100,000 Stars is an online visualization of our solar system’s nearest neighboring stars. It was created by Google’s Data Arts Team (see a write-up of the project here). Although it is perhaps a bit difficult to extract specific useful information from this site, it provides an interesting perspective on our place in the universe, a self-portrait of our galaxy (or at least some subset of it) that could only be possible with a computer visualization.
Well, still quite busy, but perhaps I can make some time for a brief discussion.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I have been looking through a book called ‘Modern Science and Human Values’, by William Lowrance. There are many interesting ideas in it, and I haven’t yet even made it halfway through the book, but I want to bring up one of his comments. The book is all about the ongoing effect that scientific knowledge and technological inventions have on the developments of the human species. Early on in the book, Lowrance states that his approach to the subject is one in which he views technical progress as ‘deliberately directed tragedy’. Where ‘tragedy’, he clarifies, is taken to mean “the deliberate confrontation of deeply important but nearly irresolvable life issues.” He goes on to say that “tragedy begins in our knowing of causalities, in our intervening in particular causes, and in our technical enlargement of interventional possibilities.” Examples of this are quite prevalent from the large scale to the small. With the production of atomic bombs, the question arises, when and where do you use them? What are the costs (in terms of money or people) of using them or not using them? With the development of medical technology, and the rise in cost associated with more complex machinery, the question can be asked, when is it too costly to preserve a life? The tragedy of these situations is due to competition between two or more values on a stage where there is no clear winner.
I agree with Lowrance’s view that science gives us tragic confrontations, for the same reason as gaining any sort of knowledge can open up difficult choices. It’s the well-worn idea that ‘ignorance is bliss’. The humanities – art, literature, music, etc. – can help us in this regard, teaching us how to deal with tragedy, with the tragic confrontation of values.
This theme has more or less been an undercurrent to much of what I’ve written about so far in this blog, and I want to continue to explore to it, to hash out the relationships between science, technology, values, and progress and to begin to address in some small way the questions that arise at the boundaries of these topics. Science and technology present us with many difficult issues. Rather than embrace ignorance, or make a blanket decision to forgo all technological advancements, is there some way of deliberately determining the level of technology to accept in our daily lives? What are the tools I need to live my values and attain my goals? What are the tools that humanity needs? How do we, as a species, deal with the uncomfortable truths that science might uncover?
I’ve been slowly working my way through a dense but interesting book called Modern Science and Human Values, by William Lowrance. A snippet:
Science deeply informs our cultural outlook. Science has transmuted quite a few major cultural myths; negated many superstitions; left us living in a “dis-enchanted” world; imparted substance to a host of miasmas, humours, auras, scourges, and vital forces; recast the mind-body, nature-nurture, and othe classic mysteries; and conspicuously revealed the hand of Man where none was seen before but Fortune’s.
Philosopher Thomas Nagel has a recent book called ‘Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False’. The book has apparently drawn enough criticism that he felt it was necessary to put together a short of summary of the main arguments of the book, an outline of its core ideas.
In the piece, he argues that any current attempts to describe the realms of the mind, like consciousness and subjective experience, will fall short.
There can be a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behavior that is typically associated with it, but such a description, however complete, will leave out the subjective essence of the experience – how it is from the point of view of its subject — without which it would not be a conscious experience at all.
The scientific outlook, if it aspires to a more complete understanding of nature, must expand to include theories capable of explaining the appearance in the universe of mental phenomena and the subjective points of view in which they occur – theories of a different type from any we have seen so far.
He says that the physical sciences are incapable of describing the mind’s processes, but it’s a little hard to understand what he suggests to replace them. Apparently something natural, yet not based in the physical world. That seems a little contradictory.
Comedian and radio host Robin Ince explains how science enhances the wonder he feels towards the world and argues against the idea that “you bring in science and it ruins the magic.” He goes on to give many examples of how “all the magic that may be taken away by science is then replaced by something as wonderful.”
(via The Generalist)
It may come as a surprise to some, but physics graduate students do occasionally throw and attend parties. What do we listen to? Musical numbers like this little gem. See Symphony of Science for more.