Towards the end of his book, The God Particle, Leon Lederman bemoans scientific illiteracy in our days. Only one in three people, he claims, can define a molecule or name a living scientist. And only two out of 23 randomly chosen Harvard students are able to explain why it is hotter in summer than in winter. Lederman's reaction, like the reaction of any educated adult, is quite common. Everyday, we read new communiques from pedagogues who tell us our high school graduates are reading at the level of fourth graders, and doing worse in their math than the children of other fourteen or fifteen nations in the globe. Like all parents, I lament the current state of education. The crisis in science education and the consequent scientific illiteracy that concerns policy makers and scientist alike is not only real, but detrimental to both society and the self, particularly, when the illiteracy is in regards to science, the tool by which we understand our place in the world.
Up to the middle ages, people were aware of the cosmologies that prevailed. These cosmologies, these explanations of our place here and awareness of a teleology were purely religious. Religion, in other words, gained its power because of its explicative capacities. It traced earth and society from its origin to its end. It explained natural phenomena. The rise of science as the prevailing mode to explain natural phenomena shook the religious foundations as far as religious cosmologies were concerned. All of a sudden, as the Renaissance began, we were not the center of the universe and within three centuries, we would find out that God had not necessarily molded us out of clay. In short, science's discoveries led us to reassess our role in the universe. We are able to understand who we are, where we are and what we are, built of thanks to science. Scientific illiteracy denies its victims any understanding whatsoever.
More important, however, scientific illiteracy has excluded us from a sense of place and purpose. Who are we? Why are we here? What are we made of? The ancient questions cannot be answered without at least a cursory understanding of evolution, ecology, phisics and chemistry. Yet the fault partly lies in science itself. Science has been blessed this century. If one were to tally the intellectual accomplishments of this century, every artistic achievement one can account for, there is a scientific one to match. And actually, if one considers the importance of relativity and quantum alone, the artistics revolutions of the century seem dwarfed. However, as most institutions, science has not been wise. Not only have important theories and discoveries been sleighed, but when accepted, they are not used as they should.
The community, instead of enlarging the scope and the well-being of society, has lost itself in petty arguments and an adamant, narrow academism. Like Becknesser, the dogmatic versifier who does not care for poetry but for counting feet and pointing out flawed forms in Wagner's Die Meistersinger, academic scientists refuse to project the implication of theories onto a larger scope. In many ways, it is fair to say that science has failed to include us. In other words, as an institution science has not created a discourse where the implications of theory and discovery can be understood or studied on our level. Instead, many have ran amok chasing a yet smaller particle, or an even stranger of science.
The French philosopher Gilles Deluze has argued that mathematics has lost its connections with the empirical world and is, therefore, not a language but a jargon. One could argue that much of theoretical physics is just as bad. In other words, just as it would be useless to teach our children classical physics --and tragically many core curriculums still do-- to present students at any level with the latest count of the particle physics break downs would be futile. Students could never gain interest. And chiefly, their apathy stems from the fact that modern science has turned into an argot, a jargon. In otrer words, despite the relevance of particle physics, its discoveries, like many of the discoveries in modern science fail to answer the questions which students and all of us really ask from science, the questions I posed earlier and their colloraries. Not just why are we here? But, inasmuch as we can figure, the reason why we are here, what is our task here? How in other words, science should not only be instructive or mere curio or mere argot, it should be directive. It should tell us how to behave, not towards each other, but towards our environmet. It should be the beadecker by wich we plan our future cities, chose our foods and search new agricultures. In other words, science should be our paradigm.
The caution of scientists to establish and even argue their ideas as new paradigms stems of course from the misuses to which science has been put in our century, when politicians have not just harbored, but appropriated and misread ideas to justify their own ideologies, footnote their own propaganda. Eugenics is the most obvious and most atrocious case in point. What started as a scientific misreading of evolutionary theory, once adopted and considerably revised by politicians, ended up as one of the most atrocious genocides in history. And yet, I think the most important critique of science is still not written. Marxist in its implications, when some scholar or historian writes it, it would argue that the many of the most creative talents in not moderns, but contemporary science, many of the most creative post-Manhattan project scientists, are not working out the makings of the universe, but actually have pawned their lives to the armament race or the pharmaceutical industry.
