Friday, February 03, 2017

In God We Trust Science (and vice versa)

Last night the idea popped into my head that we really know nothing. Indeed, this is the stance we must adopt if it is the case that all scientific knowledge is by definition incomplete and on the way to something else.

Nevertheless, "it remains a timeless temptation to claim that the unknown has been reduced to nothing, or at least almost to nothing." But logic dictates that "the magnitude of the unknown is, well... unknown!" (Verschueren).

So, when my mind taunted me with the idea that we know nothing, it's just a way of taking seriously the notion that we have no idea how much we don't know compared to what little we do.

I remember in grad school, I had a particularly brilliant professor who would weave these spellbinding lectures off the top of his head, as if he were in a trance and just channeling truth from some other dimension. During one, I remember him coming to a temporary stop, wistfully shaking his head from side to side, and saying, "but we know so little..."

What? This guy seemed to know everything! And now he's telling me he knows so little? What does that make me? It made me feel as if I would never know even a little, let alone a lot, to say nothing of everything. Which was my secret goal.

But as we've discussed before, there seems to be a geometrical reason for why the more we learn, the less we know. If the totality of what we know is represented by a kind of circular spotlight, then the more it illuminates, the larger the circumference. Obviously you can't increase the area inside the circle without expanding the circumference in kind. Thus, knowledge only deepens the Mystery, unless you are completely devoid of irony.

For example, the discovery of the genome is an impressive feat of knowledge. But it only increases the mystery of how such infinitely complex information could arise from non-information. If DNA were simple, then maybe it wouldn't be such a leap from inanimate to animate.

Which is why one needs to begin with metaphysical assumptions that render the transition from non-information to information conceivable, and certainly not impossible. This is very different from "intelligent design," which is an ad hoc theory to fill in the gaps between randomness and order -- in which God intervenes directly to transform the former into the latter.

But in our metaphysic, existence is intelligence as such. God doesn't need to intervene directly, because his creation is a priori suffused with the divine intelligence. Without it there is neither intelligence nor the intelligibility implicit in every existent thing.

Indeed, in this metaphysic, to exist is to be intelligible to intelligence. "Unintelligible existence" is a non sequitur. Everything that exists has an essence (or form) that makes it what it is, and therefore knowable. "True" and "exist" are synonymous terms.

"Without a Creator God, scientists would lose their reason for trusting their own scientific reasoning. The mere fact that reason exists -- including its order, its contents, its principles, its rules, and its power -- calls for an explanation" (ibid.).

These are not self-explanatory, but are rooted in a higher and deeper principle. Thus, "leaving God out of the cosmos would reduce reason to a mere neural experience that leaves us only with the sensation of reason," not the real thing.

There are many ironies in Christianity, but this is one of the most consequential: that the possession of reason makes us so darn godlike, while at the same time guaranteeing the impossibility of becoming gods. The same phenomenon exalts our greatness and seals our littleness.

Any "thing" -- i.e., existent -- abides in the space between two intelligences, God's and ours. Thus, as Josef Pieper puts it, there is a "double concept of the 'truth of things.' The first denotes the creative fashioning of things by God; the second their intrinsic knowability for the human mind."

The irony is that the very same principle that renders things knowable by man is precisely that which renders them unknowable by man. In other words, we can know anything that exists; but we can never completely know so much as a grain of sand. There is a horizon of mystery in all knowledge, from the simplest to most complete. That latter is reserved for God.

But in any event, don't be an idiot. "Do not think that it is possible to do both, to argue away the idea that things have been creatively thought by God and then go on to understand how things can be known by the human mind!" (ibid.).

For if there is no God, there is no truth at all, and no reason whatsoever to trust the mental agitations of a randomly evolved primate. If natural selection is a sufficient explanation, then our knowledge -- like everything else -- will continue to change, but one thing it will never be is true.

If knowledge isn't the effect of truth, then we are reduced to opinions. And if that is the case then the left has it right: weaponized opinion is all, and may the more powerful and violent lie win -- as in Berkeley the other night, and most "elite" universities every day.


julie said...

Thus, knowledge only deepens the Mystery, unless you are completely devoid of irony.

Yes, just so. The older I get, the less I seem to understand a great many things. Which is nice, in a way, because it leaves so much room for surprise, and that mostly good.

mushroom said...

Science is a lot like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil -- your priorities need to be set by the tree of life first.

debass said...

