Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

[Programming Note: This post was written 2 years ago and has been stuck in limbo ever since. It is being published now as-is, so I hope I was right when I wrote this. If not, I have a million excuses.]

I have committed myself to finish my series on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. There are two last features left to deal with in Kuhn’s SSR, the choice of paradigm and the incommensurability of paradigms. This will occupy my final two posts on Kuhn, respectively. Specifically, a discussion of the incommensurability of paradigms will allow some summary comments on the crisis of rationality that Kuhn’s work provokes for the modern understanding of science that presents truth to the world. The previous posts can be found bunched together here.

Einstein, pointing out the errors in our ways

In the previous post, I mused on the nature of revolutions, political and scientific. I explored the relationship between the imagination and the material needs of a situation in the development of alternative conceptual schemes for both politics and science. But a question remains. Science and politics both are continually plagued by the shortcomings of the reigning paradigm. Einstein, for example, had problems with both Quantum Mechanics and Capitalism, the former because it introduced indeterminacy into the world and the latter because it tended toward cycles of growth and recession. He was right, at least about economics.

Sticking strictly to scientific issues, there continue to be major problems that plague contemporary physics despite its enormous successes. One such issue is the unification of the four fundamental forces: electromagnetic, weak and strong nuclear force, and gravity. In the 19th century, Michael Faraday’s work on field theory paved the way for James Clerk Maxwell’s equations that allowed for the unification of electrical and magnetic forces, culminating in the well-known theory of electromagnetism. The weak and electromagnetic forces were unified in 1968 into the Electro-weak theory, and they were united in 1974 with the strong nuclear force to produce the so-called “Grand Unified Theory,” or GUT. (more…)


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Philip Clayton in the Huffington Post:

When they announced the discovery of physics’ most elusive particle this week, scientists didn’t overreach. They just did damn good science. The fans and the foes of religion, by contrast, are overreaching on both sides. The quest for the Higgs boson, and its ultimate discovery, neither proves nor disproves God.

“The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus is reputed to have said. He could have added, “and debates about science and religion as well.” The quest for the Higgs came to a decisive end this week. The quest to understand science and God will not end as abruptly.


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Charles DarwinThe New Yorker has an article up on “Why We Don’t Believe In Science.” This essay, though mainly concerned with a study of our neural reactions to counter-intuitive experiences, begins by citing a recent Gallup poll on what Americans believe when it comes to evolution. Somewhat surprising is the large percentage of Americans (45%) who reject the theory of evolution and instead hold that the world was created within the last 10,000 years by a supernatural agent.* 32% of adult Americans hold what might be called theistic evolution, while only 15% hold to a purely naturalistic account of evolution.**

*Is this regression? Even among those who rejected evolution in the early 20th century, William Jennings Bryan among them, they were generally not this type of “Young Earth Creationist.Instead, they readily proclaimed that “a day is like a thousand years to God,” which allowed them to accept the antiquity of the Earth without abandoning the 7 days of creation in Genesis – a position known as “Old Earth Creationism.”

**Lost in this is the fact that more people accept evolution than reject it. And I have a major bone to pick when it comes to the use of the word “believe” in reference to scientific theories. One does not “believe” a scientific theory, one can only accept it (or reject it) as the theory that makes the best sense of the empirical evidence. And to do this, one must employ logic – the kind of thing that Aristotle developed and was so important for the medievals, even though Aristotle gets kicked around in this article for being naive and erroneous. If you want to know what belief is, go read this. It has nothing to do with science, and to use faith/belief in reference to science is to actually denigrate what science is in the first place.

As my students would tell you, I am a defender of the theory of evolution and work hard to show them that there is no biblical or theological basis for supposing a conflict between Christianity and evolution. Darwin certainly did not think so, nor have most educated Christians since the emergence of Darwinian evolution. This conflict – and this is so crucially important to understand – has been trumped up (by both sides!) as a subset of the (trumped-up!) conflict between the secular and the religious, and is ultimately a political (broadly understood) conflict that has to do with particular configurations of power rather than ideological beliefs. But that is for another post. (more…)

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Wittgenstein, being silent

I came across the following quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicuswhich was cited in Wolfhart Pannenberg‘s Theology and the Philosophy of Science (32-33):

The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists—and if it did exist, it would have no value. If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case. For all that happens and is the case is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie within the world, since if it did it would itself be accidental. It must lie outside the world. (6.41)

This, in the manifesto of logical positivism!*

*Pannenberg cites this in a section that discusses the problems presented for theology, particularly the word “God,”  and how certain theologians (van Buren) reduced the content of theological speech to a “mere form of expression.” Of course, Pannenberg does not accept a logical positivist approach to theological language, which results in something like the liberalism of Schleiermacher or the neo-liberalism of Bultmann. Rather, he follows Popper’s critique of positivism (which he considers total and complete) and suggests another way of regarding the content and function of theological language.