The upshot of this is that science is not fulfilling its social purpose. If curious young men or women go to it to find answers about themselves, they would be better resorting to more obtuse disciplines, for if they open the articles in any current scientific periodical except for the most popular, they'll encounter a Brooklyn bridge which is all cables and no span.
I am an engineer. In college, I took an astronomy course. So my interest in astrophysics pre-dates black-holes, string-theory and super-string theory. In short, my interest and my study of astrophysics has not only kept pace with every major theory in the last twenty years, but also has seen many fads come and go. I never studied physics because for my parents, college was a practical matter, a way to transcend class barriers. Being an outsider to the discipline has given me both, handicaps and advantages over its practitioners. Unlike physicists, I don`t have the hands-on experience gained in laboratory and telescope. Unless an event is relevant on newspapers or magazines, I get processed information. I also lack the technical expertise that makes many of our young and old scientists so astonishing. The capacity to do extremely difficult calculations and use mathematics to further one`s research might not only be inborn, but it is also gain throug necessity. Scientists get better and better at complex operations because they come with the territory.
On the other hand, as an amateur, I am also not bound to the professional courtesies and obligations that come with the territory. In other words, I don`t have to toe the line with the latest consensus and don`t need to cater to either grant or we make neutrinons or quarks, black holes and singularities relevant to grade schoolers, college students or the population at large? At the end of his book, The God Particle, Leon Lederman tells us that in search for a conclusion, he went to read conclusions from many popular science books. He found two types of conclusion pervaded. One downgrades humankind, reminding the reader that we are many times removed from centrality. The other one, an exact counterpart, restores us to the center of the universe by invoking God and placing us in the midst of a process. The reason for these two types of conclusion might be due more to market forces than to a legitimate philosophical system behind the writer`s work. The by now famous injunction by Stephen Hawking`s editor that every equation halves a book`s sales and every mention of God doubles it looms, large over all these books.
Some might argue a less cynical approach and claim that behind each of these conclusions there is a real attempt to make the hole enterprise relevant to readers. However, as every algebra teacher knows, it is easier to interest the children on equations when a real-life problem is posed first and the math is used as a tool to solve it; otherwise, math seems disembodied, irrelevant or, to return to Deluze`s injunction, a jargon. Science books urge the formulas first an then, in a few pages attempt to pose the word problem. This method is often defended through the very educational fallacy that has plagued science education: namely, the belief that scientific knowledge is organized as a stepladder. Yes, children must know how to add and substract before understanding an equation. Yes, without classical physics, relativity would not exist. However, there are two factors that should make us consider adopting a new educational paradigm for science education, one historical and the other philosophical. The stepladder paradigm which is used in science education is a conventonalized and inaccurate model. The evolution of scientific concepts depends on two forces: collaboration and rupture. In other words, there are crowds, researching, writing and working on the same and similar problems. But there are also breakthroughs, the kind Thomas S. Kuhn described in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions. These breakthroughs revise previous ideas --or, to use Kuhn`s terminology-- revise the previous paradigms to such extent that whatever precedes them is to an exent false. Yet, before they even get a glimpse of the most basic ideas set forth by relativity, students have to wade through Newton. As Lee Smolin asserts, it isn`t that Newton is not important, beautiful and fascinating:
Physics is useful, even if it is not true, as an approximation that helps us understand many different phenomena. But it is completely discredited as an answer to any fundamental question about what the world is. It has a great ideal of historical and philosophical interest, but this is rarely mentioned in beginning courses. Thus it is not surprising if students find the subject uninspiring is addressing the veru failure of the step-ladder paradigm we have adopted in our classroom.
Yet, he does not stop here. He also traces the consequences of such methods. Physics as it is taught, fails to address the student`s questions, fails, in short, to provide a way to understand what life is and why we are here.
If science education and science in general would use that basic question as their springboard, science would gain the relevance it deserves. And in a way, that is what I mean when I refer to the philosophical aspect which the step-ladder paradigm lacks. Students are given answers for which they don`t know the questions. They are given results for which they don`t know the operations. They are gineuropath.
In many ways, the sort of specialization found in particle physics is symptomatic van methods for which they cannot conceive wider or creative applications. So the question that arises is, is it possible to provide a philosophical backdrop for the teaching of science? Are the conclusion to which scientists have arrived throughout the century ready to give us some definite answers to understand not just our world, but our role here?
