August 1996

Scientific Thinking

The following is a summary of Dr. Sherman Dickman’s lecture to the Humanists of Utah at our July meeting. His subject was, “The Scientific Perspective: A New Way of Thinking for the non-Scientist.”

Science has been able to achieve its goals due to a specific way of thinking. Science has changed the world in the past 200 years more than the world changed in the previous 2000 years. Scientific thought:

  • Assumes regularity in nature.
  • Requires honesty in reporting of results. Science would have gotten nowhere if cheating were as prevalent in business as reported in the Wall Street Journal.
  • Has increased knowledge as its only objective. It is non-materialist in nature.
  • Is non-dogmatic and is always open to change.
  • Relies on human curiosity to ask questions to which answers can be obtained by experiment or observation.
  • Utilizes mathematics whenever possible.

Scientific thought and discussion must be distinguished from “common sense.” Scientific thinking also avoids metaphors common to psychology and religion. Metaphors can be defined as calling something what it isn’t. Logic uses well defined terms. For example a diagram of the brain cannot be accurately labeled as a piece for consciousness, unconsciousness, id, ego, etc. However, physical regions of the brain have been well known and described for many centuries.

Science is a second language. It uses many terms in a different way than the usual common sense definition as contained in the dictionary. “Observation” is a good example. People tend to believe what they observe and will defend their observations with pride. Scientists, with their constant questioning, will not take personal ownership of an egocentric concept. Common sense definitions tend to be qualitative in nature, where the scientific counterpart is quantitative. Observations to a scientist are quantifiable data collected and documented during experiments. These observations must always be able to be reproduced independently to be accepted by the scientific community. The word “truth” is rarely if ever used in scientific journals.

This type of scientific thinking needs to be taught in the public schools from the earliest grades. This is necessary because many people over 30 years of age are unwilling to change their minds about anything.

There are different kinds of knowledge: subjective, personal based upon experiences, thoughts, emotions, perceptions, etc. This subjective knowledge is used to screen objective knowledge. This can cause varying interpretations of the same data by different people. Subjective knowledge is valid only to the individual until confirmed by others. We must realize that our innermost thoughts and beliefs may not be true for anyone except ourselves.

Common sense is based on long-term experience, or so called old-wives’, (old-men’s? old people’s?) tales. Generalizations have been in place for hundreds of years. Some are valid and some have been shown to be invalid by scientific investigation. Often these traditional tales do not control for variables. For example, if an earthquake occurs, it might be attributed to the people being evil or some other non-related concept.

Scientific knowledge is based on experiments and confirmed observations with carefully controlled variables. The “facts” are always subject to change. Newtonian physics is a subset of Einstein’s concepts. Science not only accepts uncertainty, but views it as necessary. Scientific descriptions are highly predictive and explanatory.

It is important to become aware of assumptions: for example, we assume that our next breath will include oxygen. Carefully conducted scientific investigations describe, recognize and control all assumptions. Turnbull, a Scottish anthropologist, described a situation where he spent several months among Pygmies in Africa. He went into great detail describing how these diminutive people could move easily through the thick underbrush of the forest they lived in. When it came time for Turnbull to return home, he invited one of the natives to accompany him. When they broke out of the forest into a large clearing, there was a herd of cows grazing in the distance. Turnbull queried his friend as to what he thought the animals in the distance were. The native replied that they were so small that they must be ants. Turnbull tried to explain that they were large animals to no avail. As they traveled on, the “ants” became “dogs” and then “horses” and finally cows. The Pygmy became very perplexed; he had never been out of the jungle and had no concept on how distance affects the size of objects. Our assumptions grow directly from our personal experience.

The Foundation Series
by Isaac Asimov

~Book Review~

AHA past honorary President Isaac Asimov has been called America’s most prolific author, with more than 440 published books. His subject matter covers a wide spectrum ranging from the Bible, to Shakespeare, to science fiction. One of his most widely read chronicles is known as the “Foundation Series.” It consists of six books (in story order): Prelude to FoundationForward the FoundationFoundationFoundation and EmpireSecond FoundationFoundation’s Edge, and Foundation and Earth.

