Saturday, November 17, 2012

Because I'm Busy

So I'm not only doing something I haven't done in a while, it's actually copy-catting the great Tbogg, who's also returned to doing random ten stuff.  It's easy.  Plug in the iPod, hit random, then go.  If you want to play, because I really want to play but it's seven a.m. and I'm going to be busy until after midnight so bite me if you have better things to do.

Sorry.  Not bitter at all.

Ahem.  Ten random things:

Are You Ready, Eddy? - Emerson, Lake, and Palmer
Out of this World - Marillion
Epitaph (Live, 1969) - King Crimson
Down to the River to Pray - Allison Kraus
Riders On The Storm - The Doors
Dr. Funkenstein - Parliament
Annie Enemy - Abigail's Ghost
Some Day - Blackfield
Dark Hollow (Live Acoustic) - Grateful Dead
Love Ain't For Keeping - The Who

And something extra, just because . . .
On the Road- Tom Waits

I think that last one made me feel better.

Friday, November 16, 2012

What's The Matter With Kansas II: Takers, Moochers, & The 2012 Election

In 2004, the book What's The Matter With Kansas made quite a splash when it wondered why voters in one of our most Republican states were, in fact, Republicans when the actual policies the Republican Party pursued, and even how many were framed, were demonstrably counter the interests of the people of Kansas.  There has yet to be a satisfactory answer to that question, but the election just passed and some at least of the fallout from that election is demonstrating that many Republican voters in general seem to be as clueless as folks in Kansas.

One of the more memorable campaign moments was the captured video of Mitt Romney telling donors that 47% of Americans are moochers, paying no taxes and expecting "free stuff" from the government.  After not only losing the Presidency but watching many more liberal Democrats win both Senate and House elections, John Hinderaker admitted that "takers" had become a majority, winning the election over the "makers" or, as loser Joe Walsh called them in a debate with Tammy Duckworth, "the people who matter", "the job creators".  Adding Paul Ryan to the ticket, America received a lesson in the facile "philosophy" of Ayn Rand, who shares with J. R. R. Tolkien two things: their books are usually encountered first in high school; continued fascination with the books of both  writers in to adulthood usually results in people laughing at you.

Since the election, some bozos have started yelling "Secession!", and some have even been chuckling madly at the thought that states like New York and California and Illinois might starve because all those red states have all the farmers and food.

Real evidence - which has proved itself to be irrelevant to many in the Republican Party - indicates that, in fact, it was not the "makers" who lost last Tuesday.  The map below, copied from the linked article at The Economist (a well-known bastion of socialist thought) shows the results of 20 years of tax and fiscal policy on the fifty states.
Please note that the vast bulk of states that voted for the President - the "takers", according to Hinderaker - actually take in more in federal taxes than they receive in services from the federal government.  On the other hand, except for Texas, Nebraska, Arkansas, and Georgia, the states that went for Mitt Romney are welfare queens, receiving far more from the federal government than they pay in taxes.

As for the Blue States starving, well . . . according the the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture, the top five counties in the United States for agricultural sales in 2007 were all in California.  ERS also has a downloadable Excel spreadsheet (you can find it here) that ranks the states by net farm income.  Of the top five, only Nebraska voted for Mitt Romney.  California and Iowa are the top two; Illinois and Minnesota are four and five.  The spreadsheet also includes a listing of farming efficiency.  Of the top five states whose net farm income per acre are highest, only North Carolina (this time, and only just) went for Mitt Romney.  The top four are California, New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut.  So, not only will the Blue States not starve.  Blue States are actually better at doing farming than Red States.

Another map, one that's been circulating on FB that purports to show that more people actually favor the Republicans and Mitt Romney, shows the voting breakdown by counties across the country.
I would suggest that this map is, what's the word I'm looking for?  Is it misleading?  Irrelevant?  Consider one county in New York.  New York County, the city of Manhattan, has a population of just over 1.6 million people.  That's just one county in New York.  The entire state of Wyoming has a population of 568,000.  Median household income in Wyoming in 2010 was $53,802.  New York County - just one county, mind you - had a median household income of $64,971.  So there are more people in New York County than the entire state of Wyoming.  They also make more money (one benefit of this map, beyond making the point that Obama won where there are actual people, is a person can use Census data to find out what the people who live in different places are like).

