Saturday, December 15, 2018

Zeus and Aristotle: Explanations of Lightning

A while back I was reading some comments on a blog and someone threw out a statement that made me stop and think for a moment, but definitely not in the way the commenter intended. I wasn't particularly interested in the conversation due to the contentious nature and general lack of epistemic humility, but for some reason his comment interrupted my skimming and made me ask, "Wait, how do you know that?" The statement in question was taken as plainly obvious by everyone involved that even in a contentious online debate no one called him on it and questioned his characterization of historical thought.

It was something so taken for granted that if I tried to question his assertion I would instantly be denounced as ignorant, petty, and "changing the subject" even though his underlying assumption was central to his whole argument, so I chose not to say anything.

As this particular commenter was launching into an elaborate explanation of why his views were right and everyone else's were wrong he stated, "When ancient Greeks 'explained' lightning as coming from Zeus, they were wrong." It was this comment that made me stop and think, "Yeah, but how do you know that is how Greeks explained lightning?"

In context he was using that statement to establish a line of reasoning that went something like this:
  • People in the past were ignorant and believed in mystical, religious explanations of natural phenomena.
  • As science advanced we had less ignorant explanations of natural phenomena.
  • We are enlightened now with our scientific explanations of natural phenomena so we can ignore all the mystical mumbo jumbo of religion.
For him there was an obvious progression from ignorance to enlightenment and the beliefs of the Greeks formed the first data point. But the problem was, how did he know that his first data point was correct?

To put it another way, his argument rests on the idea that people in the past were incapable of making rational, well thought out, scientific arguments, and that now through the redemptive, mystical power of science mankind has been transformed into a blessed state of rationalism.

But all that depends on his first data point being correct.

So how does he know that the Greeks relied on mystical explanations of natural phenomena? On a similar note, how do we know that people today don't rely on mystical explanations for lightning? If you ask the average person on the street today what causes lightning would their answer typically be any more or less educated than the average person's understanding in ancient Greece? What about the average college educated, or the ancient Greek equivalent, person's answer?

So how would an educated Greek respond to the question of what causes lightning? Fortunately we can actually have an answer to that because we have some of the standard science texts from ancient Greece! In a 1965 article by H. Howard Frisinger in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society entitled “Early Theories on the Cause of Thunder and Lightning” Dr. Frisinger briefly the different theories of how lightning worked that were taught by various Greek philosophers.

All of the views of how lightning worked were based on the standard Greek physics of the four elements, earth, water, air, and fire. The theories taught by the Greeks, and the answer that your average educated Greek would give, generally attributed movements of air to be the cause of thunder (just like we teach today), and the motion or effects of fire (sometimes aether) as it interacted with the water and air in the clouds. There was debate about what came first the thunder or the lightning, and there was debate about whether or not one caused the other or if they were entirely separate phenomena.

The most widely accepted theory came from Aristotle who wrote that both thunder and lightning are a result of motions of air colliding with objects, such as clouds or other masses of air. If there was sufficient fire in the clouds then a lightning bolt would be formed, and depending on the purity of the fire you either get a defined bolt or a diffuse flash of light in the cloud. He made his arguments by looking at the evidence, such as when a local temple was struck by lightning, or how lightning was know to burn some kinds of materials but leave others unblackened.

These theories were put into the standard science textbooks of the day and would have been expected reading for an educated Greek. Just like today there would have been people who had no idea what the standard "scientific" explanation of lightning was. Then there would be people who were exposed to people who were educated and they might hear the explanation or ask for it. Then there would be educated people who had read extensively, but maybe not books on the weather. Then there would be people who had studied those things specifically and would be considered very knowledgeable on the subject, with a very select few who would be called experts and authorities. Just like it is today.

But all these ancient theories relied on the idea of the four elements! Where our ideas today do not! Surely that proves the point that we have progressed from ignorance to enlightenment!

On the contrary, it shows that ancient Greeks did not rely on mystical, religious explanations of natural phenomena to the extent that people like the commenter think they did. The educated Greek would not likely appeal to Zeus as an explanation for the cause of lightning. They gave natural explanations. These theories, books, and explanations were considered standard and authoritative up until the 1700's when new technologies made it possible to explore electricity and lightning through direct measurements.

