Friday, June 16, 2006

Friday miscellany

This is a long miscellany for a Friday.

Off and on for awhile, I've been wondering what would happen if I wrote a post full of names of people like Oprah and Angelina Jolie, or concepts like global warming and evolution, or the ever popular sex. Would people who googled on those come here and take the time to read my idiot ramblings, or would they just be pissed off at the mis-direction? What would happen if I used somewhat less mundane phrases like "theory of mind" or "calculating rate of decay?"

What do you think? Who will be the first to verbally "kick my ass?" Or will someone, for reasons unknown, get interested and maybe even wander over to my Honor's Research blog?

Instead, I could share something with you - The Paradox of Science by Edward L. Thorndike, from the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 75, No. 4 (1935), pp. 287-294. This is a really interesting paper and is available on JSTOR. (I'd give you the link to the paper, but your can't download it unless you happen to be accessing through a subscribing entity like my college.)

The Paradox of Science
by Edward L. Thorndike
(read April 18, 1935)

Intelligent men who know the facts of science have relinquished most of their hopes of supernatural control of the forces of nature. No matter how devotedly they worship their God, they do not ask him to turn men into animals, or send rain for the just and lightning against the unjust. No devil is blamed for sending a plague of infantile paralysis, and no deity is expected to remove it. Where bullets, blessed or unblessed, go is determined by the laws of ballistics. Whether a gift to a beggar will benefit or injure him is determined by facts of psychology and the social sciences, not by the blessing of the church. With few or no exceptions, nature takes its course undisturbed by vows, sacrifices, and prayers.

Science, studying the ways of nature, finds them to be so regular and reliable that the assumption that they are perfectly so has gradually become almost an axiom in science and its applications. In the faith that nature will not change her ways (or customs, or habits, or laws, or behavior in the frame of space and time, or whatever the reader likes to call them) bridges are built, trains are run, diseases are treated or prevented, crops are grown, children are taught. We no longer fear, as men once did, that the sun may not bring summer again. We do not pay sacrifices to control the seasons, but trust the uniformity of nature and our predictions of the earth's path for thousands of years. We have abandoned prayers to the goddess of fertility to bring the seed to harvest, believing that the same seed in the same soil with the same climate will always produce the same result.

Supernatural forces were often irregular and capricious. In spite of one's best efforts to induce them to act in a certain way, one might be outbidden; and sometimes all bids were rejected in favor of some darling of the gods. But the forces known to science always produce the same result under the same conditions.

In human affairs precisely the same conditions rarely, if ever, recur. Perhaps no two typhoid infections ever were absolutely alike; almost certainly no two cases of typhoid infection studied have been absolutely alike. But pathology is confident that if identical bacilli invaded identical human bodies and were treated identically, the results would be identical.

There has never been another depression just like the depression of 1929- ?; there has never been a war identical with the World War. The situation of the world on January 1, 1935 never existed before and never will again. There probably has never existed a single village the conditions of which were identical at any two moments; nor any two villages which were identical in nature. Science cannot roll identical villages down a depression again and again to test the laws of economics as it rolls ivory balls down an inclined plane to test the uniformity of the laws of motion. But it has confidence that if the same human elements could be subjected to the same conditions, they would display the same outcome. It believes that the same brain or mind acted upon by the same stimuli will give forth the same thoughts, feelings and acts. Physiology and psychology use that belief just as physics used the belief that the same mass at the same distance from the earth's center will, other things being equal, fall toward it with the same speed.

Nature's ways are not only regular; but to the best of science's knowledge and belief they are also immutable. Nature may add new customs if new things and conditions develop, but it does not change its customs of behavior with the same things and conditions. Science expects the combination of oxygen and hydrogen to make water a million years from now if conditions remain the same. If a certain equipment of genes under certain conditions of environment made John Doe born in 1900 a murderer, that same equipment of genes in that same environment will make Richard Roe born in 1950 a murderer except for supernatural or extra-natural forces.

In proportion as power is taken from personal deities and lodged in the uniform and stable ways of nature, man abandons all appeals, bribes, and inducements such as might move a super-man who enjoyed material gifts, praise, submission, respect, or affection. It is more reasonable to find out the course of nature and make the best of it. Propitiation gives way to observation and prediction. Science aims to learn nature's ways so as to know what will result from any concantenation of events. The present goal of science is to understand and predict every event in the world as it can now understand and predict the movements of familiar heavenly bodies or the swings of a pendulum.

