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All That Is

March 23, 2010

In the Physics department at Princeton there are lots of floor to ceiling chalkboards covered in serious work and creative diversion. Since the cleaning staff is most likely told that erasing anything is taboo, some of it stays up for years or more. Today, I thought I’d share a bit of wisdom that has been on these chalkboards since I first visited in September 2008.

Despite being the court jester of Science and Religion, I would like to offer an olive branch cum axiom that we might want to assume for future discussion. It gets us out of the Cartesian skepticism that threatens to bring all constructive dialogue down to its knees. If we assume that “The World Is All That Is The Case” we are still left with a Herculean challenge of trying to explain the world or to figure out what generates or produces our observations.

Imagine if someone handed you a piece of paper with a continuous curving line on it and this was your entire world. You might try to explain the line. What would that mean? Perhaps you notice that the figure satisfies a vertical line test and you decided that this might be called a function and what you are looking at is the graph of such a function. Suppose after a few millennia of thought you conceived of the notion of algebra (no claim of accurate history is being made) and you made the connection that there is a sort of duality between algebraic expressions and the curving lines that are produced when you graph these expressions. You might go back to your God-given picture of a curving-line-thing and ask what algebraic expression produces this particular image. This is just a toy example of how hard Science is. You are given a graph of a function and you have to reverse engineer the function. It might even be impossible to write down a closed formula in which case your naive theory of everything (of a one curve universe) remains illusive and unsatisfactory.

But it shouldn’t be all that unsatisfactory because Mathematics and Science are more flexible than that. It constantly tries to evolve and improve upon explanations. This is what makes Math(s) and the Sciences difficult for most people — the story is rarely over, explanations are never complete. I think there are two emotional impulses that bring people to religion. One is a sense of having “The Answer”. The other is a sense of surrender to the mysterious. Notice how these seem to be polar opposites. Also notice how the emotional compulsion to seek scientific explanations is really a mix of these two emotions — a calm oscillation of the superposition of these two states.

I think if there is ever going to be a true revolution of the mind we must make these emotional aspects of Science and Math more accessible and ultimately this will come from improved education. We have to inspire wonder and satisfaction. Kids need to feel like despite not having fully unraveled the story of the God-given curve that the mathematical concepts that they developed to help explain and theorize have a beauty far beyond a religious submission to the curve’s ultimate mystery. We have to make the complexity and depth found in scientific explanations inherently more appealing than religious proto-science. Alas, I don’t know if we can instill the same emotional satisfaction into the layperson because it takes way too much damn effort for even the brilliant. The misanthrope in me can’t help but ask the question

“Which is the most universal human characteristic, fear or laziness?” – Waking Life

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2010 3:57 PM

    Nice post. Quoting Waking Life is a definite win.

    On your statement

    Also notice how the emotional compulsion to seek scientific explanations is really a mix of these two emotions…

    I see it as a mix of the opposites; a desire to get to The Answer (rather than a sense of having it) and a desire to “unfog” the mystery rather than surrender to it. That’s certainly how I view it when I’m thinking about these things.

    I can’t remember the context of the Waking Life quote, I’m going for both of them.

  2. Justin permalink
    March 23, 2010 4:07 PM

    What I was going for there is that you have to be satisfied with partial answers and enjoy the sense of mystery whilst at the same time trying to uncover it. I don’t feel like it is always a driving sense of “I want the mystery gone, damnit!” but rather more of a sense of playing around with ideas where small pieces of the puzzle fit into place, but the fog never seems to get any lighter. Questions yield answers that become more questions. I think if there was ever a point where there were no more questions to be asked, it would be a sad state of affairs. That’s perhaps a better difference to highlight between most of the population and scientists — the latter find pleasure in asking questions.

    The Waking Life quote occurs when the old guy is talking over a beer and suggesting that common man is closer to our simian ancestors than he is to the likes of Aristotle, Plato and Nietzsche. Misanthrope indeed…

  3. March 23, 2010 5:04 PM

    Of course it would be a sad state of affairs if there were no more questions to ask of anything! Certainly there’d be less fun if there was no mystery.

    Will have to watch waking life again sometime. Been on the Plato today, knowledge = justified true belief. Apart from a few small problems.

    Thinking about that quote. Obviously a large part of the appeal of religion is the fear that, if it’s false, humans aren’t special, we’re here (and able to think about our “hereness”) by an amazingly simple yet seemingly random process. And there’s nothing else. Which is kind of scary.

    Laziness…. Maybe it’s intellectually lazy to have the willingness to keep on asking questions of ourselves and our place in the world? So religion has got something to offer the scared and lazy. Have atheists?

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