Before that people did what they have always done, they gave rational explanations based on their understanding of the universe. In many conversations, and from students that I teach, and even from some of my professors I have seen expressed the idea that as a whole we have progressed from non-rational thought to more modern, enlightened, and rational way of thinking. Certainly our understanding of the universe has drastically changed, but when I read historical materials I find no evidence that that has happened.

There has not been the assumed progression from less rational to more rational thought as is commonly asserted by those who promote science and eschew religion. The evidence does not support that theory.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

"The meek are makarioi for they shall inherit the earth."

When I entered into the MTC to learn Spanish for my mission I needed a Spanish to English dictionary to help me along. They gave every missionary a standard English-Spanish dictionary with tens of thousands of words in it but what I really needed was a simple picture dictionary so that I could learn the words for simple things like shoes, toilet, fork, restaurant, waiter, faucet, and kitchen sink. Fortunately they had one that I could buy from the bookstore. It proved very helpful for learning a variety of common words that made conversations easier.

When I got it and showed it to the other missionaries I proudly proclaimed, "It has everything! Including the kitchen sink!" As soon as I said this I turned to the page that showed a kitchen with everything labeled with both the Spanish and English words. Sure enough everything was labeled; the toaster, the oven, the oven mitt, the refrigerator, the pots and pans, everything.

Everything that is, except the kitchen sink. There were words for everything else, just not the kitchen sink. We all thought this was exceptionally weird and a tad ironic that my new dictionary had everything except the kitchen sink.

Over the course of my mission I spoke with many native Spanish speakers to try and learn the word for "kitchen sink". Their responses ranged from awkward realization that they had no idea what that thing they had seen their entire life was called, to indignation that I would ask such a silly question.

The best I ever got was from one companion who said he would call it a pila or pileta, which is a general word for a container that holds water, like a baptismal font (also called a pila, a battery is also a pila). But most people just didn't talk about it. They talked about washing the dishes, and washing their hands. They just never thought to mention the thing they did all that in.

To English speakers it may seem odd to not have a common word for something like that, but almost everyone I met had no idea that there was even supposed to be a name for that thing in the kitchen. You did things with it and it had a function all things that they had words for, but requiring that it have a specific name was an idea that was rather foreign to them.

To those who have learned another language being able to understand that these linguistic differences exist is key to understanding how language works. It is common for languages to have words that exist only in that language for objects and concepts that are not shared with other languages. One of the subtleties of learning a different language is not just learning the corresponding word in another language but understanding the words themselves in the context of that language.

When we read the Bible we have to remember that it was not written in English, and sometimes the words used in the original language don't have a direct analog in English. Just like people in Argentina when I asked them what the Spanish word for kitchen sink was and it was in that moment that they realized they had never even thought of having a word for that thing, there are concepts that do not exist in English that exist in Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic.

One such word is μακάριοι (makarioi). In Greek there is a a single word that conveys an idea. In English we have many ways of describing the same idea, and even a few words that are used in a similar way, but every attempt at translation fails in someway. It's not that English speakers have never experienced makarioi, but they may never have thought about it because we don't have a word specifically for that.

In ancient Greek the word makarios (or makar) was used to refer to people who were living a rich life. They were people with a full and satisfying life. In the writings of Plato and Aristotle the term is sometimes translated as "good Sir" or "gentleman" implying someone of nobility with wealth enough that they do not need to labor with their hands. But more than being someone who does not have to constantly worry about their daily bread it is someone who can life a life content with what they are doing.

A philosopher, or statesman, or other rich, noble person may be makarios. But wealth itself was not what made someone makarios. In Greek it also refers to someone who has been favored by the gods. To be someone who was makarios you needed to be living a prosperous life. Someone who could look at their life and be content was makarios.

Thus another translation of makarios is happy. But in English happiness is usually understood to be a momentary emotion. Makarios implies a much more enduring contentedness with your life in general. Generally those who are enduing long term sickness, or hard labor, who must toil cannot have or be makarios. Anciently this was something that only the rich, educated, noble, and powerful could achieve.

