Two views of science

The pessimist:

These quotes give you a sense of these two books, both of which build on what Alan Richardson calls “one of the great lessons of the cognitive revolution”: “just how much of mental life remains closed to introspection.” As a brief summation, the unified thesis of Nørretranders’s and Wilson’s works looks something like this: We are not really in control. Not only are we not in control, but we are not even aware of the things of which we are not in control. Our ability to judge anything with any accuracy is a lie, as is our ability to perceive these lies as lies. Consciousness masquerades as awareness and agency, but the sense of self it conjures is an illusion. We are stranded in the great opaque secret of our biology, and what we call subjectivity is a powerless epiphenomenon, sort of like a helpless rider on the back of a galloping horse—the view is great, but pulling on the reins does nothing.

If this description of reality feels familiar to you, it’s because such a neuroscientifically inspired pessimism is a quiet but powerful strain of modern thinking.

The optimists:

The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together (Carl Sagan)

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one – million – year – old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent? (Richard Feynman)

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

But I also found this Feynman poem, which I had never heard before:

…I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think.

There are the rushing waves, mountains of molecules
Each stupidly minding its own business
Trillions apart, yet forming white surf in unison

Ages on ages, before any eyes could see
Year after year, thunderously pounding the shore as now
For whom, for what?
On a dead planet, with no life to entertain

Never at rest, tortured by energy
Wasted prodigiously by the sun, poured into space
A mite makes the sea roar

Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns
Of one another till complex new ones are formed
They make others like themselves
And a new dance starts

Growing in size and complexity
Living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein
Dancing a pattern ever more intricate

Out of the cradle onto the dry land
Here it is standing
Atoms with consciousness, matter with curiosity
Stands at the sea, wonders at wondering

I, a universe of atoms
An atom in the universe

(This is obviously a response to one of my favorite poems, When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be)

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