andalus: (silence)
[personal profile] andalus

Like the decayed and crumbling trees of an ancient forest, rent and shattered by wind and storm, the hypothetical philosophies, which have hitherto cumbered the civilized world, are unable to resist the elements of experimental and logical criticism; and sooner or later must succumb to their assaults. The axe is uplifted for a final stroke - it is about to fall upon the primitive sphere of the earth, and the blow will surely “cut the cumberer down!”

-The Flat Earth Society Wiki


How wonderful to find that there are not only one, but two separate Flat Earth Societies, each running a (near) identical wiki with identical frontmatter.

I read through almost the whole wiki the other night, fascinated by these scientific arguments flying in the face of scientific observation. How all the citations are to forum members identified by their handles ("Dark energy is a vector field" -- TheEngineer) or to the founder, Samuel Rowbotham, noted quack and philanderer, known by his mid 19th-C handle "Parallax." That "cumberer" quote also appeareth early in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, suggesting a conflation of scientific empiricism and religious polemicism. But Flat Earth was always a religious institution, as much as the current wiki denies it.

I remember a long time ago, maybe as a teenager, accidentally stumbling onto something on late night TV, some unknown channel, a British man talking very staidly about scientific facts. It took me a while to realize it was flat earth propaganda which somehow made it onto American late-night TV. The only part I remember vividly is the man sitting on a spinning merry-go-round, not the kind with horses but the playground type, talking about how the round earth theory states that we at every moment are hurtling through the cosmos at breakneck speeds, rotating and orbiting and orbiting galactically and so on, and as the merry-go-round slows and comes to a stop he says, "and yet, on a calm day, we can stand still without even a hair being put out of place by the wind."

This fascinates me for a few reasons, I suppose. One is an old childhood dream that things be somehow different (the Aegypt dream): I remember also being fascinated by hollow-earth arguments --- the idea that our normal worldview was ever so slightly wrong, and that if we turned our heads in just the right (multi-dimentional) angle the finite world would pop out into something vast and ripe for adventure.

But on the other hand it troubles me. But let us say:

1. No model (as yet) can precisely map the natural world.

2. Repeatable experimentation (science) is the way we test our models of the natural world.

Implying:

3. There is eventually a model which can precisely map the natural world.

The leap between 1 and 3 gives me great pause, because there science becomes, in the end, another utopian faith. Sure, you may say that science only hopes to generate ever-better models of the natural world, but if there were no privileged model, how would we know if our models are better or worse? Sure, science goes back and forth in its configurations of things, but the implication is that we are moving towards a system of higher accuracy. And the heaven of science, its sphere of perfection, is the sum total of experimentation, the total of all action in the universe, which becomes itself the model for itself. This sphere is not the world we live in, nor can ever live in. Believing in it implies faith.

More simply, and slightly differently, is this argument: the scientist may say A leads to B because that is what has always happened in the past. The religious man may say: "Yes, A may lead to B most times, even every recorded time, but how do you know it will not, once, in the future perhaps, lead to C? My faith in God suggests that Divine Will, may at any time choose to move A to C, though there is as yet no record of this. Your God is nothing but faith in causality, which you have mounds of evidence for, but no proof of. In order to prove causality you would have to first know the results of all the actions in the universe, to then be certain that there is never the instance of C. But by that point you will have become God yourself."

The Flat Earthers remind me that we all have blinders, and we can be aware of our blinders and move to outgrow them or reduce them. But the biggest blinder of all is the notion that there is a way to see without blinders, or even an incontrovertible way to tell degrees of blindness from each other.

Date: 2015-09-16 11:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nightspore.livejournal.com
I love this.

And also want to say that this is what Bayesian probability is all about. And it's fascinating. Check out, for example, Richard Jeffrey's Subjective Probability: The Real Thing, which is available here: http://www.princeton.edu/~bayesway/ There's a piece there by Jonathan Dorland, which is also very relevant.

Date: 2015-09-17 08:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] proximoception.livejournal.com
I love this not.

Existing models aren't improved by our checking them against one we can't even see, no. "Science" isn't "implying" anything in a way that reveals it to be a faith. You're inferring from its incalculable success that it promises total success. Perhaps some actual scientists believe this, but I haven't noticed any, as compared to vast armies of strawmen scientists created by opponents of specific scientific findings. The near-infinite lack of success of all rival sources of knowledge claims doesn't magically impart faith in infinite success onto empiricism - science isn't a faith by process of elimination, unless we for some reason decide, sans evidence, that people must have faith in something or they'll stop being people (not conditional assumptions, but faith). Empiricism looks immodest only because of the pretensions of what it's vanquished.

Short version: We have no reason to think we cannot know everything. That's very different from claiming we have a reason to think we can know everything.

Date: 2015-09-17 11:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] andalus.livejournal.com
what is it that gives you pause in your certainties?

Date: 2015-09-18 12:49 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] proximoception.livejournal.com
The ever-present fact that I might have arrived at them incorrectly. There's two ways to do this, though - assuming you may have misobserved or misconcluded, thus can check your work, or assuming that there was no way to observe or conclude.

If there's good evidence that there was no way to observe or conclude then you should ditch the certainty. If there's no or poor evidence that there's no way to observe or conclude then you briefly wonder about the validity of the assumptions that having absolutely any certainty (or probabilistic uncertainty) is based on. E.g. what if reality isn't self-consistent, or you're in no position to observe it properly, or crucial observations of authorities you're trusting are incorrect or faked despite all appearances (like that pi's nonrepeating - could be a mistake or conspiracy). And then, since that's as far as you can proceed with those trains of thought, you go on with your day - the day you needed to make some of those assumptions to go on with, and that you've never been able to not go on with no matter how hard you tried.

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