In the New Testament the authors turn this around in the Greek version of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus proclaims:
The poor in spirit are makarioi, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Those who mourn are makarioi, for they will be comforted.
The meek are makarioi, for they will inherit the earth.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are makarioi, for they will be filled.
The merciful are makarioi, for they will be shown mercy.
The pure in heart are makarioi, for they will see God.
The peacemakers are makarioi, for they will be called children of God.
Those who are persecuted because of righteousness are makarioi, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Here those who are makarioi are not the rich, educated, nobles who have achieved a contented state in life, it is the poor, the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.

In English this is almost always translated as blessed. And while that does convey part of the concept there is some confusion since we try to treat blessed as a verb while makarioi is an adjective, meaning we look for a subject and a predicate when there is none. When we read these passages in English we tend to unconsciously think "The poor are blessed. Who blesses them? God of course." But the original concept was not that those who are poor and meek will be blessed by God, but rather the poor and the meek are makarios. That is, the poor, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers are living a full and contented life, not just the rich and powerful.

In the end it is the humble and pure in heart who will prosper and will see God.

Sometimes when we read the scriptures in English we unknowingly miss the original meaning. Sometimes the concepts are missed, not because we are incapable are understanding it or have never experienced it, but because our language just doesn't place emphasis on that. Or our language and grammar demand a particular form. When this happens we may unknowingly give undue emphasis to ideas that where never intended.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Seasons of the Church

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.
                          -- Ecclesiastes 3:1
In the April 2018 General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ there were some changes announced to programs that had been in place for many years. These changes were warmly welcomed by many members, with a few expressing anxiety about practical implementations. In all of the changes a few scattered voices opined, "Finally we can do away with that burdensome old program!"

I have seen a few changes to Church policy over the years. During my mission we made the shift away from memorized discussions to using prepared lessons. As soon as the change was announced the American missionaries universally tossed aside the discussion booklets and said, "Hallelujah!" But some Latino missionaries took longer to change. They were accustomed to the previous method, some of them had joined the Church because of those discussions, so they were reluctant to give them up.

When the change was made in both cases it was immediately apparent that the new method worked better. We had better talks with people about the Church, and being able to really care for members instead of checking to make sure home teaching is done by the end of the month really makes a difference.

So what about the old ways? Were they for nothing? Were they the wrong thing to do?

Obviously not. At the time they were the new method. They made things easier. They improved on the old way of doing things. At one point members looked at the new method and said, "Finally we can do away with that burdensome old program!"

There is a temptation to say that if they are the wrong thing to do now, they were the wrong thing to do in the first place. I think that is a mistaken way of seeing it. The Church, the world, and society has changed in small and subtle ways, and will continue to change.

As we go into a new season of the Church there will be changes to how we do things. Policies may change. Even some things that may seem more than policy will be implemented differently in the Church. Eventually changes will be made to priesthood quorums. Right now Aaronic Priesthood quorums are tied to age. At some point they may not. The missionary program may change. How we conduct church services may change. They hymnbook is changing already.

Those changes will come and when they do, it does not mean what we did before, or what we are doing now is wrong, or counterproductive. It is just a different season of the Church. To everything, live in the season of the Church and neither condemn nor wish for what was before.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

A Fundamental Disconnect in What is Important

I spend a lot of time reading a variety of views on the Church and Mormonism in general. Every so often some online community of saints or former saints who are critical of the Church whip themselves into a moral panic. They talk about all the problems with the Church and bring out a laundry list of things that must be talked about or things that every Church member should know. Whenever I spend too much time listening to the tinkling cymbals and sounding brass I listen to what the Church leaders are actually concerned about and what they are talking about I notice a fundamental disconnect between what the Church critics think is important and what Church leaders think is important.
I was reminded of this when a visiting General Authority spoke in my ward a few months ago, and again last General Conference, and again today.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Brigham Young and the Aliens on the Sun

The title for this post is something you would expect from a cheap pulp science fiction novel rather than a serious discussion about religion. But it was a topic that I was reminded of recently. While by no means is this a common criticism against Brigham Young, or the Church in general, but it is something that is occasionally brought up in mocking comments online.

Usually these comments take the form, "Brigham Young believed people lived on the sun! That's ridiculous! It's proof he was an idiot/fool/ignorant and we can't trust anything he said."

Did Brigham Young actually believe that people lived on the sun? And if he did what are we to think of that based on our current understanding of the universe?