To go back to Lederman`s discussion of conclusions in science book, is science ready to use this speculative conclusion not as an afterthought, but as the backbone of its workings? I contend that the answers to each and every question is an affirmative one. It might be a pipe-dream to think that something as abstruse and thorny as advanced mathematics could ever be discussed in the general classroom. Like music, the disciplines seems restricted to the talented few. However, how many students will actually explore the subject on their own if instead of just the rote learning of formulae, they would be introduced to many of the fascinating philosophical implications the discipline reveals at advanced levels? I think many more than the ones that get interested through current classroom practice. Yet, the pedagogical aspects are only incidental to the way science is written and practiced. In other words, there will be no change in the way science is presented in the classroom, until the science books and the scientists who write them take as their starting point the tough questions that plagued people like Einstein and Darwin, questions without which none of the breakthroughs they had would have ocurred.
And science is ready to readopt the inquisitiveness and daring which characterized great theories. Or to turn the second question into an answer, science is ready to begin accounting for our role en the universe. Many scientists would cringe at the last remark. And in fact, any cursory understanding of evolution or astrophysics seems to deny such ambitions. We are one of many species in a planet which is not, as we believed, for many centuries, at the center of the solar system. And our solar system, is not at the center of the galaxy, which is one out of many galaxies, whit no salient or particulary astonishing characteristics. More humbling yet, if we take the latesr estimates of the size of the universe and place ourselves within that scale, we would be smaller than any particle known to us.
With such knowledge in mind, isn`t it conceited to even think we have a role in the universe? Similary, we know evolution depends on mutations or innovative genetic accidents which might help a species thrive or disappear, depending on how these mutations help a species survive within its environment. Isn`t the arbitrary nature of mutation a caveat against determinism? Many prominent scientists believe that, indeed, to ascribe ourselves a purpose here after such humbling evidence amounts to crass determinism. Steven Jay Gould for one has argued against reading any kind of design into the evolutionary process. Steven Hawking has also stirred readers away from any theological or teleological conclusions. Both, in short, have provided ample argument against and a vast critique of teleological readings. Yet, their reluctance to ascribe a role for us here involves a terrible misreading. While they seem to be revising the Western tendency towards anthro-centrism, they are still trapped in yet another culturally determined tendency, that of giving priority to content over form.
Let me explain since I am a borrowing terminology mostly used in the arts and seldom by the sciences. If I do use the terms form and content is not only because shifting our paradigms and looking at forms instead of content would allow us to frame our purpose here according to science, but also because many of the cultural tendencies which the West has perpetuated have often been dispelled by and in the language of the arts.
In the western tradition form and content can be seen emboided by Eudoxus and Aristotle respectively. And the defeat of formalist principles as the basis or concern of science understood through an understanding of Aristotle's rise as the master empiricist. Eudoxus who first crafted a model of the cosmos in the west, argued that astral bodies orbit the earth. Aristotle adopted Euxodus model; nevertheless, he padded it up, but turning the orbits into a filled up star. Aristotle turned the earth and the cosmos into a content. Furthermore, his De Caelo is so plagued with epistemological discussions, that the beauty of Euxodus orbits is lost. Of course, we know both models are wrong. However, it was Euxodus and his concern for forms that lie the way for more accurate models by presenting the orbit as a form.
In our days similar arguments continue. Through their writing, Dawkins and Gould seem to continue the battle of form against content. The Gould school is super-specialized, observing the panda's thumb for small deviations. They look for content everywhere and think that to establish forms is a futile enterprise. In Physics, Hawking and Penrose have led a similar discussion. And it is perhaps Penrose, who, in the Emperor's New Mind provides the best definition of what I am calling forms. Penrose's definition stems from an attempt to legitimate mathematical thought as a way to understand the world. He adopts the Platonist perspective and views math as a sort of pipe-line to the Gods. For him, mathematics is a way to uncover truths that are already there, truths whose existance are quite independent from mathematicians' activities. Such truths, he labels as discoveries, as the cases where much more comes out of the structure than it was put in the first place. To illustrate, he resorts to art and engineering:
Categorizations [discoveries] are not entirely dissimilar from those one might use in the arts and in engineering. Greater works of art are indeed "closer to God" than are lesser ones. It is a feeling not uncommon amongst artists, that in their greatest works they are revealing eternal truths which have some kind of ethereal existance, while their lesser works might be more arbitrary, of the nature of mere mortal constructions. Likewise, an engineering innovation with a beautiful economy, where great deal is achieved in the scope of the application of some simple unexpected idea, might appropriately be described as a discovery rather than an invention.
