Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

It is important to see that the fact that people rely on the Bible as an authoritative guide when it comes to knowing God in no way sets knowing God apart from any other ordinary act of knowing. Coming down to us from the Middle Ages has been the idea that the Bible contained revealed truth, and thus its claims were accessed by faith, while principles, say, of science were accessed by reason. When reliance on authority as a credible source of knowledge became disreputable, the religious enterprise was discredited also. By arguing that all human acts of knowing require authoritative guides, I hope you see that I mean to challenge this time-honored but false and unfortunate dichotomy. We trust our parents, we trust the nurse, we trust the Magic Eye directions, we trust the auto mechanic, we trust the piano teacher, we trust Scripture. If you like, you may call it faith. But you must call it faith when the topic is breast-feeding or golf or auto mechanics just as it is faith when the topic is God.

— Esther Lightcap Meek, Longing to Know 

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Technical failures contribute to postmodern unmasking. Early in the nineteenth century, Germany undertook one of the most ambitious civil engineering projects ever attempted in central Europe—the “rectification” of the Rhine River in an effort to prevent flooding along the Rhine Valley and “to create a faster, deeper, shorter river whose formerly marshy plain could be turned over to agriculture.” This was only one of many water management projects that played a role in the creation of modern Germany—draining the floodplains of the Oder River, redirecting the Upper Rhine, monumental dam projects. It is an archetypal modern plan involving the management of the one of the most unmanageable of natural substances, water. It was a massive project to shepherd the wind and sculpt the mist. Despite many successes, floods continue to occur, though recent floods along the Oder have devastated portions of Poland and the Czech Republic rather than Germany—perhaps that was the plan all along.

The German water management project stands as a parable of modernity, and of postmodern disillusionment with modernity’s efforts to control the world. Moderns tried to instill shock and awe through smoke, pumping pistons, a loud voice; postmoderns pull back the curtain to find a little old man running the show, and not all that effectively. Postmodernism arises in part from the recognition that technology has never achieved the control it promised and claimed, that science—marked as it is by debate, uncertainty, contested evidence—has never been as unified and stable as the textbooks make it appear.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns 

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Descartes, generally credited with inaugurating the scientific revolution, begins from radical doubt about the very existence of an external world, and builds up the principles of scientific inquiry from the foundation of a radically self-contained subject.

Yet this solipsistic ideal doesn’t gibe perfectly with the history of science. For in fact, in areas of well-developed craft practices, technological developments typically preceded and gave rise to advances in scientific understanding, not vice versa. The steam engine is a good example. It was developed by mechanics who observed the relations between volume, pressure, and temperature. This was at a time when theoretical scientists were tied to the caloric theory of heat, which later turned out to be a conceptual dead end. The success of the steam engine contributed to the development of what we now call classical thermodynamics. This history provides a nice illustration of a point made by Aristotle:

Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Some argue that the schools have neither the time nor the obligation to take notice of every discarded or disreputable scientific theory. “If we carried your logic through,” a science professor once said to me, “we would be teaching post-Copernican astronomy alongside Ptolemaic astronomy.” Exactly. And for two good reasons. The first was succinctly expressed in an essay George Orwell wrote about George Bernard Shaw’s remark that we are more gullible and superstitious today than people were in the Middle Ages. Shaw offered as an example of modern credulity the widespread belief that the Earth is round. The average man, Shaw said, cannot advance a single reason for believing this. (This, of course, was before we were able to take pictures of the Earth from space.) Orwell took Shaw’s remark to heart and examined carefully his own reasons for believing the world to be round. He concluded that Shaw was right: that most of his scientific beliefs rested solely on the authority of scientists. In other words, most students have no idea why Copernicus is to be preferred over Ptolemy. If they know of Ptolemy at all, they know that he was “wrong” and Copernicus was “right,” but only because their teacher or textbook says so. This way of believing is what scientists regard as dogmatic and authoritarian. It is the exact opposite of scientific belief. Real science education would ask students to consider with an open mind the Ptolemaic and Copernican world-views, array the arguments for and against each, and then explain why they think one is to be preferred over the other.

A second reason to support this approach is that science, like any other subject, is distorted if it is not taught from a historical perspective. Ptolemaic astronomy may be a refuted scientific theory but, for that very reason, it is useful in helping students to see that knowledge is a quest, not a commodity; that what we think we know comes out of what we once thought we knew; and that what we will know in the future may make hash of what we now believe.