So did Brigham Young believe that people lived on the sun? On July 24th, 1869 Brigham Young was speaking at a Church conference and as part of his un-prepared remarks he made the following statement:
"So it is with regard to the inhabitants of the sun. Do you think it is inhabited? I rather think it is. Do you think there is any life there? No question of it; it was not made in vain."
That seem to make the case very straight forward. It's unambiguous. He said he believes it. We know from modern science that people do not live on the sun. Brigham Young was mistaken. Case closed.

Well that was a short blog post.

Except, as my favorite comedy troupe once said, context is everything.

If we are to consider the context we must first look at the general scientific context in which Brigham Young made that statement, and second consider the context within the rest of his discourse. Both contexts are very illuminating.

So what was the scientific context at the time? If you went to an "expert" or and "authority" during the mid 1800's and asked them if the sun, moon, and all the planets were inhabited what answer would you get?

The idea that the planets of the solar system are inhabited, referred to as the "plurality of worlds", is an idea that suddenly gained wide spread attention among astronomers and philosophers in the early 1700's. It had been discussed before then but it was only considered a theological question before then. But with the spread of Newtonian ideas, questions about the exact nature of other worlds suddenly became very important.

Previously the realm of the sun, moon, and stars was considered to be entirely distinct form that of the earth. The laws of nature were different "up there". The stuff that made up the heavens was just different from the stuff that made up the sphere of the earth. But the Newtonian revolution introduced the idea that the same laws that governed the earth also governed the heavens. That radically altered the way people perceived the sun, moon, planets, and stars.

New and improved telescopes helped us understand that the planets were spheres just like the earth. This precipitated the idea that not only were the sun, moon, and planets governed by the same laws, but in many ways they were just like the earth. This meant that they had oceans, seas, continents, plants, animals, intelligent beings, just like the earth.

These ideas were speculative and did not appear in any major textbook on astronomy of the time, but they were discussed and mentioned among scholars and other well read men, much in the same way the idea of wormholes and parallel universes are viewed today. They are not strictly scientific, and they do not appear in major textbooks on astronomy. But while some scholars think they do not exist, others speculate that they are possible, and they do pop up in popular literature and news.

While the concept of plurality of worlds (i.e. the sun, moon, and planets inhabited by intelligent beings) was never a major point of scientific inquiry it did show up in the writings of some influential individuals.

On April 25, 1756 John Adams wrote in his diary,
"Astronomers tell us, with good Reason, that not only all the Planets and Satellites in our Solar System, but all the unnumbered Worlds that revolve round the fixt Starrs are inhabited, as well as this Globe of Earth."
In the late 1700's the idea of the plurality of worlds was considered to be so well established by reason that Thomas Paine writing in The Age of Reason used the idea to criticize Christianity saying,
"to believe that God created a plurality of worlds, at least as numerous as what we call stars, renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous, and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air."
By the early 1800's famous astronomer William Herschel wrote:
"The sun, viewed in this light appears to be nothing else than a very eminent, large, and lucid planet, evidently the first, or in strictness of speaking, the only primary one of our system.... Its similarity to the other globes of the solar system with regard to its solidity, its atmosphere, and its diversified surface; the rotation upon its axis, and the fall of heavy bodies, leads us on to suppose that it is most probably also inhabited, like the rest of the planets, by beings whose organs are adapted to the peculiar circumstances of that vast globe. Whatever fanciful poets might say, in making the sun the abode of blessed spirits, or angry moralists devise, in pointing it out as a fit place for the punishment of the wicked, it does not appear that they had any other foundation for their assertions than mere opinion and vague surmise; but now I think myself authorized, upon astronomical principles, to propose the sun as an inhabitable world, and am persuaded that the foregoing observations, with the conclusions I have drawn from them, are fully sufficient to answer every objection that may be made against it." (Emphasis in original.)
Here we see an interesting argument from Herschel. He states that because the sun behaves just like the other planets, it must be inhabited just like the other planets. This argument, he believes, is so obvious that it is "fully sufficient to answer every objection that may be made against it." This is a good example of a logical conclusion stemming from the Newtonian revolution.

