Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Evolution and reverence for Scientists

The other night while I was bathing my two small children my six year old little girl start telling her five year old little brother: "we were once monkeys." I chimed in with the typical parental correction "we were never monkeys, humans share a common ancestor with monkeys." Correcting any six year old is problematic, they are on the cusp of knowing everything and corrections just get in the way. A small intellectual scuffle ensues:

Girl6: Yes we were monkeys
Daddy: Its OK sweetheart lots of adults get that wrong, it is a tricky thing
Girl6: I'm not wrong!
Daddy: Everyone is wrong sometime, nobody knows everything...
Boy5: Scientists know everything!
Daddy: (in his best sweet Daddy voice), Oh no.... The first thing scientists have to do is figure out what they don't know so they will know what to research. And then when they think they know something they write papers and books and create experiments for their friends to check and see if they got it right.

I would have gone on here, but I have noticed that bath time lectures on the philosophy of science are best if kept short. I think it settled in a bit, won't know for sure until later. Meanwhile Jimmy Neutron and his cartoon ilk keeps confusing "science" with magic and technology. Don't know where we would be without Bill Nye the science guy.

I have a constant worry that we really should be teaching the philosophy of science first, and then facts and wonder and awe at what we have been able to learn using the method later (see my previous language rant post). Sort of like teaching children to admire calligraphy and bookbinding before teaching them to read.


Monday, July 02, 2007

Substitution phrases for "Science" and "Energy"

This is a language rant, but I hope to be concise:

Two of the most consistently abused words I see are "Science" and "Energy". I propose when you encounter these words in conversation or the media just substitute the phrases below and see if it still makes sense:

Science: "Fallible individuals interacting in an evaluating community"

Energy: "The ability to do work"


Note: the science substitution was pulled from an audible.com book I recently listened to:
William James, Charles Peirce, and American Pragmatism by James Campbell

Note: The energy substitution was suggested in the podcast quoted below:

From: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4002

Energy is a measurement of some thing's ability to perform work. Given this context, when spiritualists talk about your body's energy fields, they're really saying nothing that's even remotely meaningful. Yet this kind of talk has become so pervasive in our society that the vast majority of Americans accept that energy exists as a self-contained force, floating around in glowing clouds, and can be commanded by spiritualist adepts to do just about anything.

Doubt, the Navy, and Anna Karenina

I'm always interested in the history of my doubt, and I'm usually startled to discover reminders that it has been with me a long while. I just found this quote (slightly different translation) that I had copied into a journal in 1986 while I was on my western pacific cruise on board the Truxun (note: I was the only one reading Anna Karenina, I refused to read The Hunt for Red October while I was actually in the Navy).

Anna Karenina - Chapter 8

... he had been stricken with horror, not so much of death, as of life, without any knowledge of whence, and why, and how, and what it was. The physical organization, its decay, the indestructibility of matter, the law of the conservation of energy, evolution, were the words which usurped the place of his old belief. These words and the ideas associated with them were very well for intellectual purposes. But for life they yielded nothing, and Levin felt suddenly like a man who has changed his warm fur cloak for a muslin garment, and going for the first time into the frost is immediately convinced, not by reason, but by his whole nature that he is as good as naked, and that he must infallibly perish miserably.

(that was all I copied into the journal, seems to me it gets better a few paragraphs on)

The question was summed up for him thus: "If I do not accept the answers Christianity gives to the problems of my life, what answers do I accept?" And in the whole arsenal of his convictions, so far from finding any satisfactory answers, he was utterly unable to find anything at all like an answer. He was in the position of a man seeking food in toy-shops and tool shops.

Never forget the importance of asking the right questions. Asking: "What is the Meaning of Life?" presupposes that there is something outside of you generating and attaching this meaning to your life. Isn't a better question: "What purpose shall I give to this moment, what meaning shall I give to my life?"