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A Very Decent Answer, Mario

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Posted by Aurino Souza on July 15, 2002 14:36:32 UTC

Hi Mario,

Let me tell you a personal story. When I was introduced to Newton's laws of motion in grade school I became very upset. My teacher stated the principle of inertia, which says a moving body will keep moving at the same speed forever if a force is not applied to it. I told my teacher that was nonsense because it didn't reflect our personal experience, in which all moving bodies eventually stop moving. He replied with the standard answer that bodies stop because friction is a force, that Newton's law was only valid in a frictionless environment.

I argued back that the concept of friction as a force was nonsense too, if you touch a surface you don't feel any force coming from it. To my ears it sounded more like Newton wanted his "law" to be true in spite of all evidence to the contrary, and he came up with this imaginary entity which happens to have exactly the same value as the difference between his prediction and actual measurements. It all sounded like cheating to me; I was 12 and from then on I started to think that science was more concerned about being right than about understanding the world.

Today I know I was wrong in my assessment, but I also realize it was not my fault. My teacher didn't say, "look, Newton came up with these clever artifices which may or may not be true but truth here is beside the point. The point is that we can use his equations to predict how bodies will move even if we don't really know what movement is". No, no teacher says that, for the simple reason they don't understand it themselves. They think Newton discovered how the universe works and they cannot possibly question what Newton did because they are not as smart as he was. It's almost as if God confided some secret in his ears.

I have a sharp tongue but I'm not against science, not at all. I'm against the mediocre understanding of science which pervades our educational system. I'm against the glorification of the scientist as someone who knows God's secret phone number. I'm against the idea that we know what any Joe realizes cannot be known. It bothers me that the misunderstanding of science shapes our culture, our art, our ideals, our morals, our dreams. That's really all I'm complaining about.

" Scientific theories are always just theories, and always make some assumptions on the universe to make the theory work. On the other hand, this is the only method by which science can progress, and in the end replaces old, faulty placeholders with new, more effecient ones. "

I do not entirely agree with that. There are other methods by which science can progress, and not everything that science provides is more efficient that the "old, faulty placeholders"

" science, for me, has always been about the process, not the goal. It's a method of looking at life, but not the answer to it. "

Exactly, science is just one point of view among many. Which means you should be careful when you throw the scientific point of view in the fact of the creationist point of view, unless you enjoy doing it. Until you understand that the creationist's world makes as much sense as yours, you'll never be able to go past the name calling phase in the debate.

" The ultimate answer, I fear, we will never know. "

We will never know because it doesn't exist! All questions have answers, and all answers pose more questions. That's what makes life so interesting.

" I think you are too quick to jump down science's throat about this, though. After all, if you can propose a better system, do! "

Ah, an idealist! I used to be like that too.

" Well put, and that tied well into the issue of scientific theories, but not randomness. Put human knowledge completely out of the issue for now. It doesn't matter to me whether we know a system is random or not in the context of this discussion. I simply want to know is it theoretically POSSIBLE? "

My answer is twofold. First, you can't possibly put human knowledge out of the issue as human knowledge IS the issue, even though you won't agree with me. Second, it's not theoretically possible for a system to be random as randomness is defined as "that for which we don't have a theory". To which one can always add, "yet"

Thanks for your comments.

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