But, by a unique paradox, science, which finds nature's ways invariable and unchangeable, changes nature as the personal appeals of religion never could. Science, which accepts the course of nature, controls it to an extent and degree far beyond the powers of priests or magicians. Science can make lightning and direct its course; can stop plagues; can double a harvest; can breed new strains of animals (and of men, if human laws and customs would permit).

In proportion as we treat the world as regular and resistant to outside influences we influence it. If science in the next hundred years should describe the ways of human nature and behavior as accurately as it has by now described the nature and behavior of the planets and stars, so that man could predict what men would do as he now predicts eclipses, he would increase his power to control the fate of men. Every immutable "law" of human physiology and psychology would turn into an instrument to change human life. By the same token, if, by science, I could prophesy exactly what I would think or feel or do in every conceivable situation that life could offer, and knew that my thoughts and feeling and actions in each case were as inevitable as the pull of the magnet on steel, I would thereby enormously increase my power to change my fate. Every fact of the universe which science takes from the realm of fortuity, miracle and caprice, and puts under the rule of the regular and changeless ways of nature, means one more addition to control over nature. The more the world is determined, the more man can work his will upon it.

The explanation of this paradox should be instructive and comforting to men and women who are disturbed because the march of science seems to reduce the world to a mere machine, to abolish the freedom of the will and eliminate human responsibility.

They have thought that the paradox was a dilemma - that if the ways of nature including human nature were invariable and immutable, then no acts of man could change nature - that one must choose between science and freedom.

The paradox is not a dilemma. Science does not necessitate fatalism. The uniformity of nature is consistent with changes in nature made by human thought and action, especially as guided by science itself. This is possible because science is a part of nature, because knowledge is a natural force, because human ideas, wants, and purposes are part and parcel of the stream of natural events. Your consideration of whether to say yes or no in certain situations is an event in nature. Your decisions yesterday to say No and today to say Yes are events in nature. Both have their consequences in perfect accord with the ways of nature. but your "No" of yesterday may have changed the world by the death of a prisoner whom you refused to pardon, and your "Yes" of today may have changed you from a bachelor to a husband and been a link in a chain of causation resulting in the birth of a child who in 1983 will discover a cure for cancer.

The essential facts are as follows: The course of nature is partly repetitive or cyclical, as in the movements of the planets or the turn of a motor, and partly original or creative, as in the development of a new species of animals, or the construction of the Panama Canal. The distinction is not, however, sharp. Even the most repetitive parts may change. Indeed they must if conditions change. Even the most novel events consist of old elements in new combinations. The net total is a universe changing very little in some respects and very much in others, but surely changing from 100000 B.C. to now, and equally surely from now till tomorrow. Within the brains of men, the changes are so numerous and rapid that a year's crop within New York City alone could not even be listed by a thousand chroniclers in a life time.

Parts of the world change other parts. So changes in the moon will cause changes in the tides; the birth of a baby changes the habits of a household. Notable among changes of one part of nature by another are those initiated by changes in human brains. To them are due buildings, mines, farms, tools, and all the material paraphernalia of civilization; laws, customs, creeds, and all present forms of social institutions; schools, libraries, laboratories, and all the apparatus of science and letters.

The changes initiated in human brains are on the whole serviceable in satisfying human wants. Those which are outcomes of impartial scientific observation and inference discovering nature's ways, have been specially successful in satisfying human wants. They operate by changing his own behavior into forms more suitable to obtain satisfaction from the rest of nature, and by changing the rest of nature into forms that suit man's needs better. They work within nature, as regularly as any of its habits. Man is creative, not because he is in part supernatural or extra-natural and imposes a super- or extra-natural will on nature, but precisely because he is, in part or altogether, a natural object, linked in the chain of natural causation, and playing a role in nature's long drama. The fundamental basis of that drama may be very simple, nothing but moving electrons and protons which perhaps have always been and always will be the same, but its actual course is anything but the same from moment to moment. It constantly creates new forms for itself, and parts of it known as men share in that creation.