As an engineer, I agree with Penrose a hundred percent. The truss, suspension bridge, the turbine are more than just contrivances. They are forms, vessels which contain the germ of a bridge or roof, a dam or plane. Like their artistic counterparts, the sonnet, the sestina or the terza rima in poetry or the sonata, the fugue, the canon in music, they allow a certain degree of freedom. And yet, they are the basis for the work's emotive succes. The failure of scientists to apply a formalist perspective at points has had its corollary in their inability to draw wide conclusions from their work. As Martin Reed has pointed out in his most recent book, Before the Beginning, it took Penzias and Wilson to read a popularized account of their discovery in The New York Times in order to realize the importance of their discovery. In fact, Rees, while loyal to the method where scientists focus on bite-size problems argues that in order that scientists avoid getting immersed in technicalities, the response of non-specialists is a necessary antidote to broaden the perspective.
As a non-specialist, I contend that if we are to put the findings which have taken place in different sciences in the last century through a formalist perspective, science would be able to abandon its reluctance to assign us a place within this vast universe, a role within creation. But how would a formalist perspective affect what we know from science? I will take one example that is commonplace in science. Scientists agree that we are made of carbon, water, calcium, iron oxide, diglyceride, etc., in short, of the dust of long dead stars. Depends on whether the scientist one speaks to is a poet or a cynic, they might answer then that we are star dust or that we are nuclear waste. The process, roughly mapped midway would take us to the formation of the Milky Way 10 billion years ago.
At its inception, the Milky Way contained the simplest atoms: hydrogen and helium. Then the first stars were formed and the nuclear fuel that kept those strars shining converted hydrogen into helium through nuclear fusion and then converted helium into other atoms: carbon, oxygen, the rest of the periodic table. When the first stars ran out of fuel they blew up, threw out their debris into iterstellar space and it eventually condensed into new stars or curdled into planets. The new stars stabilized and at least one of the planets around one of the new stars was able to sustain an evolutionary process with intelligent life. This simplified process is the agreed upon explanation of our origin. And yet science sees no consequence to it. Despite de fact that such casual chain clearly places us whithin the cosmic process, scientists often argue it as merely physical and chemical accidents without any predisposition toward evolution or intelligent life. The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming, instance, at the atomic level, the two forces that contro the neutrons and protons are balanced in such a way that any change in the early universe would have either produced no chemical element stable enough other than hydrogen or, if the nuclear forces would have been stronger, no hydrogen to allow stars their evolution. In other words the atomic structure, despite its apparent randomnes, was balanced to allow the creation of the heavier elements which make up planets upon which life subsists. Even within the constraints and randomnes of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, there seems to be slight variations. For instance, the uncerainty which bars us from locating any particle grows smaller as particles get heavier, allowing complex molecules a definite shape. This balance itself is mirrored at the microscopic level within organic structures. Our DNA maintains its structure due to the fact that the electron weights so little in comparison to the atomic nuclei. At the macroscopic level, gravity also plays a crucial role. Without it, density contrasts would not have ocurred.
In other words, without gravity, no structure coul have formed as the universe expanded. Furthermore, gravity seems to obey a fine tuning similar to that of the atomic structures. Except for extreme conditions like those of pulsars or black holes, the gravitational force is exceedingly weak and this weakness is conductive to a large, stable and long-lived universe, which is crucial for evolution. Even on our earth, the fact that gravity is neither much stronger, nor much weaker has allowed for the evolution not only of living creatures, but of intelligence. If gravity were stronger, animals would have not been able to grow larger and consequently would have probably never develop structure where to fit a nerve stem or a brain.
