PERIMETERS OF IGNORANCE --------------------- John Pazmino NYSkies Astronomy Inc www.nyskies.org email@example.com 2006 July 9
Introduction ---------- I went to the special lecture 'Perimeters of ignorance' at the Hayden Planetarium on Tuesday 9 May 2006. Dr Neil Tyson presented the talk based on his article in Natural History magazine of November 2005. I summarize Neil's talk here, plus several side discussions it span off after the presentation in the hall and street. I also perceived an undercurrent of ideas, not specificly stated, that have a broader application in our society.
Religion and science ------------------ The essence of Tyson's talk was that there are two main levels of involvement of religion with science. The first is a harmless one, employed by many scientists over the ages, even today. This invokes a divine or spiritual intervention with nature when science reaches its limit of knowledge. However, the way is clear for others, now or in the future, to inquire further into nature and advance our understanding of it. This pushes the perimeter of our ignorance of nature farther away. He gave examples from Ptolemaeus, Bruno, Galileo, Huygens, Newton, Laplace. In their writings, except for Laplace, they note that beyond a certain current state of knowledge, there may be the domain of a superior spiritual being. Ptolemaeus appealed to Zeus, the god of religion in his time, altho we generally consider him part of mythology. The others called on a Christian flavor of god. Some scientists simply had no need for such a concept, because, in their estimation, humans are fully capable of sussing out nature. Neil used Laplace and his monumental tome 'Mechanique Celeste', which Napoleon [supposedly] studied. When Napoleon praised Laplace, he had a little question: No where in the book does Laplace mention god. Laplace replied that he had no need for that hypothesis.
Suppression of inquiry -------------------- The other level of involvement is the dangerous one, perceived by Tyson as encroaching into American society today. This is where religion not only is called on at the limit of knowledge, but also blocks science from repelling that limit. Or, religion tries to replace science with mere belief and dogma without attempting to advance human culture and civilization. The religion establishment sets up a 'perimeter of ignorance', beyond which people are not permitted to cross. For intelligence about the world over the perimeter, the declaration of the establishment serves as a complete and ultimate answer. Investigation or examination across this perimeter is treated as a threat, insult, disrespect against the establishment. Such behavior must be punished. The archetypical example, cited by Neil, was Bruno. Bruno postulated that the planets are other whole worlds with their own people. The ruling state did not take kindly to this idea, taking it as a heinous insult. These other people would then be outside of its domain, litterally, out of reach! Despite warnings and threats, Bruno continued his writings on this and other 'offensive' topics. In the end he was incinerated alive in a public square in Italy (I forget the town).
Christian fundamentalism ---------------------- The contemporary example to hand is the effort by some Christian sects to promote in public education a Biblical explanation of nature. In the sectarian schools, this was the curriculum for ages. The new push is to have taxpayer funded schools include the Christian teachings. The claim is that evolution, gradualist geology, bigbang cosmology are only 'theories' and, therefore!, the alternative of Biblical answers should be taught. The latter is called, for all varieties, 'intelligent design' or 'ID'. There is no science in this scheme, only the reversion to some immutable scriptures. ID, for short, makes no effort to inquire about nature or to experiment, observe, test, challenge hypotheses about nature. The explanation of nature is already complete: God did it.
Moslem fundamentalism ------------------- Tyson discussed an other threat to science from the radical Islamic world, a la World Trade Center. He noted that there are about 15-20 million Jews in the world, yet they earned some 3/4 of all the Nobel Prizes in the sciences. This achievement he attributed to the Jewish principle of leaving science outside of the religious domain. A person can be a devout Jew and also a perimeter-pushing scientist. Among the billion or so Moslems, Neil stated there is only ONE Nobel Prize in science! That was in 1979 and the winner came from Pakistan, a bit outside the hardcore Middle East. He recalled that in the 800-1200 AD period, Islam favored science and culture, allowing free and open exchange of ideas, theories, experiments. This period of history is probably what saved the West, which at the time was struggling under the Dark Ages. When the Dark Ages ebbed in the 1400s, the West nourished on the Islamic world for the preserved sciences, plus native new science. largely thru this intellectual commerce, the West raised itself into the present era. Two enduring thanks to the Islamic assistance is the prevalence of Arabic starnames and lunar craters honoring Arabs. About 1200 AD, there arose the ideology to force-fit nature into the words of the Koran, resulting in a stagnation of progress that still today envelopes the Middle East. And, now, as Tyson warns, this stricture on science is seeping into the United States.
Religious science in America -------------------------- The Christian and Islamic forces are separate. As best as we can tell, there is no collaboration between the two. In fact, the Islamic sector have no tolerance at all for Christians! And the Christian camp treats Moslems as, erm, infidels. Never the less, both forces seek to eviscerate the ability to progress humanity by supplanting science with blind ideology. Neither the Christian nor the Islamic factions pretend to practice anything like science. that is, to allow and promote the processes of question, inquiry, testing, probing, exploring for the goal of furthering humankind. They strive to control and suppress human thought.
