Much busy-ness this past weekend (Always Outnumbered on the brain), but something worth talking about:
There are a lot of beautiful, wonderful, and useful things one can learn from physicists and mathematicians, but our expertise is in something very far-removed from the question of how to live a good life in the face of significant challenges. It seems likely that one motivation for books with this defensive attitude about science is the current ugly environment of our politics and culture. ... Scientists who want more respect should stick to what they know, and avoid the temptation of “science-splaining” to the public. In particular they should avoid preaching about meaning, morality, and other issues that they know no more about than anyone else.
The quote in question is from physicist Peter Woit's review of Sean Carroll's book The Big Picture. Woit's big problem with the book can be summed up as such, in his words: "I just don’t think theoretical physicists have anything useful to tell the average person about meaning and morality, other than that it’s a mistake to search for it in our discoveries about physics."
It's become clear to me that some people simply aren't interested in looking for the meaning of things in a physical explanation of the world, and that this fact doesn't by itself make those people inferior. It makes them want to find meaning in something that isn't physical.
Quests like this only become a problem when they get in the way of other things — e.g., when they feel it's their mission to bring such Truth to other people whether they like it or not, or when they think such things usurp material reality. But if someone's carrying something like that around with them, why make a goal of knocking it out of their hands and stamping on it?
This is the part of the discussion where people typically trot out all the nasty things done in the name of religion, like the current mania about bathroom bills (of all the hills for some people to die on...). But the larger problem is not belief or the absence of same; it's the urgent need to do something in the name of something higher, whether that something higher is revelation or intellect, and whether that urgent need is counterbalanced by good sense.
When I was younger, I was attached to the idea that belief in a god, or gods, was a dangerous anachronism, and that the sooner it perished the better off we would all be. I've now reconciled that with another understanding, which is that if you rub such an insight into people's faces, you can fully expect some of them to resent you for it, and you will do little good and a fair amount of harm. There are many smart, capable, creative people who believe in something that isn't circumscribed by science, but who also understand full well that global warming is real (and scary as hell), that "race" is a social invention and not a biological determinant, and that your doctor probably does know what he's talking about so get your damn vaccinations already.
Hardcore skeptics typically respond by saying "Well, I'm not talking about those people," but that's not the point. The mere presence of any belief system is seen as a net negative in their eyes, because the hardline skeptic POV is that it contributes to a general denaturing of society. How it actually manifests in the person's life, or in lives plural, is thrown by the wayside.
We — and I mean me, and I mean you — have a bad tendency to assign binaries to most everything, and to look for ways to assign binaries to everything even in circumstances where they really don't fit the bill. We want this to be a good thing and that to be a bad thing, and that way we never have to think about it again, and then we can get on with the real work of our lives ... which turns out to be, at bottom, struggling with what exactly is a good thing and a bad thing.
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Other Lives Of The Mind