In other words, it was the moochers who lost.  Poor moochers, no less.

The thing that makes me go, "Hmmm", however, is "Why?"  The states the receive actual benefits from the federal government would prefer to have someone in office who would cut off the money flowing to them?  Folks in these states who are carrying on about secession would be severely hurt, both in terms of fiscal soundness as well as the availability of services, by secession.

I suppose it's simple ignorance: They have no idea how much they receive from the federal government, and how losing that would impact their lives.

Which is why, again, I think the Internet is wonderful.  It's just so easy to find out that millions of Americans are protesting against their own best interests.

Congratulations, Republican Party!  Please, don't change.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Don't Know Nothing 'Bout Nothing At All

I usually am averse to posting things that others far better than I have already covered.  In this case, the illustrious Tbogg covers the main points without ever once losing sight of the fact that the entire story is insane.

I heard about it listening to the Thom Hartmann radio program today.  Hartmann even had Field Searcy on, and Searcy was doing his level best not to sound bug-dung nuts.  He failed miserably.

Searcy said that, since Cobb County, Georgia has adopted a sustainable growth plan that fits in with the United Nations recommendations for sustainable growth, Agenda 21 is no longer just some weird conspiracy theory but actual fact.

Prodded by Hartmann, Searcy made clear that he is not only crazier than an outhouse rat in August, but also dumber than a bag of hair.  Searcy went on and on about zoning laws - ZONING LAWS!!! - that might prevent property owners dispensing their property in any manner they see fit by, say, restricting the number of single-family houses that can be created on a particular parcel of land.

Hartmann was gentle with Searcy.  He said, basically, that was how zoning laws worked.  That sustainable development is something most communities work toward in order to control sprawl, maintain control over traffic patterns, noise and air pollution, control local resource distribution; these are the reasons we have zoning laws, so communities aren't like Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin, but grow and develop in ways that are, ahem, sustainable.

Searcy allowed there should be a balance.

Which is what zoning laws do.  They attempt to reach a balance between the preferences of any particular property owner and others in the community who will be impacted by decisions that property owner might make as to how that property is used.

It occurred to me that while Searcy may be a loon, there are many who don't have to subscribe to the whole "Delphic Mind Control" business yet may hear "sustainable development" and freak out.  Because, obviously, the last thing we need are communities that grow in ways that don't undermine their ability to remain viable.

Your conservative Americans, ladies and gentlemen.  They don't even know what zoning laws are or how they work.

I do so hope the Republican Party doesn't do too much reforming over the next two years, because we'll lose the entertainment value of watching ignorant people explain things they don't know anything about to people who are suddenly flush with new, wrong, knowledge.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Get Your Mind Out Of The Gutter: Reading Barth's Special Ethics II

