Mythology in Physics?

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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby Individual » Thu Nov 11, 2010 3:44 pm

Huseng wrote:This remark here from Dr. Hawking surprised me:

Hawking says in his book "The Grand Design" that, given the existence of gravity, "the universe can and will create itself from nothing," according to an excerpt published Thursday in The Times of London.

"Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist," he writes in the excerpt.


http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/09/02/hawking.god.universe/index.html

Positing that something (like the universe) can arise from nothing without a cause is fallacious to begin with.

Moreover, that is religious thought. That is a completely unfalsifiable claim. It cannot be reproduced, predicted or observed.

It is no different than a theologian insisting that God, which is likewise an uncaused entity capable of initiating causal processes, created time and space.

As time goes on I see what kind of theories materialist philosophy cook up and wonder why they're hailed as the state sanctioned directors of the truth in the present day world.

I agree. Stephen Hawking has said all sorts of crazy things over the years that can't be taken seriously. A lot of physicists say that, although he made major contributions to physics, the media seems to give him more credit and attention than he deserves merely because of his illness.

He should be more specific in his definitions of "nothing" and "spontaneous," or else it is just uselessly ambiguous mysticism. :)
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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby Indrajala » Thu Nov 11, 2010 4:06 pm

plassma wrote:Its actually very clear from the article that Hawking is not claiming that "something" (in the sense of the very first primordial existent) emerged from "nothing" (i.e. in ex nihilo). He is not using the term "universe" to denote "all that exists"; it is made clear in the article that, in his view, a single universe is only one subset of the whole, errr, "macrocosm," if you will.

From the article:
"From there he introduces the idea of multiple universes, saying that if there are many universes, one will have laws of physics like ours -- and in such a universe, something not only can, but must, arise from nothing."

He is simply saying that the first existent thing(s) in our particular universe could have emerged simply given the physical laws of our universe [i.e. its existence does not rely on a creator God]. This still leaves the existence of our universe open to causes and conditions from a number of outside events.




Isn't it contradictory to claim that while multiple universes exist something still initially arises from nothing?

His use of the term "nothing" either means literally "no thing" or is poorly employed ergo misleading.


Moreover, that is religious thought.


Not all conclusions that are not derived from science are "religious." On this argumentation, any a priori claim made at all would be a religious one. If you make an exhaustive dichotomy between empirical induction and religious belief, you fail to leave room for one very important thing: reason. The sort of reasoning that Mr. Hawking is basing his claims off of. Whether you agree with his reasoning or not, you have to at least admit that he is indeed reasoning (notably, in a way acceptable to a large contingency of people). Its simply unfair to characterize him as someone who is religiously devoted to the idea of something-out-of-nothing-ism .


Religious thought can likewise be based on reason and empirical data. My objection is that is he making claims based on dodgy reasoning and moreover he is making unfalsifiable claims. I would suggest that he is representing not so much science but the emerging form of religious materialism that is presently fashionable amongst scientists.



Why judge yourself and Mr. Hawking on two different scales? You critique him for making an unfalsifiable claim, but make just as strong of an unfalsifiable claim to the counter: "Positing that something (like the universe) can arise from nothing without a cause is fallacious to begin with." At least Hawking does us the service of offering his reasoning, your view is stated as though its axiomatic. Further, I think it would be hard for you to deny that your strong belief in causal dependence is not influenced by your religion...


I don't deny having religious views.


The thing is, I agree with you; it seems counterintuitive that something could come out of nothing -- yet, I think we need to be understanding/empathetic enough to see that quite a few people could see it as equally counterintuitive that this very moment could be causally connected in a chain back to "beginningless time" (even this term, as language often does, reifies the conception that there is such a particular "time").


The beginninglessness of time is a consequence of inference. It is a simple conclusion drawn from the easily tested observation that all phenomena are caused and those causes likewise have causes. To say that causality could be initiated from causelessness is absurd. I'm sure you know this already, but I say this to clarify the point for other readers.


Conclusion: Its easy to caricature someone's view and beat up the straw man in front of a bunch of people likely to agree with you; it takes a bit more skill to step into someone else's shoes sympathetically and try to see where they're coming from. Understanding the Dharma is for the salvation of sentient beings, not to attack others with.


It is easy to imagine where Mr. Hawkings is speaking from -- he is attacking monotheists. When scientists speak of religion it is almost always in reference to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. God is their opponent.

When he says science will defeat religion (which specifically means God worshippers I suspect), he's probably right, but that doesn't mean he'll be so easily able to blow away everyone else (Buddhists, Jains, philosophers, etc...).
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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby plassma » Fri Nov 12, 2010 8:55 am

Isn't it contradictory to claim that while multiple universes exist something still initially arises from nothing?

His use of the term "nothing" either means literally "no thing" or is poorly employed ergo misleading.


Its as though you want it to be misleading just so you an argue against it. I didn't find it misleading, because I took the time to try to understand his claim within the context of his general view. This seems to be a better approach than force-fitting one's own definitions onto another's work and then saying that work doesn't make sense.

Religious thought can likewise be based on reason and empirical data. My objection is that is he making claims based on dodgy reasoning and moreover he is making unfalsifiable claims. I would suggest that he is representing not so much science but the emerging form of religious materialism that is presently fashionable amongst scientists.


Your original claim seemed to be stronger than this; but perhaps I misunderstood you. Still, I find it hard to believe that you have read and understood his entire book on the topic and therefore can claim that his reasoning is "dodgy." In fact, I would venture to guess you're basing your entire view on the 4 or so lines given in this article.

Also, it is very common for scientists to engage in reasoning on the ontological implications of their data. (In fact, if you really think about it, no meaning could be drawn from scientific data at all without a certain level of reasoned interpretation. The very idea of drawing truths from science is based on the [problematic] concept of induction.) This has occurred since the emergence of science; I think very few have viewed it as a religious enterprise.

