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9780805079142

Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown
Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown
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  • ISBN-13: 9780805079142
  • ISBN: 0805079149
  • Edition: Reprint
  • Publication Date:
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks

AUTHOR

SUMMARY

Introduction Why Not Knowing Science and the Search for Meaning That old Persian tentmaker (and occasional poet) Omar Khayyam well captured the human dilemma of the search for meaning in an apparently meaningless cosmos: Into this Universe, and Why not knowing, Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing; And out of it, as Wind along the Waste, I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing. It is in the vacuum of such willy-nilly whencing and whithering that we humans are so prone to grasp for transcendent interconnectedness. As pattern-seeking primates we scan the random points of light in the night sky of our lives and connect the dots to form constellations of meaning. Sometimes the patterns are real, sometimes not. Who can tell? Take a look at figure I.1. How many squares are there? The answer most people give upon first glance is 16 (4 x 4). Upon further reflection, most observers note that the entire figure is a square, upping the answer to 17. But wait! There's more. Note the 2 x 2 squares. There are 9 of those, increasing our count total to 26. Look again. Do you see the 3 x 3 squares? There are 4 of those, producing a final total of 30. So the answer to a simple question for even such a mundane pattern as this ranged from 16 to 30. Compared to the complexities of the real world, this is about as straightforward as it gets, and still the correct answer is not immediately forthcoming. Ever since the rise of modern science beginning in the sixteenth century, scientists and philosophers have been aware that the facts never speak for themselves. Objective data are filtered through subjective minds that distort the world in myriad ways. One of the founders of early modern science, the seventeenth-century English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, sought to overthrow the traditions of his own profession by turning away from the scholastic tradition of logic and reason as the sole road to truth, as well as rejecting the Renaissance (literally "rebirth") quest to restore the perfection of ancient Greek knowledge. In his great work entitled Novum Organum ("new tool," patterned after, yet intended to surpass, Aristotle's Organon), Bacon portrayed science as humanity's savior that would inaugurate a "Great Instauration," or a restoration of all natural knowledge through a proper blend of empiricism and reason, observation and logic, data and theory. Bacon was no naive utopian, however. He understood that there are significant psychological barriers that interfere with our understanding of the natural world, of which he identified four types, which he called idols: idols of the cave (peculiarities of thought unique to the individual that distort how facts are processed in a single mind), idols of the marketplace (the limits of language and how confusion arises when we talk to one another to express our thoughts about the facts of the world), idols of the theater (preexisting beliefs, like theater plays, that may be partially or entirely fictional, and influence how we process and remember facts), and idols of the tribe (the inherited foibles of human thought endemic to all of usthe tribe that place limits on knowledge). "Idols are the profoundest fallacies of the mind of man," Bacon explained. "Nor do they deceive in particulars . . . but from a corrupt and crookedly-set predisposition of the mind; which doth, as it were, wrest and infect all the anticipations of the understanding." Consider the analogy of a swimming pool with a cleaning brush on a long pole, half in and half out of the waterthe pole appMichael Shermer is the author of 'Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown', published 2005 under ISBN 9780805079142 and ISBN 0805079149.

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