A few days ago I ran across a Scientific American blog post that struck me as interesting but somewhat disappointing: Humanities aren’t a science. Stop treating them like one. The writer, Maria Konnikova, begins by noting, quite reasonably, that precise, mathematical approaches to knowledge are not always appropriate. This idea that quantitative approaches aren’t universally applicable is repeated several times throughout the piece, but overall it sounds more like a “barbarians at the gate” polemic, only in this case the barbarians are the number-crunchers who are taking over the humanities. I was disappointed by this because I think there are a lot of interesting things to be said about when and where mathematical approaches should be used or avoided.
Last week I wrote that science enriches rather than impoverishes my worldview. I thought it might be useful to describe more precisely what I mean by this. It’s easy to speak broadly about science, meaning, and beauty, but it’s not always very clear exactly what these words mean in terms of the real-life story of how someone came to adopt a particular philosophy of life. I hope you will excuse me for a longish digression into the personal.
There’s a joke about Catholicism that everything is forbidden unless it’s compulsory. I grew up in a devoutly Catholic home in which life was hedged about by prohibitions ranging from the absurd to the devastating. The thing that bothers me the most, looking back, is that these prohibitions were never questioned, even if human well-being or thriving had to be sacrificed to them. God had set up the rules long ago, and the chain of command ran from him to the pope to the priest to my parents. Don’t ask why. (I mean, come on: we were primates! Healthy young primates are born to wonder why, and “The pope said so” is not a very good answer. If humans are lucky, they make a lifetime habit of asking questions.)
Religion felt to me like a constant presence nudging me to examine everything I did, said, or thought and check for wrong-doing. The classic complaint of ex-Catholics is the church’s attitude toward many normal desires, and that was certainly part of the problem, but it went way beyond that. For example, before church on Sundays, we were supposed to fast for an hour before taking communion. That’s not that big a deal, once you get past the mental contortions required of the trusting young mind when beloved elders present utterly bizarre beliefs about eating god. The silly thing about it was that we were also supposed to remember to brush our teeth at least an hour in advance, lest we accidentally swallow some of the toothpaste and thus break the required fast. It’s easy enough to laugh at it now, but given all the other things I was taught (that god could visibly leave the host and shame the intended recipient if he were offended, for example), which I was unfortunately unable to question when I was a kid, this prohibition was yet another source of existential dread, a way that you might be offending an all-powerful, irritable force without even realizing it, on grounds that seemed hazy at best. (OCD, anyone?)
As I was growing up, I didn’t learn all that much about science. I read randomly here and there, particularly in astronomy, but still, my science education was incomplete enough that I did not have to confront the discrepancies between my belief in the Biblical story about the creation of the world and the things we had learned about that topic since the Iron Age. Frankly, my memories of exactly how my youthful brain dealt with this subject are a blur, but I do remember that my conception of the history of humans, the earth, and the universe was constrained by the story told by the Bible and the Catholic church.
My scientific ignorance didn’t matter all that much, though, because there was plainly no chance of being a scientist. Dream as I might about observing the stars, it seemed that women weren’t really cut out for science anyway, or even any job other than motherhood, teaching grade school, or nursing. Not to knock any of those jobs, but that’s a limited set of opportunities. (It may sound like I’m 90 years old and talking about the prejudices of a bygone era, but I was born in 1961, so my era is not quite as bygone as all that, and I’m sure this sort of approach to young women’s potential is alive and well in fundamentalist churches today.)
My problem wasn’t just that I needed to learn to disagree with my parents about the meaning of women’s lives and find my own place in the world. With the best of intentions, they described my role in life and the possibilities open to me in terms of obedience to the will of a strict, all-powerful being who had little truck with women’s liberation and evidently little use for me except as a potential mother (unless I wanted to enter a convent and worship him unceasingly all my life, of course). Their claim to have god on their side distorted the power balance and the ordinary course of human generational differences. (This is why I am utterly opposed to any distortion of normal human interactions that arises from one side claiming to be speaking for a deity of any type. Sorry, no dice. We’re all just primates, and we speak for ourselves.)
I married and had children very young. The marriage had some wonderful moments, and my sons are an enduring source of joy. However, it was not a happy marriage. As it ended, quite predictably, after a few years, I began to think about going back to school. I took a correspondence course in astronomy and felt my mind boggle at the scale and complexity of the universe that I began to learn about. Once I removed the narrow framework of the story I was taught as a child, the cosmos seemed to expand in a heady rush.