Of course, this is not to say that every new or resurrected explanation for the ways of the world should be given serious attention in our schools. Teachers, as always, need to choose—in this case by asking which theories are most valuable in helping students to clarify the bases of their beliefs. Ptolemaic theory, it seems to me, is excellent for this purpose. And so is creation science. It makes claims on the minds and emotions of many people; its dominion has lasted for centuries and is thus of great historical interest; and in its modern incarnation, it makes an explicit claim to the status of science.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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Let’s dwell for a minute on the role that Polanyi assigns to trust: “You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things.” This suggests there is a moral relation between teacher and student that is at the heart of the educational process. Of course, the student must trust that the master is competent. But he also must trust that his intention is not manipulative. It is the absence of just this trust that We found at the origins of Enlightenment epistemology in the previous chapter: a thorough rejection of the testimony and example of others. This rejection begins as a project for liberation—from manipulation by kings and priests—and blossoms into an ideal of epistemic self-responsibility. But the original ethic of suspicion leaves a trace throughout. This stance of suspicion amounts to a kind of honor ethic, or epistemic machismo. To be subject to the sort of authority that asserts itself through a claim to knowledge is to risk being duped, and this is offensive not merely to one’s freedom but to one’s pride.

If Polanyi is right about how scientists are formed, then the actual practice of science proceeds in spite of its foundational Enlightenment doctrines: it requires trust. The idea that there is a method of scientific discovery, one that can be transmitted by mere prescription rather than by personal example, harmonizes with our political psychology, and this surely contributes to its appeal. The conceit latent in the term “method” is that one merely has to follow a procedure and, voila, here comes the discovery. No long immersion in a particular field of practice and inquiry is needed; no habituation to its peculiar aesthetic pleasures; no joining of affect to judgment. Just follow the rules. The idea of method promises to democratize inquiry by locating it in a generic self (one of Kant’s “rational beings”) that need not have any prerequisite experiences: a self that is not situated.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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A single retinal image is certainly not adequate to the task of specifying the world, but the visual stimulus received over time by an observer in motion is adequate, Gibson argues, and so on his account the whole motivation for conceiving perception as involving inference and computation collapses. This is completely revolutionary. The brain does not have to construct a representation of the world. The world is known to us because we live and act in it, and accumulate experience.

Surprisingly, it is in the field of robotics that some of the most convincing evidence has emerged that inference, calculation, and representation are a grossly inefficient way to go about negotiating a physical environment. In his now-classic article “Intelligence Without Representation,” published in the journal Artificial Intelligence in 1991, Rodney Brooks wrote that “the world is its own best model.” Roboticists are learning a lesson that evolution learned long ago, namely, that the task of solving problems needn’t be accomplished solely by the brain, but can be distributed among the brain, the body, and the world.

Consider the problem of catching a fly ball. According to the standard view, we might suppose that the visual system provides inputs about the current position of the ball, and a separate processor (the brain) predicts its future trajectory. How we might do this is a bit mysterious, given that most of us wouldn’t be able to calculate such a trajectory consciously, with pencil and paper. The Gibsonian approach suggests we don’t need to do any such thing, whether consciously or subconsciously. And in fact what we do, it turns out, is run in such a way that the image of the ball appears to move in a straight line, at constant speed, against visual background. It so happens that finding and exploiting this invariant, which is available in the optic flow if you run just right, puts you in the right spot to catch the ball. (The same strategy appears to be used by dogs who catch Frisbees, even on windy days.) You don’t need an inner model of the pseudo-parabolic trajectories that baseballs follow, with corrections for air resistance at different altitudes and so forth. It’s a good thing, too.

We think through the body. The fundamental contribution of this school of psychological research is that it puts the mind back in the world, where it belongs, after several centuries of being locked within our heads. The boundary of our cognitive processes cannot be cleanly drawn at the outer surface of our skulls, or indeed of our bodies more generally. They are, in a sense, distributed in the world that we act in.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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The trouble is, of course, that believing that Jesus was raised from the dead involves, at the very least, suspending judgment on matters normally regarded as fixed and unalterable; or, to put it more positively, it requires that we exchange a worldview which says that such things can’t happen for one which, embracing the notion of a creator God making himself known initially in the traditions of Israel and then fully and finally in Jesus, says that Jesus’s resurrection makes perfect sense when seen from that point of view. Faith can’t be forced, but unfaith can be challenged. That is how it has always been, from the very beginning, when people have borne witness to Jesus’s resurrection.

There are, in fact, partial parallels to this kind of thing precisely in the world of contemporary science. Scientists now regularly ask us to believe things which seem strange and even illogical, not least in the areas of astrophysics or quantum mechanics. With something as basic as light, for example, they find themselves driven to speak in terms both of waves and of particles, though these appear incompatible. Sometimes, to make sense of the actual evidence before us, we have to pull our worldview, our sense of what’s possible, into a new shape. That is the kind of thing demanded by the evidence about Easter.

— N.T. Wright, Simply Christian

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