Now, I agree with you, there is a thin line that must be drawn between what is the domain of science and what is the domain of further reasoning/interpretation. This line has become increasingly blurred by the rise of theoretical physics. Many scientists and philosophers of science have commented on this trend; I don't think any of them took it as a rise in commitment (religious or otherwise) to materialism: most of them simply called for a clearer methodological delineation between scientific findings and reasoning based on them. Personally, I think anyone with a bit of intellect should be able to distinguish between the too. The problem arises when people take science to be a flawless epistemological tool solely capable of uncovering the truth: a premise that no scientist believes. Most scientists are very careful to temper their confidence in the implications of their findings ("this data seems to support the hypthesis that..." not "this data shows that ____ is the case"; the use of statistical confidence intervals, etc.), it is the fault of the reader for glossing over the tentativeness of these theses.

Your concept of an "emerging form of religious materialism that is presently fashionable amongst scientists" seems misguided as well. Western metaphysics has always leaned towards the view that all is reducible to the physical. While this may not seem intuitive to you, or many Buddhists, you cannot deny that this is a justifiable view based on sound reasons (that you may or may not agree with). Scientists may be tend to think in this direction; but, It is not as though scientists have recently become religiously devote to this idea -- this was simply the working hypothesis in Western metaphysics for years.

Actually, most recently, this is the very idea that has come be called into question by advances in science. Doesn't the very concept that energy and matter are fundamentally the same thing (as expressed in Einstein's formula E=MC^2) undermine the roots of materialism? What about the concept of anti-matter? What about the idea of the non-distinguishability of particles and waves? These are all fairly recent concepts which cast doubt on a strictly physicalist view.

Or, gah, what about using functional magnetic resonance imagining to try to understand the subjective experience of meditation? This is science.

I say all of this simply to make the point that: your view of scientists is too cynical. I don't think scientists are under the influence of some religious agenda supported by shadowy figures in the state to convince everyone that the world physically exists and that it came from nothing, defying causality. Rather, I think scientists, just like you, are working with the evidence they have and their best reasoning skills to try and find the truth.

Here's a little anecdote to further muddy up your neatly packaged preconcieved notion of science, materialism and philosophy: I once worked for a fairly prominent scientist (at least within his field) who told me of an interesting debate he had with prominent modern philosopher Daniel Dennet. While Dennet holds [actually based on some very interesting unconventional argumentation] that all things reduce to the physical, including, most relevantly, thoughts and mental events themselves; the scientist argued against him, claiming not only that thoughts are non-physical BUT EVEN THAT thoughts supercede and can directly causally effect what we take to be the physical world. Religiously devout materialist? I think not.


So, please, before dividing the world into some crazy Manichean duality of non-sensical materialists/scientists and right-minded idealist/Buddhists, come into contact with some actual scientists, read some works on philosophy of science, even try to read the arguments of some materialist thinkers to try and understand where they're coming from. Otherwise, your argument seems to closely resemble something along the lines of, "I'm not certain what I'm talking about, but I'm certain that I'm right."

(Further, you might even consider refining your understanding of the Buddhist approach to material/form. I think you'll be suprised what you find: Buddhism is not so strictly idealistic as you might think. Dan Lusthaus has an interesting portion in his book, "Buddhist Phenomonology," which makes some interesting points on the role and meaning of rupa in the abhidharma. You might also consider the Sautantrika-Svatantrika view of the physicality of conventional svhabhavas and its relation to materialist philosophy...)

The beginninglessness of time is a consequence of inference. It is a simple conclusion drawn from the easily tested observation that all phenomena are caused and those causes likewise have causes. To say that causality could be initiated from causelessness is absurd. I'm sure you know this already, but I say this to clarify the point for other readers.


I don't think its so easy to test every single phenomena of the past, present, and future for causality. Generalizing from your available "data set" (i.e. inference) always relies on a certain leap of faith (see Hume on the Problem of Induction). Again, I agree with your general stance, I just don't see it as intuitively given as you seem to.

Also, to say that "something emerged from nothing" [which, again, is NOT what Hawking is saying here, at least in the sense we are getting at here] does not necessarily imply that causality emerged form causelessness. This is why I cited Aristotle's idea of hylei: that the universe could have emerged from a nothingness which is a pure potentiality. I, as I imagine you would, find this concept fishy, but that isn't to say that someone raised with different philosophical presuppositions than us might find this idea more appealing than the idea of an infinite regress of causality. That is, this view is not, as you say, absurd (you seem to act as though its so absurd as to preclude any necessity of argumentation for its absurdity). Many excellent thinkers have come up with some very challenging arguments against the "infinite causal regress," most notably, perhaps, Aristotle and Bertrand Russel. I don't think we can count it out as a simply "absurd" notion.

It is easy to imagine where Mr. Hawkings is speaking from -- he is attacking monotheists. When scientists speak of religion it is almost always in reference to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. God is their opponent.


When I spoke of understanding where he was coming from, I was speaking of something much more comprehensive than what you are doing. I was talking about actually putting yourself in his shoes, attempting to enter his "existential habitat," considering the philosophical presuppositions and argumentation he was incubated in his entire life, the history of historical contingencies and philosophical debates which shaped that intellectual climate, the recent developments in science that influenced his view, the competing views in the field that have influenced his, etc. etc. You might even go so far as to speculate as to certain emotional attachments to particular modes of thinking and interpetive grids which might influence his thinking.

It is never easy to imagine where someone else is coming from. If its easy, you are simply objectifying or projecting your own views onto the other person. I don't think Hawking views god as his "opponent," I think he is just interested in the truth, like you and I.

Sorry for the long post, too much caffeine. :coffee:
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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby Luke » Fri Nov 12, 2010 6:17 pm

Huseng wrote:Positing that something (like the universe) can arise from nothing without a cause is fallacious to begin with.

Moreover, that is religious thought. That is a completely unfalsifiable claim. It cannot be reproduced, predicted or observed.

It is no different than a theologian insisting that God, which is likewise an uncaused entity capable of initiating causal processes, created time and space.

Hi Huseng,

Stephen Hawking is famous for saying things which currently can't be proven or disproven. Taking his illness into consideration, I can't say that I blame him for doing a lot of speculating.

And assuming that Stephen Hawking speaks for the whole physics community is as wrong as assuming that the Dalai Lama speaks for every sect of Buddhism. A lot of experimental physicists distrust the theories of theoretical physicists, such as string theory, which currently haven't been proven by experiments.