Each of the books can stand on its own merit; however together they chronicle a tale of nearly a thousand years sometime in the distant future. The central character in all the books (although he only actually appears in the first two) is Harry Seldon, a mathematician who has discovered a way to predict the future. It is a new science that he calls “psychohistory.”

Seldon lives at a time when the Empire which has ruled millions of planets containing billions of people for more than 10 thousand years is in decline. He discovers that nothing can save the Empire from breaking totally apart. His mathematical formulae also predict 30 thousand years of chaos and war before a new Empire arises to power unless…

Seldon discovers that certain things happen in a very specific order, that the period of chaos can be reduced to a mere 1000 years. With this goal in mind, a contingent of a few hundred people is sent to a previously unpopulated planet at the edge of the galaxy. Ostensibly, their purpose is to catalogue all of the knowledge of the galaxy into a giant reference encyclopedia.

The Seldon Plan, as it becomes known, has a series of built-in crises where a particular decision is critical if order is to be restored within the short 10-century period. The first “Seldon Crisis” occurs when the library workers are confronted by war-like enemies from nearby planets. Seldon has recorded holographic messages for these turning points. He appears and informs the librarians that they really are not librarians at all. Actually, they represent the last of scientifically creative minds left in the galaxy. The reason for the fall of the Empire was ignorance of science and a resultant decline of the infrastructure. Seldon’s hologram reminds the scientists that they understand nucleics and can easily defeat the intruders. The Foundation is born!

One of the most interesting twists of the story is that very few people understand the archaic concept of “religion.” Death of science caused the collapse of the empire.

There is a “Second” Foundation “at the other end of the galaxy” that continues the development of psychohistory. Its existence is kept secret from the (first) Foundation for fear that the egos of the Foundation leaders would be jealous of any rivals. These people develop a form of mind control where they can mentally control people and bend anyone to their will. Several different encounters between the two Foundations take place.

Throughout the work there is mention of the fact that humans throughout the galaxy are all the same species. It seems impossible that a single species could evolve on so many planets. Does this mean there was in pre-history a single planet where humans arose as a species? Are the stories of Earth or Gaia accurate or only fantasy?

Here is a couple of thousand pages from one of the most famous humanists of the 20th century. This series of books is well worth reading.

–Wayne Wilson

Einstein on Religion and Science

This is a response by Albert Einstein to a greeting sent by the Liberal Ministers’ Club of New York City. Published in The Christian Register, June, 1948. Published in Ideas and Opinions, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1954.

Does there truly exist an insuperable contradiction between religion and science? Can religion be superseded by science? The answers to these questions have, for centuries, given rise to considerable dispute and, indeed, bitter fighting. Yet, in my own mind there can be no doubt that in both cases a dispassionate consideration can only lead to a negative answer. What complicates the solution, however, is the fact that while most people readily agree on what is meant by “science,” they are likely to differ on the meaning of “religion.”

As to science, we may well define it for our purpose as “methodical thinking directed toward finding regulative connections between our sensual experiences.” Science, in the immediate, produces knowledge and, indirectly, means of action. It leads to methodical action if definite goals are set up in advance. For the function of setting up goals and passing statements of value transcends its domain. While it is true that science, to the extent of its grasp of causative connections, may reach important conclusions as to the compatibility and incompatibility of goals and evaluations, the independent and fundamental definitions regarding goals and values remain beyond science’s reach.

As regards religion, on the other hand, one is generally agreed that it deals with goals and evaluations and, in general, with the emotional foundation of human thinking and acting, as far as these are not predetermined by the inalterable hereditary disposition of the human species. Religion is concerned with man’s attitude toward nature at large, with the establishing of ideals for the individual and communal life, and with mutual human relationship. These ideals religion attempts to attain by exerting an educational influence on tradition and through the development and promulgation of certain easily accessible thoughts and narratives (epics and myths) which are apt to influence evaluation and action along the lines of the accepted ideals.