"Last night the idea popped into my head that we really know nothing"
The Sgt. Shultz philosophy. "I know nothing". Especially true in music. The more I study, the more I realize how much more there is to learn. We used to say of bad musicians that thought they were good, " they don't know that they don't know".

Gagdad Bob said...

That reminds me that Sun Ra once made an album where he made all his musicians play instruments they didn't know how to play. A study in ignorance. Maybe I'm fooling myself, but I like it. (The album is called Strange Strings.)

Hale Adams said...

Bob writes:

"For example, the discovery of the genome is an impressive feat of knowledge. But it only increases the mystery of how such infinitely complex information could arise from non-information. If DNA were simple, then maybe it wouldn't be such a leap from inanimate to animate."

Not precisely, Bob.

The information contained in the DNA is not "infinitely complex", just VERY complex. And how it gets expressed (referring to the growth of an unborn child in his mother's womb) depends a LOT on a very complex sequence of chemical "signals" generated not only by the child's growing body but by the mother's womb as well.

Still, the complexity is only finite. A layman can reasonably ask how such complexity could arise from "ingredients" that are not very complex at all, especially since the Universe seems to tend to disorder. (Ask anyone who's dropped a deck of cards on the floor.) The catch is that the tendency of the Universe to disorder is only inescapable if one looks at the Universe as a whole.

(Hang on to your hat, Bob, we're going to take a short detour into thermodynamics -- a study of how matter and energy interact, particularly in the context of machinery, such as steam turbines, but it has applicability to the "big picture" of how everything in the Universe interacts with everything else.)

First, some defintions:

System: The region or process under consideration.

Surroundings: Everything that's not in the system (i.e., the rest of the Universe).

Isolated system: a system that does not exchange matter or energy with its surroundings (for example, an ideal Thermos bottle).

Closed system: a system that exchanges energy but not matter with its surroundings (for example, a sealed refrigerator).

Open system: a system that exchanges both matter and energy with its surroundings (for example, a steam turbine).

(to be continued)

Hale Adams said...

(continued from above)

In isolated systems, entropy (very crudely, a measure of how disordered a system is) cannot decrease. It can only stay the same or increase. As far as we know, the Universe is an isolated system (we believe there's nothing outside of it), so that's why most theories about how the Universe ages predict that eventually (trillions or quadrillions of years from now) the Universe becomes a thin gruel of used-up matter -- every sort of possible chemical or nuclear reaction will have taken place, and there's no more energy to be had, and so the Universe becomes a cold heap of ashes, so to speak.

BUT entropy can decrease locally. (Yes, there is a price -- local decreases in entropy result in an equal or greater increase in entropy elsewhere.) That's why closed and open systems can exhibit a decrease in disorder. A common everyday example of a local decrease in disorder is your kitchen's freezer -- put in an ice-cube tray full of (relatively disordered) water, and in a few hours you have a ice-cube tray full of (relatively ordered) ice. (The heat taken out of the water appears at the coils on the back of the refrigerator, and that heat in the coils causes the air around them to become more disordered -- or agitated -- than it was before, and that disorder in the warm air is greater that than the disorder removed from the water to form the ice.)

"So, what's your point, Hale?" I hear you cry.

The Earth is a closed system, for practical purposes. (Actually, it's an open system, at least since October 4, 1957, with the launch of Sputnik. And since there's no theoretical limit on the growth of an open system, all this "Limits to Growth" BS we've had to listen to since around 1970 gets a bit tiresome. But that's a rant for another day.) It's entirely possible that some peculiar chemical combinations took place (in fact, nothing is more likely -- think "monkeys and typewriters") in the vastness of the Earth's surface and across hundreds of millions of years that somehow resulted in a self-replicating molecule. And it had to happen only once.

The rest of the complexity we see follows naturally from that first "spark" of life. Remember, closed and open systems are (at the very least) not hostile to increasing complexity.

I'm the first to admit that I'm a lousy Catholic -- I was born and raised Protestant, converted only a few years ago, and I don't go to confession. There's a LOT about Catholicism that I don't "get". (This whole veneration of Mary business leaves me scratching my head.) But the more I go to Mass, the more it seems to me that God is a Person of great subtlety. The Freemasons refer to Him as "Architect of the Universe", as I recall. What's to stop Him from setting up the Universe in such a way that the complexity we see about us arises spontaneously, as a consequence of the physical laws He wove into the fabric of reality?

My two cents' worth.