I did the classic thing of walking around a lamp with a globe and a ball to figure out how the seasons and the phases of the moon worked (it’s embarrassing to admit that I was 21 before I learned that). I saw a partial solar eclipse, went out and looked at a new comet I had learned about in the pages of Astronomy magazine, and caught a few episodes of Cosmos on TV. I learned about the Big Bang and the synthesis of chemical elements heavier than hydrogen in stars and the dispersal of those elements throughout surrounding space when stars died. It’s a cliche by now to say that we and everything we know are star stuff, but grasping the truth of this was a powerful, permanently mind-altering experience. I learned enough to understand, at least in the most rudimentary outline, how life had evolved on this planet, and to begin to comprehend, as well as a short-lived creature can, the astonishingly long time periods involved.
My sense of both the timeline on which humans appeared and the vast space in which we found ourselves shifted dramatically. It was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. Before the huge panorama of space and time that unfolded before my delighted, awestruck eyes, the constricting walls of thou-shalt and thou-shalt-not were reduced to a manageable, even ignorable, size. Faced with the vast and intricate story of the universe as we know it so far, the stories I had been told of guilt and sin and redemption, stories that justified all the limitations enforced by worry and fear, began to look faded, childish, parochial, and distant. It was the most tremendous relief. I felt a dark weight rolling away from my mind, which became more and more free to move about in a much larger and more brightly lit space.
One thing I remember vividly about this time period after the divorce was spending summer evenings sitting outside and looking at the stars. I borrowed a small cheap telescope and looked at the moon, whatever planets were out, and various star clusters and nebulae. Late in the evening, I would put the telescope aside and simply watch the sky. If you sit long enough, you get a wonderful sense of the earth’s rotation. At that time of year, the Milky Way slowly crosses the sky; the spring constellations that were low in the west at sunset give way to the stars of summer, and eventually fall stars creep into view over the eastern horizon in the small hours before dawn.
I remember sitting out there one night and feeling a light breeze pass by as I watched the face of the night sky wheel by overhead. I found a deep pleasure in understanding, in rough terms anyway, the source of the wind (ultimately, the sun, which heats the earth unevenly), and knowing enough about what I was seeing in the night sky to feel like I was part of a fascinating universe and was able to comprehend it. The wind moved my hair, and it moved the leaves on a small tree nearby. I felt a sense of communion with the living world around me and the cosmos from which it had arisen. (It was eerily perfect, a couple of years later, to run across Kenneth Rexroth’s beautiful description of a similar experience in his poem The Heart of Herakles.)
More importantly, I felt like I had a right to be there. I was just another carbon-based life form, just like the tree. Far from feeling reduced in rank by realizing that I was an animal, I found it glorious to realize that I was not born sinful and flawed; I did not have to justify my existence by living up to someone else’s standards for perfection, masquerading as the divine will. I did not even need to bother any more about the censorious words of busybodies at church. Whatever kind of person I was, whatever my needs and interests and desires were, I needed to honor and fulfill those without hurting anyone else. That’s it. I felt like I had a place in the world that I could occupy without apology.
I don’t mean to make it sound like I was transformed overnight; I wasn’t. It took years to unravel the worst of the knots in my mind, and doubtless the people close to me can identify places still in need of work. (One of my sons said to me recently that a fundamentalist religious upbringing is a good way to create atheists and freethinkers, and this is true, but I think there must be easier and more humane ways to do it.) But the knowledge that the true story of the universe was vastly more intricate and wonderful than I had been taught, and the feeling of being part of a beautiful, totally natural universe that we can explore using science, is priceless to me and remains at the core of my belief system today.
Well, it’s spring (in the northern hemisphere, anyway) and new life is bursting out everywhere you look, but again I’m going to talk to you about mortality.
Specifically, I’m going to talk about a recent paper that looked at the way that thoughts of death affect people’s beliefs about science. Like the paper I discussed in a recent post about tolerance, and mindfulness, this one uses terror management theory to frame an investigation into how people react to an existential threat. According to this theory, contemplating our own deaths produces anxiety that we ward off by various psychological defenses. Among these defenses is a stronger belief in worldviews that provide meaning, order, and perhaps a promise of immortality in some form or another.
Three researchers examined how thoughts of death affect people’s acceptance or rejection of evolutionary theory, the foundation of biological science, and intelligent design (ID), which is often couched in scientific language but in fact is not well founded in science. Evolutionary theory is obviously incompatible with belief in a literal instantaneous creation by a deity and arguably with any form of belief in an orderly world created with some purpose. Unfortunately, many people also see evolutionary theory as draining the meaning and purpose from human life. ID is essentially a response to this perception, and as such it offers a more obvious and more traditional sense of meaning.