A central assumption of the new wave of science was that the same things we observe on earth can be observed in the heavens. Because the sun had many of the same characteristics as the earth it was natural to assume that the sun was inhabited just like the earth.

This idea was taken a step further in 1837 by a popularizer of science named Thomas Dick who used the population density of England to estimate the population of the Earth, the moon, the planets along with all of their moons including Saturn's rings, along with the sun. His calculations assumed that all the sun, planets and moons, including Saturn's rings, had continents and oceans. Again this was based on the assumption that because the heavens were like the earth, all things we observe on earth were in the heavens.

But how could these learned men think this? Didn't they know that the sun was a giant ball of hot gas and quite impossible of supporting life? Didn't they know that the moon had no atmosphere?

It is easy for us to look back with hundreds of years of scientific observations and incredible advancements in telescope technology and say, "Obviously...." But back then it was not so obvious. It had only been a few hundred years since astronomers realized that there were mountains on the moon. And the discovery of mountains on the moon confirmed the growing assumption that the heavens were just like the Earth. Hence the "seas" (Mare) on the moon. It was not until the end of the 1800's that telescopes were advanced enough to cast serious doubt about the existence of oceans and even atmosphere on the moon.

But what about the sun? Why would astronomers think that the sun could be inhabited?

While astronomers certainly worked out that any life on the sun would be subject to intense bright light, this was right when the modern study of spectroscopy was just beginning. Absorption lines were first discovered in 1814, but it was not until 1859 that these absorption lines were first associated with specific chemical elements. That is, it wasn't until 1859 that scientists could even discuss, scientifically, the composition of the sun. It was at the same time, and mostly by the same scientists, that we began to understand the concept of black body radiation. This allowed us to measure the temperature of the sun, and is to this day the exact same method we use to measure the temperature of all stars.

The Newtonian idea that the heavens were just like the Earth had only been confirmed up until then. And while this added even more evidence to the list of reasons why the heavens were just like the Earth, it was the beginning of the end for that assumption. Unfortunately for Herschel, his argument was not the final word, and his reasoning could not "answer every objection that may be made against it."

Over the next 100 years we made many more discoveries that greatly undermined the idea of the plurality of worlds. The first to go was the idea that the sun and moon were inhabited and then later the dream of men from Jupiter and Saturn. The Martians and Venusians were the last to go. But before they did they inspired a generation of science fiction writers.

While we look back on science fiction from the very late 1800's and the 1900's as quaint, simplistic, and "Obviously they got it wrong." We forget that they were not writing fantasy. They were writing science in a fictional setting. They were dealing with the possible, and not with the imaginary.

In 1952 the scientist and author Isaac Asimov began a series of books about a character named David Starr who had many adventures all over the solar system. In the books he travels to Mars and meets Martians, and travels to the oceans of Venus. Later when the books were collected into an anthology in the 1970's Asimov wrote an introduction in which he apologized for getting the science wrong. It was only after our probes to Mars, Venus, and the other planets that the idea of (current) life on the other planets of the solar system died out as a matter of science.

That these old conceptions of life on the moon, the planets and the sun were wrong is only obvious now, and as such are frequently put on the same shelf as fantasy. But they were once a matter of science.

While these ideas never rose to the level of "settled science" they were a matter of discussion and debate, and at the end of the 1800's they captured the imagination of a generation of authors. But with more knowledge a great portion of the speculation passed from science into fantasy.

So how does this affect our view of the past? What about those who thought that the sun, moon, and planets were inhabited just like the Earth? Does this misconception invalidate everything else they said and did?

Does Uranus some how cease to exist and do telescopes cease to function because William Herschel thought the sun was inhabited? Is all past and future work of the Royal Astronomical Society invalidated because their first president once had an idea that he thought was sound, and later was shown to be implausible? Are the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution invalid because John Adams thought the moon was inhabited? Is Washington DC somehow not the capital of the US because John Adams heard the arguments of the astronomers of his day and was convinced by them? Just because someone though something was common sense, and it later turned out not to be so, does that upend all things that we know?

A similar set of questions can be asked about Brigham Young. Was he somehow ignorant to accept the statements of astronomers of his day? Does the fact that he did not know everything somehow invalidate his work to lead the Church? Does God cease to exist because a prophet was free to exercise his own mind in trying to understand the universe? Do we expect God to remove the agency of His servants just to spare the bruised egos of a few doubting critics 150 years after the fact?