As with the previous post, I found a marvelous paragraph just a bit further on that makes clear Barth has little interest either in moralizing or moralizers when it comes to sexual ethics.  On the contrary, after going after his favorite target, Emil Brunner, for overemphasizing the role of sexual ethics within the larger topic of Christian Ethics in general, Barth goes on to say a few things about how we should approach the topic.  Again, a point I've made several times over the years, but has yet to sink in with at least some of those out there who continue to believe there's something especially horrid about human beings having sex (even sex that's approved of).  Also, the "misspellings" of "connection" and "center" appear in the text, translated as they were by British doctoral candidates:
In this connexion, a definite warning must be issued on this particular question of the relationship of male and female, not in opposition to Brunner but in opposition to a widespread opinion.  It is disastrous to suppose, as many,do, that the word morality should be employed almost exclusive, or with an arbitrary and painful over-emphasis, to denote what is considered good and right in the relationship between man and woman, or with even greater restriction in what is called sexual intercourse.  Naturally we have to enquire with the greatest attention what is both generally and specifically commanded and forbidden, obedient  and disobedient, in this sphere.  And the matter has its own dignity and importance.  But we should not act as if God's command began and ceased with what may be included under the seventh commandment in its broader or narrower sense.  If we really wish to do justice to this point we should not treat it as the punctum puncti, being obsessed by it and measuring both itself and all other points primarily and abstractly by it as it were the focus of the whole question of obedience.  The open or secret excitement and agitation with which we usually think and speak of this matter must be quieted.  I do not conceal the fact that I say this with special reference to what is for various reasons a particularly bad habit of man minister and their wives.  The focus of the question of obedience is that of [our] responsibility to the command of God . . . .  From this center there are radii in every direction and therefor in this too.  but none of these radii, let alone of the points on the periphery reached by these radii, can be itself a centre.  This is equally true of the point to which we now refer.  Nor is it only a formal error to concentrate on this question.  A special concern for this matter may well be an evasion of other and much more urgently relevant aspects of the divine command.  This preoccupation may well be only a convenient possibility of justifying oneself to oneself, to others and finally to God in view of a prior or subsequent innocence on this score.  And even worse the preoccupation may well be a radical transgression of this special aspect the commandment.  So much secret dissatisfaction with one'  own conduct in this sphere, so much vexation at defeats which cannot be reversed and seem to cry out for revenge, so much indirect indemnification for virtue unwillingly maintained, so much repressed but in point of fact extremely virulently lust, can find vent in this preoccupation.  Once can be properly concerned about sexual ethics only when one has a clear head and a firm heart.  Given a clear head and firm heart, sex will cease to be isolated and made a false absolute, either in theory or in practice.  It will be understood in its vital connexion with the real centre and with other aspects of the divine command and of the obedience we owe it.  Therefore let it be said as a definite warning that the [person] who in reading or hearing ethics begins to pay attention only at this point incurs the suspicion of being aa doubtful character.  And we can only advise or appeal to [one such] to drop the matter for the time being and to consider how [one] might best come by the clear head and firm heart which will enable [such a one] to give it proper consideration.  A diversion from sexual ethics to the point of departure of all ethics and therefore to God and oneself is perhaps a fundamental requirement for many and even the majority of [human beings] in this matter of sexual ethics.-CD, III, $, pp. 118-119.

Assumptions And Prior Commitments: Reading Barth's Special Ethics I

To those who understand anything about theology, to admit I'm reading III,4 of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics in a desultory way might seem, at the very least, an odd statement.  After all, would one confess to reading Crime and Punishment in a lackadaisical fashion?  Being offhand in perusing Sense and Sensibility?  The fact is, however, it has never been easy to find snatches of time to do more than read a few pages at a time of any particular book. The benefit in regards reading Barth, however, is it gives me time to consider what I've read.  Neither casual nor concentrated reading render much in the way of genuine reflection on some works.  Plodding can be a help.

This and the next post are little more than quotes, offered to echo points I've made many times, but with Barth's inimitable style and pizzazz.  In this case, at the beginning of Section 54, on the special ethics regarding the relationship between man and woman, and especially as it relates to matters of marriage and human sexuality, Barth begins straightaway making clear there are definite theological presuppositions to what is to follow, presuppositions without which the entire enterprise of theological ethics (in this, as in any area) a hopeless muddle.  He has already made this point many times and places throughout the massive volumes he's already written.  That he finds the need to do so again can only mean, to this reader, that the point cannot be stressed enough: We don't do theology and it's related discipline of Biblical exegesis, like children who have never encountered something new.  As members of the Church, we are already in a variety of relationships - with God, with our fellow Christians, with the life and history of the Church as it has existed and will, we hope and believe, continue to exist - that determine our reading, interpretation, and understanding.  These prior realities shape must shape our reading and understanding, or we're just babbling, making of any particular passage of Scripture or doctrine of the church an idol, rather than doing our work thoughtfully, mindful of the grace we have already received and in which we are doing the work of theology.

I've made the same point many times myself over the years.  You can't read the Bible or talk about theology outside of these realities; yet, many people continue to believe they can point to various verses of the Bible, whether they have to do with human sexuality, or marriage, or social life, or whatever, and repeat them as if their meaning were simple and clear enough outside the larger framework within which they need to be considered.  Not just historical, mind you.  Historical criticism and its variants are only useful if done within the even more concise and mindful and faithful understanding that doing Christian theology means doing Christian theology; that is, doing it as people of faith.