In a series of studies, the researchers asked participants to write about either their own death or dental pain (which also arouses negative emotions but presumably does not tap into existential anxiety). Then the participants read brief selections from Michael Behe, arguing for ID, and/or Richard Dawkins, arguing for evolutionary theory, and answered questions about how they rated the author’s expertise and how much they agreed with what he was saying. In three studies with a range of participants (some undergrads, some older people from a variety of backgrounds), the authors found that by and large those who had written about death were more likely to agree with Behe than with Dawkins. This was pretty much what they had expected; they figured that ID bolsters the psychological defenses that people tend to draw on when confronted with thoughts of their own death.
The really fascinating stuff comes in the fourth and fifth studies. In the fourth, some of the participants were also given a brief reading from Carl Sagan in which he describes science as providing not just knowledge but meaning and comes down squarely on the side of being courageous enough to accept the universe as it really is, to the best of our current knowledge, and to make our own meaning. The fifth study used only the Behe and Dawkins readings; participants were all college students in the natural sciences. In both, the participants did not tend to accept ID or reject evolutionary theory even if they had written about their own deaths; in fact, they were more likely to reject ID.
I thought these were exciting results, particularly the study that included the Carl Sagan reading. I think our ability to use reason and careful observation to understand the world around us, and to be, as Sagan put it, courageous enough to accept the truths we find, is one of the greatest things about us as a species. The rejection of not just scientific findings but also the values that underlie scientific research is deeply troubling for a number of reasons. I don’t think that accepting science leads to an impoverished worldview; in fact, for me it’s exactly the opposite. Presenting science in a way that is unflinchingly honest about the situation in which we find ourselves and its implications for traditional religious beliefs and at the same time nurtures the deep sense of meaning that people hunger for is crucial. When I read the passage from Sagan that was used in this study, I was impressed at how well he did this. The fact that his words can change the way people react to an existential threat is heartening. A current debate in the online atheist community centers around whether unvarnished, honest rejection of the supernatural is compatible with (a) changing people’s minds or (b) persuading people of the beauty and meaning to be found in science. Although this study involves only a snapshot of people’s reactions to various readings, I think it suggests that science can be presented both honestly and compellingly. Now we need to understand and apply the best techniques that people have found for doing this.
This paper was published in PLoS One, so anyone can read it: Tracy JL, Hart J, Martens JP (2011) Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution. PLoS ONE 6(3): e17349. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017349. Published March 30, 2011.
On May 28, 585 BC, a total eclipse of the sun was visible from the Ionian island of Miletus. What makes this particularly noteworthy is that Thales of Miletus predicted the event. Thales was the first thinker that we know of to propose that every observable event has a physical cause. He rejected supernatural causation and the role of the gods. It’s not clear exactly how he knew the eclipse would occur, but he explained it as a natural event, evidently on the basis of knowledge of the cycles of solar and lunar motion and eclipses. He apparently understood that the sun was darkened because the moon passed in front of it, not because the gods were upset or were trying to tell us something. This belief in natural causes and in our ability to discover them was the hallmark of his legacy. To quote from the article about Thales in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“Because he gave no role to mythical beings, Thales’s theories could be refuted. Arguments could be put forward in attempts to discredit them. Thales’s hypotheses were rational and scientific. Aristotle acknowledged Thales as the first philosopher, and criticized his hypotheses in a scientific manner.”
In short, Thales was the first to articulate what we would describe today as the scientific approach to knowledge. In last week’s What’s New, Robert Parks said that the eclipse marks the birth of science, and that seems as good a way to see it as any.
For me, the birth of science marks the beginning of a tremendous coming of age for our species. When you stop to think about it, it really is astonishing that we bipedal apes, with our inherent cognitive biases, limited life spans, and severely limited physical survival zone, have managed to learn so much about not only the things we see around us every day, but the distant past of our planet, the microscopic and quantum underpinnings of our world, and the far reaches of the universe.
This is why I’ve never really understood a recurring lament in the western world. The story goes that life was pretty good for us when we had a story of a god who created the world, damned us, and then redeemed us, a story that put us at the center of the narrative of all of history. We thought we had a purpose, because this god had given us one. We thought that if we did the will of this god here on earth, he would give us eternal life with all of our loved ones hereafter. We thought that however capricious he might seem to be, he loved us and was looking out for us, despite some severe testing from time to time (or, for many people, more or less constantly).
