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The Time When Reason Triumphed Over Unreason - Riffs and Licks
steelbrassnwood
steelbrassnwood
The Time When Reason Triumphed Over Unreason
Having just finished Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, Confusion, and The System Of the World), I finally picked up James Gleick's biography of Isaac Newton.


This was the time when reason became reasonable, when Robert Hooke could write that it was time to return the study of Nature to "the plainness and soundness of Observations on material and obvious things." Newton opened the third volume of the Principia (the System of the World of Stephenson's title) with what he called "Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy":
  • We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. ...Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.
  • Therefore to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes.
  • The qualities of bodies ... which are found to belong to all bodies within the reach of our experiments, are to be esteemed the universal qualities of all bodies whatsoever.
  • We are to look upon propositions inferred by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true, notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses that may be imagined, till such time as other phenomena occur, by which they may either be made more accurate, or liable to exceptions.
I cannot imagine a clearer or more beautiful statement of the scientific method, or a more resounding rejection of the various forms of chicanery that were then popular. Newton was himself an alchemist, and never wavered in his belief that God was the animating spirit that created all the rules and set the world in motion, but by sitting alone in his room in Trinity College during the plague, and carefully working out (and inventing) the mathematics of what he intuited about motion and velocity and acceleration -- all concepts that hardly existed at the time -- he was able to define rules that have lasted ever since (and no, Einstein didn't invalidate Newton). By establishing first principles, by reasoning forward rigorously, and testing to make sure that what his reasoning predicted was actually true, he found a more wondrous world than anything you'll find in the Bible.

Newton was one of the first members of the "reality-based community." And increasing numbers of people are turning their backs on those principles. During his lifetime, the English rejected a return to Catholic rule, rejected a return to rule by Divine Right, and invited monarchs from Holland and then from Germany to rule the country by law, not by fiat. Now, we reject the rule of law and instead invite the religious bigots in. Rather than the Philosophic Mercury, we have diet pills and herbal remedies, but the number of people who not only reject science but reject their own ability to reason is truly frightening. Newton showed us that the world was solvable and understandable; now we seem to believe it's not solvable, not understandable, and in fact, we don't want to solve or understand it. We want someone else to give us simple stories and pictures that don't require any work from us.

I'm not a big fan of Robert Heinlein's philosophy, but he once said, "Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house." That's less unfair than it sounds, given that math is taught so unbearably badly in this country (and please keep in mind I was a C student in every math class I took except for geometry, linear algebra and discrete math, which is to say the more visual areas of math), but I do believe that if everyone in this country came out of school with at least an elementary understanding of what the calculus is and why it matters, we'd all be better off.

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bobhowe From: bobhowe Date: November 16th, 2004 02:53 am (UTC) (Link)
...I do believe that if everyone in this country came out of school with at least an elementary understanding of what the calculus is and why it matters, we'd all be better off.

I'm not sure calculus is the medicine for what ails us as a nation: at best (worst?) the lack of literacy in higher mathematics is a symptom, rather than a cause of American intellectual malaise. There were plenty of orthodox Jewish kids we went to college with who knew the ins and outs of Darwinism and natural selection, but who didn't believe any of it. Some of them were better at calculus than I'll ever be, but they'd already chosen sides in the culture war, and it wasn't our side they chose.

Why people choose belief over rationalism is a question that absorbs me, too. It's certainly not confined to the U.S.: the Islamic fundamentalists are as anti-intellectual and irrational as they come, and in fighting them the Bush administration and its supporters are remaking the country in the fundamentalists' image. (Every time I hear the Crawford village idiot say the Islamists "hate us because of our freedoms," I think he's projecting his own parochial insecurities). And this week it's the Dutch who are struggling with Islamists who want to live in the Third Century, and who want the rest of us to live there with them. The French and the rest of Europe are also struggling with balancing religious tolerance against the ridiculous separatist demands of fanatics.

But I don't think it's about calculus, or any other particular branch of learning. I don't know enough cosmology nor astronomy to fill a decent paragraph, but when a physicist says the universe is over ten billion years old, I take his or her word for it because I trust the methods scientists use to understand the world. Likewise, most fundamentalists aren't Biblical scholars: they believe what their preachers tell them.

