Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#4 - Through the Wormhole?

American Heathen:  aired: 05 August 2011

Television’s version of science is plagued with a range of issues.  It’s easy to find fault with TV science, and I’ve done so many times in Web essays and blogs.  The Science Channel currently is airing what I understand to be a reasonably popular series called Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman (one of my favorite actors) as its host.  The program features a lot of material that touches on some of life’s great mysteries:

•    Is the universe infinite, or does it have an “edge”?
•    If it’s finite, what’s beyond the “edge”
•    If there was a “big bang” to begin our universe, what created it?
•    Will scientists manage to figure out a “theory of everything” and will it enable us to “see the mind of god”?
•    How did we humans come to be?
•    What was there before the beginning of time?
•    Are we really alone in the universe?

These or similar questions have been asked since before the beginning of recorded history.  Most of these questions seem to be linked at their core with the problem of identifying a purpose for all of the universe, especially us humans.  It’s natural for us mostly to be concerned with our human needs, and an important need most of us share is a sense of purpose.  Most of us have come to accept the inevitability of human death and if our finite lives are to have meaning to us, it seems most of us need to understand why we are here.  Most of us have a compelling need for a sense of purpose.  It gives us something to live (or die) for.

Of course, the non-human creatures of the Earth, insofar as we know, don’t ask such questions.  All those animals and even plants, with whom we share most of our DNA (the discovery of which is a huge scientific milestone), feel no such compulsion to understand the universe and their role in it.  For them, it’s evidently all about survival and the preservation of their species through passing on their DNA to another generation.  They care not a whit about purpose – they simply strive by using nature’s instincts to survive to produce another generation of their species.  Most humans aren’t satisfied with reproduction as a purpose.  Thanks to our intellect, we seek something more than just the survival of our species.  Surely there’s more to life than reproduction and child-rearing?  What’s the point, otherwise?

Using that selfsame intellect, our science has provided us with answers to many of the big questions that occurred to our ancestors.  We now know that our sun is not a god, but an ordinary star, and stars are gigantic thermonuclear furnaces, transmuting matter by fusion until their fuel runs out, at which point their fate is determined by their mass.  We know that thunder and lightning are not produced by epic battles of the mythical gods, but are sound and light from the release of enormous electrical discharges, powered ultimately by the energy released from water vapor condensing into liquid and solid form.  We know that volcanoes are not entrances to some mythical underworld inhabited by demons, but are a means by which the interior of the Earth releases heat from its deep interior, eventually to be radiated into space.  Scientific knowledge gained in just a few hundred years has banished many gods from the pantheon of gods invented by human minds to explain the world as ignorant people saw it in the pre-scientific age.  And science has reduced considerably the gaps in our understanding that previously were occupied by some god-myth.  The gaps in which god can still reside are getting more and more sparse as the creation of scientific understanding removes the need for the god hypothesis to understand natural processes.

But some of the biggest questions remain unexplained.  Hence, it seems there continues to be room in the minds of some humans for a deity of some sort – a “first cause” behind everything we see and know.  Implicitly, many of the segments on Through the Wormhole seem to hinge on the existence of such a deity.  How can we know the mind of a non-existent god?  Although this is a show nominally about science, it fails in the important respect of not banishing the current set of deities to the same dustbin of history into which science has dispatched many previous deities.  At least Carl Sagan, in his Cosmos series on PBS courageously tackled the problem of an infinite deity as a first cause, and concluded there was no real need for this postulated god myth.  Perhaps the fact that Through the Wormhole is on commercial TV means that its producers decided that advertisers wouldn’t support a direct confrontation between science and religion, whereas Cosmos was aired on public TV, which had the courage to present such a confrontation because it was unafraid of offending advertisers.

Most worrisome to me is that some of the finest minds in science are religious believers of one sort or another.  They’re caught in the trap of rationalizing the irrational, of which I spoke last week.  Much of the material on Through the Wormhole is speculation at this point in the history of science – ideas for which no evidence capable of disproving them is even available.  Hence, the show is intriguing, but it’s like so much of TV science:  designed to sell cheap car insurance, diet plans, and dating services to people who have some vague interest in science and the “Big Questions” but are unable or unwilling to absorb its reality.  Until science explains everything in the universe, it seems that many people prefer mythology to reason.  Unfortunately, Through the Wormhole has failed to use this opportunity to dispel the dense fog of religion-induced irrationality.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.