Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

In Defense of Moral Investigation

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 31, 2012

Some argue that certain claims about the nature of reality could cause people to become more immoral. Examples of such suppositions include:

1. People should follow Christianity because we will be more moral if we have to avoid eternal damnation.
2. The theory of evolution says that since people evolved from bacteria and have no immortal souls, human lives are worthless. Therefore, we can rape and kill each other and there’s nothing wrong with that.
3. The theory of evolution says that people should act selfishly all the time.
4. If free will doesn’t exist, people will be free to hurt and kill each other and won’t be held responsible.

Such arguments are bogus. Any new information about reality, if properly understood (that part is important), can only cause people to become more ethical. Morality is contingent upon the nature of the universe; the better we understand the universe, the better we understand morality.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted in Atheism and Religion, Ethics, Rationality, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Why We Can See Stars

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 20, 2012

When I took physics, I learned that stars radiate light all throughout the electromagnetic spectrum, and radiate the most at some point in the visible spectrum. Our sun radiates more yellow than any other frequency; blue stars radiate more blue; and red stars radiate more red. Given that visible light falls in such a narrow range (with wavelengths ranging from 400 to 700 nanometers), why do all stars’ peak frequencies occur in this range? It seems like a remarkable coincidence.

I wondered about this question for some time, until yesterday I finally realized the answer.

The sun radiates light mostly in the visible spectrum; when this light hits objects on earth, some of it is absorbed, and some is reflected. Most of the light that gets reflected is in the 400 to 700 nanometer range, so any device that picks up light will be most efficient if it can pick up this range. Our eyes evolved to use light to perceive objects, so they evolved to see light in this range. In other words, the reason we see light in the 400 to 700 nanometer range is because that is the range where the sun emits the most radiation. And we can see other stars because stars’ peak radiations do not vary all that much, so they all fall within the visible spectrum.

Posted in Science | 2 Comments »

John Stuart Mill and Richard Feynman on Pleasure

Posted by Michael Dickens on June 12, 2011

It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

-John Stuart Mill

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

-Richard Feynman

These two quotes, while they come from very different points of view, are remarkably similar. Mill discusses the distinction between higher and lower pleasures, and explains how it is better to experience higher pleasures such as art and philosophy than lower pleasures like eating and sex. (His quote above doesn’t cover his whole argument, of course; he explains in detail in chapter 2 of Utilitarianism.) Feynman addresses the all-too-common opinion that analyzing something subtracts from its beauty. Although one of these quotes is about Utilitarianism and the other is about science and beauty, they have a lot in common.

Mill’s key claim is that higher pleasures are more desirable. In his last sentence he acknowledges that people who do not understand higher pleasures often think they are better off than people who do, and asserts that such people are mistaken. Feynman provides a perfect example of this. The artist sees a scientific mindset as a burden that gets in the way of appreciating beauty. He does not see how a scientist could find pleasure in the aesthetics of a flower while at the same time analyzing its inner workings. The scientist, however, is able to appreciate the beauty of the flower as well as examine the more hidden beauty that requires scientific analysis.

Not all artists are “nutty” in this way, of course; but people like the artist Feynman describes are missing out on the pleasure and the beauty that scientific understanding can unlock. A deeper understanding can always lead to more pleasure, not less.

Feynman’s quote is from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, which is available online. I recommend it.

Posted in Philosophy, Psychology, Science | Leave a Comment »

Article of the Day: Nuclear power—Why the panic?

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 19, 2011

Today’s article is about the reactions to the recent meltdown in Fukushima. It discusses how people react too strongly to rare accidents, which is a widely observed phenomenon. People worry more about dying from a shark attack than about drowning, even though sharks only kill about five people per year while about ten people drown per day. Sensational or outlandish events have a tendency to stick in our minds, while more mundane occurrences are forgotten.

When it comes to power plants, human psychology works no differently. Pollution from coal causes more deaths than nuclear radiation and nuclear meltdowns put together. But on the rare occasion when there is a meltdown, it is spectacular. It’s on every news channel and quickly gains international attention. This is a serious problem because it actually causes people to make seriously poor decisions. Policymakers who decide to shut down nuclear power plants are wasting huge amounts of money. Nuclear power is quite safe and one of the cheapest alternatives to fossil fuels. We should probably be building more nuclear power plants, and we certainly should not be shutting them down.

Posted in Article of the Day, Psychology, Science | 5 Comments »

Has Technology Improved Our Lives?

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 18, 2010

Over the last several hundred years, society has seen a massive increase in technology. Some of this technology, like the printing press and the internet, has served to make information more readily available. Other sorts of technology, such as antibiotics and vaccinations, have fought diseases and increased our lifespans. The question is, has this technology actually improved our lives, or has it only made us more short-sighted and materialistic?

It is commonly observed that technology hasn’t really made people any happier. Although I have never lived in a time period with radically different technology, I think it’s safe for me to assume that this is true. Technology has made short-term pleasures more readily available with the advents of television and video games. But we haven’t really seen any serious advances in technologies that satisfy our deeper pleasures since the invention of the printing press, which allowed important knowledge to be more easily accessed. Still, I am optimistic about what technology has done for us, even in recent years.

