I read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” today. The last time I read it was many years ago, as a teenager, and I’ve been meaning to re-read it for a while now. I was interested in seeing how the imprint of his wonderful discussion of the mysteries of the universe on my older and more learned mind would differ.
One thing that has changed, though it has nothing to do with me personally, is the ability to user the web to get more information whenever the discussion of some topic is not comprehensive or comprehendible enough for my taste. Wikipedia is an amazing resource, and combining it with a good book such as this overcomes the inherent problems of the medium – the brief and disconnected discussion of every one article on the one hand, and the chaotic nature of further research based on following links on the other. The methodical examination of the subject, provided by a well written book puts you in the context of the big picture, whereas you can use the infinite depth and relative up-to-date nature of the web for further exploration.
It is common for people to answer the question of why something behaves like it does with a reference to some law. Scientists are no different at that (at least when writing popular science), and I just encountered that phenomenon reading Hawking.
While discussing the directed nature of time, he mentions that the common explanation given to the fact that we never see broken glasses jumping from the floor back to the table and becoming whole again is the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
The explanation of one fact by another fact, causality, forms the basis for science, and is probably a process that is deeply embedded in human nature. However it is all important to remember that it is in fact no answer at all. Explaining the effect by a cause can always lead to another question – about the cause as an effect, which should lead to another answer, explaining the original cause with a prior one. Since we don’t have a scientifically proven Big Answer yet, or for that matter any answer that would be acceptable to most intelligent people (thus banning out religious answers, if only for the fact that different intelligent people can evidently hold very different religious views), we cannot really explain anything. The answers that we’re able to give are very good at providing us with a better understanding of how things work, enabling us to manipulate that knowledge and create technology, but without the big answer, the ultimate cause, we have no better understanding of why.
For some reason, possibly because facing the truth – that we don’t really have an answer, or simply because providing the answer to the next why in the chain gets increasingly harder, we tend to stop at some point and content ourselves with a partial explanation.
Hawking provides a good example for that in the story of an old lady who once rose in a public lecture on astronomy and told the speaker that he has just told them rubbish, and that the world is actually a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise (a theory shared by any avid Terry Pratchett reader). The speaker’s clever reply: “What is the tortoise standing on?” was easily countered by the claim that “it’s turtles all the way down!”
Regardless of whether this story is true, the failure to see that the answer should only lead to another question (“and what’s down there?”), is emblematic of human behavior in everyday life. Science and philosophy are different, in that they relentlessly ask more questions, but the tendency to rip some characteristics of scientific method away from their context, and apply them to everyday life (in what might be called scientificism) has a dangerous effect on human behavior.
Let me explain by going back to the Second Law of Thermodynamics example given above. A physical law is nonchalantly give as a reason for an everyday situation. Examples abide: why does a rock fall back down to earth after I throw it? because of the law of gravity; why do we have a cycle of day and night? because the earth is spinning on its axle; etc. Causality here serves to describe a situation – the how, and not the why. We didn’t’ answer why there is a law of gravity, or why there’s a sun and why earth is turning, but most people would suffice themselves at that. For science to develop it may be enough that some people won’t, but for humanity to improve itself, the consequences of this tendency are dire.
It is too often that people mix the existence of a law, that is, the law in the legal sense or the norm in the sociological sense, with a sufficient cause. In other words, the mere existence of codes, de facto or de jure, is often mistaken for a good enough reason to follow them, whereas in many cases that reason should only be the implications of not doing so. It is the edicts of one’s morals, ethics, conscience, arrived at in one’s course of life through reason and experience, that should be the primary guide. Thus, barring implications, such as in acts done in the private, our actions should only be dictated by our own views, and when those views are strong enough in our mind and heart, it is imperative that we battle the code and eradicate the implications of acting in public according to our conscience. Only then can we truly be free.
The success of the scientific and technological revolutions, which has led empiricism to take hold on our minds in the place of more abstract thought, may have taken religion’s former place as the source of laws, but has merely imbued us instead with an equivalent concept of scientific law, rather than provide us with science’s penchant for critical thinking. We confuse thus scientific law’s claim for absolute truth (according to the naïve empiricist view of science still accepted by the masses), as a replacement of religion’s claim for divine truth, with the temporal, man-made laws of society and state.
Evidently, personal conscience and public law are compatible in many cases. Murder, rape, or theft of physical property, are frowned upon by both, as are most behaviors that endanger the fragile fabric of society. But most laws and norms are merely there because they made sense at some point in time, or because they are, or were in the past, beneficial to the powerful classes of society. Many are being changed around us all the time. I was not so long ago that women couldn’t vote and homosexuality was a crime. But these were man-made laws that reflected what was seen as the truth at a time, not an absolute truth. They still hold in many places of the world, where either the majority of the population, or the more powerful parts of society hold them as true, and they may yet change again in western societies, if our world view on those matters changes. The important lesson is that when we do not agree with the law, and have strong arguments to back our claim, we must do our part to change that law. It may be little: mere disobedience when the implications are bearable, letting our views be known, creating a discussion around the issue and persuading others. We must realize that in most cases, if not all, there is nothing divine or universal about the law, and we must bear in mind that change is possible.