As an engineer, I tend to watch such factors not merely as chance events, but as stunningly succesful structures. Yet, physicists and biologists who observe such data refuse to interpret it in such way, because, they claim, there is no model wherein to fit it. This refusal has stemmed out the institution's hopes. For the last twenty years, physics has focus upon Grand Unified Theories or GUTs. Such theories aim to reconcile Einstein's macro-physics whit Quantum's micro physics. GUTs attempt to unify the nuclear and electromagnetic forces with gravity, since the latter is not applicable to the atom. Some of this GUTs have been succesful at describing certain phenomena. For instance, the Weinberg-Salam-Glashow theory argues that all the forces were united in the high energy state of the Big Bang. Once the Big Bang ocurred and the universe began to envolve, the symmetry between the forces broke down.
While Weinberg-Salam-Glashow theory is insightful and accurate to a great degree, it leaves one question unanswered and raises a larger problem. The first one, of course, is what broke down the symmetries? Particle physicists and Leon Lederman among them have argued quite a convincing case for the Higgs field. However, such field has not been detected and the hopes for detection lie chiefly upon CERN, the largest super collider, being used now at Geneva. The detection of the Higgs field would be a great succes for physics if it ever happens. However, it will not necessarily resolve the problem inherent to the Weinberg-Salam-Glashow theory. As Heisenberg demonstrated by heating up a magnet so that it would loose its poles, so that it would become symmetrical, and then letting it cool so that it would restore its magnetic moment, the symmetry break-up worked at random. Only chance decides which pole will become north and which one south. Whichever field or particle caused the symmetries to break down, the implications of Weinberg-Salam-Glashow's theory is that if the forces of nature are a by-product of a broken down symmetry, then the universe itself is nothing but chance. In short, the theory fails to explain the mastery of design which I have mentioned above.
I contend that physicists will not come up with a unified theory, until it adopts a formalist view. Furthermore, I contend that this formalist view should be informed no just by the formal manifestations such as atoms and galaxies which physicist explore, but by their by-products, solar systems, organic forms and intelligence itself. To do such thing, though, a physics which dwells on forms, cannot only uncover patterns but borrow and inform itself with the intuitive knowledge from the arts and humanities, as well as the rational findings from other sciences.
As Edward O. Wilson has suggested in his book Consilience, we need to integrate all knoledge into a tree whose root will be physics itself. For such endeavor, a new paradigm is necessary, a new model which would allow physics, biology, ethics, theology, sociology and chemistry to see beyond their arguments and contradictions. Yet, such paradigm will not be possible unless a theory which reconciles quantum and relativity comes about. I believe physics has been intimating for a long time now: namely the existence of a fifth force, a force independent of nuclear, electromagnetic and gravitational forces. One of the first scientists to argue the case of such a force was David Bohm. Indeed, David Bohm, who was shunned by the scientific establishment and dismissed as a mystic of sorts, argued before me already against a science which merely "predict[s] and control[s] the behavior of large statistical aggregates of particles" but lacks a world view (Bohm xiii). Bohm focused on quantum physics, particulary on uncertainty. The uncertainty principle involves subatomic units and their behavior, particulary the fact that they can be percieved as both particles or waves. Bohm's solution is not too distant from what I will suggest shortly. To solve the uncertainty principle, Bohm suggested an agency --or what I have called a fifth force-- which manipulates the particles.
The quantum potential as he calls it, is a field whose strength does not decrease with distance, and controls the behavior of subatomic units. Bohm's idea of a quantum potential encountered a problem when he first suggested it. In order for a field to govern the behavior of particles, it must act simultaneously on them, which implies that it must travel faster that the speed of light. In fact, part of the reason why physicists seem to shun Bohm's postulate is because it places relativity in a second tier, as a law secondary to that of quantum potential itself, since relativity postulates that nothing in the universe can move faster than light. Bohm did not see some of the latest observational and theoretical advances of the last twenty years. Unable to argue his case he knew that if such thing as quantum potential were proven, it would signal a new order similar to the one brought about by Copernicus. Bohm believed science had reached a stage similar to the one where Galileo stood when he began his inquiries.
Continues: The Sentient Force (II)
Continues: The Sentient Force (III)
© Copyright 1999-2003 Guillermo Agudelo Murguía; Juan Sebastián Agudelo.
© Copyright 1999-2003 Research Institute on Human Evolution.
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