Of course my trust of the scientific method is based on things I do understand, and on science's track record for making useful predictions about the world. But even someone who barely understands algebra can be taught the difference between belief and empiricism. I don't understand exactly why people choose to believe things that are demonstrably not true, but I don't think it's necessarily from lack of exposure to the facts.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: November 16th, 2004 07:06 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't think there's any panacea, mathematical or otherwise. But note that I didn't say that everyone should come out of school being good at calculus, but at understanding what it is and why it matters. I was really bad at calculus, largely because of careless algebraic errors, but also because it's usually taught as a set of rules without that much discussion of why it works.

We teach math so badly. It's as if you taught music by exercising students through scales and chords and the theory of harmony without ever playing any Bach. I remember how infuriated my father (an engineer) was at the way we did separate units on "fractions," "percents" and "division" in elementary school, with no one ever bothering to explain that they're all the same thing. And that continues right up to calc III where your main task was memorizing enormous lists of integrals, not deriving or understanding why they worked.

So, being able to memorize those lists and do your algebra accurately is not what I meant. Rather, I meant listening to the Bach. Newton's awe at the patterns he was discovering, his grasp not just of the equations but of the beauty and simplicity that made everything work out so perfectly, is what struck me. I'd like people not just to trust the methods scientists use to understand the world, but to share their awe.

Of course, it's always easier to blow out the candle and praise the darkness, and even if good education could overcome twisted religious upbringings, we'd just see an uptick in the number of home-schoolers and religious schools. So you're right, but more because so many people will never get that education than because it doesn't work.


rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: November 16th, 2004 04:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Why do people persist in believing the demonstrably false? Sometimes it's a desire for simplicity. Most religions will give you a set of rules, and they usually work well enough, so why question them? Sometimes I really wish I could go back to Catholicism. I would know exactly what to do at every moment of the day.

Sometimes it's desire for control. Wouldn't it be NICE if I could prevent cancer with shark cartilage?

These desires are elements of human nature. I would quibble with the overall suggestion that Newton lived in a time when human nature was different and people were somehow more rational. A lot happened in science and politics around that time to shift society in a more sensible direction, but I don't think there was much difference in the nature of your average Jehosaphat to just want to kick back at the end of a long day of labor and not question the basic morality of his surrounding society or the efficacy of prayer and so forth. And just because the Republicans are narrowly winning the past two presidential elections is not a big statement about trends in our rationality, either.

I don't really have any complaints about my own math education. I think it was pretty clear that fractions and decimals were the same thing. Imagine if we were brought up before the "New Math" revolution of the 60s!

So, would better science and math education have any effect? Possibly. It can't hurt; it might succeed even in the more stubborn cases to at least plant the seeds of the idea that you don't need hocus pocus to explain things or make life worth living. But sometimes even all the education in the world just doesn't help - true enough.

Incidentally, I'm currently on Brian Greene's THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, his first book, after his more recent THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS finally explained physics to me like no one has ever been able to do. Maybe Einstein didn't invalidate Newton but he sure bounced him on his head and threw him against a wall. And for more general awe of life within an atheistic framework everyone should read the late Stephen Jay Gould; I recently finished his last collection of essays and it made me want to applaud.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: November 16th, 2004 05:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't really have any complaints about my own math education. I think it was pretty clear that fractions and decimals were the same thing.
Be honest -- you have a gift for math, which I never did.

I didn't say that people in Newton's time were more rational; this was a period at which people thought it was still a good idea to burn you at the stake if you refused to believe in the divinity of Christ. But it was during that period that Europeans began to use rational means to understand the world. Based on more than just the last two presidential elections, I do sometimes fear that the intellectual tide is going out again. At the very least, there's a distinct smell of rotting fish in the air.

Einstein himself pointed out that he was not refuting Newton, just taking his work further. Newton knew there was a big hole in his reasoning: what was gravity? And he also made some parenthetical comments in his work that indicated he had an inkling of relativity, particularly about how one defined "rest" and "motion." And Gleick quotes Newton from his Opticks: "Are not gross Bodies and Light convertible into one another?"
I recently finished his last collection of essays and it made me want to applaud.
You know who else does that to me? Lewis Thomas.
rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: November 17th, 2004 02:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
Lewis Thomas? I think I read THE LIVES OF A CELL but it didn't stick with me. Let me try to refresh my memory on that.
bobhowe From: bobhowe Date: November 17th, 2004 10:14 am (UTC) (Link)
And just because the Republicans are narrowly winning the past two presidential elections is not a big statement about trends in our rationality, either.

