Christians have only one book to explain reality, The Bible. What one book is there to explain science for scientific believers?
That’s a hard question to answer, because to truly understand science requires reading dozens, if not hundreds of books. There are many books that survey the history of science, but often they don’t convey why science works, or how scientists think. For most of my life I’ve thought of myself as a scientific person, but I don’t understand science at the working scientist levels, or even understand it well at its philosophical levels, and I have read hundreds of science books.
I’m currently reading a book that could be the bible for scientific thinking.
Now David Deutsch doesn’t intend his book The Beginning of Infinity to be the bible of science, I’m just nominating it as one possibility. It has one major strike against it though, I’m not sure anyone reading it that doesn’t have a decent grasp of science and philosophy already, will understand it. The reason I nominate The Beginning of Infinity as the one book to study to grasp the scientific mindset is because it works to explain the why of science rather than the how. David Deutsch is the Plato and Aristotle of the early 21st century.
I am only halfway through reading this book and it’s inspired me to buy three editions of it to study, the hardback, the ebook and the audio edition. I will not comprehend this book in one reading, or ten. And the reason why I’m writing about it even before I finish it is because I need to struggle with writing words about it to understand it as I read it.
Deutsch believes techniques humans developed during and since The Enlightenment are our best tools for exploring and explaining reality, but to understand these techniques requires more than understanding the scientific method. What we want are good explanations that stand up to rigorous criticism, so science needs the best philosophical tools to constantly hammer away at the results of our scientific experiments. Ultimately, Deutsch is writing about knowledge creation, and the impact of this knowledge on reality. Deutsch goes beyond understanding reality into the science fictional area of shaping reality.
As the physicist Richard Feynman said, ‘Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves.’ By adopting easily variable explanations, the gambler and prophet are ensuring that they will be able to continue fooling themselves no matter what happens. Just as thoroughly as if they had adopted untestable theories, they are insulating themselves from facing evidence that they are mistaken about what is really there in the physical world.
Deutsch refers to gambler and prophet here because they both try to predict reality. Religion is an authority based knowledge that attempts to explain reality with easy explanations – God did it – that fail to explain reality at all. A gambler is someone who thinks they understands an aspect of reality and bets on future events. Followers of religious thinking also bet on future outcomes. The trouble is we can’t know the future, and at best, we can only explain what has or is happening with explanations that hold up to rigorous criticism.
Deutsch explains why religion and most of philosophy are miserable failures at explaining reality. The trouble is religious and philosophical thinking so cloud our thoughts that it’s almost impossible to clear our thinking of their faulty logic. Science is more than evidence based thinking. It’s more than the scientific method and experimentation. Science has to be critical thinking. This is why an understanding of philosophy, logic and rhetoric is important to understanding scientific thinking.
The quest for good explanations is, I believe, the basic regulating principle not only of science, but of the Enlightenment generally. It is the feature that distinguishes those approaches to knowledge from all others, and it implies all those other conditions for scientific progress I have discussed: It trivially implies that prediction alone is insufficient. Somewhat less trivially, it leads to the rejection of authority, because if we adopt a theory on authority, that means that we would also have accepted a range of different theories on authority. And hence it also implies the need for a tradition of criticism. It also implies a methodological rule – a criterion for reality – namely that we should conclude that a particular thing is real if and only if it figures in our best explanation of something.
Time and again Deutsch references The Enlightenment. Most historians believe the Enlightenment was a time in our past, but I believe until religious thinking is removed from the world, we’re still fighting Enlightenment battles. Yes, we live in a technological and scientific age, but most people still think by ancient thought patterns. Deprogramming ourselves of these thinking habits that give us faulty explanations about reality is very hard, including the most scientific among us. Even life-long atheists have a hard time thinking completely clearly.
Long before the Enlightenment, there were individuals who sought good explanations. Indeed, my discussion here suggests that all progress then, as now, was due to such people. But in most ages they lacked contact with a tradition of criticism in which others could carry on their ideas, and so created little that left any trace for us to detect. We do know of sporadic traditions of good-explanation-seeking in narrowly defined fields, such as geometry, and even short-lived traditions of criticism – mini-enlightenments – which were tragically snuffed out, as I shall describe in Chapter 9. But the sea change in the values and patterns of thinking of a whole community of thinkers, which brought about a sustained and accelerating creation of knowledge, happened only once in history, with the Enlightenment and its scientific revolution. An entire political, moral, economic and intellectual culture – roughly what is now called ‘the West’ – grew around the values entailed by the quest for good explanations, such as tolerance of dissent, openness to change, distrust of dogmatism and authority, and the aspiration to progress both by individuals and for the culture as a whole. And the progress made by that multifaceted culture, in turn, promoted those values – though, as I shall explain in Chapter 15, they are nowhere close to being fully implemented.
This is why I’m reading this book. This is why I’m going to study this book like no other. I plan to read The Beginning of Infinity several times this year. But this is only preparation for what Deutsch is setting up with his book, and what is explained by the title. The book is really about the impact of human generated knowledge on reality. He compares it to forces of nature, like gravity. Biology has already been collecting and processing knowledge for billions of years, but it is unaware knowledge. Where we’re at is the beginning of aware knowledge.
Here is a short video by Jason Silva that explains the impact of The Beginning of Infinity in another way, a visual way. Please watch it full screen with your sound cranked up.
I’m promoting reading The Beginning of Infinity in the same way the faithful promote reading of The Bible. I’m not sure the faithful will understand it, but I believe atheists need to study it. Strangely enough, I think science fiction fans and computer geeks will love it because it will resonate with their kinds of thinking.
You can read more at the book’s website, including an excerpt.
JWH – 1/2/14
Filed under: Science