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5/10/11

Are Parts of Human Experience Beyond Scientific Understanding?



My opinion on the question in the post title--beyond scientific understanding? It's a joke.

Of course some parts are beyond scientific understanding. Here is just a partial list. How can Schrödinger's Cat be both alive and dead? Why is there a wave function collapse? Is time real? Or is it a construct of human cognition? Let's not forget the hard problem of consciousness. Why can't we find a theory to unify general relativity with quantum mechanics? Where is the self? How come we have what Einstein called spooky action at a distance? The list goes on and on.

Most of the questions from physics entered the public sphere early in the Twentieth Century, and the one about the self goes back millennia. St. Augustine pondered the nature of time. They have been around for years and I don't mean to beat a dead horse. I only point out that despite them, the popular conception of science remains that it's reason, reason and logic all the way down.

It's not. Our lives are also grounded in feelings. A profound math equation not only "works" but it feels elegant. An "aha" moment often precedes the scientific proof. In The Feeling of What Happens, Antonio Damasio demonstrates that emotions don't get in the way of rationality. They are essential to it. The mystery of the universe arouses the most profound feelings in us, and a desire to investigate it.

In a quintessential sense, we need mystery as human beings. No zombie would be moved by it. With his simplistic view of religion, Richard Dawkins, an evangelist for atheism, fails to realize that many people find in mystery what his keen intellect gets from science. It feeds their sense of something larger than themselves.

Does that make me a "believer" in the mystery behind it all? Yes, but I also hold scientific investigation as the path out of religious ignorance and prejudice, while at the same time I refuse to make another religion of science. In short, I don't get serious over its "promise" to deliver humankind.

I am with Douglas Adams, who kept it all on the light side. I am reminded of his hilarious The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy in which a computer, Deep Thought, is asked to give the answer to "the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything." The computer goes to work and 7 1/2 million years later provides an answer: 42.

42? After all that time, 42? (Another example of tax dollars at work.) What did they expect? Chicken noodle soup? They got the answer to the question. So what then was the ultimate question? Hmmm. Okay. Deep Thought says to provide that it must design another computer, Earth, which will take 10 million more years. Here we are on Earth and we are still clueless.

An interesting forum on the topic in the post title ("Parts of Experience") provides many responses in which few agree with one another, including these:

--Science can tell us how chemicals bond but only religion can answer the why questions. Why do we have a universe like this at all?

--Here's the deal, there is no conflict between science and religion as long as the God you believe in doesn't do anything.

--I think I differ from a lot of my scientific colleagues in that I save a place for the soul along with all things spiritual. For me, not everything has to be explained by a molecule or an atom.

--Humans are embarking on an extraordinary intellectual and spiritual evolution from which our descendants will look back, tolerantly I hope, upon our primitive attempts to explain reality with such simplistic concepts as "God" and "Soul" and "Physics."

--Human life is based on two paradoxes: Consciousness and Uniqueness. It's wonderful to "know" so much but terrible to realize your eventual demise. It's wonderful to be totally unique but it's terrible to be so alone: All human endeavor is concerned with a frantic attempt to mitigate this loneliness.

--I have been writing about science for popular media for 30 years and I'm convinced people need and are more satisfied by a convincing story about what things mean, than by scientific findings. More

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