Why? Because although technology hasn’t really made us happier, it has most certainly served to reduce suffering, and continues to do so. Advances in medicine give us longer lives and help those lives to be more pain-free. Time-saving inventions like cars and planes, as well as labor-saving machines like dishwashers and washing machines, may not make us happier but they do make life easier. When we don’t have to spend so much time washing our clothes, we have more time to do things that we really enjoy.

As technology continues to progress, our lives become less and less painful. Although technology itself may not make us happier, we can use the time it gives us to enrich our lives. Whether we actually do so is another question entirely. This reminds me of a presentation by Neil Postman on Technology and Society — among other things, he makes the case that we don’t really need technology because it doesn’t make us happier. We’ll just spend our free time watching TV.

Well, maybe we will. And that’s our choice. But it is also entirely possible to spend our time doing very fulfilling things, which we are now capable of doing because of technology. I have the freedom to write essays that can be read by people I’ve never met, thanks to technology. Unlike television, I can definitively say that this has improved the quality of my life.

Technology does not guarantee our happiness, but it does do two very important things: it reduces the suffering that we have to endure; and in frees us and opens our sights to whole new worlds. Those are the true benefits of technology.

Posted in Ethics, Science | 1 Comment »

Do we have an obligation to truth?

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 19, 2010

One of the policies of science is a complete commitment to the truth, no matter the consequences. I long accepted this policy. Recently, however, I realized that this could be in conflict with Utilitarianism — sometimes the truth will increase suffering.

In fact, after thinking about it a bit more, it seems rather obvious that I have certainly not been committed to the truth. In some realms I have, but not all. I don’t tell everyone everything I hear. I lie sometimes when I think it’s the right thing to do.

The commitment to truth is something quite different; it is more applicable to scientific disciplines. In this case, the obligation to truth can be seen as arising out of Utilitarian philosophy: to make the right decisions, we need to know the scientific truth. Look at Hitler and atheism, for example. It is sometimes claimed that Hitler was an atheist, and so since Hitler committed horrible atrocities, therefore Atheism is factually incorrect — that is, God exists. Despite the numerous fallacies with this argument, there is also the fact that even if these claims were all true, it would still be important to know whether God exists in order to make effective moral decisions.

A commitment to truth is rather idealistic, and Utilitarianism generally does not support any sort of idealism other than itself. However, since we are merely humans and not hyper-efficient utility-generating machines, it sometimes helps to have certain absolute commitments.

Perhaps it is wrong to attempt to blend the scientific and Utilitarian ideologies. Science does not deal with morality; rather, it only serves to assess the truth of claims. From the mindset of a scientist, a commitment to truth is absolutely important. This is not necessarily in conflict with Utilitarianism, because the two realms are separate.

In the interest of science, a commitment to truth is undeniably important. But in a life devoted to maximizing utility, is there room for a scientific mindset?

To go about science, one ought to have a scientific mindset, an obligation to truth. Science, although its commitment to truth may in some ways be in conflict with the Utilitarian virtue, is still a powerful tool for maximizing utility. The scientific developments over the last few hundred years have been beneficial to billions of people; science, even when in direct conflict with Utilitarianism — in conflict with morality — is an incredibly useful process for the benefit of society.

Posted in Ethics, Science, Utilitarianism | Leave a Comment »

Ever wonder what Confirmation Bias is? Now you know.

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 9, 2010

This essay, by a vehement Creationist, is about radiometric dating. I just happened to be reading it, and thought it was worth sharing.

According to the Bible, the creation week lasted seven literal days and occurred a few thousand years ago. However, many Christians today accept the teaching of science that life has existed on earth for millions, even billions, of years. . . . I believe that many educated Christians are especially doubting the Bible because of the supposed evidence from radiometric dating that life has existed on earth for very long periods of time. . . . [W]hat exactly is wrong with radiometric dating? How can we explain the fact that these dating methods do, in fact, yield dates in the hundreds of millions of years?

The author assumes that because it contradicts the Bible, there must be something wrong with it. This is a rather extreme case of confirmation bias. The author is so utterly unwilling to accept that the Bible, a thousand-year old religious tome, *might* have some scientific inaccuracies.

It seems that the explanation for why radiometric dating yields such old ages is a rather obvious one. God is screwing with the dates, making them look much older in order to test the faith of the true Christians. Who ever said you couldn’t wave a magic wand and make your problems go away?

Posted in Creationism, Science | 4 Comments »

Growing Certainty

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 30, 2010

It has been claimed by Creationists that young students are taught about how certain we are of evolution, even though we are not certain at all. (This post is not about Creationism; just bear with me.) When I heard this claim, I quickly realized how ridiculous it was. I remember what I was told in school, and it was nothing like what they say I was told.

