Thursday, July 14, 2011

Are You Determined?

Continuing from my last posting, I want to talk about science and where it is heading, ideologically. In many ways, this post builds on the last one, to set a foundation for the next one which will be about romantic behavior.

Before I go further, realize that I am a huge believer in the value of science as well as a scientist. I believe that science has made all our lives immensely better. Way better.

Here’s a basic fact about science. Science cannot address things that cannot be measured. Sound measurement is about knowing what to look for and when to try to capture it. Science is dependent in many areas on technology, and technology limits what can be observed. For example, if you have followed physics in the past decades (you know you love it!), smaller and smaller particles have been found. Just when scientists think they may be at rock bottom in terms of fundamental particles, someone smart comes along and proposes or demonstrates more, even smaller things, at another level lower.

Ironically, to measure the smaller particles (known or hypothesized), the machines have to be larger and larger. The largest machine on earth right now to measure the smallest particles we’ve “seen” yet is in Europe, and it’s call The Large Hadron Collider. That’s not where BMW, and Volvo, and Mercedes test the safety of their cars. But, it is an oval. Go read about it sometime. We in the US were building a HUGE collider in Texas but that got abandoned (after spending a couple billion dollars or so) because of how much more it was going to cost.

Where was I going with that? Actually, not in a circle. Science is limited by what it can measure and analyze (some things can be measured well but we have very poor abilities to analyze the mass of data thoroughly: weather patterns, brain functions, entire genomes, and how Justin Bieber got so popular).

Here’s a crucial idea that was embedded in the ideas in my last post. Suppose you are both a scientist and a believer that there is nothing else in reality or the universe except things that are material. By this I mean you are a devout materialist. Typically, this would mean to most people that you don’t believe in God or spirits or stuff like that. But it means something more than that if the belief is totally, philosophically, grounded in the idea that all there is is what is material. In other words, all there is in existence is stuff that can potentially be measured because all there is, really, is material and energy (another type of material for sake of argument here). Really important point: Not all scientists are total materialists in this sense, but many and maybe most are. And, whether particular scientists are or not, science functions as if all there is is the material universe.

I think that means that the Big Belief at the end of the Scientific Rainbow is this: If you could measure everything well (or enough of everything), and you had a super computer powerful enough to make sense of how everything that was measured related to everything else that was measured, you could theoretically explain everything that exists and everything that happens. Science rests on the assumption that meaningful things can be measured and studied. The most far out extension of that basic idea is that there is really nothing else but what could potentially, eventually, be measured and studied. If you really believe that, then you can easily believe that a butterfly flapping it’s wings in the heart of the Amazon jungle is somehow connected to everything else that has happen and will happen in the universe. You just have to have the data and the understanding of how the flapping connects to the things around it, and the things around those things, and the things around those things and . . .

The quandary in all of that is that the strongest view of this idea leads one to push personal choice further and further to the side. At least to me, it reduces ultimately to a strictly deterministic view of the universe. I do not really see how it can go anywhere else. Potentially, if I knew every variable possible and could understand how they relate, I could predict exactly who would read this blog entry and who, when starting to read it, would read this far. And if I understand all the variables well enough, I could predict that before I wrote it. (And could have predicted that I’d write it.) Okay, I’m nearing the strange edge of how material and time intersect here, so let’s move away from that chasm. I’m not Einstein.

The prediction that follows from all of this is pretty simple. While science has, and continues to be, immensely valuable to everyday life, it will also keep pushing the edge on the fundamental notion that people choose what they do, and that presents some serious challenges for thinking about personal responsibility.

Next time, I will focus on how these ideas affect scientists’ views of the romantic behavior of individuals.