Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Surprise Birthday Present April 29, 2007

Posted by olvlzl.
One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an exact picture of the natural world. One achievement of physics in the twentieth century has been to prove that that aim is unattainable.
Knowledge or Certainty, [The Ascent of Man; Jacob Bronowski 1973]

I hadn’t intended to address the excellent stream of responses to the proposition posed yesterday in a post this morning. Last night I thought of posting the entire response on my own blog tomorrow, without objection by the participants.

Then this morning, reading the response of MKK Mary Kay to the part of the debating point that really interested me, the political implications of the end of belief in free will, I knew it couldn’t go without emphasis. Her response, after expressing her skepticism in free will based in her personal experience, is:

including an explanation of how democracy and personal rights can survive this belief.

We have to make sure they do because I might be wrong.

It shattered me, for both intensely personal reasons* and because in one sentence it makes an argument that has cost me tens of thousands of words over the past year.

In Chapter Eleven of the companion book to his great BBC TV series “The Ascent of Man”, the physicist, writer, artist and poet Jacob Brownoski addresses just about every conceivable point relevant to the political uses of science, both good and very bad science. Since his exploration covers the uses to which science has been put in the 19th and 20th centuries, the intersection of science and politics has to be presented in the dark shadow of the resulting moral decisions made by human beings, including scientists, and their societies.

History has many ironies. The time-bomb in Gauss’ curve is that after his death we discovered that there is no God’s eye view. The errors are inextricably bound up with the nature of human knowledge. And the irony is that the discovery was made in Gottengen.

... The University is a Mecca to which students come with something less than perfect faith. It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies, they are not here to worship what is known but to question it. [Bronowski p. 360]

Bronowski, with his miraculous knowledge of science, culture and history had an ability to find coincidences that are extraordinarily enlightening. The coincidences in this essay show what happens when that questioning stops short of honesty to assert that something “has been proven”.

He was able to compellingly link Gauss, the uncertainty of knowledge, the railroad linking Goettengen to Berlin, the anthropometrically analyzed skull collection at Gottengen , the use the science derived from that collection by the Nazis and Different Trains** that resulted. I couldn’t pretend to address his work of genius without quoting the entire essay. If you can get your hands on it, I beg you to read it and consider what it has to teach us about the unintended implications of scientific folly blended with professional arrogance.

Some, if not many, scientists find it convenient to pretend that their work exists in a bubble of intellectual purity. Some of that convenience is professional, some just the results of having to publish and not being able to point out all the necessary ambiguities. But some of the most dangerous uses of “certainty” are the results of ego and arrogance. If they took history more seriously, the scientists who enjoy the Olympian view would know that they are being watched and that any possible idea, enjoying the prestige and glamor that the label “science” carries, has an irresistible appeal to people outside of their own, smaller world. As they write their papers, build their careers and squabble internally, they won’t notice that both their intended conclusions and their unintentional lapses will be pounced on by people smart enough to understand their implications for uses the scientists would find horrifying.***

Brownowski ends his essay after looking at the issues surrounding the Manhattan project, which he knew from his personal experience.

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard. I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

* Re-reading the book this morning, in response to Mary Kay’s sentence it strikes me as maybe the best popular science series ever made. Of all of the excellent essays, this is the one I find the most compelling, the one that has changed my thinking after reading it.

Today is my mother’s birthday. After searching for her copy of the book, which Mary Kay’s response made me remember, I notice that the inscription says that it is an early Birthday present which I gave her thirty years ago today. Please indulge me by saying how proud I’ve always been that my mother, the first person in her family to attend college and a feminist of her generation, has a degree in Zoology. I owe any knowledge I might have about science, as well as just about everything else, to her.

** Steve Reich’s great composition of that name makes different connections.

*** I will post a short piece about this on my blog Tuesday.