Friday, July 18, 2003

Hello, world!

From the better late than never department...

I have finally gotten around to creating a blog. Where to begin? I bounce back and forth between feeling like I have so much to say, and feeling like everything worth saying has been said a million times already.

So I guess I'll start with the basics: I am a scientist. That is intended to be not so much a description of my profession (though it is that too) as it is a statement about my religious beliefs. Whether science is a religion or not depends, of course, on how you define religion. What I mean is this: before you can engage in a pursuit for the truth you have to make an arbitrary decision about what you will accept as persuasive arguments. You must, at root, have faith in something. Even if you choose to assume that nothing is worthy of faith, that in itself is an article of faith.

The central tenet of science in which I choose to place my faith is that experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth. Any idea that is not consistent with experimental evidence must be wrong.

There are two important limitations to science: it doesn't tell us which ideas are right, only which ones are wrong. Therefore all knowledge is tentative, all ideas subject to being overturned at any time by new experimental evidence. And it is limited in scope. It applies only to ideas that are testable by experiment. So it can provide no guidance on the question of, say, whether modern art is or isn't art. (It can, however, offer guidance on morality. More on this later.)

There is a third problem, which is that many different ideas are consistent with our current suite of experimental data. To choose among them I choose to believe in Occam's razor: all else being equal, a simple idea is more likely to be true than a complicated one. This principle is strictly subservient to the first principle. If experiment rules out all the simple ideas, then the remaining complicated idea must be true. But if experiment is silent, then simpler ideas are preferable to complicated ones.

This is actually a severe oversimplification. A much better explanation of what I'm trying to say here is given by Dave Deutsch in chapter 7 of his book "The Fabric of Reality." If you really want to know what I
believe you will have to read that because he explains it much better than I can ever hope to. (Note that I do not believe the central thesis of the rest of his book, but that's another -- very long -- story.)

Both of these principles actually derive from a more basic, core faith, which is that the truth makes sense, that the Universe is internally self-consistent, that it all "hangs together" in some reasonable way. It is entirely possible that experimental evidence will some day show that the universe is not internally self-consistent. If that ever happens I will have to re-examine my core beliefs.

I do not "choose" this faith in the way that I can choose, say, what color shirt I put on in the morning, or what career to pursue. I have the internal sense that where my actions are concerned I have free will. Not so with my beliefs. I have no idea how I could choose to believe, even if I wanted to, that the Universe, at root, didn't make any kind of sense at all. My brain just doesn't seem to work that way.

I can therefore understand how someone could "choose" a faith that seems on the surface to be very different from mine. The typical religious person has, I suppose, as their core faith that life has a purpose or a transcendant meaning, like serving God, or following His Law, or reaching Nirvana. Life without purpose is no more acceptable to them than a Universe that doesn't make sense is to me. In fact, life without purpose is a universe that doesn't make sense to them, so if science paints a picture of such a world then science must be wrong. This is perfectly sound reasoning, though most atheists don't seem to recognize this.

Science does not, as many religious people claim, paint a picture of life as completely arbitrary and pointless. It does, however, paint a picture of life -- at least an individual life -- as finite. When we
die, that's the end. There is no scientific evidence for resurrection or an afterlife, so by Occam's razor they do not exist. Some find this hard to take; I'm not sure how I feel about it. Some times I'd like to see what the world will be like 100 or 1000 years from now. Other times I feel that when my time comes I will have had my fill. I certainly try to live my life that way.

Believing in science is not the same thing as believing scientists. Science is a business, and so what scientists say is influenced by business as well as scientific considerations. It isn't "supposed" to be that way, but it is, and it is becoming more so all the time. Nonetheless, the business of science seems to me so far to be a relatively honest area of human endeavor, at least when compared to, say, politics or business or even journalism.

Accepting the principles of science is vastly easier than working out for onesself the consequences of those principles. The pronouncements of scientists, like everything else, need to be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. It is therefore important, I believe, to do experiments for onesself, to develop a worldview of things one believes because one has experienced them firsthand. This serves as a useful guide for subsequent skepticism. Scientific claims that are at odds with personal experience deserve more scrutiny than ones that jibe.

