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“So much of contemporary science writing traffics in the illusion of knowledge”

51YNLzzRVUL._SS500_.jpg In “Book Review: Schulz on Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?” (Vulture , 7/8/12), Kathryn Schulz wrestles better with the conundrums than most:

Yet the very intractability of the problem turns out to have a salutary (and fun) side effect: All the ordinary kinds of answers being impossible, one begins to think in earnest about the extraordinary ones. This is a book that gets us to take seriously, at least for a few pages, the proposition that the universe was brought into being by the abstract idea of Goodness. (Hey, Plato thought so.) Elsewhere, we get a probabilistic, Bayesian case for the existence of God. We hear Heidegger speculate that nothingness is an agent, that noth-ing is a verb (“Das Nichts nichtet,” or “Nothing noths”: shades of Hopkins, for whom the self “selves”); perhaps, then, nothing nothed itself, thereby creating Being. We contemplate panpsychism, the theory that consciousness is a fundamental property, irreducible to physical components and pervasive throughout the universe: that, in the words of the astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, “the stuff of the world is mind-stuff.”

Actually, it is a sensible idea. Almost all the problems with consciousness result from an attempt to reduce it to something else. Hardly anyone studies what it actually is. Also:

 So much of contemporary science writing traffics in the illusion of knowledge; it’s quick to close the case, eager to peddle solutions, determined to be useful or profitable to readers. Holt traffics in wonder, a word whose dual meanings—the absence of answers; the experience of awe—strike me as profoundly related. His book is not utilitarian. You can’t profit from it, at least not in the narrow sense. Sometimes you can’t even understand it. And yet it does what real science writing should: It helps us feel the fullness of the problem.

We could start with consciousness.

See also: From the Why does anything exist? files …

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2 Responses to “So much of contemporary science writing traffics in the illusion of knowledge”

  1. It seems to me that the “fuzzy math” mentality of today’s scientism is utterly, utterly surreal. Abiogensis/evolution has been exhaustively proven to be a fantasy, theism, indeed, Christianity, the converse. Science has vindicated them both, on the basis of its(science’s) own canons.

    But math is not supposed to be fuzzy, is it? I mean, like logic, it’s supposed to be primordial – at least in maths’ more mundane reaches.

    In fact, it mimics the politics of the mainstream media. We have a TV show in the UK called Question time, with a panel of notables (mostly, politicians) and maybe a member of the public, and members of the audience are invited to ask questions, which, I believe, have been vetted beforehand.

    One topic was the US invasion of Grenada. “If it was carried out to protect democracy,” someone asked, “why hasn’t the US invaded Haiti?” The anchorman just pointed to another member of the audience for his/her question, the next question.

    It reminded me of the joke abut the man who told his doctor that people kept ignoring him; at which the doctor bawled out: “Next!”

    But you see it going on all the time. Nobody ever insists on the miscreant accepting the error of his belief, when it is plainly the case and been demonstrated as such, before consenting to allow the programme to continue.

    Of course, it would make lousy entertainment – the same question/answer, endlessly repeated in a pervasive atmosphere of hostile rancour, until the miscreant yields – which of course they don’t.

    If you want to get something of the flavour of the wooliness, the flabbiness of the thought-processes of our Brightest and Best, just count how many times, in a single interview, a British MP repeats the mantra, “Let me make it clear…” – as if everyone expects him or her not to be clear, and feels deeply aggrieved that they should ever consider making themselves clear.

    It may be to buy a little time, to think how to respond, but it’s such a patently meretricious little cliche, and one of several they like to use by way of blandishment, euphemism, simple obfuscation.

    I mean are not some subjects on TV serious enough to merit being viewed as truth-oriented, and not, entertainment-oriented? Don’t they talk about our news programmes now as “infotainment”. Science, it seems, has its own version: “evolutainment”.

  2. “Science has vindicated them both, on the basis of its(science’s) own canons.”

    Neither of those can be empirically validated. Indeed, no theory can. Every theory is a philosophical proposition or framework. Either reality disagrees with it, which we can show empirically, or it does not.

    But if empirical results do not refute a theory it does not mean that the theory is a True Fact of the universe. It means no more than that what we can test of a theory is not inconsistent with the results of those tests.

    As such the only utility of theories are either issues of Belief, and so religious in nature, or of directing scarce resources to which tests are likely to be fruitful with respect to those theories.

    But that does not mean performing tests that are expected to be confirmed by those theories. It means performing those tests that will refute at least one theory. For if it is True, and you Believe that it is True, then there is no need to show what you Know will be True.

    Now there is nothing at all wrong with the idea that we should test something simply on the basis that we have not yet. But stating that we haven’t tested some interaction requires no theory. It only requires that we know it has yet to be tested.

    But as such if an empirical test is not directly after the refutation of a theory, then the theory plays no role in the empirical test. It is wholly independent of it. Functionally. As a Tenet of Faith it is always of utility for showing off Knuckle Bones and other Miracles for the already Faithful.

    Keep these distinctions in mind whenever a paper comes forward and look for it trying to obfuscate the statements: “We believe that our Belief Requires that… And we have shown that our Belief is True.”

    None of Evolution, ID, Christianity, or Atheism gain exception here.

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