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Questioning the Cosmos

September 27, 2011

So, I clearly still need to practice blogging as a regular exercise.  It’s ironic that my admission essay for law school was a two-page self-congratulatory exhortation on the virtues of regular mental (self-)stimulation and discourse.  Ah well, nothing to do but recognize the irony and move on, with apologies to any audience remaining.

Here’s something to wonder about: does the phrase “ignorance is bliss” more accurately pertain to religion or science?

Had I read that question an hour ago, I might have automatically responded that religion is ignorant of many more facts about ultimate reality than science, as science keeps unveiling more precise information about the way the universe works, in fields ranging from physics to chemistry to genetics to neuropsychology.  One feels that science is palpably searching for some notion of The Truth, whereas religion still rests on its laurels of having found the “best” answer in millennia  past.  So doesn’t religion seem to be the one blithely confounded to ignorance while science is filled with the existentially unsatisfying knowledge?

Though this accounting is mostly accurate, I think the picture is incomplete.  What’s missing is the epistemological direction of each field.  By that, I mean to say that religions have basically come to all of the answers they’re going to reach.  That’s why people turn to religion; for answers to questions.

On the other hand, science rarely provides an answer without simultaneously raising ten new questions.  And theories that are considered bedrock truths can be upturned in a matter of decades with additional tools of research and analysis, (maybe) e.g., the (ex-)truth that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.  Science is still possible because of the myriad unknown answers to (unknown) questions that continue to pop up and seem unlikely to ever stop.  When was the last time a religion came to a major “discovery” or new “answer” about one of life’s questions?

So, which discipline is really professes more open “ignorance”?  Science is content to be restlessly searching for answers, and religion seems to have closed the book (pun intended) on any new discoveries.  Maybe the axiom is more accurately read as “ignorance of the questions is bliss” if you don’t feel like changing your own answer.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2011 1:12 pm

    Perhaps an important distinction is that science is always excited by new discoveries, while religion is inherently fearful of them. Even though it took many decades for Einstein’s teachings to be accepted by the general science community, the very act of checking and rechecking, requiring constant and unequivocal proof, is the goal of science. I don’t think any scientist would be upset if it is verified that in some extreme circumstances, neutrinos do seem to travel faster than the speed of light — quite the contrary, it would just be the beginning of tumbling down the rabbit hole, just like Einstein did a century ago, or Newton, a couple centuries ago.

    Imagine how many people would be upset if the paparazzi produced photographic evidence that God took sundays off, kickin’ it in Malibu in the sun, doing lines of yayo with Lindsay Lohan, and let Lucifer run the show while he was out.

    Science is impartial.

    Ignorance is always prevalent, be it in science or religion, but a notion of bliss implies quality. Science knows it does not have all the answers and welcomes each and every new discovery. I don’t think the Pope is super excited to tell his parishioners about God’s sunday plans with Miss Lohan.

    • SlickRickSchwartz permalink*
      September 27, 2011 1:33 pm

      Tyler, your point brings into relief the debate I was trying to imply; religious pretensions to knowledge regarding god’s weekend schedule or what happens to you after you “die” or what constitutes a person are inherently flawed in that they tend not to accommodate the possibility of new data or improvements to a theory. Even secular issues are fraught when infected with religious thinking. E.g., if drugs are “bad” by some religious line of logic, what happens when the resultant drug war is worse by objective standards? Or, if you prefer, substitute drugs with any of the following: adultery, homosexuality, foul language, idolatry, prostitution, etc.

      The notion of having and/or needing a final answer seems inherently ignorant and infantile even though such a position contains some answer or position (dressed up as a statement of knowledge) as opposed to a new subset of questions. That tension seems to undermine the conventional wisdom as formulated.

  2. September 27, 2011 7:07 pm

    As I quite frequently have to underline in the course of wandering through blog-world, science is concerned with finding the best current empirically based understanding of our world rather than dogmas of absolute truth. The latter being the province of religions as well as lesser superstitions.
    Massimo Pigluucci, in his excellent book “Nonsense on Stilts” comments that “Every scientific theory proposed in the past has eventually been proven wrong and has given way to new theories”.. This observation may be a tad harsh but is not far from the truth. It is, however, in no way pejorative for this is the way it should, and must be.
    I sympathize with the paucity of audience for your blog as it echoes the problems I have with the promulgation of the evolutionary paradigm of “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?”
    What rubbish we must write! :>).

    • September 28, 2011 7:25 pm

      Peter, I don’t find your quoting of Pigluucci to be compelling. Scientific theories are approximations, and when one theory is cast aside in favor of a more refined approximation, the approximation comes closer to the limit (the answer). For example, Newtonian physics is 99.9999999999999999999% correct when we are figuring out how far a baseball will fly. Newtonian physics is an approximation. General Relativity will give you a more accurate answer, but it is unnecessary for most situations.

      Newtonian physics is not wrong, it is just not as accurate as General Relativity. Saying that all scientific theories are proven wrong is an incorrect play on words meant to illicit an emotional response. As Rick said in his comment back to me, “The notion of having and/or needing a final answer seems inherently ignorant and infantile.” Wrong is incorrect because there is still truth and wisdom to be gleaned from an approximation that is simply not as correct as a better one.

  3. September 28, 2011 10:35 pm

    I think you misunderstand the spirit of Pigluucci’s remark, Tyler. I suggest you read his book to see it properly in context.

    Furthermore, while the Newtonian model, as you so rightly point out, is quite adequate for most everyday practical applications, relativity provides a very different and more successful model for the overall interpretation of physical phenomena.

    Similarly, classical physics is woefully inadequate as a means of interpreting many facets of nature whereas quantum mechanics, again a very different paradigm, provides a far more powerful (and predictive) tool.

    So it is important to understand that the differences in these bodies of theory are qualitative rather merely quantitative. Relativity and QM are not just “add-ons”. They have quite discrete theoretical foundations.

    Earlier models, even if flawed, are often useful. Even the simple planetary mode of the atom makes a useful, more intuitive, stepping stone for the newcomer to chemistry. Even though it is very wrong. Subsequent, quite useful and again quite different orbital models are still useful for many practicing chemists today. But the revolutionary conceptual basis of quantum electrodynamics has explicative power for chemistry that is beyond compare.

    Bring back the phlogiston theory, I say! :>)

    Hey, Rick, I apologize for using more that one word in this discourse. I still haven’t fully got the hang of Newspeak yet. After all these years!

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