Home > Uncategorized > Backwards cause and effect

Backwards cause and effect

December 22, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I was watching a children’s program the other day. It was an educational program, I believe–the segment I was watching was attempting to teach kids about the notion of “elasticity.” This is a notion in physics that describes how various different materials react to collisions. Essentially, bouncy things (like basketballs) are said to have high elasticity, whereas un-bouncy things, like grapefruits, have low elasticity. Something interesting happened as this concept was being described by the narrator, as he showed various examples, something that I think speaks well to how our society understands science. I don’t remember what the exact objects were, in his examples, but let’s pretend they were basketballs and grapefruits.

First we are shown a clip of a grapefruit being dropped. The narrator said “this grapefruit doesn’t bounce much, because a grapefruit has low elasticity.” Then we are shown a clip of a basketball being dropped. The narrator says “this basketball bounces almost to the point at where it was dropped from. This is because a basketball has high elasticity.” The point was then hammered home with a few more similar demonstrations.

As you might expect, I have a philosophical objection to how things are being phrased here. My basic objection is that the concept that is being used to describe reality is being given a metaphysical status greater than the actual reality itself. They have things backwards. The ball does not bounce high because it has high elasticity, but rather it is said to have high elasticity because it bounces high. The more general problem is that we talk about scientific concepts that describe nature as if they determine nature. We act as if our description caused nature.

Of course, this is difficult philosophical territory. But suppose we simply chose a different words to say essentially the same thing. Suppose we said, as a child would say, “the basketball bounces high because a basketball has lots of bounciness.” This is a cute remark, the kind of endearingly tautological sort of remark that little kids are prone to make. No one would argue that a child who said such a thing had some deep understanding of the nature of reality. Rather, we’d say that the child came up with a word for what he saw the object doing, and turned it into a substance. He made a noun out of a verb.

Now, I propose that we lay aside for now the amazing ability of science to predict certain sorts of events and patterns in nature, and just consider science metaphysically. I ask you to consider whether not science, in its purely metaphysical content–that is, in its ability to tell us what things really are–has never really been much more than something like this practice of the child, of giving a name to what he saw. And I think this takes nothing away from science; rather it liberates it from the oppressive task of having to deliver absolute truth.

Ah, but you might protest, the child and the scientist are different. There is a deeper concept at work in the scientists mind than in that of the child. He knows about molecules and thermodynamics and the internal chemical structure of the object–the concept of “elasticity” is a lot deeper, a lot more general, than you are giving it credit for. It says things about the object beyond simply how high it bounces. It has a precise mathematical formulation. This is true, and important, but my point remains. The deeper level of abstraction of the physicist, and the use of advanced mathematics in his reasoning, does not make things fundamentally different from a metaphysical standpoint. Rather, it conceals the error. Thus I had to state my point in the terms I did, in order to make it clear that there is an issue here. The issue is taking something that arises in language and thought, and treating it like a fundamental reality.

This is how we are taught science as children; it is how we are gradually sold a false philosophy without the chance to challenge it. If the child does not know about molecules and thermodynamics and internal chemical structures, then why are we telling him about elasticity? What is the point of introducing a concept that cannot be more meaningful to the child than what he is already able to conjure up via his own imagination? All this does is create in his mind the idea that there is some sort of deep reality behind the concept. Further it begins the lifelong process of selling his mind the concept that “the scientists”–who barely exist at all except in the imagination of educators and media personalities–who are the imagined priesthood of the modern religion of science, have access to truth on a more basic level than the rest of us.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. December 23, 2010 at 8:52 am

    This is marvelous. Do you have any other posts seeing through the many tautological explanations provided by science? Also, I’ve noticed you seem to depict all non-Christian religions as dualistic. Philosopher Peter Kingsley has recently written a book showing the compatibility of non-dualistic pre-Platonic philosophy, the teaching of Yeshua (otherwise known as “Jesus”) and a number of Central Asian spiritual traditions. Could you possibly answer, by the way, by email (donsalmon7@gmail.com)? Thanks.

    • December 27, 2010 at 2:12 pm

      Thank you for your praise; sorry I have not had the time to respond to your posts on my blog.

      I wanted to reply publicly to the things you said publicly, because I think it is important that your comments not cause people to misunderstand me. First, I don’t know where you got the impression that I depict all non-Christian religions as dualistic. In general I think religions can be as varied as possible in terms of their underlying metaphysics.

      The most important differences, for me, among religions, is their view of God and their view of history. It is quite possible some Central Asian spiritual traditions are compatible with “the teachings of Yeshua” in that they don’t contradict him; I sincerely doubt, however, that you will find these traditions asserting that he was the Jewish Messiah, let alone the incarnate Son of God, or that he was raised from the dead. They won’t assert these things because these events hadn’t taken place yet (you said pre-Platonic).

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