Posts Tagged ‘Scientific Method

16
Oct
11

Saints and Science

The Roman Catholic Church (and others similarly, I believe) has a system for designating a hierarchical status of Sainthood – and various lesser beatified statuses – to deceased notables.

The Scientific Method, which has produced vast changes and improvements in knowledge and the human condition, is a rather different system. The following is a brief (especially for including just one aspect of the Scientific Method) comparison and contrast of the two systems.

The system for canonizing (a higher step in beatification) a Roman Catholic Saint is formal and specific. Well, sorta specific. The position of ‘Promoter of the Faith‘ has disappeared and is replaced by the ‘Promoter of Justice‘. These positions ostensibly have the same function – to provide evidence against a candidate’s canonization – but very different procedures. Now, skeptical or contradictory evidence is considered only if church authorities are in the mood.

The net process for achieving Sainthood is, essentially: (1) die (2) be popular with a bishop who can make a convincing case for your coolness (heroic virtue) ; this gets you on the ‘OK to pray to‘ list (3) get lucky enough that a sick person (or other person in need of supernatural intervention) prays to you for healing, instead of praying to an actual Saint or to the all-powerful God of the Universe (4) get luckier, so that the sick person claims that a prayer to you has healed them ; this is irrespective of any medical treatment they received (5) get so terrifically lucky that the sick person was not so horribly ill as to die (6) get lucky all over again with another person in need of supernatural intervention.

The Roman Catholic Church will examine these fortuitous events according to these generalized criteria: (1) is the candidate dead? (check!) (2) did someone pray to the candidate for something to happen? (check!) (3) did that something happen? (check!) (4) did someone else pray to the candidate for something to happen? (check!) (3) did that something happen? (check!). That makes a Saint.

The Roman Catholic Church will NOT examine these fortuitous events according to these generalized criteria: (1) did lots (thousands? millions?) of people pray to the candidate for something to happen? (2) did those somethings not happen? (3) did lots (thousands? millions?) of people pray to non-Catholic, or even non-Christian, dead persons for something to happen? (4) did those somethings happen without benefit of Church sponsorship? (5) did the two somethings that did happen, happen for non-supernatural reasons (medicine, human intervention, a generous donor)?

Quite a system they’ve got there, there in that Roman Catholic Church. Hell, folks could pray to Dusty Cat (may he rest in peace), have nice things happen, and the Holy See wouldn’t consider his feline soul to be beatified. It should – no real, substantial difference there. Dusty’s soul was beautiful, though.

Science is a bit less hierarchical. It can be political and competitive, but such is not always a detraction. In fact, as with the Free Enterprise System, competition is good.

The Scientific Method is fundamentally the opposite of beatification. Beatification seeks proof. Hey, we all want proof, right? It’s what we are evolved to seek – a correlation such as ‘eat red stuff, get sick‘ or ‘prayer, then healed‘. The Scientific Method instead seeks falsification.

Prior to the Scientific Method, science was not terribly different from beatification. The result was that it was subject to ‘false positives‘ – favorable results that were unrelated to the supposed cause. It too often ignored contradictory evidence. Vast amounts of work were wasted on alchemy, which really went out of its way to ignore negative results. You couldn’t falsify an alchemist’s pet supposition or belief.

All that sort of b.s. diminished to a tiny remnant when science began to depend on falsifiability. Gee, sometimes science falsifies falsifications! It has become absolutely insistent on only accepting results which have survived many attempts at falsification. In fact, even after a scientific theory – we don’t use the word ‘Law‘ any more – is accepted as ‘true’ (good enough for practical work), Science still re-checks periodically. The recent news from CERN‘s OPERA experiment regarding superluminal neutrinos is the latest example. CERN’s press release (not a peer-reviewed article claiming a reliable result) indicated the possiblility (with reservations noted) of neutrinos moving faster than the Cosmic Speed Limit – the speed of light. Everyone suspected a systematic error, and, by golly, there was one. But scientists always try. Newton (you know – the guy with the apple and that Law) needed some correction, and Einstein might get some too!

We owe modern life and the accelerating progress of knowledge to the Scientific Method. As for deceased Saints causing actual miracles, “Paris Hilton will win the Nobel Prize for Physics before that happens.

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09
Oct
11

This Is Your Brain On Rationality

The excellent blog ‘Still Skeptical After All These Years‘ (SSAATY) has produced a lively discussion about human intelligence. ‘This Is Your Brain On Spirituality‘ links to ‘The Premise‘, from the book ‘The “God” Part of the Brain‘ (Matthew Alper). Jim One awakened me from my blogging slumber, and my comments are too long to impose upon his commenting space. This post is the result.

Rational
adj., Devoid of all delusions save those of observation, experience and reflection.
– ‘The Devil’s Dictionary‘, Ambrose Bierce

‘The Premise’ is an interesting expression of the evolution of intelligence. It carries the burden of stimulating those misguided folks who take the ‘god’ part of the brain to be something that must have been created by god, or God. That article, and comments on SSAATY – especially by Anson and HLG – have a touch of specificity about the subject. Since I am required by the terms of my Birth Contract to engage in conversations on science topics, here’s my succinct explanation:

That “survival trait” of intelligence has a major component in correlation. Other components, such as memory, are also involved. Other species have intelligence. They use tools and manipulate their environment. They employ memory. The human advantage over other species is most pronounced in the inherent capacity to correlate.

Correlation is not reflex – a sensor-neuron-to-motor-neuron linkage. It is a constant activity of the brain. Watch someone wave a wand over a deck of cards, then pull a flower out of the deck: your brain will, absolutely automatically and irrevocably, establish the thought that a wand-wave makes flowers appear in unexpected places. Even a tendency to form preposterous correlations could have significant evolutionary advantages. The cost of missing a good correlation (red plant = poisonous) is disproportionate to the cost of a false correlation (animal sacrifice = good crops).

Almost all human history has involved this automatic intelligence – an ‘unthinking’ intelligence that becomes blatant as superstition. The modern (perhaps thousands of years – a short time in biology) rise of rationalism is the result of achieving a critical level of intelligence. The human (and, to a lesser extent, other species’) brain is self-aware. The progress of correlative ability has extended to something like ‘correlations of the correlations’. We now recognize that thinking in primitive ways can involve such errancies as ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc‘ – we are aware of our own fallacies.

Rationalism’s biggest success has been science – modern science, that is. The Scientific Method is to reasoning what the U.S. Constitution is to organization and governance. The Constitution is designed to work with our inherent nature, minimizing its worst propensities and maximizing its usefulness. It has checks and balances. Science is a method for limiting the brain’s tendency to form correlations willy-nilly. It also has checks and balances for the same sort of issues that the Constitution controls. It is a meta-intelligence that makes our inherent capability vastly more useful than it has previously been in human history.

Rationalism, by confining our biological intelligence, expands its social and cultural value. This is why science, medicine, and technology seem to have accelerated geometrically – it is not our intelligence which has increased dramatically, but our command of intelligence which is improved. There is a stark difference between the science of 1880 and the science of 1920 – a difference more in how intelligence was utilized than in the mere progress of results.

There is a stark similarity in the non-scientific thought of 2011 and that of 1911, or of 1011! Non-scientists can learn to do more than to merely respect the Scientific Method. Rationalism, and its companion Skepticism are vital elements of critical thinking which everyone can learn.




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- Edward R. Murrow

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All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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