One need not be in despair because science teaches that the world is a great self-contained machine whose operation no god or devil can alter. If so, it is a peculiar sort of machine which alters itself and has produced the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Beethoven's symphonies, and all the truth, goodness and beauty that man knows. If so, man is a part of it and is constantly altering it. His duty and his pleasure in respect of it will be much the same whether deities outside it are or are not active to help or hinder him.

No one should feel that nay zest will be lost from life if science proves all of nature to operate according to regular customs so that an omniscient historian at the end of the world could honestly say that never had the same set of conditions failed to produce the same result. The zest of life does not consist in fortuity and ignorance of what will happen. It would not be increased, for example, if days and nights come by chance like the red and black of a roulette series. It is increased rather than lessened by the possibility of predicting what will happen in new situations from knowledge of the regular behavior of their components, provided there is enough novelty and surprise. There will be enough, surely, for the next thousand years, and probably forever. The discovery of nature's uniformities by science leads to creative action that increases the amount and proportion of novelty, surprise, and new discovery.

The threat of a universe without hope because the forces in it must inevitably determine every item of its future and produce results which an omniscient observer a billion years ago could have foretold is an idle threat. In the nature of the case there could not have been any such observer then or now. But if there could have been, and if he had left a record of what could happen until A.D. 10000, and if his record had been found in A.D. 1935 and verified as correct by the occurrences say to A.D. 1975, it would include the fact that science profited by it from 1935 to 1975 to increase man's control over the rest of nature and inaugurated the era about 1940 since known as the "Era of Hope" when man could foretell the future and control his fate as never before. The best hopes we have are those got by the predictive power of science. Every advance in prediction means a gain in valid hope and a loss for disappointments.

No one need fear that science will diminish human freedom. On the contrary it greatly increases the only freedom that any reasonable being can desire. The freedom of the will has meant and still means different things, some of which are of no consequence whatever to human welfare, and some of which are highly undesirable. It sometimes means simply that there is a small margin of sheer chance or fortuity in the universe. For example, electrons might vary slightly one from another in unknown and unpredictable ways, but the total or average behavior of any atom composed of them might be perfectly regular and dependable. All our chemistry and physiology would remain true in spite of such uncertainty about the behavior of single electrons (or indeed of single atoms). A margin of fortuity in the behavior of electrons would be of no consequence in relation to the question of whether persons have a freedom of will lacked by dogs and cats (or to any question about persons, dogs, or cats).

Another meaning locates this undetermined margin in the higher animals, especially man, asserting that human choices are occasionally or in part unpredictable, unaccountable. If this be so, it is regrettable, since it would be a cause of confusion and error. Occasionally the best of men might choose the worst of courses, or the worst of men upset reasonable expectations. Freedom is a bad name for it, for it would really be bondage to chance.

The doctrines of theology and of intelligent people in general are wisely not concerned with margins of fortuity or unpredictability, but with the freedom of a person from domination by circumstances, or with the freedom of some core or kernel of a person from domination by circumstances or by some more superficial and temporary features of him. There are many possible variations on this general theme. Thus some would say that men are not the creatures of temporary circumstances, but bear, each within his own nature, tendencies to favor and cherish certain courses of thought and action and to reject or discard others. By birth and training, a man acquires a core of personality or should which can dominate circumstances and change their consequences. Nothing in science denies this. It might deny that nay extra-natural force implanted these souls in babies, crediting rather the genes in their chromosomes. Others would mean by the freedom of the will the power of a man's deeper self to direct his life with or against the pull of external influences, or superficial motives, or casual enticements. "I am the captain of my fate, I am the master of my soul." Nothing in science denies this. On the contrary, the more fully man knows the ways of nature, including human nature, the better able will his deeper self be to rule the external, casual, transient, and superficial.

Everywhere it is the same. Science transforms a world of fairies, demons, magic, charms, and luck into the dependable world of "natural law." Every addition it makes to its catalog of nature's changeless habits helps man to change nature, including himself. The uniformity of nature does not take power away from man, but from fortuity or chance and from alleged forces which operate partly or wholly by chance.


Harvey said...

That's a nice piece. Thanks for posting that :-)

MathCogIdiocy said...

Thanks Harvey. I'm glad someone other than me enjoyed it.