Brownian thought space

Cognitive science, mostly, but more a sometimes structured random walk about things.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

What is Science all about?

Current readings include (see left) The Quantum and the Lotus - a dialogue between a scientist and a buddhist. As a clearly identified member of the previous, I'm curiously watching over the shoulder of Trinh Xuan Thuan, the scientist, as he discusses with the molecular biologist -turned-buddhist, Matthieu Ricard. Two chapters down, I'm already not totally happy. Here's an example. Thuan explains that, extrapolating backwards from the present, we find a 'beginning' to the universe as we know it at something like 10-43 seconds (Planck time) after the big bang. Ricard takes this to mean that science claims that there was 'nothing' before that time. Instead, (as is not evident from the comments recorded) the laws of physics cannot be applied at an earlier time. In fact, the very notion of 'time' as it is understood in physics is not the same thing before Planck time, given our current model. If buddhist thinking has an answer to what happens before this time, well and good; I think it's unfair to say that science does not. It does not because it sets up a rigorous demand- to predict and mold the observable universe, to understand it through empirical means*. That is why science, and not buddhism, can give us CD drives and iPhones. It may be that the noumenal can provide a better explanation of reality. But this can be seen in two ways: (a) The noumenon tells us about the noumenon - it provides the moral and spiritual dimension along which to evaluate science. (b) The noumenon can tell us about the noumenon and the phenomenon - it provides both the description of our causal, sensory reality AND a way of integrating this into the fullness of the human condition of having both a body and a mind. Again, this is not a call for dualism. My current hypothesis is that the mind is rooted in the material, and is the result of a certain organization of matter. Consider the following from Ricard:
In Buddhism, the matter/consciousness duality, the so-called mind-body problem, is a false problem, given that neither of them has an intrinsic, independent existence.... Our ordinary way of thinking emerged from that same process and thus it can't place itself "outside" the chain of causes and so determine its own origin.
Why do we think the way we do? This is one of the questions cognitive scientists are fascinated with as well (some of them at least). And one possible answer is that, through evolutionary time, those 'minds' that encoded the causal, physical structure of the nature of the phenomenological won out, since these could correctly model and forecast, and so control the phenomenon surrounding it. Therefore, it follows, such a mind should have a jolly hard time trying to figure out alternate possibilities. The very rational structures that we feel need no convincing (like 2+2 being 4) might reflect the basic truths embodied in this version of the universe. Much as, as Thuan points out, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. science:1, buddhism:0 *This is NOT the same as being an empiricist!

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