Friday, December 10, 2004


I watched a great National Geographic Explorer that my TiVo caught for me and saw something my friend Erin often points to as being inspirationally cool.

There was a scientist who had a worked on proving a hypothesis about the origins of civilization for some fifteen years of his life. It was his life's work, and in the Peruvian desert, a recently discovered site of an early civilization, the oldest known evidence of a civilization in the Americas, his hypothesis totally collapsed. The evidence was convincing to him, and he not only graciously accepted it, but seemd truly excited by finding out that he was wrong.

I have seen this happen a few times, where a scientist, upon seeing convincing evidence, changes his position not with bitterness or resistance, but with zeal. How wonderful! I was wrong.

This is the spirit of scientific discovery. Many seem to get the idea that science is about cold facts, but it's so different. Discoveries are not won easily, and researchers in the field and in the lab both do a lot of raw number crunching and arduously slow exploration of minutiae. But ultimately, it is adventure and discovery that science is about, not being wrong or right.

I have thought many times about what is wrong with science as it is taught in lower education. None of the public teachers who taught me ever taught us about remaining skeptical until enough evidence can provide some kind of conclusions. I would guess that this is because skepticism, summarized by it's two word maxim "prove it"--is a dangerous thing to have as part of your worldview.

Dangerous? How could skepticism be considered dangerous? Simply because it is the antithesis of Faith, the basis for almost all religions. Teaching optimistic skepticism presents a threat to faith-based religions. (Zen Buddhism comes out unscathed in this area--no faith required.) As soon as "prove it" comes into play, faith in God is on the table for inspection. That's still a taboo subject for public academia. Religion is off limits, protected by broad societal agreements that we don't talk about it.

But being truly conscious requires us to be able to look at our beliefs--personal or societal--and re-arrange them. When we do, we have breakthroughs that allow us to better understand our place in the universe. The Copernican view of the universe, where Earth is not at the universe's center, is now almost completely accepted, and it broadened the consciousness of our species by showing us more about how we exist. Darwin's theory of evolution has done the same (for those who accept it), just as Watson and Crick's discovery of the double-helix codestring of DNA has lead to the eventual realization that evolution is not even about individual species evolving but selfish genes competing to replicate themselves. Relativity has done some of the same, for those who understand it. And Quantum Theory has, too, but for even smaller intellectual circles.

None of these great discoveries, each expanding our understanding of how we and the universe exist, would have been possible without questioning our assumptions and giving up some of our convictions. To not be able to lay down our beliefs and consider evidence that goes contrary to what we currently "know" is to live life not as a conscious being, but a partially-conscious being. To have subjects that are untouchable and unquestionable, whether enforced by strict taboos or by smug stubborness, is to surrender a fully conscious existence.

I postulate that humanity comes in two species, defined by their dominant memes instead of their genes. There are those who are locked into unassailable ways of thought or simply bask in the simplicity of relative ignorance. And there are those who strive to understand more and relish in humanity's growing base of scientific knowledge. The divide between merely existing and behaving as humans have since the descent of our species and participating in scientific intellectualism is significant.

This sounds like an elitist view of the world, at least to me. Since I try to be part of the latter group, I have defined the parameters above to favor that which I value. But I think there is an cogent argument that having a world view that can adapt to the revelations of empirical evidence is a higher type of consciousness; a deeper way of understanding how we exist. To say that those who share this live more consciously indeed sounds elitist, but it's only elitist if you actually value consciousness. Being more conscious isn't better relative to any kind of absolute. It's just better to me.


Post a Comment

<< Home