In our approach to what we know and what we do not, and how we grow in our knowledge and understanding, we must remain humble. There were certain things, the Constitution, the science of astronomy, that were not invalidated because someone connected to them once thought something that later proved to be wrong, nor are the organizations they helped found called into question because they operated on incomplete knowledge.

This realization, that men of science can be mistaken, is especially relevant because it was precisely the point of Brigham Young's talk back in 1869 when he mentioned the men in the sun. If you read it and consider the context you will find very little to criticism and perhaps more to think about.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Fundamentals of Philosophy

This is by no means a comprehensive introduction to philosophy, but it contains the basics. This is not what you would get by taking an intro philosophy course, mostly because at no point in any philosophy course would you typically get an introduction like this. These topics would be covered but never in a simple systematic way.

If physics is the study of how things move, and how the universe works, then philosophy is the study of how we think, and how we view the universe.

There are three main branches of philosophy: Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics.

Metaphysics deals with how we fundamentally understand how the universe works, and what makes up the universe. This sets what we consider to be "allowable". This includes things like whether matter is made up of atoms, strings, the four elements, or plum pudding. But it also includes how we view consciousness, the mind, and how we think.

If you want to know the metaphysics of a person then ask them to define, or describe consciousness. The answer they give will not tell you anything about what consciousness actually is, but it will teach you about their metaphysics.

Metaphysics can be broken down into several (sometimes non-exclusive) broad categories. Dualism is the idea that there are two (or dual) components to reality. The material, or physical world, and the world of "the mind" or spirit, or rational thought. Monism is the idea that there is only one nature and both matter and the mind derive from the same source. Materialism is the idea that everything is the result of the fundamental laws of physics and the interactions of particles. Materialists deny that "the mind" is a separate thing apart from the firing of neurons in the brain. Materialists are by definition monists, but not all monists are materialists. One example of non-materialist monists are Mormons. Classical Christianity, Islam, and a few other worldviews are fundamentally dualist.

Epistemology deals with how we know, and know about the world. Perhaps Professor Truman G. Madsen, who spent five decades dealing with philosophical questions, put it best when he said, "There are really only five main modes that have been appealed to in all the traditions, philosophical or religious: an appeal to reason, an appeal to sense experience, to pragmatic trial and error, to authority—the word of the experts—and, finally, to something a bit ambiguous called 'intuition.'."

Science falls squarely under the umbrella of epistemology. If anyone gets into a discussion about what science fundamentally is, it ultimately rests on an endorsement of a particular epistemology, and nothing else. On a fundamental level, science does not have a preferred metaphysics* or ethics.

Logic is a subset of epistemology, and is not synonymous with it.

Ethics deals with what we value. Your ethics determines how you interact with other people and animals, and occasionally things. This area of philosophy is usually the messiest and most contentious.

Ethics is strongly related to Aesthetics, since what we value is generally what we find beautiful, and what we enjoy is what we value.

A huge portion of religion deals with ethical questions.

These three, Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics are all related to each other, and mutually supportive, and occasionally at odds with each other. That is, our metaphysics determines our epistemology and ethics. While our epistemology informs us of our metaphysics and ethics, while our ethics reveals our metaphysics and epistemology. One cannot have a particular metaphysics without a corresponding epistemology, nor ethics. Because once one is set the others will automatically be defined.

The short descriptions I have given above are by no means exhaustive, nor are the examples I gave all there is. The key is to know that there are these three parts to philosophy, and they are interconnected, related, codependent, reinforcing, and co-determining. They are also by no means static. The particular metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics of someone will definitely change over time.

Also it is possible, and very likely, for someone to have a particular metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics, and not be able to explain or articulate their thought, any more than most people could give a complex breakdown and accounting of their diet, including any and all nutrients. It is also possible to have the particular implementation of one of the three be incompatible with the others (people who smoke may also exercise).

But generally the position of any one of the three will determine the other two. The interrelationships are complex and usually take a great deal of effort of understand.

Most changes in someone's philosophy are subtle and almost imperceptible, but if there is a major shift in one of the three then that will precipitate a reevaluation of the other two.