Huseng wrote:As time goes on I see what kind of theories materialist philosophy cook up and wonder why they're hailed as the state sanctioned directors of the truth in the present day world.

Who would you rather hear speculate: someone who can predict the outcome of many natural events successfully or something who can't?

The truth and effectiveness of modern science can't be denied in the realm of relative truth. The information it has produced has explained so much and successfully predicted so many phyiscal events. This is why scientists have credibility.

In contrast, when one looks at the history of religion and philosophy, one does not see steady, observable progress, but instead sees constant clashes and arguments which are never resolved satisfactorily for everyone.

One book you might enjoy reading is "The End of Science" by John Horgan. In it, the author speculates about a possible limit to human scientific knowledge and interviews many famous scientists, such as Hawking, Crick, Penrose, Chomsky, etc. I read it a long time ago and found it interesting.
http://www.amazon.com/End-Science-Knowl ... 0553061747
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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby plassma » Sun Nov 14, 2010 3:34 pm

Hi Luke,

I think what you say about the doubts of physicists about theoretical physics and the accuracy of science within the relative/conventional world (I think this is an important point) are pretty accurate, and are important points to be made about a topic like this. I don't quite follow what you mean by this though:

Stephen Hawking is famous for saying things which currently can't be proven or disproven. Taking his illness into consideration, I can't say that I blame him for doing a lot of speculating.



Anyways, here's a pretty interesting article by Stephen M. Barr, professor of physics at the University of Delaware and author of "Modern Physics and Ancient Faith." Should help to shed some light on this issue.

http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/ ... g-universe
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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby Indrajala » Sun Nov 14, 2010 9:59 pm

Luke wrote:Who would you rather hear speculate: someone who can predict the outcome of many natural events successfully or something who can't?


Is the dichotomy really as clean cut as you make it sound?


The truth and effectiveness of modern science can't be denied in the realm of relative truth. The information it has produced has explained so much and successfully predicted so many phyiscal events. This is why scientists have credibility.


I recognize the validity of science and the applications it has. Unfortunately not every theory in what we call "science" allows for accurate predictions.

In contrast, when one looks at the history of religion and philosophy, one does not see steady, observable progress, but instead sees constant clashes and arguments which are never resolved satisfactorily for everyone.


How do you define progress?

Science has produced an immense body of objective knowledge, but alas much of it is used for less than benevolent purposes. The horrors of the 20th century -- industrialized warfare, industrialized food, atomic weapons, chemical weapons, etc... -- were all made possible through science intentionally detached from spiritual cultivation.

One might argue that whether or not nuclear physics are employed for good or evil is beside the point as what matters is the objective knowledge of how things work and not how humans employ such knowledge, but I still would argue that it isn't progress. Progress is eliminating suffering, not increasing it. This obsession with "objective knowledge" fails to account for how it will be employed.


One book you might enjoy reading is "The End of Science" by John Horgan. In it, the author speculates about a possible limit to human scientific knowledge and interviews many famous scientists, such as Hawking, Crick, Penrose, Chomsky, etc. I read it a long time ago and found it interesting.
http://www.amazon.com/End-Science-Knowl ... 0553061747


I might have to read this, thank you.
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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby Luke » Mon Nov 15, 2010 8:32 am

plassma wrote:I don't quite follow what you mean by this though:
Stephen Hawking is famous for saying things which currently can't be proven or disproven. Taking his illness into consideration, I can't say that I blame him for doing a lot of speculating.


It's been a long time since I read about Hawking and physics, so I can't remember the details, but I've heard this criticism leveled at Hawking many times. He has proven many things convincingly during his career, but I think the nature of cosmology is that a lot of it is speculative. Some things can be argued for based on evidence we have already gathered, but we can't recreate the Big Bang in a lab and see what will happen. All we can do is guess based on our current theories, create computer simulations, and create simplified experiments in the lab.

Certainly, when Hawking speculates about God in his books, he is in the realm of what can't be empirically proven or disproven.

Huseng wrote:
Luke wrote:Who would you rather hear speculate: someone who can predict the outcome of many natural events successfully or something who can't?


Is the dichotomy really as clean cut as you make it sound?

Yes, I think it is. Most people are just talkers and not doers. They enroll in courses of study and say, "My opinion is this and my opinion is that," but most of these opinions are completely useless and can't predict a damn thing and don't benefit other people in any tangible way.

For example, thousands of people talk about their predictions for the stock market all the time. But whose opinions will you value most? Those whose predictions have been mostly right in the past or those whose predictions who have been mostly wrong?

Empirical tests allow one to separate those with enough knowledge about the world to make accurate predictions from whose who lack the ability to do this. Since most of us are not psychic, prediction is one of the most valuable abilities. Who would you value more: a person who can tell you tomorrow's weather or one who can't? But this can include Buddhism because Buddhism can tell a person which actions will bring benefit and which will bring harm and many of these things can be observed in one lifetime.

I would also include experienced social scientists who can predict what actions people will take most of the time. I don't want to sound like I'm just putting physicists on a pedestal. Physicists can tell you what a black hole will do, but they are often clueless as to predicting what a person will do.

Huseng wrote:I recognize the validity of science and the applications it has. Unfortunately not every theory in what we call "science" allows for accurate predictions.

Those experimentally-proven theories of the physical sciences certainly allow for accurate predictions! These are clearly separate from speculations about future theories, such as string theory, some aspects of cosmology, some theories of artificial intelligence, etc. But it's the books about speculative things like time travel that sell, so that's what you hear most about. You don't read about ordinary quantum physics being proven true in the lab for the billionth time.

In the case of the social sciences, I would be more inclined to agree with you. The social sciences contain many theories of questionable validity, and it's harder to prove or disprove a lot of these things by experiments. Economics is often hailed as the most sophisticated and mathematical of the social sciences, but once an economics professor told me about a study which was done to see how often economists made accurate predictions, and the answer was, "A little more than half the time."

Huseng wrote:How do you define progress?

That's a good point. Progress is hard to define precisely, and at the moment, my brain is too tired to produce rock-solid definitions, so I'll just explain my thoughts instead.

You're talking about overall progress for humanity as a whole, but I think it's useful to break down overall progress into components. For example, I think that scientific progress and ethical progress are two different things.

