Thursday, September 01, 2005

The design is intelligent, but the product has its moments...

At the risk of this blog becoming "My Pet Peeves", I'm going to share with you why I think people need to take a step back. And let me just say for the record that "people" includes this person. I can attribute 99% of the arguments I have had with my wife to one small miscommunication, compounded by more and more miscommunications built on that fundamental misunderstanding. The times that we are able to step back, look at where we blew off the tracks, and clear up that initial misunderstanding, we've been able to come back and discuss the issue, rather than veer farther and father apart until we scream because the other person cannot hear us from that far away (off topic you say, look at this blog's title...).

So my real subject for today is the whole debate over Intelligent Design. Although I think the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a comical and worthwhile contribution to the debate; I want to take a step back to talk about where the two sides miscommunicated in my opinion, and why they are now so far apart that they cannot understand each others language.

In my view it boils down to a fundamental confusion of the concept of How and Who (same letters, but position is everything!). Science, including Evolutionary Science, is all about How. How did humans become the dominant species on Earth, How does light get from A to B, and How does the Sun produce so much energy. Intelligent design is all about Who. Now I happen to have a personal belief that there is a greater power in the universe, and in English we've given that concept a word, God. However, this single word has come to carry so much historical baggage that it's taken on a life of its own. The one thing that I feel 100% confident about asserting is that God is beyond human understanding. Everything else that I think or say about God is colored by that tenet. When I see evidence of something amazing in the world, for example that the human brain can understand, analyze, categorize, and theorize, I associate that with the category of things that are beyond my understanding. Not that I don't understand analysis and categorization from a conceptual standpoint. But I cannot teach a computer to categorize anywhere near the capacity of the human mind. It's an awe inspiring feat of engineering! So I look at that feat and I say, 'Wow, that's amazing', and I put it with that word I mentioned for things beyond my understanding, God.

Now here's the problem, the human brain does all of this analyzing and categorizing by reducing. It's fundamental to the problem. When you have tons of data to store and you want to be able to retrieve that information, even search on that information, you put it in a relational database. And when you create the database, you have to give it BOUNDARIES! You say "The data is going to look like this!" Then you take each piece of information, and you shape it so it looks like the boundaries you have set. It's not that you loose information so much as you put emphasis on certain parts of the information that fit the boundaries. And you use those emphasized pieces of information to make relationships between different rows of data. At some level the human brains works like this too. To draw conclusions across the enormous amounts of data we take in every day, we have to find commonalities to compare across. But the problem is that there is 1 and only 1 concept that is not reducible: God. By definition, these things that are beyond our understanding cannot be shaped.

So I want to tie this back into my comments about How and Who. Science is the attempt to understand the universe, to describe things that previously could not be described by humans, or to do a better job at describing things that we took a stab at once before. That means that science is the process of taking small bits from the "do not understand" category and putting them into the "understand" category. However, there will always be a "do not understand" category. At one time molecules were in the "do not understand" category, but we hypothesized, experimented, concluded until we could describe molecules. But atoms, quarks, and whatever makes up quarks were still in the "do not undertand" category. Scientific discovery is like dividing a fraction, half of 1/2 is 1/4, half of 1/4 is 1/8, and you can half to your hearts content, but you will NEVER get zero. (NOTE: I am NOT suggesting that the "do not understand" category is a small fraction, the halving example was to show infinite resolution, not to quantify the categories).

So if we have this word, God, that describes the "do not understand" category, then Science is the process of revealing information about God. It is NOT the process of attributing items to someone or something. Science is not particularly interested in the Who, which is not to say that Scientists don't think about the Who (not the band, stay with me here). Science is neutral on the subject of Who. Some people confuse neutrality with disagreement and believe they must discredit Science because it does not specifically name God as the Creator. I cannot describe how they make this connection because it completely eludes me. But what I can explain is that they want science to prove Who, which is not the purpose of science. They reduce the discoveries into things that are inside their understanding of God and things that are outside their understanding of God. Anything outside their understanding of God they think is in conflict with their understanding of God. It's the black or white, you're with us or you're against mentality that ends discussions, when we all should be expanding discussions. It also tends to put scientists who do believe in God on the defensive. Their personal spirituality should not influence their research, and forcing them to choose between one or the other, to be a How person or a Who person, just hurts both groups.

On top of this misunderstanding we must pile on years of miscommunications on top of the original split. Intelligent Design is the latest attempt in a campaign to obscure the fact that science reveals information about our world that we should all want to understand and then extend. Unfortunately, the sides are now so far apart that they can only scream at each other over the chasm of misunderstandings.

If the Kansas School Board really wanted to improve education, they should take a step back. If they realize that science is about How, not Who, then they will advance a curiculum that promotes questioning How. There are still deeper levels to uncover, halvings to be made, knowledge to be gained. Teach them not to accept what other people tell them about how the world works; teach them to test it for themselves. That's the kind of education that will enable our next generation to answer the questions of the universe. Confusing the How and the Who just adds noise.

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