Saturday, September 10, 2011

science is compensation for smallness

The same essay I was just talking about also has this great paragraph stuck in towards the end, fairly separate from the rest of it:
Indeed, one could define science as reason’s attempt to compensate for our inability to perceive big numbers. If we could run at 280,000,000 meters per second, there’d be no need for a special theory of relativity: it’d be obvious to everyone that the faster we go, the heavier and squatter we get, and the faster time elapses in the rest of the world. If we could live for 70,000,000 years, there’d be no theory of evolution, and certainly no creationism: we could watch speciation and adaptation with our eyes, instead of painstakingly reconstructing events from fossils and DNA. If we could bake bread at 20,000,000 degrees Kelvin, nuclear fusion would be not the esoteric domain of physicists but ordinary household knowledge. But we can’t do any of these things, and so we have science, to deduce about the gargantuan what we, with our infinitesimal faculties, will never sense. If people fear big numbers, is it any wonder that they fear science as well and turn for solace to the comforting smallness of mysticism?
Isn't that great? The same thing applies in the social sciences, even though these by definition study things that are on human scales. If we could live for millennia and hold terabytes of information in our minds easily, we could simply see the phenomena we hope to deduce through the social scientific method. Just like we don't need studies to tell us that smiling at people makes them happy, or paying more on rent than you earn will land you broke, we wouldn't need studies or statistics to sort out the subtle interactions between education and social norms and property rights and social preferences (to take a random example...)

Although, I think it'd be a stretch to describe mathematics or engineering in this way. Mathematics doesn't concretely exist in the world; we invent or choose axioms and then discover what truths they imply, and those truths frequently tell us something about the real world, but they don't exist to be observed until after they're created/discovered by mathematicians. Likewise, engineering. When I say engineering I don't mean studying the world with the aim of using that knowledge to build things (that's just science, and the above applies), but building things and studying what we build. Then, once again, the object of study doesn't exist until we create it (whether it's the effect of nuclear waste disposal or of the design of government institutions) and we can't, with large enough brains and enough time, just look at the world and know the answers.

Science vs. anthroposcience? Science vs. quantitative 'art'? I'm not sure how to define that latter category exactly. But you see what I mean.

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