When I initially read this quote in its full context in the Tractatus my mind was immediately drawn to the classical distinction between necessary and contingent beings. Wittgenstein is of course concerned with language here, but in his quest to understand meaning in its ultimate or unconditioned sense he is driven “outside the world.”

This statement, rather than lay the foundation of an all encompassing positivism, seems to provide strict limits for the ability of a completely immanent logic (and metaphysics) to establish any final meaning or value. The reference for any one thing, a word in a sentence or an object in a painting, has meaning only in connection with those words or objects that surround it (this was the fundamental thesis of the Tractatus, wasn’t it?). Any necessary meaning, as Wittgenstein says, must lie outside the world, outside the internal reference of a sentence or language or system of culture.*

*There is of course the interpretation of the Tractatus as a big middle finger to the Vienna Circle, who are supposed to have completely misunderstood its purpose and proceeded to build a philosophical system on its basis. I so hope this is true.

In spite of these limits, Wittgenstein is not saying that we should aim to speak of the value of things in their ultimate, unconditioned reference. As he famously concludes:

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

What can we truly and meaningfully say, then? Maybe the monks had it right after all.

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If you think that science has dispelled the wonder from the Universe, its only because you aren’t looking at the world anymore, just your cell phone.

This video contains three different videos of Cassini’s fly-bys of  Saturn, each with increasing detail. INCREDIBLE.

5.6k Saturn Cassini Photographic Animation from stephen v2 on Vimeo.

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Just a note: If you have been following my reading of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Part I, Part II, Part III) you may be feeling a bit uncomfortable by now. At least, I hope you are (and I hope it’s not because of boredom or the tediousness of my writing!). If you are, its because Kuhn’s analysis leads to what many have called a “crisis of rationality.” Don’t worry, it gets worse. And that makes it much better. I have planned three more posts on Kuhn. We press on.

The Storming of the Bastille

The silly part about Kuhn’s essay is that he relates the progressive activities of science to political revolutions. This is nearly as bad as when athletes consider their “game” (which I thoroughly enjoy watching) to be a “war.” It is no wonder that war is an acceptable part of life today, for we clearly have no idea how truly horrifying it actually is. But I digress…

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Despite my requisite disgust at the use of violent metaphors, there is actually something to the analogy. The revolution is preceded by a growing mistrust of the dominant authority, be it a government or a governing paradigm (it’s interesting, the analogy between a paradigm and a government, isn’t it?). As the unsolved problems multiply, unrest grows and a new solution or framework is sought. Then comes the guillotines. Well, not quite yet, but they are oiling them up, getting them ready for action. (So much for my righteous anger at violent metaphors…)

For Kuhn, the impetus for a paradigm shift is the emergence of anomalies, a “phenomenon for which the paradigm has not prepared the scientist.” However, because of the formative power of the prevailing paradigm, novelty in both experimentation and theory is very difficult to come by. It seems – and this is my conjecture – that paradigms and worldviews have a certain ‘stickiness’ to them (not unlike the blades of a guillotine after a hard day’s work – one must remember to thoroughly clean one’s guillotine if one wants to keep it in working order for a long time!). What I mean by this is that once we are embedded in a system of thought, it is difficult to remove ourselves from the paradigm and invent, for lack of a better term, a new worldview/political system/paradigm. It takes quite a jolt, and according to Kuhn comes only after a long and arduous process. (more…)

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As a pure coincidence – I promise that I did not suggest this to the New York Times, though they may have gotten the idea from my blog on their own – there is a nice little 5-part series on the Times website about Kuhn. It is written by a former graduate student supervised by Kuhn, and looks to be very entertaining.

I mean, what better way to start a series on Kuhn by discussing how he once hurled an ashtray at a student? Not that I endorse such behavior, nor would I practice it in my classroom, but it no doubt leaves a lasting impression on the student.

h/t to the blog It’s Only a Theory.

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