The fact that some scientific inventions have created suffering is not fault of science, but a fault of the people who used the inventions in unethical ways. This doesn't show science to be a failure as much as it shows the need for ethics (especially Buddhist ethics!) in all situations. Science is just a tool like a hammer. The same hammer which can be used to build a house for a homeless person can also be used to bash someone's brains out.

Scientific progress is basically progress in our ability to predict observable events and progress in our ability to understand how the natural world functions (which often allows us to build better machines). Since we live in a dangerous world and have fragile bodies, prediction is one of the most important abilities of our brains. Science is a component of human culture which allows for the storage and accumulation of this knowledge over the span of generations.

I could talk and talk, but the main distinction I want to make is between these types of people:
1) Those who teach and promote ethics (especially those who teach Buddhism!). I think this is of primary importance.

The Native Americans lived peacefully and in harmony with their environment just fine without washing machines or laptops because of their highly developed ethics combined with their understanding of nature (one could call this very basic science). But if they had not understood nature at all, they would have just starved, froze, and died.

2) Scientists who can predict most events accurately.

Although ethics is often--or perhaps always--more important than science, the fact is that someone who lacks adequate scientific knowledge in the first place won't even be in the position to decide to use his/her knowledge for a good or a bad purpose because he/she doesn't know enough to accomplish very much in the physical world anyway.

At least scientists have the skills to benefit others if they choose to do so.

3) Philosophers who just talk and talk and who accomplish nothing. Their ideas rarely result in either ethical progress or in scientific progress. Of course, here I don't mean Buddhist philosophers, who do promote the useful ideas of a useful religious tradition. I am talking about western philosophers who just like to play word games and display their intellects.

Was Nietsche's philosophy more ethical than Plato's? Was Wittgenstein's philosophy more ethical than Kant's? I don't think you can discern any cumulative improvement in ethics in western philosophy. Most of it is just an exercise in tail-chasing which lacks the clarity of either Buddhism or of the natural sciences.

And although philosophy has occasionally resulted in scientific progress (such as Kant's writings inspiring Einstein and Godel), this is quite rare. It's usually the philosophers who are influenced by scientists.

In many ways, science can be said to be the most successful western philosophy.
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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby Indrajala » Mon Nov 15, 2010 10:01 am

Huseng wrote:
Luke wrote:Who would you rather hear speculate: someone who can predict the outcome of many natural events successfully or something who can't?


Is the dichotomy really as clean cut as you make it sound?

Yes, I think it is. Most people are just talkers and not doers. They enroll in courses of study and say, "My opinion is this and my opinion is that," but most of these opinions are completely useless and can't predict a damn thing and don't benefit other people in any tangible way.

For example, thousands of people talk about their predictions for the stock market all the time. But whose opinions will you value most? Those whose predictions have been mostly right in the past or those whose predictions who have been mostly wrong?



You originally said this:

Who would you rather hear speculate: someone who can predict the outcome of many natural events successfully or something who can't?

The truth and effectiveness of modern science can't be denied in the realm of relative truth. The information it has produced has explained so much and successfully predicted so many phyiscal events. This is why scientists have credibility.


You make it sound like all of modern science is able to always accurately predict physical events. This is not the case.


Empirical tests allow one to separate those with enough knowledge about the world to make accurate predictions from whose who lack the ability to do this. Since most of us are not psychic, prediction is one of the most valuable abilities. Who would you value more: a person who can tell you tomorrow's weather or one who can't? But this can include Buddhism because Buddhism can tell a person which actions will bring benefit and which will bring harm and many of these things can be observed in one lifetime.


You have the good sense to allow Buddhists into your strictly distinguished group of accurate predictors. However, your original point above was someone who can predict the outcome of many natural events successfully. Generally speaking Buddhist thought neither attempts to or has an interest in such things.



Huseng wrote:I recognize the validity of science and the applications it has. Unfortunately not every theory in what we call "science" allows for accurate predictions.

Those experimentally-proven theories of the physical sciences certainly allow for accurate predictions!


I said, "...not every theory in what we call "science" allows for accurate predictions".

The most obvious examples are found in astronomy where there is only observation and not reproduction of phenomena.

In the case of the social sciences, I would be more inclined to agree with you. The social sciences contain many theories of questionable validity, and it's harder to prove or disprove a lot of these things by experiments. Economics is often hailed as the most sophisticated and mathematical of the social sciences, but once an economics professor told me about a study which was done to see how often economists made accurate predictions, and the answer was, "A little more than half the time."


Modern day economics tends to be elitist and the theories and results tailored to suit the desires of the bourgeoisie. They like to predict growth in abstract and entirely subjective categories like GDP while ignoring environmental destruction and the emotional well-being of people. The latter two are objectively real but are conveniently ignored in favour of entirely subjective categories.

You're talking about overall progress for humanity as a whole, but I think it's useful to break down overall progress into components. For example, I think that scientific progress and ethical progress are two different things.


You can't separate the two just because it becomes inconvenient and undesirable when considering the implications of scientific development sans spiritual-ethical cultivation. Scientific development is only as good as the people who pass on the torch to future generations. If the "objective body of knowledge" as it were figuratively destroys itself because of having detached itself from "subjective ideas", then what use was the initial project to begin with?

The fact that some scientific inventions have created suffering is not fault of science, but a fault of the people who used the inventions in unethical ways. This doesn't show science to be a failure as much as it shows the need for ethics (especially Buddhist ethics!) in all situations. Science is just a tool like a hammer. The same hammer which can be used to build a house for a homeless person can also be used to bash someone's brains out.


This is not a convincing argument because nerve gas, which was developed using chemistry and biology in laboratories, is a bit more complicated and dangerous than a hammer. If you think they're essentially the same, then what prohibits you from giving a sharp knife to a small child, or a government selling nerve gas to a brutal military dictatorship?

The same argument is basically given in favour of private gun ownership -- guns don't kill people, people kill people, so why disallow the citizenry from owning as many firearms as they wish?


Scientific progress is basically progress in our ability to predict observable events and progress in our ability to understand how the natural world functions (which often allows us to build better machines).
Since we live in a dangerous world and have fragile bodies, prediction is one of the most important abilities of our brains. Science is a component of human culture which allows for the storage and accumulation of this knowledge over the span of generations.