Hale Adams
Pikesville, People's still-mostly-Democratic Republic of Maryland

(Sorry I was so long-winded at the keyboard. ^_^;;)

Gagdad Bob said...

My point is simply that the distance between information and non-information is infinite.

debass said...

That reminds me of high school band. We would change instruments when we had a substitute teacher. They never did figure out what was going on. Thanks for the reminiscence. It was fun.

Gagdad Bob said...

And that reminds me of a review of a Chicago album in Rolling Stone, saying they sounded "like a high school marching band wigged out on pot."

Nevertheless, I like their first two albums. By the way, to my vulgar ears, Pete Cetera was a pretty accomplished bass player.

julie said...

Hale, I would quibble if I may about Earth being a closed system. It isn't; we are constantly being bombarded by a wide variety of things from outside the planet. Not least being all that the Sun flings in our direction.

As to the rest of your points, though, yes, it does seem as though the Almighty set off the conditions for the most amazing Rube Goldberg reaction ever conceived, one of the results of which is this conversation. How delightful :)

debass said...

I didn't pay much attention to the bass from that group, except to learn the bass line. I did focus on Rocco from Tower of Power though and had a hard time trying to learn his lines.

Gagdad Bob said...

Love Tower of Power. Great deal here -- five CDs for only ten bucks, from their 1972 - '75 prime years.

debass said...

That's a good deal. I had the LPs digitized a few years ago so I wouldn't wear out the albums. They do lose a little fidelity unless you remaster them. The process may be better now with better software.

Gagdad Bob said...

This is also a fantastic release: a broadcast quality live in the studio show. A full concert at their absolute peak.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I like the part where you write about "weaponized opinions." I agree these are important. Truth, science, God are mental playthings for when you have the time. Opinions are the daily need.

What matters is power. Who has it, who doesn't, how to get it, and how to keep it.

Money is power. The proper concern of any person is money. How to get it, how to keep other people from grabbing yours, and how to use it to get what you want.

So there's the playing field. Put your helmet on. The others play rough. But we all know this.

Then there's sanayasins, mendicants, dumpster divers, desert crawlers, beggars, renunciants, holy orders, and their ilk. How do these continue to exist? They sort of muddle up the equation. Some of them seem so darn happy. And many are downright healthy looking, sun-darkened and wiry. They seem spry. How do they subsist? A puzzler. But anyhoo...

Your take on things is about right I would say.

Gagdad Bob said...

FYI, since I probably won't be blogging about it, this book on Churchill is really good, plus you can get a used one for one cent, which is almost as good as buying a hot one on the street. A unique take on a biographer's search for The Most Interesting Man in the World.

Anonymous said...

Please, One Cosmos people. You are all from good progressive stock. Remember where you came from. Remember your parents. Remember their struggle, your struggle. Are you really going to sell your people down the river like this?

It's not too late to change. It's not too late to reject the poison you've taken in. The conservatives are not your people. They are not your friends. You are tying to do the best you can. Things have been hard. No one stands in judgement of you. But search your heart...are you sure you've made the right choice? Do you really want to go down on record as conservatives? You used to shrink from them;

Van Harvey said...

aninnymouse said "...You are all from good progressive stock..."

Speak for your self. If you can find it, that Is.

Van Harvey said...

About the knowing this, and admiring that, about our world in the grain of sand, I sometimes wonder what God thinks is those thoughts. Imagine if you were a game designer, and you developed this marvelous game, wondrous scenery, artwork, alternate tracks to play, and all designed to lead the player through the maze to find and meet you in the winners circle.

All well and good. Except that so many players stop playing.

"Ooh! Look at the scenery here!", 'Thanks, glad you li...', "I'm going to just sit here and admire it and do nothing else!" - 'Wait, WHAT?! Oh for the love of...'
"Say, look at how these sets were designed, very intricate, I wonder if he used an x algorithm?", 'Yes I did, glad you appreciate it, now if you notice, that set is there so that you can confront...', "By gosh, I think I'll devote my life to learning the methods that this particular portion of this particular set was constructed!", 'Wait, WHAT?! O come on! I gave you Reason so you could Play the game, not to spend your gametime admiring it! How are you going to gain the depth you need to find your way to me, if you never make any progress, because you're doing nothing but standing there staring at my sets and scenery?!'

'O. Geez. O->(k), so I've used the asteroids already, and then there was the reset with the flood, let's see, something new...'