So, anyway, without further ado, here's the Doctor from Basel on doing Christian sexual ethics as a Christian.  I will attempt, by the way, to correct the sometimes confusing tendency Barth has to reduce references to humanity and God using the male pronoun:
That [human beings live] in response to God [the] Creator was the first of these lines, and in veiw of this we have attempted in the previous section to understand the command of of as the command to fulfill this responsibility and therefore to be free before God and for [God].  A second principle with regard to {humanity's] being is now to be distinguished from the first, namely, that [humanity], in and with . . . creation, and therefore as [humanity] may exist as [humanity], is destined to be the covenant-partner of God, and that this determination characterises [humanity's] being as being in encounter with . . . fellow [human beings].  {This] ordination to be in covenant relations with God has its counterpart in the fact this . . . humanity, the special mode of [our] being, is by nature and essence a being in fellow-humanity.  And so we must view the command of God the Creator with special reference to this natural manner of [human] existence.  As God calls [us] to [God], as [God] summons [human beings] to serve [God], [God] also addresses [humanity] concerning [our] vocation to be a covenant-partner with [God], and therefore concerning this natural correspondence, concerning . . . humanity.  And that means in concrete terms that [God] directs [us] to [other people].  [God} wills that [our] being should fulfill itself in the encounter, the relationship, the togetherness of I and Thou.  [God] commands [us], invites [us] and challenges [us] not merely to allow . . . humanity as fellow humanity to be [our] nature, but to affirm and exercise it in [our] own decision, in action and omission.  [God] commands [us] to be what [we are].  But this means that [God] takes [human beings] so seriously in [our] vocation to be in covenant with [God] that [God] calls [us] to freedom in fellowship, i.e., to freedom in fellowship with others.  [God] calls [human beings] to find [ourselves] by affirming the other, to know joy by comforting the other, and self-expression by honouring the other.  We have now to understand the divine command as the call to this freedom - the invitation to humanity.  Humanity, the characteristic and essential mode of [our] being, is in its root fellow-humanity.  Humanity which is not fellow-humanity is inhumanity. For it cannot reflect but only contradict the determination of [humanity] to be God's covenant partner, nor can the God is no Deus solitarius but Deus triunus,  God in relationship, be mirrored in the homo solitarius.  As God offers [us] humanity and therefore freedom in fellowship, God summons [us] to prove and express [ourselves] as the image fo God - for as such [God] has created [us].  This is the deepest and final basis on the form of the divine command which we have not to consider.-CD, III, $, pp.116-117.
As usual with Barth, he buries the lede.  Which is why that entire paragraph had to be transcribed to demonstrate the point. 


When I heard the news on Friday, I was surprised, like everyone else.  My immediate reaction, knowing no more than most of the rest of the world, was to chastise Petraeus for not keeping his zipper locked.  Not because I care one way or another about the private lives of public people; I'm more tired of sex scandals than I am of the election just passed.  Knowing we'll have to endure several weeks of ridiculous nonsense, moral posturing, and all sorts of questions that are dumber than an entire book by Jonah Goldberg bodes ill for the holiday season.

After a few days, as details about what happened, how the investigation began, it has become clear that, far from some conspiracy to dethrone an American hero who was stopped in his tracks saving American lives by our Kenyan overlord in the White House, it seems the other folks involved in this business were more than a bit unhinged.

Whether or not Petraeus should have resigned is a question that might seem entertaining.  After all, as Echidne points out people from Bill Clinton to David Vitter have survived sex scandals just fine.  All the same, he did resign, and it's probably a good thing.  The emerging facts of the case - an FBI agent who disses the chain of command because he thinks there's some kind of cover-up; emails from one woman to another that probably are quite nasty (I haven't seen any of them yet, but I can imagine); two extra-marital affairs that created bitter feelings all around - seem to demonstrate that, at least in this case, a personal peccadillo created a professional exploding volcano.  Getting Petraeus out of any official capacity forces him to deal with the mess he created, instead of making the President lose political capital defending a man whose actions and associations are more than an embarrassment.

One more thing.  Attacking Petraeus's lady-friend in all this has already begun, and I know that's considered good sport to go after the hussy who brought down a "great man", but you won't read any of that crap here. She and he are both adults, both married, and both aware of what they were getting themselves into.  Her behavior, at least as far as any of us in the public know, may demonstrate some obsessive elements, but that does not mean she is more morally culpable than he is.

