Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Reality Tunnel

In my frequent conversation with believers who place part of their inherent philosophical world-view on faith and their internal feelings of extra-sensory revelation, I'm often accused of being narrow minded and rigid. Before tackling the errors of this argument, it's important to frame it in the proper context. Many people have an "intuitive" feeling that there's something more to the physical universe. They may project these feelings towards concepts such as alien life visiting Earth, or ghostly phenomenon, or even theories of the Egyptian pyramid construction that bypasses ancient-Egyptian civilization. For some, these intuitive reactions are a product of their distrust of institutions that dwell in realms too complex to understand. Though true that some branches of science, technology, engineering, architecture, etc., may seem beyond the understanding of the average layman, there is no reason to think that these branches are completely unattainable. As education in one area is increased, the subject becomes easier to grasp, and eventually, a point is reached where one's background level is at par with the basics of a given area of knowledge. Those who distrust this premise may remain suspicious of individuals who have achieved higher educational levels of a given subject and maintain that they are lead by their knowledge more than their intuitive feelings. This may be true, but intuitive feelings with no basic knowledge are often unrealistic. Before modern science, various cultures had developed intuitive feelings of how the Earth was maintained. Most accepted that the center of the universe was the Earth, and everything revolved around us. Their explanations for what held up the earth was imaginative and blatantly wrong. Neither tortoise, elephant, giants, stellar winds, or gods assisted in keeping the Earth in place. Their whole understanding of the world was skewed in simplistic ideas, and it wasn't until pillars of learned people through thousands of years eventually contributed and collaborated on previous work that we reached a realistic consensus. As science has progressed, we have come to realize that we're not the center of anything. Further, even the wildest imagination could not have conjured up the concepts of gravity, nucleogenesis, expansion of the Universe, natural selection, etc. What we do know of the universe was not based on eyewitness accounts, imagination, intuitive feelings, revelation, gods, demons, sorcerers, or anything other than empirical data and the scientific method. Every aspect of our modern lives has been impacted by scientific reason and discovery. This may seem esoteric, but even necessities like modern medicine have come about because of rigorous science. This should not mean that one should automatically think that certain areas of medicine, like pharmaceutical companies, are functioning for the benefit of mankind. In the real world, everything functions under principles of economics. Even seemingly unethical corporations like pharmaceutical companies would go out of business if their products were completely ineffective. The market dictates that to generate capital and continue to operate as an entity, a perceived useful product must be made. Generally, there are many placebos on the market that although useless, do seem necessary to misguided people. The difference is that pharmaceutical drugs are required to undergo rigorous testing to validate their function. Although some unethical researchers or statisticians may purposely skew the results, or use flawed tests, this should not lessen the impact that reducing human errors and biases in experimentation can indicate efficacy in a quantitative manner. Anecdotes and life experiences are poor excuses for rigorous analysis involving double blind studies, statistical methods of analysis, and the scientific method in determining quantifiable results.

In science, the more you learn, the better you frame and understand complex problems. Science allows not only answers, but paves the way for asking the right questions. Any faulty reasoning, errors, or questions that don't make sense within a given context can be culled to help form a more comprehensive picture. This constant trimming and hedging is beneficial to scientific understanding. Without questioning results, asking questions, and skeptical analysis, science becomes hampered in error. People must not confuse scientific results with democratic ideals though. The majority opinion can fall to the wayside when a more comprehensive theory comes along that better explains a concept. Some theories are so well articulated that they're as near a fact as is possible with near 100% certainty. Evolution through Natural Selection is one of these theories. It has been shown to explain biological development better than anything one can invent or imagine to explain the diversity of life and its presence in the fossil record. Further, a great theory is able to predict certain results, and without a doubt, knowing the concepts of mutations and evolutionary changes within populations, extrapolations can be made to explain changes in the populations of a given species. Trying to determine why black moths have increased in number, while white moths of the same species have decreased cannot make sense outside of evolutionary thinking. For those who are fully immersed in their field of study, a consensus is often reached the at any given moment demonstrates the apex of scientific understanding. Although many such platforms of thought have overturned as greater data is accrued, generally, better use of bias control, screening protocols, and peer review prevent extensive overreaching. It would be a loud proclamation to claim that nothing in the future will overturn our understanding of the current scientific process, but as our detailed knowledge of the universe increases, we become better at asking questions, discarding false notions, and maintaining our progressive march towards intellectual growth.

Thus, it is possible to be too open minded and lose sense of reality. Some may argue that even the concept of reality itself is too difficult to ascribe, but then, if reality is something unattainable in every facet, than there's no point in asking and answering questions. To understand the universe we live in, even if it's a figment of a pan-dimensional being's imagination, we need tools. We need to develop processes that allow us to make informed and rational decisions. Miracles, myths, anecdotal stories are not the best tools to investigate reality. What we know as reality Reality tells us that eggs break, and cannot suddenly reform, just as a dead person cannot come back from the dead, or an amputee suddenly regrowing a limb. Looking through the physical concepts available, we find that this occurs because of entropy, or the increase of disorder in the universe. It is present in everything we do, and everywhere we look. To achieve greater order larger amounts of work must be put into a system. The universe as a closed system is always increasing in disorder, and even the ordered form of a human body required inordinate amounts of energy to maintain. Upon death, when no further work is put into the body, it decays into constituent molecules and atoms that then get dispersed into the universe, further adding to the entropy. Even after death, we continue to contribute to the entropy of the universe. Our very atoms disperse from each other on the moment of death until the end of the universe. Having drifted on a philosophical tangent, it's important to realize that too much imagination can leave us completely untethered from the reality we know of this world. It's great to imagine what it would be like if there was 12 supreme deities, or 3, or one, but the fact is, reality is not dictated by the whims of our imagination. Even if every single person on the planet thought that stars were holes in a celestial sphere, the universe itself would not be different. It is our job, as an inquisitive and industrious species to use the most rigorous and empirical methods of analysis to determine the nature of the universe. We should see this ability as a fortuitous gift, with no deterministic sense of reason. The tunnel with which we view reality must be rigid, and if we wish to express abstract ideas, esoteric thoughts, it's reasonable to breach the walls. Yet, if we're using this tunnel to address the physical nature of the universe, there are only finite ways of viewing that will allow us to proceed. With science, we can make and test predictions based on a slew of accumulated information. This mountain of data, through thousands of years of human ingenuity and reason must not fall prey to whims of fancy, and processes that though comforting to some, do nothing to explain the nature of the world.

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