You've made a value judgement here -- that increased ability to predict observable events is good because we live in a dangerous world where such an ability preserves our fragile bodies -- despite insisting above that, "that scientific progress and ethical progress are two different things."

You cannot separate the two.


The Native Americans lived peacefully and in harmony with their environment just fine without washing machines or laptops because of their highly developed ethics combined with their understanding of nature (one could call this very basic science). But if they had not understood nature at all, they would have just starved, froze, and died.


I don't know about this. Who exactly were the "Native Americans" in pre-modern times and were they some singular homogeneous culture? A lot of Japanese people like to say the same thing about themselves: "We Japanese have always lived in harmony with nature!" Meanwhile they tear up the countryside and plaster cement across perfectly fine and stable mountainsides to artificially create jobs.

2) Scientists who can predict most events accurately.


Let's see them predict the big bang.

Although ethics is often--or perhaps always--more important than science, the fact is that someone who lacks adequate scientific knowledge in the first place won't even be in the position to decide to use his/her knowledge for a good or a bad purpose because he/she doesn't know enough to accomplish very much in the physical world anyway.


Nonsense. Countless Buddhist masters past and present had little knowledge of science and were well able to decide for themselves with their own knowledge on what was best for themselves and their communities.

At least scientists have the skills to benefit others if they choose to do so.


And the Buddhist yogi master with decades of meditation experience has no skills to benefit others because they might lack training in science?


3) Philosophers who just talk and talk and who accomplish nothing. Their ideas rarely result in either ethical progress or in scientific progress. Of course, here I don't mean Buddhist philosophers, who do promote the useful ideas of a useful religious tradition. I am talking about western philosophers who just like to play word games and display their intellects.


A lot of people have found meaning to some extent reading western philosophy. It also tends to influence the direction a culture takes. For example existentialism and nihilism trickles into the populace and has them thinking it is most realistic to believe life is entirely meaningless and anything you feel or perceive is essentially without value or purpose.
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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby Luke » Mon Nov 15, 2010 11:16 am

Huseng wrote:You make it sound like all of modern science is able to always accurately predict physical events. This is not the case.

Yes, it but science does much better at predicting these things than any other field of human knowledge. Do you know of anyone who is better at this than scientists are? You're very critical, but can you do these things better than a scientist could?

Huseng wrote:You have the good sense to allow Buddhists into your strictly distinguished group of accurate predictors. However, your original point above was someone who can predict the outcome of many natural events successfully. Generally speaking Buddhist thought neither attempts to or has an interest in such things.

But Buddhists have to deal with the world of human behavior because their goal is to teach humans Buddhism, so they make valuable observations about human behavior while doing this.

Huseng wrote:I recognize the validity of science and the applications it has. Unfortunately not every theory in what we call "science" allows for accurate predictions.
Those experimentally-proven theories of the physical sciences certainly allow for accurate predictions


I said, "...not every theory in what we call "science" allows for accurate predictions".

Okay, if you want to get picky, who is calling it "science"? If you call "science" anything which any person at some time has correctly or incorrectly called "science," then yes, your definition will be quite broad and full of garbage which even most practicing scientists wouldn't call "science."

The predictions of the physical sciences are accurate to a breath-taking degree.

Huseng wrote:The most obvious examples are found in astronomy where there is only observation and not reproduction of phenomena.

It depends what is being studied. Sometimes observation is enough. If predict that a certain star will be at a certain place at a certain time based on your equations, and then you observe that the star was at exactly that place at that time, then that is one piece of evidence in favor of your equations. The more accurately your predictions match with observation, the more likely it is that you are correct, especially if you make many predictions over a long period of time.

This is different from deep cosmological things like the Big Bang which can't be observed or created in the lab.

Huseng wrote:Modern day economics tends to be elitist and the theories and results tailored to suit the desires of the bourgeoisie. They like to predict growth in abstract and entirely subjective categories like GDP while ignoring environmental destruction and the emotional well-being of people. The latter two are objectively real but are conveniently ignored in favour of entirely subjective categories.

I agree with you. I was trying to say that the social sciences are generally more "wishy-washy" and less reliable than the physical sciences. But we can't write an equation which will perfectly predict human behavior, so the social sciences are the best we've got (along with Buddhism).

Huseng wrote:
You're talking about overall progress for humanity as a whole, but I think it's useful to break down overall progress into components. For example, I think that scientific progress and ethical progress are two different things.


You can't separate the two just because it becomes inconvenient and undesirable when considering the implications of scientific development sans spiritual-ethical cultivation.

It's not a matter convenience; it's matter of clarity. I was just trying to illustrate the distinction between the people who have the skills to significantly impact the world and those who do not. I emphasized this because you basically asked why scientists have so much credibility. They have that credibility because they can prove they are right through experiments and observations. Most other people talk all day long, but can't prove anything with any degree of definiteness.

Huseng wrote:Scientific development is only as good as the people who pass on the torch to future generations.

I agree.

Huseng wrote:The same argument is basically given in favour of private gun ownership -- guns don't kill people, people kill people, so why disallow the citizenry from owning as many firearms as they wish?

Because people can't be trusted because most of them are not Bodhisattvas. It doesn't take much for an ordinary person to become very angry.

Huseng wrote:
Scientific progress is basically progress in our ability to predict observable events and progress in our ability to understand how the natural world functions (which often allows us to build better machines).
Since we live in a dangerous world and have fragile bodies, prediction is one of the most important abilities of our brains. Science is a component of human culture which allows for the storage and accumulation of this knowledge over the span of generations.


You've made a value judgement here -- that increased ability to predict observable events is good because we live in a dangerous world where such an ability preserves our fragile bodies -- despite insisting above that, "that scientific progress and ethical progress are two different things."

I just stuck to common sense. Our brains aren't designed to find the slowest and worst solutions to a given situation. Would you rather fall face-first into a swamp or walk around it?

If I'm assuming anything, it's that protecting one's body is "good"--I don't think this is too controversial. Occasionally, a bodhisattva may sacrifice his or her body, but that's a rare situation.