So far from some weird, Brobdignagian conspiracy to cover the President's butt as House Republicans demand answers that have already been given about the events in Benghazi a month ago, the unfolding facts seem to demonstrate it is exactly as it first appeared: Petraeus stepped down because he had an affair that impeded his ability to do his job effectively.  Of course, that's not really it, either.  Getting caught impedes his ability to do his job.

As a side note, I'm looking forward to the book from the FBI agent whose "worldview" convinced him there was a cover-up.  To be published, no doubt, by Regenry Press.  The right will soon enough have a new hero.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Reality? I Can Take It Or Leave It

As I've said many times, a guiding light of mine is the simple proposition that words mean things.  Tossing verbiage around without thought or care, then taking that same word-tossing to the next level and insisting that, Humpty Dumpty like, we can just make words mean whatever we wish, well, that's enough to make me wonder about sanity.

For several years now, reading various places around the Internet, the phrase "reality-based community" has been bandied about, not only as a counter to Karl Rove's "We're an Empire, we create our own reality," nonsense.  The meaning of the phrase has expanded to include the claim that science deals with "reality" and religion, well, to quote a commenter at the science blog Pharyngula, "begins with bullshit."

"Reality" is a word I detest.  Like "morality", and "truth", and "belief", and "nature", the word has become unhinged from any reference point.  Does it mean our common, everyday experience of the flow of space-time?  Does it refer to the mathematical equations that demonstrate how matter and energy are, at a basic level, interchangeable?  Does it refer to the flow of human events that we, being human, privilege over many other events?  One could go on asking questions of this sort, and I confess they all sound a bit pedantic, but the point, I hope, is clear.  That which we call "reality", at least in our mundane sense, is by and large a facade, a construct of our human sense organs coping with a variety of inputs and attempting to make sense of those inputs in a way that maximizes our survival advantage.  Were to have, say, the olfactory abilities of some dogs or carrion-eaters, say, the world would be "real" in a fundamentally different way than it currently is to us.  If we had the ability some snakes do, to "see" heat emissions, our "reality" would be a very different thing indeed.

With the help of several different branches of science, we have come to learn over the past century or so that what we call "reality" or "the physical universe" is not at all what or how it appears.  Indeed, "physical" is hardly what I'd call any particular object that has mass, considering even the most dense elements and objects are still, by and large, empty space.  In the early decades of the 20th century, physicist Niels Bohr (who counts Olivia Newton-John among his grandchildren) developed a model of the atom, what was once considered the most basic unit of physical matter, that looked quite a bit like a solar system.  Around the central nucleus, which consists of neutrons and protons (positively charged particles) there swirl various layers of electrons (negatively charged particles; and please note, "positive" and "negative" are conventional designations rather than describing anything inherent in the particles themselves).

The problem with the model was, no one had ever seen an electron.  By the time the First World War was over, there had been enough experiments working on the mass of atomic nuclei and their constituent parts to get a rough approximation of the masses of both protons and neutron.  In theory, the neutron was a particle with no charge that was, in fact, a proton and an electron fused together.  Except, the difference in mass between the proton and neutron was almost statistically negligible.

Furthermore, while it was easy enough to follow the effects of what were supposed to be electrons, it became increasingly apparent the particles themselves were probably beyond anyone's capability of "discovering" in a conventional sense.

In the 1920's, Werner Heisenberg went a bit further.  Studying elementary particles - the stuff that was discovered to make up protons and neutrons and electrons - Heisenberg made the claim that, for all intents and purposes, such things didn't actually exist.  The equations made clear they should exist.  The experiments constructed to demonstrate the correctness of the equations were then and continue to be consistent within striking orders of magnitude.  Yet, no one has ever, nor probably will ever, see a boson or a meson or, God help us all, a graviton.  First of all, one of the consequences of General Relativity is that energized particles behave both as objects containing mass and also as energy waves.  There are packets of light energy called photons, yet light also behaves much the same way waves do - with amplitude and frequency.  Heisenberg stipulated, further, that while it was well enough to give the equations their due, since they were confirmed by experiments, it was probably better to let the paradox rest and act as, for the sake of any particular experimental procedure, these particles exist.  It is a position that is known as "operationalism": we cannot know whether or not there "really" are "things" out there we call elementary particles, since the only confirmation we have of their existence are particular scientific tests that in themselves only demonstrate that certain events happen, rather than there are any such "things" in and for themselves.