Doing philosophy correctly can help uncover your own particular metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. It can show how the particular implementations may be incompatible. For example, if you really believe that everyone is created by God (metaphysics), then that should determine how you treat them (ethics).

We may not realize it but our ethics (and by extension our metaphysics and epistemology) are revealed by our aesthetics. Think about what movies, TV shows, books, stories, blogs, or news articles you like to consume. The kinds of entertainment we like, or the fictional characters we identify with, act as a litmus test for our ethics.

What art is hanging on your wall? Is it realistic, like photographs, or hyper realistic paintings? Or is it abstract? What is the subject matter? All these things can reveal how you fundamentally view the world, and how you think about knowing the universe.

Just as asking about how one views consciousness will reveal their metaphysics, what one surrounds themselves with, or their aesthetics, reveals their ethics, and ethics is codependent on their metaphysics and epistemology.

*I stated that science does not have a preferred metaphysics. That is not entirely true. Because science, as an epistemology, requires a corresponding metaphysics and ethics. It's just that the metaphysical and ethical demands of pure science are minimal. Most pronouncements regarding what we "should do" because of science, actually have nothing to do with science as an epistemology. When people make an appeal to "Science", or Science™, they are always, without realizing it, bringing a particular metaphysics and ethics along with them. Their assertions don't actually have much to do with the epistemological method known as science.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Extreme Skepticism is Not Scientific

Many years ago I was in a research group meeting where we were discussing some astrophysics related idea. One of the other graduate students, referencing a particular paper under discussion, made the comment that some feature observed by astronomers is "apparently" caused by a certain type of star. My PhD advisor stopped the grad student right there and asked, "Apparently? What else could it be? There is nothing else that it could be."

He then went on to make the point that in science we are taught to doubt established explanations, but only if we have a reason to doubt it and have an alternate explanation. In this case he explained that expressing skepticism of the commonly accepted explanation was not warranted because we did not have an alternate explanation. The standard explanation did not have any "apparent" problems, it fit with everything else we know about astronomy, stars, and galaxies. So the impulse to maintain a skeptical attitude was not helpful unless we were willing to provide an alternate explanation. Science was about increasing our understanding, and skepticism for skepticism's sake does not do that. He told us that if we are going to doubt the established explanation, even by throwing in a seemingly innocuous "apparently", then we should have a better, alternate explanation.

So how does this fit with the popular conception of science. Typically science is portrayed as constantly asking questions, doubting previous conclusions, and maintaining a skeptical attitude. As one person put it, "science without doubt isn't science at all."

It is easy to find a plethora of quotes about how science doesn't go anywhere without people doubting, asking questions, and throwing out old ideas. Famous science communicators will proudly proclaim that all the old ideas we once thought to be true have now been shown to be false, and we may eventually overturn everything we now think to be true.

In science classes we emphasize the importance of asking questions, being critical, demanding rigor, and not accepting an explanation "just because". But is that how actual scientists do science? We may say that it is, but when it comes down to it scientists never actually "question everything". They only try one thing at a time, and even then they don't throw it out. They look for an explanation within established parameters. Even Thomas Kuhn's paradigm shifters did not "question everything" and throw out all "false ideas of the past." They worked within a larger epistemological approach that had established norms and rules that they did not try to undermine.

What gets lost when popular science communicators tell the stories of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein is that they weren't right because they questioned fundamental assumptions. They were right because their explanations were better than the alternatives.

Galileo wasn't right because he questioned the established science of the day. He was right because his explanation fit with what others took the time and effort to measure and observe. In some cases Galileo wasn't even "right" until hundreds of years later.

Einstein wasn't right because he "thought outside the box" and questioned the established wisdom. He was right because hundreds of other physicists conducted experiments to check if his theories fit the data better than other possibilities. Some of these tests were at first inconclusive, and had to be redesigned to make the necessary measurements.

When it comes down to it, always questioning things, and never accepting explanations and answers really isn't science. It's just ignorance. Maintaining a constant stream of skepticism is not conducive to science. Offering alternate explanations is. Just doubting is not the stuff of science. You must have a reason to doubt. The received wisdom, or standard explanation must fail in some way. Science happens not when we try to break things, but when we try to fix things that we find to be broken.