I think you can't accept the Republicans' view of the world without a certain suspension of disbelief. In isolation, the Republican victory may not mean much, but in Gallup's February 2001 poll, 45 percent of the respondents chose the statement "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." Against that backdrop, it's much easier to see that Americans' choice of a president who wears his faith not just on his sleeve, but like sponsor logos on an Indy driver's coveralls, is to some extent a statement about faith and empiricism.

In my twenties I was a huge fan of Gould, but as I get older I find much of his writing precious and self-absorbed. I think Richard Dawkins is a better writer, and his views, though sometimes overly reductionist, more representative of the scientific mainstream.
rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: November 17th, 2004 02:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
I read Dawkins' THE BLIND WATCHMAKER and I have no complaints about it, but it's different from Gould. Yeah he's precious and self-absorbed, and kind of a one-note wonder. But that one note is one that really puts things in perspective for me. I love how he puts humanity in its rightful totally unimportant place.

Oh yeah, and on the subject of Gleick, I just finished FASTER that I picked up on a whim, and it was kind of disappointing; it gave me a couple of things to think about but it was mostly just generalizations.

And speaking of polls... did you hear a while back about a poll that found a majority of Americans believe in miracles? I can't tell you what the poll was or any details, so Ken can yell at me for making unsubstantiated statements if he wants, but I'm just telling this because it makes a funny joke. A signficant majority of Americans polled said they believed in miracles. But when asked for an example of a miracle, answers included things like "Finding a really good deal on a power tool I wanted."
bobhowe From: bobhowe Date: November 17th, 2004 07:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
A signficant majority of Americans polled said they believed in miracles. But when asked for an example of a miracle, answers included things like "Finding a really good deal on a power tool I wanted."

*laughing*

Boy, talk about impoverished imaginations. Never mind all the altruistic miracles I might wish for, like world peace and Dick Cheney throwing a clot the size of a baby's fist, there are about a hundred-thousand of them just involving Laura Dern.

Can you imagine god's reaction? "He wants a really good price on a cordless drill? His kids are failing out of a public school in Mississippi and that's what he wants in the way of a miracle? Give him shingles. And impetigo. And make his ex-wife win the lottery."
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: November 17th, 2004 08:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm laughing out loud. What you need for this is a good old-fashioned Greek god response: give him a great deal on a cordless drill but then turn all his drill bits into scorpions or something.
bobhowe From: bobhowe Date: November 17th, 2004 10:25 am (UTC) (Link)
So you're right, but more because so many people will never get that education than because it doesn't work.

We disagree. I think (as rednoodlealien suggests) that people make choices for emotional reasons that no amount of empirical data will sway. The orthodox kids we went to school with had PLENTY of exposure to the relevant facts on evolution, the age of the Earth, and calculus. When I was a biology major I found myself frequently arguing creationism with pre-med Yeshiva graduates in study groups, and they were good students. They'd reached the facts; the facts hadn't reached them.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: November 17th, 2004 11:45 am (UTC) (Link)
...people make choices for emotional reasons that no amount of empirical data will sway.

We actually agree on this. I'm not arguing that empirical data will change anyone's mind. What I'm trying to say -- however poorly -- is that teaching science or math as if it were nothing but a collection of facts is the problem. Science or math can be appreciated as emotionally as music (or, for that matter, religion) and if that feeling could be communicated, and if people were open to it, then I think that could make a difference. I don't think those conditions will ever apply, so the point is probably moot (and it's not like an appreciation of great music or art necessarily means you'll be a better person, either) but I wish we exposed kids to the beauty of science and math more than we do now.
rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: November 19th, 2004 07:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hey, the NY Public library currently has an exhibit on Newton.
http://www.nypl.org/research/calendar/exhib/hssl/hsslexhibdesc.cfm?id=331
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