Erwin Schrodinger, in a famous complaint aimed at Heisenberg, said that operationalism, combined with Heisenberg's more well-known position that we cannot know both the position and momentum of an elementary particle, led to the paradox of the cat in the box.  The cat was both alive and dead, Schrodinger said, under Heisenberg's working theories.  To which Heisenberg replied, "True enough.  Until we open the box to find out whether or not the cat is dead."  Without observation, the propositions, "The cat in the box is dead," and, "The cat in the box is alive," have an equal chance of being accurate.

Another part of quantum mechanics that makes a mockery of "reality" is the idea that a quantum event somewhere here on earth has a direct and measurable effect upon a quantum event in a star in the Horsehead Nebula.  Known as quantum entanglement, it is the proposition that, against any classical ideas of what was known as "local reality", action-at-a-distance (which Einstein, whose theories led to this and a host of other issues he didn't like, called "spooky") was a basic part of the physical make-up of the Universe.  For years, the position set out by Einstein and some colleagues that this unacceptable state of affairs showed that quantum mechanics was incomplete held sway.  In 1964, John Stewart Bell proposed that, in fact, what was known as the Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky paradox was in error, and, in fact, over the course of a series of trials, there was an increasing probability of determining how two seemingly unrelated quantum events were, in fact, related.

Now, many physicists chuckle when the positions taken here - that there is an inherent nothingness to reality; that there is an inherent unpredictability to reality; that an event at point (a), without either any time lag or physical contact, can influence an event at point (b) - are expanded in various fictional settings.  Most even the most well-versed scientists would insist these phenomena are highly localized and specialized.  Just because we cannot know both the position and momentum of an elementary particle does not mean Schrodinger's cat is both alive and dead until we open the box to investigate, they say.  Schrodinger, it seems, made a category mistake (no pun intended).

To an extent, this is a perfectly sound argument to make.  After all, I wouldn't think of trying to shove my head through a wall, even though I know both the wall and my head are mostly empty space.

Which position, of course, begs many questions, not the least of them being: What is reality?  It might well mean our everyday reality we encounter.  Yet, again and again, it was precisely scientific investigation of that everyday reality that revealed the paradoxes discussed above.  Which leaves me asking, again, what is reality?  Would it be possible to operate as if quantum mechanics governed our macro-world?  Of course, in some ways, it does.  If you're reading this on a computer, you can thank quantum mechanics for that.

Back in the early 1990's, philosopher Jonathan Searle wrote a longish book entitled The Philosophy of Mind. Over and over in that book, Searle repeated that reality is and I quote, "elementary particles in fields of force."  While this might well be a good working definition in some circumstances, the fiction that the word "particle" creates - that there are these "things" out there we call elementary particles, rather than energy traces from collisions that fit with mathematical predictions concerning the behavior of small masses of light elements colliding at near the speed of light - renders this "definition" of "reality" untenable (there are a host of other issues with Searle's book, but this one always nagged at me).  In fact, while we may be able to express, with a certain degree of confidence, through certain mathematical equations, the statistical regularity of certain events (without ever being able to approach precision on all such events; more precision one way leads to less precision the other), this hardly means we understand what the word "reality" means, or to what it refers.

When I read people talking about how they're so scientific and are part of the reality-based community, I figure they flunked Physics 101.  Because if they're relying on science for their understanding of reality, then they have some problems.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Science As A Remarkable Tool With Limits

I've decided to make clear, kind of once and for all, what science is, how it works, why it works so well, and most of all, why people who don't understand science attack it for things it doesn't say or do.  I consider this a public service.  I also think, once and for all time, I can point people HERE and say, "Look, I answered your question!"

When I was in seminary, I took a seminar on science and theology.  The professor, the late great Roy Morrison, and I had a conversation after one class session in which he made the point that many scientists repeat information gained from radioactive dating without considering it is rooted in assumptions that are not falsifiable.  He also said that doesn't mean using radiometric dating isn't wrong-headed.

He was right.

