a woman was able to see herself on the operating table during surgery. She accurately described the bone saw used to cut into her skull, though she had never seen it before. Her eyes were taped shut, and she was under general anesthetic.

    This data can be questioned and criticized, but it is still real data. It can be discussed, scrutinized, and subjected to a standard of proof.

    You’ve prudently inserted a familiar caveat (“as near as you can prove anything to be”) here, and I think it’s important to highlight that. We accept ideas based on whether they meet the standard of proof that we feel is appropriate for them.

  5. There is a difference in definition between creating a story and describing something that exists to the best of our limited ability. The latter is how I would frame it. Gravity exists as a consistent and identifiable force, it must or we wouldn’t be able to make predictions based upon it’s consistency. We certainly don’t understand it completely, and as I’ve said science never intends to provide metaphysical certitude, but there is nothing limiting us from someday having a complete understanding of the force. If we have predictive power than how can it be said that what we are describing is not real? If we can send a probe over vast distances to have it orbit around Io using our understanding of gravity, how can it be said we are not in some way flirting with the truth?

    I understand the purpose of your analogy, however I still must disagree that it is a valid one, and for the same reason I stated before. As I have said, science does not provide metaphysical certitude, and provides us with truths based upon observation. Religion does deal in metaphysics and provides no data with which we can establish what is true or is not, nor can it as induction is not a way by which we can come to metaphysical conclusions. This means we can expect our understanding of science to deepen with new data, but we cannot expect the same of religion, as no new data can be revealed.

    The existence of nature can be inferred. This is as legitimate a form of proof as any in a scientific sense. Again it is not metaphysically certain, and I admit that only the existence of the mind is so. It would be a violation of Occam’s razor to take the simplicity out of the conclusion that, if we observe something there must be something there to observe. If nature (that thing we observe) is constant enough to be modeled and predicted, why assume it doesn’t exist?

    Out of body experiences have been extensively studied. There has been discovered a part of the brain that, when stimulated, makes you feel as though you are separated from your body. The brain has the remarkable ability to create sensory data and these experiences can seem real when they are not. Lucid dreaming falls under the same category of phenomenon.

    With that in mind, it would be hard for me to accept that this particular case was anything other than abnormal brain activity. The deciding factor would of course be the description of the scene, of the bone saw. There is not enough data in your short description to come to any conclusion on it other than there are thousands of other explanations more likely and more in line with our current understanding of neurology, than her soul rising from her body to observe the operation being done on her body.
    Had she really never seen a bone saw? Even under general anesthetic you can feel the vibrations of the saw, perhaps she assumed the which stage of the operation she was in based upon that sensation and the lucidly dreaming brain created the scene from there. Why were they operating on her? Perhaps she had an epileptic seizure, known to cause out of body experiences.

    With no sufficient control that “data” as you called it becomes completely worthless, for any purpose let alone the demonstration of such a extraordinary claim as the soul or mind rising from it’s earthly prison.

  6. We are definitely flirting with the truth, but we are not rising above our observations. If the observations suddenly went haywire, how could we protest? We could do little more than collect ourselves and begin writing everything down again.

    You call my analogy invalid, but I have only used it to draw one conclusion, which you have neither attacked nor discredited. Rather, you seem concerned about a number of other things.

    Religion only suffers from a lack of new data if you strictly compartmentalize knowledge. Science, history, and personal experience continually change our perspective on everything else. However, it sounds to me like you are making these points primarily to demonstrate that science stands up to a form of scrutiny that religion does not. This presages a debate about the overarching issues. I am not averse to those discussions, but I have found that it is quite ineffective to plant them in flower pots where domesticated discussions are already growing.

    I apologize for whatever part I am playing in the ambiguity. Only one of my points seems to be in question: the idea that religious beliefs should not be criticized simply because they are mere flirtations with (supposed) truth. I see nothing wrong with that claim. Beliefs about the character or nature of God must employ human terms, because it would not work any other way. It is irrelevant that the thing we call God, if he exists, is totally beyond such things. Scientific conclusions are expressed in tractable, useful ways for a similar reason. You are not questioning religious conclusions because of their shape, but because of something far more fundamental.

    I think it’s perfectly fine to infer that nature exists.

    The case I’m describing is that of Pam Reynolds, if you want to look it up. I find the description of the bone saw rather compelling. I am suspicious of anyone who can simply dismiss it out of hand; I think it requires a little more diffidence than that.

    “Out of body experiences have been extensively studied.” –> About this. It is stretching the truth to imply that scientists know much about this phenomenon. Moreover, even if you assumed I was unfamiliar with said phenomenon, you still used a ‘scientists have studied it’ statement. I raise an eyebrow when I see these. They’re redolent of the materialistic neurosis that has become fashionable as of late, compelling people to overextend their comfort zones by way of science-related sound bytes. They are most often glib responses provided by people who feel they are ambassadors of reason (with great responsibilities). I’m not saying you’re one of those people–just that I hope you don’t feel that the tactic is necessary here.

    Not sure what you meant by “With no sufficient control…” Did you mean experimental control? That’s as close as we’ll probably ever get to a controlled experiment in this area.

    On a side note, how do we know that the brain has the remarkable ability to generate such counterfeit experiences? We have not demonstrated that the brain stimulation experiments produce the same experiences that are reported, and we have not demonstrated that the experiences are not real. We have to do this first.

  7. (It occurred to me that I should come back to this thread and apologize for talking past you during that exchange–when it comes to these kinds of conversations, I often let that happen).

