Friday, March 14, 2008

E2.0: Ronald de Sousa: A Passion for Science

This is the 24th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

In the previous presentation, Greg Epstein argued for a culture of humanism, and ended his presentation with a song. In this presentation, Ronald d’Sousa speaks about developing a passion for science, and ends in a poem.

In listening to de Sousa’s presentation, I noticed that he blurred a distinction that I think it is important to unblur. There has been a dispute among atheist bloggers about the legitimacy of ‘framing’. In the context of this debate, ‘framing’ means paying attention to how certain facts may be perceived by the public, and presenting those facts in ways that will make them more acceptable.

In the political world, this type of practice is known as ‘spin.’ Politicians do this in order to give their policies an appearance that might not be totally accurate, but will make it easier to get past the people. Thus, a bill that allows companies to poison their neighbors by removing mandatory restrictions on air pollution and replacing them with voluntary restrictions can be known as the ‘clean air act’. A bill that effectively repeals the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th Amendments to the Constitution can be called ‘The Patriot Act’.

For the most part, framing is lying, and nothing that a person who values the truth can endorse. In fact, a great deal of the difficulties we have in creating sound policies in this country is due to the fact that we, as a culture, have little or no respect for truth. Lying (or ‘framing’ has become mainstream, to the degree that many people have lost the ability to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

In making this presentation, de Sousa uses the term ‘framing’ and speaks about framing as a good thing. However, what he ends up talking about is different, and the difference is important.

Framing has to do with the manipulation of belief. De Sousa does not actually talk about manipulating our beliefs (coating them in ways that make them easier to swallow). He actually talks about manipulating our desires. He talks about the passion for science – creating a love for knowledge, and a wonder and awe in the aspects of nature.

To illustrate his point, he suggests a parable. In this story, a man finds a stone that looks like a human face. It is not a perfect likeness – there are distortions and flaws in the image. However, he still takes it home and marvels about how millions of years of erosion from wind and water has created such a stone. Then a friend comes over, sees the rock, and identifies it as a reject from a local sculpture. Its features (with its flaws and distortion) were not the product of natural phenomena, but the flawed efforts of a designer. Suddenly, the stone loses its value. It becomes just another worthless rock.

This, according to de Sousa, is how atheists and humanists should paint the world. They should be generating a passion of awe and wonder for a universe that, through billions of years, can bring a collection of molecules together to form us. We can expect that such a process will have a few flaws and distortions. In contrast, to think of the universe, with its flaws and distortions, as the output of a designer means that it is not so awesome and marvelous. It means that the universe is rather ordinary – as awesome as laptop that sometimes locks up and loses one’s documents, or a car that does not always start.

As a desire utilitarian, I can fully endorse this project, while condemning the practice of ‘framing’ mentioned earlier. We have many and strong reasons to promote a love of truth – even unpleasant truth – because those truths are not going to go away simply because we do not like them.

I have agreed that, given our limited resources, it is often better to understand an approximation of a truth than to get every detail right. In most of our everyday experience, Newtonian physics gives us answers that are close enough to the truth for all practical purposes. The complexities of Einstein’s equations do not give us answers that are useful, even if they are more accurate.

However, recognizing these types of limitations is not what people typically talk about when they talk about framing. All we need to do for our statements to be true is simply to admit to some measure of uncertainty. The person using Newtonian calculations who says that the car should reach 60 miles per hour in 4.4 seconds simply needs to be understood as saying, “The car should reach close-enough-to-60 miles per hour in close-enough-to-4.4 seconds.’ Understood in this way, the statement is true, and no ‘framing’ is involved.

All of this is consistent with a love for truth.

Indeed, it is important here to note that I am speaking of a love for truth – a passion that says that a true statement is not only more useful than a false statement, but where an agent values truth for its own sake independent of its usefulness, and condemn even harmless fiction. A difference between a love of truth and the practical utility of truth is that, when an agent encounters a useful fiction, the lover of truth will hate it for being fiction, where the person who sees truth as being merely practical will reject it for being impractical.

The same is true of a person who has a love of knowledge.

I recall incidents in graduate school, when I was totally engrossed in reading a good book, suddenly thinking, “I’ve got to put this away. I’ve good schoolwork I need to do for tomorrow.” An instant later I realized that the book I was reading was my schoolwork. I enjoyed graduate school, and would clearly have done the same job even outside of school.

That’s easy enough to prove. After all, that’s what I’m doing in this blog – all of the things that I did in graduate school, without a single shred of college credit.

Each morning I log onto the Astronomy Picture of the Day to learn what surprise they have in store for me. They always have a short paragraph describing the science behind whatever image they are showing – explaining how the colors of a nebulae are due to its reflecting light from a nearby star or glowing with the energy of a nearby star. In all of these cases, the scientific facts about the hydrogen atoms, the distance in light years, the size of the cloud, all add to how amazing the picture is.

And every valentine’s day, I send my wife a rose.

This is not ‘framing’ science the way the term is typically understood. This is not misrepresenting scientific findings – promoting false beliefs and misunderstandings – in order to win a political or social contest that cares nothing about facts. This has to do with promoting passions, in the hope that people will come to find value in science even where it is not useful – value in science and truth and knowledge for its own sake.

D’Souza did not only speak about science. He spoke about living life as an atheist. There is the fact that no divine intervention will save us. When we pull together and accomplish some end – whether it is landing on the moon or ending small pox or building a nation that is substantially free of violence – these are things that we can be proud of. These are things that add value to a life, and can make a life worth living.

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