I thought I'd begin this series of posts by talking about the way science operates, including the way it incorporates non-falsifiable assumptions as its starting-points.  Science is a wonderful tool that, over the past several centuries has evolved in to a remarkable way of answering questions about the world in which we live.  While less developed, the social sciences like psychology, sociology, political science, and anthropology, do offer students the opportunity for keener understanding of human life.

Science works so well because, at its best, it begins with the assumption that everything we know, including all our scientific understanding, is wrong.  It may serve us well so far, or as far as it goes; if some new piece of information arises, however, that isn't accounted for by our prevailing understandings, those understandings themselves have to change to accommodate the newly discovered facts.  In the process, how we understand all sorts of other things also changes.

The way we understand things in science is referred to as "theories".  Scientific theories are provisional statements about how disparate yet related phenomena work themselves out.  Scientific theories, among the many ways human beings have used to understand their world, make two related claims.  First, like many ways of understanding, whether alchemy or magic or even theology, science claims to make predictions about future events based upon the way various theories describe how particular phenomena occur.  Second, and unlike those mentioned and others, science (at its best, anyway) says that if its predictions are not accurate, it will change the theory.  In practice, there are a number of ways theories are not altered or tossed away in the face of contrary evidence.  It usually takes the accumulated weight of contrary evidence to convince most scientists, over a longish period of time, to stop using theories that have been consistently falsified.  Still, the number of scientific theories that have been discarded over the centuries precisely because they were falsified is quite large.  The twentieth century alone has seen several basic theoretical shifts in physics, shifts that have implications for chemistry, biology, and other branches of science as well.

Theories are no less rooted in unfalsifiable assumptions than anything else we humans do.  To return to the example at the beginning of this post, consider the discovery of radioactive decay.  After the discovery of radiation at the end of the 19th century, many prominent physicists worked hard to discover radioactive materials.  In the process of their studies, recognizing that "radiation" means that a given element is releasing elementary particles, it was soon discovered that, for a given mass of a radioactive element, the release of particles that creates the various types of radiation occur at a statistically regular rate.  From this, it became a matter of somewhat complicated mathematics to use the measured radioactive level of a particular mass of a radioactive element and determine not only when it was created, but when it would, at some point, reach then end of its radioactive decay, becoming both inert and transmuted to another element.

We now use this understanding in all sorts of ways.  Because there are traces of radioactive carbon in all carbon-based life, we can use our knowledge of the half-life of radioactive carbon to date everything from fossils to petrified wood.  Radioisotopic labeling is now a pretty common method for studying all sorts of things, both in living and dead organic matter.  The results we receive from all sorts of uses of our understanding of radioactive decay are, and have been, consistent across the board, and are just one reason the guess about the age of the earth - around four and a half billion years, within a range of a few hundred million years one way or another - is not just a guess, but a pretty confident assertion .

There's only one problem with this whole theory.  We have no way of knowing if the rate of radioactive decay, which we humans observe as a statistically regular event, has always been as constant and regular.  There is no way to show, definitively, that it even occurred prior to its discovery.  There may well have been a change in the rate of radioactive decay over the multiple billions of years of the history of the universe.  The problem with these perfectly reasonable alternatives is simple: There is no way to investigate them.  We cannot go back in time, say, to the formation of planet Earth to check the decay rates of the various radioactive elements and see if they differ from current rates.  It may well be the case this happened.  We cannot find out, however, if this is true.

So, scientists make the assumption that decay rates of radioactive elements have been a constant since the beginning of the Universe.  Setting aside protests and working under the assumption that decay rates have been constant has shown the theory to be remarkably fruitful of all sorts of things, many of which couldn't have been imagined when radioactive decay was first discovered and codified.

This somewhat mundane, and I hope easily understood, example of the way untestable assumptions work in science makes clear that science, for all the things it does remarkably well, actually works within its human limits.  Whether it's the study of radioactive decay, or weather phenomena, or the activity of human societies in different times and places, science offers us the remarkable ability to understand all sorts of things; yet it does so always with the understanding that it is doing so with certain things - call them givens, perhaps, or axioms - that are assumed to be true only because they cannot be disproved otherwise.

As we move forward through this series, I hope to demonstrate what a remarkable tool the scientific method has shown itself to be, despite its many limitations.

Virtual Tin Cup

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