This cozy nursery story of a personal god and his plan for us was challenged by Copernicus’s suggestion that the sun did not go around the earth, and that in fact it was the other way around. Earth is not the center of the universe, but merely one of several planets circling the sun. Worse was to come: The sun wasn’t the center of the universe, but merely one of many stars in the galaxy, and not even a particularly prominent one at the center—not Rome or London or New York, but some dusty backwater in the provinces. The galaxy was one of many galaxies in the cosmos, none of them particularly favored with a central location. Furthermore, the earth was vastly older than the Biblical story taught. For many, the most serious blow is that all the evidence suggests that we, and all the other living beings on this planet, were not created ex nihilo by a deity, but were the result of a long, entirely natural process, what Carl Sagan described poetically as a matter of time and death.
The basic story line is that science has slowly ejected us from our place at the pinnacle of earthly creation, below only the angels and god, that it took away our belief in ourselves as having a special role and a unique meaning. However, I think this is totally backward. When Thales predicted that eclipse, we were still in our infancy in terms of coming to terms in a rational way with the physical reality in which we live. We were at the mercy of superstition and ignorance. Since then we’ve been like children leaving the illusory safety (and real bullies) of the playroom and becoming increasingly better acquainted with reality. The millennia since Thales have been a remarkable, if sometimes slow, journey. All those ejections from the center of the universe have actually been a series of amazing gains in our knowledge and abilities. We’re not being demoted; we’re growing up! It’s not been a continual story of loss and exile; we’re coming home! We’re learning the true nature of our surroundings and our true place in the big picture. Weeping over what we supposedly lost is like mourning over losing the helplessness and ignorance of childhood.
The world is not lonely and empty without the supernatural. It’s still filled with all of our fellow humans (some of the ones who are not here any more have even left their thoughts behind for us to share), not to mention our rich connections with the natural world. The world is not devoid of meaning; we can decide what it means. Many are choosing systems of meaning that are free from concepts of sin, divine retribution, and inherent guilt; once you realize that we are, to some extent, creating our own viewpoint, why not create a positive one? The emotional connections we form with family and friends can be strong and enduring even in the total absence of the supernatural; I think they offer all the comfort possible or needed in an imperfect world. There is not a shred of evidence for life after death, save the brief immortality of living on in the hearts and minds of those with whom we have shared ourselves. That’s enough, in my opinion.
If you yearn for connection to something bigger and more permanent than yourself, at least two compelling possibilities are available. First, human exploration and the expansion of knowledge are an enduring intergenerational saga that rivals any other story ever told for drama, satisfaction, heroism, struggle, adversity, and triumph. Second, the natural world was here long before we appeared and something of it will go on long after the last of us is not even a memory. Like it or not, we’re a part of it, and we can turn the story of our planet’s ecosystems toward tragedy or toward fulfillment. Either or both of these grand narratives offer enough meaning to fill many lifetimes.
Furthermore, the story of our species, our planet, our universe, is fascinating. It’s not always comforting or comfortable, but it’s the bedrock physical reality on which we live. We need to know how it works in order to know how to live well within its limits and understand all of its possibilities. Not only that, though: it’s beautiful! From fragments of ancient bone, we can slowly trace our lineage. From photons shed long ago by distant stars and galaxies, we can puzzle out the story of the universe. We can sit on a mountain at 7000 feet and see the fossils of marine animals, or walk along an Indiana creek and see the fossilized crinoids, and understand a former world very different from the one we know. We can examine DNA and begin to understand the deepest biochemical roots of our nature and the evolutionary links in the tree of life. Scientific knowledge is not just a source of power; it’s a source of wonder.
So, happy birthday, Science! I offer best wishes and great respect to all who have used careful observation, dispassionate analysis, and reasoned argument to advance our knowledge.
One possible way to unify a big-history narrative is to use the theme of growing complexity in the universe. Stuart Kauffman studies complexity and self-organization; in particular, he believes that self-organization might play an important role in evolution, along with natural selection. He has recently written a book, Reinventing the Sacred, about his approach to moving away from a purely reductionist science and toward a science infused with meaning and even a sense of the sacred (a totally naturalistic sense, not a belief in a supernatural being). Kauffman talks about the book in this interview with Salon and has written an essay for Edge.org that’s excerpted from the book.
In the Salon interview, Kauffman says that having a shared sense of the sacred in nature might give the emerging global culture something to converge on (to counteract what he describes as a natural retreat into fundamentalism on the part of some people). This reminded me a bit of what David Christian said about a big-history narrative serving as a secular creation story. However, while what Christian said really resonated for me, Kauffman takes the idea much further, into places I’m not entirely comfortable with. For one thing, Christian noted that he wanted to draw a line between religion and what he was talking about with regard to big history, whereas Kauffman seems to be blurring that sort of line. (And I really don’t know what to think about his idea, mentioned in passing in the Salon interview, that there might be some connection between quantum physics and consciousness.) Still, he makes some good points and some provocative points, and I think the book will definitely be worth reading. (Anyone already read it and have any comments on it?)