The Native Americans lived peacefully and in harmony with their environment just fine without washing machines or laptops because of their highly developed ethics combined with their understanding of nature (one could call this very basic science). But if they had not understood nature at all, they would have just starved, froze, and died.


Who exactly were the "Native Americans" in pre-modern times...?

I meant the indigenous peoples who lived in North America before the Europeans arrived.

Huseng wrote: and were they some singular homogeneous culture? A lot of Japanese people like to say the same thing about themselves: "We Japanese have always lived in harmony with nature!" Meanwhile they tear up the countryside and plaster cement across perfectly fine and stable mountainsides to artificially create jobs.

If you're skeptical about the Native Americans, then research them. They didn't have the technology to tear up the countryside.

Huseng wrote:
2) Scientists who can predict most events accurately.


Let's see them predict the big bang.

A large number of physical events minus one is still a large number of physical events. Science can predict a lot, even though it can't predict everything.

Huseng wrote:Nonsense. Countless Buddhist masters past and present had little knowledge of science and were well able to decide for themselves with their own knowledge on what was best for themselves and their communities.

Yes, I agree. In my previous post, I was trying to say that I think that both Buddhists and scientists have a special category of knowledge because their theories about reality are accurate. This gives them a unique amount of power. A painter or a diplomat won't find be able to create a new vaccine.

3) Philosophers who just talk and talk and who accomplish nothing. Their ideas rarely result in either ethical progress or in scientific progress. Of course, here I don't mean Buddhist philosophers, who do promote the useful ideas of a useful religious tradition. I am talking about western philosophers who just like to play word games and display their intellects.


Huseng wrote: It also tends to influence the direction a culture takes. For example existentialism and nihilism trickles into the populace and has them thinking it is most realistic to believe life is entirely meaningless and anything you feel or perceive is essentially without value or purpose.

You're describing changing fashions and not any kind of cumulative progress. It's more like art: in one century, they liked this type of painting; in another, they preferred that type of painting. But which painting is "better"? It's just subjective. Whereas Einstein's theory of relativity was clearly better than the preceding theories about light, space, and time because it explained more.

Science can't transcend the relative, but it gets closer to absolute truth than any other western field of study. It also provides a good way of thinking logically about things, so one can avoid being tricked and cheated.
Last edited by Luke on Mon Nov 15, 2010 4:34 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby plassma » Mon Nov 15, 2010 4:22 pm

@Luke
I understood your point about the common accusation made against theoretical physicists (it's not only Hawking) that they engage in too much empirically unvarifiable speculation, I was wondering why you saw Hawking's illness as having anything to do with it?

@Huseng
Your argument seems to hinge on three key points:
1. Some things called [at least you percieve to be called] "science" are not falsifiable empirically based theories:
In your objections to the field of "science" based on prediction and verifiability, you seem to be missing the point that Luke and I have made about the distinction between "regular" physics and theoretical physics. Theoretical physics is not, strictly speaking, science. It is not, as you have accurately point out, based on a methodology rooted in the "scientific method." Hence the term "theoretical" in its title. As Luke and I have also pointed out, many scientists have levelled this objection against the field as well. Thus, objections that you make on this ground DO NOT apply to science as a whole. In my eyes, it might be best to consider theoretical physics an ontology based on extrapolation from experimentally validated premises.

2. Some scientific theories do not accurately predict future events:
I don't see this is an objection to science as an endeavor. I mean, its basically tautological to say that, "not every theory in what we call 'science' allows for accurate predictions." That's why its called a theory. Science is a self-regulating system which rejects those theories which are not accurate and accepts those which have a reasonable amount of empirical evidence [as decided by the particular field] to support it as a generalizable claim. This seems intuitive enough. Whats the problem here?

3. Science does not make the sort of advancements that you see as valuable, namely those that reduce suffering:
Ahem. Medicine? Research based psychological therapy? There are probably quite a few more examples.

Again, I'd like to point to the thing that I really see as the argument killer here: modern scientific research on meditation. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (developed by Jon-Kabat Zinn, based on SCIENTIFIC research on mindfulness

Because you miss obvious examples such as these, your history of scientific development a la Virilio is, well, bunk. Your comparison of science to nerve gas and weapons ... uhhmmm ... needs some reconsideration.

I think Luke is correct, you can't blame science for the fact that things that have been discovered using the scientific method have been misused. The gun metaphor is not apt because guns have a particular function which is generally negative; science has no particular function (it is a method that can be applied to many different areas of inquiry) and is value neutral in its effect.

4. Science is not valuable because it is divided from spiritual cultivation and ethical development:

Just last year I ran an experiment (yep, science :jawdrop: ) testing the Buddhist hypothesis that morality is a crucial factor for concentration. We had several undergrad students who signed up follow the 5 precepts for varying periods of time, and used a pre-post design to measure various indicators of concentration, working memory, mindfulness, etc.

It might be worth noting that me and the other grad student I was working with both practice meditation and strive to be ethical people.

In order to run the experiment, I had to write an extensive explanation of the experiment, the potential gains for participants, justification for whatever costs for the participants (here there were little) the experiment might have in context of the value of the experiment for the body of human knowledge as whole, etc. etc. etc., all to be reviewed and meticulously critiqued, revised, etc. by an ethics review board.

Tell me, in this picture, where is this separation of science and "ethico-spiritual" development you speak of? On your view, what do you make of the entire field of biomedical ethics? Research on spirituality and cancer patients? Ethics review boards in hospitals thoroughly questioning these cancer researchers as to how their studies on dying patients can be guaranteed to allow for the best quality of life for those patients before their death? (my girlfriend worked for a hospital ethics board so I got to hear all about this)

In my experience, and in my readings on the history of medical ethics and ethics in psychology studies, it seems that as science has grown, scientists have (at least in many cases) been very careful with the ethical implications of their work, which has allowed for ethics and science to grow symbiotically.

Also, while on the topic of science and ethics, this argument doesn't make sense:
You've made a value judgement here -- that increased ability to predict observable events is good because we live in a dangerous world where such an ability preserves our fragile bodies -- despite insisting above that, "that scientific progress and ethical progress are two different things."


Value judgments are not necessarily ethical judgments.