In truth, I was never told that evolution was a certainty. Until I researched it for myself, I had been under the impression that it was the best theory we had, but that there were serious gaps in the evidence. I thought that the fossil record was full of holes. And my education certainly did nothing to ameliorate this problem.

As I kept thinking, I noticed that this issue also arose with regard to other scientific theories. For instance, I remember learning about hypothesized particles known as “quarks” that are even smaller than protons and neutrons; it was not until years later that I learned that quarks have actually been observed.

Despite what some Creationists may say, science education often leaves an impression of growing certainty. When you’re younger, they tell you that scientists aren’t really sure about this thing or that. But as you get older, you learn that there is actually a lot more evidence than your school was letting on.

Why does education instill this sense of growing certainty? One hypothesis is that they don’t want to tell young children about complicated theories such as quarks. But in that case, why even bring them up? Why not simply pretend that they don’t exist?

Perhaps there is a good reason for that. When I learned that quarks were real, I was not unfamiliar with them. Although I didn’t know much about them, I had heard of quarks before. So when I heard about their reality, I immediately recognized them as something that I had learned about.

It is useful for educators to instill in students this sense of recognition. But sometimes it is not worth it to explain the concept. Sometimes you really don’t think that a ten-year old needs to know what a quark really is. When students re-discover them later, though, that memory will still be there.

Posted in Science | 2 Comments »

A Very Confused National Geographic Article

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 5, 2010

Whoever wrote this article apparently wants to feel smart, and wants the readership to feel smart, but is doing some serious muddling of ideas.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Article of the Day, Rant, Science | 3 Comments »

Science Education

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 20, 2010

The current state of science education in primary and secondary education is far from ideal. The purpose of science education should not be to teach facts about science, but to teach how to think scientifically.

Nearly every moment I have spent in science class has been spent learning about something that was already discovered. I learned about the different phyla of animals, about the periodic table, about meiosis, about covalent bonds, you name it. But has this fostered in me a better understanding of science? Frankly, no. The best science education I have got has been from reading about science on the internet, from websites and from science blogs like Pharyngula. On the internet I have read about how to examine the veracity of scientific claims. I think that this is one of the most important tenets of a science education. But have we ever gone over this in science class? No.

Another pillar of science education is not what science has discovered, but how it has discovered it. Sure, every year we briefly look at the “scientific method”, but all we really do is memorize five or six steps in what is supposedly the quintessential scientific process. What is really important is that we are able to take some phenomenon and find a legitimate explanation. This phenomenon doesn’t have to be “scientific”: it can be any sort of empirically testable phenomenon, including something that comes up in real life. For example, through science education you should be able to more effectively answer the question, Is my friend telling the truth, or is his story completely made up? That is where science really shines.

But in addition to this, we must remember that there are certain things that it simply helps to know. And some aspects of science are simply fascinating. Maintaining a proper balance will not be easy; still, at the moment the balance is much too far towards the side of facts rather than the side of investigation.

Ideally, how would science be categorized? As it is, we have Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, and high school students spend one year on each. (The classification in elementary and middle school is more vague.) These categorizations are convenient, and could probably remain this way while at the same time emphasizing more critical thinking. In Biology, students could study creationism vs. evolution — this is how I developed most of my critical thinking abilities — although that might not end so well given the history of conflict between those subjects. I know of no other obvious tests of critical thinking for other subjects, but I’m sure they exist. A clever science teacher could think of plenty of things to do.

Implementing an environment to foster critical thinking may be difficult. I know that at least for me, no one could have made me learn it. But they could have made the tools more readily available. Through the internet, I was able to find plenty of tools; but I had to look for them. It would have been easier, and I would have started sooner, had those tools been presented in the science classroom.

The problem still remains, though, of how you teach people to think critically. I hypothesize that people will learn on their own if presented with the proper tools. The real trick to critical thinking is really just thinking. I remember that after seeing What The Bleep Do We Know, I believed everything in it. But after someone pointed out to me just how ridiculous some of its claims were, I instantly realized that, yes, it didn’t really make sense at all. The problem there was that I was simply trusting what was said without thinking about it at all. If I had considered the claims made even a little, I would have easily seen their absurdity. Then, is it as simple as asking the question, “Is this for real?” In many cases, I think so.

Which brings me to another important pillar of science education: objectivity. Something useful in science as well as in life is the ability to judge a situation dispassionately, and to try to remove one’s own biases. Completely eliminating your own biases is extraordinarily difficult, but it should be the role of science education to help out. One thing that I find helps enormously is to talk to other people about what your biases might be. On my other blog, I have questioned my own assumptions numerous times thanks to the feedback given to me by some very intelligent commentators.

Facts are important. But so is critical thinking. So is objectivity. So is understanding how to go about making a discovery, be it a new field in Quantum Mechanics, or whether or not the Chevy Malibu is a better deal than the Ford Explorer. Science is fascinating, but its true value comes from its ability to expand your mind and heighten your thinking. This is what ought to be reflected by science education.

Posted in Science | 1 Comment »

 
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