This article from the Boston Globe isn’t about brain science, exactly, but it’s an interesting take on how we find meaning in the results of scientific research. Everyone knows about the butterfly effect, which has to do with very minor changes in initial conditions having profound but essentially unpredictable consequences on later events. The point of the butterfly effect, described by Edward Lorenz, is that the subtle interactions of the natural world confound our efforts to pin down the cause of any particular event. However, the pop culture take on it frequently has it the other way around, focusing on a supposed ability to identify key turning points or critical moments that determine the future. The article is about how we try to wring certainty out of an uncertain world, and about how scientific research is sometimes misunderstood.
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins started out by describing what he called Einsteinian religion–the metaphorical use of religious terms to refer to the sum total of the universe or the natural laws that drive it. Einstein, and other scientists, have used the term “God” to mean things quite different from what many fundamentalist Christians mean, and as far as Dawkins is concerned, deliberately confusing the two concepts by using the same words for them is “intellectual high treason”. This gave me something of a jolt because I have commited such high treason myself from time to time, although I can certainly appreciate the point Dawkins is making.
Science writer Dennis Overbye has recently written an essay for the New York Times defending the right of scientists and science writers to use the word “God” metaphorically. (He wasn’t reacting to Dawkins, but to those who give science writers a hard time for using phrases like “the God particle”.) He says that scientists should not so readily cede the use of “God” to fundamentalists and creationists. I applaud his spirit, but I think anyone who uses religious terms metaphorically in science writing is obliged to explain quite clearly what is meant. And I know from years of producing technical documentation that even well-meaning people do not always read all that carefully (“Any text you put on the page is a waste of time”, a co-worker once memorably said) so the most careful explanations are likely to be ignored, carelessly or willfully, and so Dawkins makes a very good point about not using terminology that could be at all confusing.
I realize I’m stretching the Thinking Meat theme with this post, but the story touches on so many of my favorite things that I’ve just got to write about it. It demonstrates the wonderful things we hominids are capable of when we set our minds to it, and is also an interesting take on the difficulties of storing and accessing the riches of scientific data that our forebears have laid up for us.
The Harvard College Observatory is a venerable institution that plays a large role in many of the exciting astronomy stories of the second half of the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth. From the first photograph of a star, taken at the observatory in 1850, through the 1980s, the HCO accumulated glass photographic plates from several observing sites in both hemispheres. This article from the New York Times describes efforts to digitize this huge trove of historical information about the night sky, our window into the universe. It’s a challenging endeavor any way you look at it, but letting all this painstakingly gathered information go to waste for lack of easy access would be a shame. (If you love observatories, check out the “More photos” link under the two photos at the top.)
The article mentions in passing a couple of the stories about how research at HCO played a pivotal role in creating contemporary astrophysics. For example, the tireless Annie Jump Cannon cataloged nearly 400,000 stars according to their spectral type. She examined the spectra of these stars as captured on glass photographic plates, hundreds of tiny smears of light to a plate, each with a characteristic pattern of dark lines that reveal a surprising amount of information about the star’s physical characteristics. She improved upon the classification schemes of two predecessors and tagged each star as belonging to a particular type (her scheme is the one still in use today). Her work was essential for later discoveries about why there are different types of stars and how stars evolve.
Another great story is that of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who made a discovery about a particular kind of variable star that unlocked the distance scale of the cosmos. Cepheid variable stars periodically brighten and then dim in a regular cycle, and she found that the length of time between two episodes of maximum brightness is related to the intrinsic brightness of the star. This is important because without some such relationship to guide us, we can’t tell the intrinsically dim nearby stars from the intrinsically bright stars at a great distance: we don’t know cosmic distances. Ejnar Hertzsprung calibrated the yardstick that Leavitt had found, and Edwin Hubble used it to measure how far away the Andromeda Galaxy was, resolving one of the great astronomical debates of the early twentieth century: the spiral nebulae are not part of our galaxy but are separate “island universes” like our own.
The digitization project at Harvard (Dasch: Digital Access to a Sky Century at Harvard) also involves some heroic hominids who found a way to scan the plates, within the constraints of time and space imposed by the volume of data and the physical setup of the archive. The project is underway but needs more cash to continue, so the organizers are hoping for generous donors who might like the chance to associate their names with the resulting digital archive. The catalog that Cannon worked on is called the Henry Draper Catalog, and was funded by the widow of Henry Draper, a doctor, astronomer, and early astrophotographer. To this day stars are identified by their HD catalog numbers; I hope some rich Harvard alum is captured by the idea of leaving a similar legacy and donates money to keep the project going.