It doesn't much matter what sorts of experiments one does. (In my youth I spent quite a bit of time looking for UFO's.) One of my favorites is to look at Jupiter through a telescope to see the Gallilean moons. Those moons, on the worldview of the people that wrote the Bible, are quite a remarkable thing. I believe they are real not because an astronomer said so, but because I have seen them with my own eyes. (There are likewise things that scientists say that I do *not* believe as a result of similar personal experiences.)

To me, looking at Jupiter through a telescope is a relgious experience.

It is actually very easy to "do experiments" that validate the scientific worldview because we are absolutely surrounded by technology. In fact, it is barely possible to exist in this world without doing so dozens of times a day. Every time we turn on a light switch or start a car or use a computer we personally experience the validity of a huge number of scientific claims. No technology has ever been created by prayer.

On morals...

People -- and other animals as well -- seem to have a built-in sense of right and wrong. Dogs, for example, know when they've done something bad (at least, my dog does). Very few people really take seriously the idea that morals come from God. Many people *think* they take it seriously, but I think they are lying to themselves. To see this, ask yourself: if God said that raping children was OK, would that make it OK? Only the most radical fundamentalist would answer yes. Most people get quite upset if you actually ask them this question because it forces to confront the cognitive dissonance between what they think they believe -- that morals come from God -- and what they actually believe -- that they "just know" what is right and wrong, like that raping children is wrong, even if God says otherwise.

People's moral intuition seems to boil down to variations on the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The converse is actually more useful as a moral guide: don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you. I think that is more or less a sufficient guide to being a good person. If everyone followed the Golden Rule the world would be a vastly better place.

Interestingly, science can now provide an account of how this moral intuition arises. It turns out that the Golden Rule (or variations on it) makes an effective survival strategy, and thus arises naturally under Darwinian evolution. For an account of how this happens, read "The Evolution of Cooperation" by Robert Axelrod, or Chapter 27 of Douglas Hoftstadter's "Metamagical Themas."

Even more interestingly, the Bible supports this view as well, at least in the Old Testament. Exodus 32, the story of the Golden Calf, describes how Moses talks God out of destroying the Israelites, wherupon God laments "the evil he thought to do unto his people." The Talmud also endorses humans second-guessing God, a point of view with which I am entirely comfortable.

Well, that seems like a good start.


Unknown said...

I could not find a better place to post my comment, since the blog I am referring to was posted on Oct 1 2006 - "top 10 myths...". there is no place for a new comment there.

After running my on-line business for over a year now I could not agree more with all the points Ron made. Later I read his post about venture capital, and it very true in my opinion.
What I found is hard to come by is comparison to other ventures, no-one seems to have one similar path in business development.
What I would like to know if I am moving to the right direction, what benchmarks ranking-wise and content/usage-wise should I watch out for.
Venture capitalists... should I spend my time looking for money instead of working on my project? I think I am doing fine without them, after all, money buy me publicity and shorter development time, but if the idea is good and execution is more or less what people want, it just takes longer to ripe without an exuberant investment.

I appreciate your thoughts.
Max K

ptn said...

>>> Any idea that is not consistent with experimental evidence must be wrong.

That's not faith, that's logic.

>>> Both of these principles actually derive from a more basic, core faith, which is that the truth makes sense, that the Universe is internally self-consistent, that it all "hangs together" in some reasonable way.

This is different from religious faith in that we at least have hints that this is how the Universe works. There is no definite proof, which is what happens with, for example, Jesus' resurrection, so to some extent believing in that is an act of faith, but we aren't blindly doing it. These hints I talk about are the scientific models and theorems that have resisted the test of time. There are models that explain a lot of things without assuming as many and theorems that still apply no matter what new evidence we gather. These facts point us to the direction that, with the Universe, we are in front of an incredibly good design - a building that can take a lot of new floors built on top of it must have a really strong core.

Full Infinity Flame said...

"That's not faith, that's logic."
Didn't Goedel teach you anything?