Earth is privileged? ------------------ The name 'intelligent design' is laughable when one examines the way the world, just Earth, is built, supposedly by an omnipotent omniscient spirit. Moat of Earth plain hates humans by being too cold, hot, wet, dry, full of wild animals, insects, poison plants. Most of Earth is ocean, in which humans can not live without heavy protection. (at least not more than 177 hours!) Tornados, floods, dust and sand storms, earthquakes, massive rain, lightning-triggered forest fires, volcanos continuously act against human existence. Can anyone with sense and brains actually design a world like this for people? Green pastures by still waters? Land of milk and honey? In far too few and far places.
What intelligent design? ---------------------- Neil explored the human body. It has a common orifice for eating, drinking, breathing. Result: myriads of deaths annually from accidental choking. Sex and waste are handled by the same organs. It's like having a recreation park and sewer mill together on the same property! Many humans are built defectively! Assorted birth defects, severe deficiency in some critical human function, occur randomly. The body is attacked with disease from natural bacteria and viruses. Faculties wane in old age, like hearing and eyesight, while the rest of the human is still in good operation. Diseases like diabetes, heart failure, cancer afflict people seemingly at random at all ages. Altho we do not understand many of these breakdowns in human function, they are part of the natural world around us. But that world is supposedly built by a higher intelligent design?
If not Earth, where? ------------------ He examined the suitability of outer space for human habitation. It's too frigid, torrid, arid, full of ionizing radiation, barren of air. In fact, there is no place at all in the solar system where humans can carry on a livelihood similar to that on Earth. Humans must stay within protective capsules, suits, habitats and never expose themselfs directly to the space environment. He didn't say so, but there was the strong allusion to a futility of wholesale human settlement and colonization of other worlds. To allow humans, just a couple per flight, to penetrate into space involves humongous costs and support. It would be one hell of a long time, plus intervention of evolution perhaps, before a human in space can duplicate the feats of the Galileo, Huygens, New Horizons, and Mars rover missions. Neil did allow that under a dogmatic regime, like Italy of the 1500s-early 1600s, there is leeway for science. Only up to the threshold of the established script. Bruno and others could dabble in calculating eclipses and planet positions, keeping time and calendar, developing navigation, and similar 'tame' pursuits of science. It was when Bruno leaped over the perimeter of ignorance with his promotion of inhabited worlds that the rulers stomped on him.
Separation of church and state --------------------------- America by Tyson's estimation is the epitome of a free and open society where religion and science are peaceful cohabitants, leaving each other alone. This is specificly provided in the US Constitution by forbidding the establishment or restriction of religious practice, tHIS 'separation of church and state' derives directly from the amalgam of church and state in England, then running America as colonies. The founding fathers, mindful of the religious domination of many countries in Europe, not only England, where they came from did not want a repeat situation in the New World. In consequence, America became a harve de grace for overseas peoples suffering from religion-based oppression. Here they could enjoy their religious culture without fear or persecution.
Social applications ----------------- Tyson held to the religious campaign against science. His remarks are applicable to political and social regimes. The obvious one, recently thrown on the trash heap of history, is the Soviet Union. Fresh in my, and other, minds, is the flow of refugees from the Soviet state, including top-ranking scientists who were bullied to stay within the defined perimeter of ignorance. 'Science' doesn't mean only the laboratories, observatories, libraries and people in white coats. It is a system of acquiring knowledge and understanding. It's a scheme of learning that eliminates arbitrary human dictate and decree. Science can, and does, shift its concepts as new information and observations are obtained; it is not a set and fixed body of facts and figures. This latter is the scheme of a totalitarian state, that of some religions. Hence, Dr Tyson's talk is valuable for dealing with small scale regimes, largely out of public sight and sound. These include corporations, government agencies, cooperative housing, and, yes, astronomy clubs. In these cases, the contention is with the entity's own 'nature', its operation and function. In such cases, the 'superior intelligence' is the ruling class of the entity rather than a spiritual being in heaven. Two signature examples in the news during the Tyson talk are the attempt by NASA to stifle studies in global warming at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Stalinist mindset at Amateur Astronomers Association. Both institutions are short bus rides from the Planetarium.
Conclusion --------- Tyson wrapped up his talk with questions from the audience. Most were clarifications of his statements; others related to ways to improve science education or political awareness of science. Continuing the extrapolation. when a society, in the general sense, shuts out internal mechanisms for examining, testing, probing, discussing, debating, this faculty will be set up outside of that society, to which its people can take refuge. And this faculty will be in a form most disagreeable to the society! Such is America in the eyes of some societies around the world. They, seeing that there is an alternative way of life beyond its perimeter, strive to close up that perimeter -- the Berlin Wall -- or remove the refuge -- the World Trade Center. Tyson worries deeply about any success in squeezing out science from American education, in that it dumps at least a whole generation of people into a stagnant dead realm of perimetrized ignorance.