Category: Science

Sometimes the scientists do themselves no favors.

Following my earlier armchair-philosopher post “The born-again atheists bother me“, I encountered an atheist’s web page purporting to respond to “50 reasons to believe in God“.  The reasons range from the lame and childish to the moderately intelligent.  A number of them aren’t reasons to believe in God at all, such as “atheism is based on faith”, which is just a criticism of atheism, as are several others.  The responses are largely entirely predictable and the only interesting thing about the web page is that it brings a number of Christian/Atheist strawmen together in one place.  The only one I want to talk about here is number 36 “How vs. Why”.

The “reason” given is “Science can explain ‘how’ something works, but not ‘why’ something works.”.  Why this is a reason to believe in God, per se, escapes me because I see it only as a statement of one of the limitations of science and also misleading, on its own, because how “why” differs from “how” is not addressed, and that’s an important question.

The responses are two.  First: “This argument is essentially meaningless. To science, ‘how’ and ‘why’ are the same thing.” which is an astonishing cop-out.  If we agree that science certainly answers “how” questions, and I suggest that there is nothing controversial in that, then defining “why” to be the same thing as “how” immediately cuts off any investigation of “why” questions that is not “scientific”.  I put “scientific” in quotes here because no scientist should make that assertion unless he’s talking about scientism and not science, which should also be made clear if it is the case.  In a sense, it says that there is no “why”, without justifying the claim.

The second response just irritates me, because I like Terry Pratchett, who, the page claims “sheds insight onto this. The question “why” presupposes that there is a story to be told. A narrative. Science is a different way of knowing, and one of its discoveries is that the language of the universe is not that of story and legend, but that that of mathematics. It’s something that a lot of math-phobes have a hard time accepting.”  Yes, I suppose a narrative is a way of understanding what “why” means, but it’s a bit of a red-herring and the meat is more in the position about mathematics.

OK, so the universe speaks mathematics.  I speak English.  I can tell a story in English.  Why cannot the universe tell a story in mathematics?

Apart from that, the rules of the universe, its mathematical and scientific laws, are just that, the rules that are (apparently) followed.  They are not the universe itself.  They are a “how”, they are not a narrative or a motivation.  They are themselves not a reason for the universe’s existence.  A logical conundrum – “this sentence is false” – is not a reason for its own existence, but it’s rules are obvious.

Perhaps the universe has no reason for its own existence.  If not, then I challenge the loonie atheists who reify the scientific method to the level of cosmic significance: prove it!

Oh, I know, they’re trying, trying very hard.  But what they are really doing is trying to answer the “how” questions and hope that the “why” questions go away; and granted, they often do.  Ultimately, perhaps “why?” is limited to the realm of subjective experience.  Like blue, pain, love, it might be open to scientific analysis insofar as you can identify the parts and processes of the brain where such experiences lie, but you cannot extract and measure an independent substance to which you can reasonably give such labels.

You can go on about why I see the sky is blue until you’re blue yourself, but at no point can you prove that your experience of “blue” is identical to mine.  Likewise, I suspect that everyone’s “why” is different, dependent on their own experiences and derived world view.  The argument, like this blog post, is pointless.

A sense of fair play

I found this clip on YouTMonkeyube the other day, exploring whether or not capuchin monkeys have a sense of fair play and I found the implications somewhat deeper than immediately obvious.

There are two segments – the first demonstrating cooperation between two monkeys in pursuit of food, the second pitting the two monkeys against each other.  It was the second segment that particularly intrigued me.  The monkeys, Vulcan and Virgil, are taught to “buy” a treat with a plastic token.  Vulcan buys a cracker, which is tasty enough, but then he sees Virgil gets a grape in exchange for his token.  Now a grape is much tastier in monkey world than a cracker, and Vulcan clearly feels short changed.  The transactions continue, with the same different treatment of the two, and Vulcan gets more and more agitated until eventually he wins a grape too.

What grabbed my attention was not even noted by David Attenborough’s narration – once Vulcan spotted the preferential treatment of Virgil, he never once accepted that lower reward of the cracker again.  He turned it down flat, every time.

I went for a walk to think about it.

All Vulcan knew was that Virgil was getting grapes and he was getting crackers and he didn’t like that.  But he didn’t take the cracker and continue to demand a grape.  He knew that one token got him one treat, and his treats weren’t as good as Virgil’s, even though the two were doing exactly the same thing.  Clearly Vulcan was not hungry enough or otherwise motivated to eat the cracker anyway and try again later.  He wanted his fair does right then and there and he wasn’t taking no for an answer.

There is a clue here to underlying evolutionary pressures.  Monkeys have learned, or evolved (same thing for these purposes), certain behavior patterns in response to certain conditions.  This experiment quite cleanly demonstrated an escalatory response to an unfair situation.  It was better to risk a worse outcome, no treat, in response to inequality than it is to accept the inequality itself, (or, at least, to be seen to accept it).

What would be the consequences of accepting the cracker that were so undesirable?  Had Vulcan accepted the cracker would he have been accepting a subordinate position with respect to Virgil?  Clearly he is already subordinate to the effectively all-powerful, human experimenter, but, from Vulcan’s point of view, would it have risked giving the experimenter the idea that Vulcan was somehow “cheaper” than Virgil, encouraging further inequalities down the line?

Of course, we have much in common with these monkeys.  We are perpetually faced with unfair situations and must decide on appropriate responses with a view to future consequences.  Sometimes the response is apathy because that’s cheaper than  putting up a fight, although it may turn out to be far from free, and apathy creates further apathy as the inequalities become entrenched.  Sometimes the response is to fight, despite the costs which are perceived as less than those of apathy, up to and including death.  In the case of these monkeys, we see the fundamental mechanics of the decision.  Is it conscious?  Is it learned?  Is it instinctive (evolved)?  I’d say all three, in both us and the monkeys, and not least because all three are intimately related.

All this might lead you to reflect on the eons of experience of the generations before you informing the emotions you feel next time some jerk in an expensive car cuts you off.

(While writing this, it also occurred to me that with this video we also have some illustration of the mechanics of gambling.  One monkey sees another monkey put a coin in a slot and pull a lever.  Many coins fall out, all in a heap.  Monkey see, monkey do.  First monkey puts a coin in the slot and pulls the lever.  Nothing comes out.  Monkey feels affronted. What he might, in other circumstances, call his sense of justice is tweaked and causes him to insist, to fight back, to put another coin in the slot and pull the lever again.  And so on.)

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