And a minor point: existentialism has nothing to do with the stance that "life is entirely meaningless and anything you feel or perceive is essentially without value or purpose." A quick search of Google Scholar would turn up a good deal of interesting articles on the intersections between existentialism and Buddhist thought. Read up.

Also, I still recommend the link in the post I made above, which addresses the exact concern which this topic has, well, strayed from.
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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby Indrajala » Tue Nov 16, 2010 12:43 am

plassma wrote:3. Science does not make the sort of advancements that you see as valuable, namely those that reduce suffering:
Ahem. Medicine? Research based psychological therapy? There are probably quite a few more examples.


Where did I say that I think medicine is not valuable?

The argument you insist I make is one you just made up.

Again, I'd like to point to the thing that I really see as the argument killer here: modern scientific research on meditation. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (developed by Jon-Kabat Zinn, based on SCIENTIFIC research on mindfulness


I hope it works out for them.


Because you miss obvious examples such as these, your history of scientific development a la Virilio is, well, bunk. Your comparison of science to nerve gas and weapons ... uhhmmm ... needs some reconsideration.


Not really. Nerve gas was not developed by philosophers, historians or even politicians. It took a specific skill set to develop. Most notably knowledge of chemistry and biology.


I think Luke is correct, you can't blame science for the fact that things that have been discovered using the scientific method have been misused. The gun metaphor is not apt because guns have a particular function which is generally negative; science has no particular function (it is a method that can be applied to many different areas of inquiry) and is value neutral in its effect.


However, with such a perspective -- that science is merely a neutral value tool -- the project will inevitably destroy itself because of a lack of benevolent and positive intention behind the activities, and bring down a lot of people with it.

Just last year I ran an experiment (yep, science :jawdrop: ) testing the Buddhist hypothesis that morality is a crucial factor for concentration. We had several undergrad students who signed up follow the 5 precepts for varying periods of time, and used a pre-post design to measure various indicators of concentration, working memory, mindfulness, etc.



I think you'd have better luck interviewing monastics, not undergrads.


Tell me, in this picture, where is this separation of science and "ethico-spiritual" development you speak of? On your view, what do you make of the entire field of biomedical ethics? Research on spirituality and cancer patients? Ethics review boards in hospitals thoroughly questioning these cancer researchers as to how their studies on dying patients can be guaranteed to allow for the best quality of life for those patients before their death? (my girlfriend worked for a hospital ethics board so I got to hear all about this)


I said ethics + spirituality and science should not be separated. I feel they largely are in most areas of science nowadays, but that isn't a blanket statement as you portray me making.
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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby plassma » Tue Nov 16, 2010 4:54 am

Where did I say that I think medicine is not valuable?

The argument you insist I make is one you just made up.


I'm beginning to wonder if your standard mode of argumentation is to misrepresent the others argument and to argue against it. In fact, as I have mentioned above, that is the very basis of this entire thread. (I notice you still haven't read the article I linked to, 'Much Ado about Nothing', which actually dispels your qualms about the theory in question. You seem to be much more interested in arguing.)

Anyways, I attributed the following view to you: "Science does not make the sort of advancements that you see as valuable, namely those that reduce suffering." This was a paraphrase of the following:

How do you define progress? [...] One might argue that whether or not nuclear physics are employed for good or evil is beside the point as what matters is the objective knowledge of how things work and not how humans employ such knowledge, but I still would argue that it isn't progress. Progress is eliminating suffering, not increasing it. This obsession with "objective knowledge" fails to account for how it will be employed.


I think this is a fair characterization.

I never said that you don't think medicine is valuable (although one might argue that you imply it in the above quote, modern medicine being a field of "objective knowledge of how things work" -- but, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt), I am saying that your argumentation leaves out one very large portion of the picture. You questions Luke's image of science as making "progress" because it doesn't fit your definition of progress, the elimination of suffering. I pointed out science, cognitive science, and a modern example highly relevant to Buddhism to demonstrate that "science" has made quite a lot of "progress" by your standards.

Not really. Nerve gas was not developed by philosophers, historians or even politicians. It took a specific skill set to develop. Most notably knowledge of chemistry and biology.


Hmm... nerve gas was accidentally happened upon by a German scientist and was required by Nazi law to report it to the Ministry of War. Is its negative uses the fault of the scientist? I think most reasonable people would agree that the fault is with the institutions and systems that promulgate the uses of such discoveries in war, not with the scientist. To think that nerve gas is an apt metaphor for science as a whole is, well, absurd, and clearly smacks of your biased picture of the history of science which fails to take into account ANY of its positive effects.

However, with such a perspective -- that science is merely a neutral value tool -- the project will inevitably destroy itself because of a lack of benevolent and positive intention behind the activities, and bring down a lot of people with it.


Just because science is a neutral value tool in-itself doesn't mean that it can't be used towards benevolent ends (as demonstrated by all the examples I've given). I think the large majority of scientists do their work in the interest of bettering the world. Science, as originally envisioned by Enlightenment thinkers, was seen as a tool towards liberating the mind. Here is His Holiness the Dalai Lama on science: "In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview."

Still, even if science was done for purely "neutral" reasons, I don't see how that entails your apocalyptic image of downfall.

I think you'd have better luck interviewing monastics, not undergrads.


I wish it was possible! But, then I'd have no control group to compare to. The design was to measure attention, working memory, etc. before and to remeasure after taking/practicing the precepts, then to compare. It would be great to do this with monastics, because we can be more certain of their level of commitment to the precepts, but it would be impossible to find people to pre-test who we were certain would become monastics very soon! We could compare monastics against another demographically similar group, but then we would have no way of singling out adherence to the precepts as the reason for any differences in cognitive measures. Undergrads have served me well as subjects though: I was able to demonstrate a massive increase in empathy and desire for wellbeing of others (using a measure called the Welfare Trade-off Ratio) in freshmen who underwent a one-week meditation retreat.

I said ethics + spirituality and science should not be separated. I feel they largely are in most areas of science nowadays, but that isn't a blanket statement as you portray me making.


