Many people believe that a theory is all about explanation. And that we can judge a theory by how much the explanation makes sense. To us. They may even use terms like rational and logical to describe the theory they prefer. And they could be spot-on, even if the theory is wrong. For if the gauge of correctness is a fit with all the other thoughts we hold, what is illogic in one mind is fully logical in another.
It is for this reason that I have reservations about skeptics and atheists speaking of themselves as being more rational and reason-driven. These groups will point out the absurdities in the other position, in effect, saying, see, according to our other thoughts, these here thoughts under the spotlight just don’t fit.
What is missing from simple theorizing is the crucial component beyond mere explanation. Explanation goes only so far. A strong theory, a good theory, allows for testable predictions. And is supported by the results of those tests.
And with this additional, essential element to theories – Bam! – suddenly theories are not potentially equally reasonable. Consider evolution and Creationism. One allows for testable predictions galore, and has passed thousands of such tests, the other . . . (cue sound of crickets).
What seems rational to one mind can seem irrational to another. But put the ideas to a test, and you then have a way to objectively determine the worth of each. In a sense, by doing so you will place both minds on the same playing field.
Of course, some people will shun tests, saying that science operates under its own biased presumptions, so will yield biased results. These people are beyond hope, frankly. All you can really do is explain that a scientific test merely confirms a hypothesized pattern in nature. If you don’t believe in science you are basically refuting that there are measurable regularities in our universe. If that were the case, we could understand nothing about it. Nothing. So tell these people to go ahead and cherish their void of understanding.
Per usual, a news release got me started on the topic.
While airplane and rocket experiments have proved that gravity makes clocks tick more slowly — a central prediction of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity — a new experiment in an atom interferometer measures this slowdown 10,000 times more accurately than before, and finds it to be exactly what Einstein predicted.
The result shows once again how well Einstein’s theory describes the real world. [bold mine]
The real world.
So no, the value of Einstein’s theories is not in how far-out and mind-bending the thoughts they generate are, nor in how much they support what we want to believe. Certainly, that is some of the appeal, and yes, the on-the-frontier-element makes some theories more exciting than others. But the true gauges of theories such as Einstein’s, that which gives them real weight, are the predictions they allow us to make and test. In the case of relativity, these tests have been passed with greater and greater precision.
Passing tests: this is where we should place our emphasis when evaluating theories. When thinking scientifically, we move from the more subjective to the more objective.
During our years living in the desert Southwest, my wife and I drove a small pickup truck. On the instrument panel of the rusty truck, directly in front of the speedometer, I glued a small Buddha statuette. I did it for good luck. I was, however, fully aware of what luck consists of: paying attention and putting yourself in a position where good things might happen.
With Buddha on board, my wife and I safely traversed the country five times. The Buddha–and by that I mean the nothing more than the figurine–may have helped. Every time I glanced at the speedometer I had to see past it. Maybe it reminded me to drive in a more enlightened manner. (Not speeding, I believe, is part of the Eightfold Way, which is based upon the Four Noble Gears.) Maybe religious icons and rituals can influence human behavior for the better.
Unfortunately, the Buddha had no influence over the truck’s behavior. On multiple occasions it broke down. One time in Pennsylvania the battery discharged due to a short circuit. I was able to find the short and fix it, but we needed a jump-start. This was provided by a couple of compassionate non-Buddhists.
Another summer, while heading through Ohio on our way back to New Mexico, an awful noise from the front right wheel started up and became louder by the mile. Was it the brakes? Those we had serviced before leaving New England. I steered onto the exit ramp and found a gas station. The problem: loose lug nuts. The brake guys hadn’t done as complete a job as they should have, at least in terms of pounds of torque applied to the nuts. It was a good thing we got off the highway when we did. Losing a wheel at highway speeds is very bad luck. Thanks Buddha! Or did I deserve the credit? Or the brake guys the blame?