  8. I’m not sure what you mean by talking past me, I was in no way insulted.

    I probably should not have left this discussion so unceremoniously, and for that I am sorry.

    However the debunking of nonsense such as the NDE case of Pam Reynolds takes far more effort than it’s irresponsible use as evidence in an argument.

    I read the case nearer to the time of your post and have read it again today, and have read an article or two on either side of the debate.

    First the claims:

    It is claimed by proponents that Pam Reynolds, after having all brain activity ceased for the purpose of an operation, had an out of body experience which involved her soul rising from her body to observe the operating room. That her brain was shown to be inactive is said to be evidence that this is not merely a dream, but a verified separation of body and soul.

    To correct you partially, it is not claimed to be inexplicable that she was conscious while under general anesthesia. General anesthesia is a three pronged process which involves the use of sedatives, muscle relaxants and pain killers. If the sedatives fail the patient experiences what has been dubbed anesthesia awareness. About 0.1 to 0.2 percent of individuals anesthetized experience this (http://www.jointcommission.org/SentinelEvents/SentinelEventAlert/sea_32.htm).

    Evidence for claim:

    – She described operating room chatter, one doctor is quoted as saying that her veins are small.

    -Accurately describes saw and its interchangeable blades.

    Adressing the evidence:
    (I am using an article by Keith Augustine as my primary source, please excuse the fact that it is posted on the website infidels.org. We run in the same circles, what can I say?) http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/keith_augustine/HNDEs.html#pam

    – It is likely that Pam heard the cardiologist’s remark about her small veins. It is mentioned in the operative report that she had a rather small femoral artery. However the point at which the cardiologist would have discovered this was a significant period of time before Pam’s brain activity was stopped.

    – It is revealed by Sabom (the man who wrote up the account) that Pam did not, in fact, accurately describe the saw used to open her skull.

    “Pam’s description of the bone saw having a “groove at the top where the saw appeared to go into the handle” was a bit puzzling…. [T]he end of the bone saw has an overhanging edge that [viewed sideways] looks somewhat like a groove. However, it was not located “where the saw appeared to go into the handle” but at the other end.”

    Despite her rather vague and inaccurate description there, she did also mention it looking like an electric tooth brush which is indeed a worthy comparison. However, even if you exclude the possibility that she saw the drill before her eyes were taped closed (which is significantly plausible), it is still possible that she was making a subconscious assumption that the bone saw looked like a dentists drill, as they sound very similar.

    It is possible that the whining sound of the bone saw reminded her of a dentists drill, something she has likely seen many times, and her mind conjured up an approximation in her dream. The inaccuracy of her description is evidence of imagination.

    My conclusion:
    Pam had a lucid (or a series) dream caused by sedatives. Auditory stimuli directed the dream.

    What I find interesting about this is that Pam claims to have heard a tone, what she describes as a natural D, before the OBE starts. It is commonly reported that a loud droning noise precedes a lucid dream. That I have personally experienced this convinces me more so, though it shouldn’t be take as an argument.

    That’s basically it, though I would also add that Pam’s report of the incident was taken a full 2 years after, and the surgeons (who had little to say as they obviously didn’t remember slight details) were interviewed 9 years after the event.

  9. By talking past you, I mean something similar to what you’ve just done to me ;-). I understand why you would find this the most important issue in the thread, however, so I’ve no qualms about that.

    By the way, that’s the wrong “its.”

    Concerning this debunking: I agree that there are a few significant details here. I’m not sure that it took you much effort, though–isn’t infidels.org a one-stop shop?

    To correct you partially: I never said anything about whether or not she could be conscious under general anesthesia. I merely mentioned that she was anesthetized.

    The natural D is supposed to be the sound of the bone saw.

    I will stop short of discussing this case in further depth because I am not one to confront aggressive debunking. It is not that I believe debunkers are wrong–they may come to the correct conclusions–but I sense such a palpable bias and personal stake in the outcome that there is no sense debating it. In that article, for instance, I did not notice an attempt to clarify any misunderstandings. Does the doubtful description of the groove prove that Pam conjured the whole thing up, or could that have simply been a mistake? Should we stop all inquiry as soon as we have enough information to convince ourselves that the unsettling thing did not occur?

    I do not have a problem with pseudo-skeptics living their lives out in peace, but I do not wish to argue with them, because they are not interested in finding anything out that they don’t already know. If the description of the groove had been correct, it would not be such a stretch to say that she saw a picture of the saw at some other point in time. In retrospect, I am OK with that. Thank you for exposing me to that article–it was interesting, and you’re right, this case may well be explicable. However, my own general belief in events that transcend the empirically proven science of the day does not require an un-debunkable standard of proof. That would be nearly impossible.

    In any case, this is all something of a tangent. My use of this case was not irresponsible, because I believe it supports my point: that this is real data, which we can argue about. And we just did.

    On a side note, I have never dreamed anything so vividly that I would have mistaken it for reality after waking. Have you? I have always been bothered by this talk of “hallucinations,” because I have never been exposed to proof that visions of this quality are possible (i.e. that the person can still be convinced of their reality upon returning to a sound state of mind–this assumes that they were of sound mind before and after). It seems to me that my subconscious would severely botch any attempt to create an entire scene from scratch, which is convincing even after the altered state of mind has subsided. As such, I’d be interested in the data that’s available surrounding this topic–though I may not get around to it just at the moment.

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