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The Gears Of Knowledge Turn Strangely

What makes science so confusing for so many people is that we usually only get to see the ad copy for it’s marvellous abilities, but rarely have the chance to read the fine print.

The fine print of science is that you can’t prove anything for sure, but you can prove what’s not the case. Not only that, but in many ways, it’s more important. For ages, observers of the natural world looked for correlations between things. What modern science contributes to things, in part, is an understanding of the difference between correlation and causation.

Old habits die hard, though, and much of our understanding of the world is still filtered through pre-scientific paradigms. We still think common sense is fit to describe the world we live in.

No longer. Population, science, and technology have conspired to give us a world that obeys laws of nature that we are not conditioned by evolution to understand intuitively. In short, we can no longer acquire wisdom about the world around us by pure experience. Experience must fuse with what certain folks call "book learning", if we are to make wise choices in this new world.

The main thing to understand is that science is as much about eliminating possible causes and relationships for things as it is about thinking them up. It's about looking for the signs that one thing is true rather than another. The unseen order of this world is deep and complex in ways that even now we have yet to fully comprehend. We cannot trust every claim that a person makes, without looking closely at the authority the claim presents itself on. With matters of esoteric research, we are forced by a lack of training to leave it to the experts, but we can research the political claims and review the commentary of the folks who know their stuff.

To deal with science on your own terms, you must become a scientist of sorts yourself. It means you must reserve judgment until things truly fit. It means you must set aside stubbornly held expectations for possibilities and probabilities. It means you must respect the facts and the research first, and figure out how you feel about it later. Too often, people dealing with science will disregard solid theories and knowledge because it conflicts with closely held beliefs. They get in their own way, and let the surface of the scientific discoveries peturb them away from a proper analysis of what's before them.

There are some who will reject Darwin because it's gotten conflated with amoral, ruthlessly competitive lifestyles. Never mind that nice creatures as well as nasty are products of evolution, and that altruism and love are not out of the question as products of evolution. The social picture of Darwinism, these folks would argue, is what matter most.

This thinking is unfortunate, for the fact is, nature long operated with no reference to what we think about it, and will operate long after humanity is dead and has ceased to care about what nature encourages or discourages in her creatures. It does not prove or disprove God, does not prove or disprove free market economics, does not justify or condemn the anarchy or tyranny we commit in the name of a phenomenon of nature that really only deals with what works and what doesn't in different environments.

The laws of nature create the world around us, in its ugliness and its beauty, its viciousness and its docility, in ways we understand and ways that defy common sense. The most exhausting and exhaustive pursuit of science is running down the clues and the mysteries that the working theories create by implication. We can judge the quality of a theory by how much of its principles we can knock down. Science is a discipline that tests, that forces confrontations between what we expect and what is.

The mistake often made with science is to pursue it purely along the lines of what it has proven. Fact is, what is proven is only the beginning. The question that remains afterwards is "What does this mean?" and it is this question that drives science ever onwards. It is not a question of philosophical or social meaning, but that of the implications of that fact in itself.

The old paradigm was that only the things that agreed with the conventional wisdom were meaningful. All else was simply deviation, darkness, chaos, or the intervention of forces beyond nature. The paradigm now? There is meaning inherent in much of nature that we can see to understand if we keep our minds, our eyes, and our hearts open. The world is no place of sterile order or screaming chaos, but is instead alive with surprising complexity and vibrance. The mysteries are not gone, they have only grown deeper and more exotic. The possibilities for how men and women can conduct their lives have not shrunk, but grown exponentially. Our future is neither bleak nor bright alone, but full of more destinies of different kinds than we can ever fathom.I would say there's even room for God, if we are willing to consider a God whose power, ancientness, and complexity of thought far outstrip anything we can imagine.

Before this picture of the world, though, we are not masters. We are barely even apprentices. Humility before the vast ocean of knowledge and wisdom is what our modern day calls for. We have been roused from the dream of easy simplicity, and now work at our new tasks by the sweat of our brow. It will never be easy to do things right, but if we take the right attitude, we can live happier, more productive lives.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at June 19, 2005 9:07 PM