On our final trip out of New Mexico and across the U.S.–what was to be a true adventure in moving–we pulled a U-Haul trailer stuffed to bulging with belongings. The bed of the truck was also crammed with furniture, clothing, and boxes of books. We hit a bumpy stretch of highway in Arkansas and one arm of the truck bumper broke off. I heard a BAM! and looked into my side-view mirror to see a spray of sparks shooting out from behind the truck. When I hit the brakes, the U-Haul moved in to kiss the tailgate. I very slowly pulled off the highway and onto the grass shoulder.
Bad luck? I knew the bumper supports were “a bit” rusty, but I chanced it–thereby putting myself in position to experience an undesirable turn of events.
By the side of the interstate, just outside of Nowheresville Arkansas, I unhitched the trailer, taped a “we will be back soon to fetch this” message to it, and roped the fallen bumper back onto the pickup. Off we went in search of a solution to our problem.
Three miles up the highway I spotted a plywood sign nailed to a pine tree. . . . Something about trailer sales and repairs, next exit. The highway off-ramp dumped onto a dirt road. There was indeed a trailer shop there in the remote middle of Arkansas. The shop had a welder on staff and two hours and a mere forty bucks later we were back on the road. What a fortunate development!–which is synonymous for luck.
A pair of fuzzy dice, a Buddha figurine, a statuette of Mary, Jesus in a snow globe: These things can bring what we call luck if they influence our behavior for the better. They can be reminders to pay attention and do good.
On the other hand, these things can be a negative influence when we truly believe they have power. They encourage mistaken notions about the way the universe works.
Worse yet, when charms are cherished as more than mere trinkets, they become something to defend and even fight over.
If behavior is a set of inkblots, Sigmund Freud seems to have found sexual content in almost all of them. A number of his contemporary fans continue the trend.
Why does a man smoke a cigar? Well, it could be an oral fixation or evidence of latent homosexuality. Why would a woman? Penis envy. Why would a single guy buy a speedboat? To impress the ladies with his slick phallic symbol. Why would a woman buy speedboat? Call it sexual confusion.
To these folks, human behavior is all about sex and mating, all about libido in its many wildly disguised forms.
Even before becoming more consistently scientific in my orientation, I had doubts about the sexual-concerns-reside-beneath-everything generalization. In fact, and somewhat ironically, as I’ve studied some primatology over the past decade, my perspective has actually shifted away from seeing our kind as less-hairy but just as horny apes with mating always on our minds. Instead I see a social animal very concerned with “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” To put it in the words of the title to Dale Carnegie’s famous book.
We are social creatures who display a great proclivity for generating implements and inventing behaviors that help us thrive in our social environments: achieving and defending status (and undermining competitors’ as well), in forming and maintaining alliances that are presently strategic or more of an investment in a potential future social pay-off, AND raising, protecting, and best providing for our children.
A recent, loosely scientific study got me thinking about this. Particularly about the children part. Yes, we do a lot for them. Why? Well, sure, they carry our genes. The how, however, is perhaps the more interesting question. And it may shed some light on the why.
Consider the semi-corny title, subtitle and first paragraph of this Eurekalert news release -
Evidence from Disneyland suggests that human creativity may have evolved not in response to sexual selection as some scientists believe but as a way to help parents bond with their children and to pass on traditions and cultural knowledge, a new study published in the inaugural issue of the International Journal of Tourism Anthropology suggests.
Of course, the why of creativity is not an either-or proposition. Either it is to entice the ladies and gentlemen into getting down or dirty, or it’s a means by which parents pass on cultural learning and perhaps greater social fitness of children.
But the article does shed light on what is very evident in contemporary society: Trips to Disneyworld, piano lessons, soccer league membership, outings to museums, toys galore–parents do a lot to educate their children and excite their minds. Why? Not just to give them a leg-up on their future competition at getting their genes in the proverbial gene-pool. To set them on their way to being successful members of their social groups.
Yes, part of that is to assure they one day will be attractive to members of the opposite sex. But there is more to it than that. Quite a bit more.