It is this mythical, or rather this symbolic, content of the religious traditions which is likely to come into conflict with science. This occurs whenever this religious stock of ideas contains dogmatically fixed statements on subjects which belong in the domain of science. Thus, it is of vital importance for the preservation of true religion that such conflicts be avoided when they arise from subjects which, in fact, are not really essential for the pursuance of the religious aims.

When we consider the various existing religions as to their essential substance, that is, divested of their myths, they do not seem to me to differ as basically from each other as the proponents of the “relativistic” or conventional theory wish us to believe. And this is by no means surprising. For the moral attitudes of a people that is supported by religion need always aim at preserving and promoting the sanity and vitality of the community and its individuals, since otherwise this community is bound to perish. A people that were to honor falsehood, defamation, fraud, and murder would be unable, indeed, to subsist for very long.

When confronted with a specific case, however, it is no easy task to determine clearly what is desirable and what should be eschewed, just as we find it difficult to decide what exactly it is that makes good painting or good music. It is something that may be felt intuitively more easily than rationally comprehended. Likewise, the great moral teachers of humanity were, in a way, artistic geniuses in the art of living. In addition to the most elementary precepts directly motivated by the preservation of life and the sparing of unnecessary suffering, there are others to which, although they are apparently not quite commensurable to the basic precepts, we nevertheless attach considerable importance. Should truth, for instance, be sought unconditionally even where its attainment and its accessibility to all would entail heavy sacrifices in toil and happiness?

There are many such questions which, from a rational vantage point, cannot easily be answered or cannot be answered at all. Yet, I do not think that the so called “relativistic” viewpoint is correct, not even when dealing with the more subtle moral decisions.

When considering the actual living conditions of present day civilized humanity from the standpoint of even the most elementary religious commands, one is bound to experience a feeling of deep and painful disappointment at what one sees. For while religion prescribes brotherly love in the relations among the individuals and groups, the actual spectacle more resembles a battlefield than an orchestra. Everywhere, in economic as well as in political life, the guiding principle is one of ruthless striving for success at the expense of one’s fellow men. This competitive spirit prevails even in school and, destroying all feelings of human fraternity and cooperation, conceives of achievement not as derived from the love for productive and thoughtful work, but as springing from personal ambition and fear of rejection.

There are pessimists who hold that such a state of affairs is necessarily inherent in human nature; it is those who propound such views that are the enemies of true religion, for they imply thereby that religious teachings are utopian ideals and unsuited to afford guidance in human affairs. The study of the social patterns in certain so-called primitive cultures, however, seems to have made it sufficiently evident that such a defeatist view is wholly unwarranted. Whoever is concerned with this problem, a crucial one in the study of religion as such, is advised to read the description of the Pueblo Indians in Ruth Benedict’s book, Patterns of Culture. Under the hardest living conditions, this tribe has apparently accomplished the difficult task of delivering its people from the scourge of competitive spirit and of fostering in it a temperate, cooperative conduct of life, free of external pressure and without any curtailment of happiness.

The interpretation of religion, as here advanced, implies a dependence of science on the religious attitude, a relation which, in our predominantly materialistic age, is only too easily overlooked. While it is true that scientific results are entirely independent from religious or moral considerations, those individuals to whom we owe the great creative achievements of science were all of them imbued with the truly religious conviction that this universe of ours is something perfect and susceptible to the rational striving for knowledge. If this conviction had not been a strongly emotional one and if those searching for knowledge had not been inspired by Spinoza’s Amor Dei Intellectualis, they would hardly have been capable of that untiring devotion which alone enables man to attain his greatest achievements.

The Religiousness of Science

The following short essay by Albert Einstein is taken from the abridged edition of his book The World As I See It.

You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a peculiar religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religion of the naive man. For the latter God is a being from whose care one hopes to benefit and whose punishment one fears; a sublimation of a feeling similar to that of a child for its father, a being to whom one stands to some extent in a personal relation, however deeply it may be tinged with awe.

But the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.