I merely meant to point out a series of examples which demonstrate that ethics/spirituality are not as separated from science as you think. In fact, in any case in which they could be incorporated, they have. We have scientist-practitioners, scientists studying spirituality, scientists studying the effects of ethics, ethics review boards which review every single experiment which involves a sentient being. In the natural science, of course, there is not such a focus on ethics and spirituality, because, well, what would that even mean? Many spiritual and ethical things are highly psychological and therefore highly subjective. Science would simply have no way of measuring of them. Trust me, at least in my field, we go way out of our way to try: half of the game of cognitive science seems to be coming up with objectively measurable measures which clearly correspond with some sort of cognitive construct or subjective phenomenon. (I once had a methodology textbook aptly titled "Measuring the Weight of Smoke)

So it seems to me ethics and spirituality converge with science on as many fronts as they can, but of course, these fronts are limited. I don't see the limitation of science to objectively measurable phenomenon as something which makes it somehow doomed for failure or the promotion of immorality.

Anyways, your current argument seems to amount to: Scientific theories which are (1) not accurate, (2) separated from ethics or spirituality, or (3) not in the interest of wellbeing of humanity DO NOT constitute progress. I think 1 and 3 are intuitively reasonable; anyone would agree with that. However, I think we might disagree in that: you seem to think that most science research falls into the categories of (1) or (3), whereas I don't. As far as (2) goes, I think that science is more closely allied with ethics than you seem to. However, I don't see an alignment with spirituality as a necessity for progress. So long as research doesn't fall into the trap of (3), that is, as long as it is in the interest of the wellbeing of humanity in general, I don't see why it should matter if its on a spiritual or objective level. We would at least agree that there are is some scientific research which fits all three of these requirements for progress, and therefore science has been responsible for some progress (at least on the conventional level).

On the other hand, you hold that the theories of theoretical physics are not science (or at least not falsifiable), and are therefore religious/mythological in nature (? -- I may have misread you here). I still don't follow this argument.
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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby 5heaps » Tue Nov 16, 2010 7:12 am

plassma wrote:From the article:
"From there he introduces the idea of multiple universes, saying that if there are many universes, one will have laws of physics like ours -- and in such a universe, something not only can, but must, arise from nothing."

He is simply saying that the first existent thing(s) in our particular universe could have emerged simply given the physical laws of our universe [i.e. its existence does not rely on a creator God]. This still leaves the existence of our universe open to causes and conditions from a number of outside events.
although my complaint is not quite the same as ops, according to buddhism this belief in emerging properties is very much akin to religious thought.

just like the need to rely on an unchanging functioning god in order to make sense of things, there is a need to rely on an unchanging functioning whole with no clear ontological status in order to make sense of things. in response to this the most basic version of buddhist thought (vaibhashika) asserts that the whole and its parts are both functioning, produced, impermanent phenomena.
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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby Luke » Tue Nov 16, 2010 3:26 pm

Huseng wrote:However, with such a perspective -- that science is merely a neutral value tool -- the project will inevitably destroy itself because of a lack of benevolent and positive intention behind the activities, and bring down a lot of people with it.

Huseng,

You seem to be assuming that all scientists have no ethics just because some scientists have discovered things which led to the creation of deadly weapons.

Some scientists have ethics because they have faith in some religion (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.). And some scientists may have what the Dalai Lama calls "secular ethics." That is, they have a sense of ethics, even though they don't follow any particular religion.

However, even if many scientists conduct their research in an ethical way, this doesn't mean that some person couldn't at a later time use their research for evil purposes.

Huseng wrote:I said ethics + spirituality and science should not be separated. I feel they largely are in most areas of science nowadays, but that isn't a blanket statement as you portray me making.

It's true that ethics should be a part of every aspect of life, and I think that many engineering and science programs have takens steps in this direction, especially in the area of environmental ethics.

For example, students in the BSc. in Electrical Engineering program at the University of Debrecen in Hungary have to take this environmental science course:

Subject: TFBE0040 Fundamentals of Environmental Science
Classes/week: 1 hour lecture, 1 hour seminar
ECTS Credit: Points: 2
Prerequisites: None
Lecturer: Gyula Lakatos, PhD
Aim: Students can acquire the basic terms and gain insight into the sub-fields of environmental science; the
presentation of the most important tasks of environmental protection
– 7 –
Topics: The definition and the elements of the environment. Man and his environment. Inter-, multi- and
transdisciplinar characteristics of environmental science. The history of human activity on the environment, its
effects and consequences, the environmental crisis.
The definition and scope of environmental protection. The history of environmental protection and conservation,
global problems of the environment. The elements of natural environment, the ground, the waters and the
atmosphere. Organization of living resources, basic ecology. The evolution of the biosphere, human population.
System-based approach in environmental science. Environmental resources and their protection. Environmental
conferences, the message of Rio and its documents. Agenda 21, the conclusions of Johannesburg and their aspects in
Hungary.
Environmental pollution and its effect, environmental protection as a human-centered social activity. Ecological
approach focusing on life, the principles of sustainable development in environmental protection
Compulsory/Recommended Readings:
Jackson A.R.W., Jackson J.M. Environmental Science. The natural environment and human impact. Longman,
Singapore, 1996.

http://www.englishstudies.sci.unideb.hu ... in_BSc.pdf

They also take a Fundamentals of Civil Law course, which may or may not encourage ethics, depending on your opinion about law.

Huseng, I suggest that you hang out with some science and engineering grad students sometime. I don't think that you will find that they are all as black-hearted, selfish, and unethical as you seem to think all scientists are.

When I was in the US, I had a teaching assistant (a grad student who taught review sessions for a professor's course) from Iran who was extremely kind to students and was very generous with his time. He did research in the mathematics of differential equations. I'm not sure if his research could be used in unethical ways, but as a person he was very compassionate and ethical.
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Re: Mythology in Physics?

Postby Luke » Tue Nov 16, 2010 8:06 pm

plassma wrote:@Luke
I understood your point about the common accusation made against theoretical physicists (it's not only Hawking) that they engage in too much empirically unvarifiable speculation, I was wondering why you saw Hawking's illness as having anything to do with it?

Well, I imagine that his illness is pretty uncomfortable and depressing and he can no longer do many of the ordinary things which a healthy family man could do, so I imagine that he is quite motivated to become engrossed in beautiful speculations of a fantastic nature which temporarily take his mind off his condition.
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