science versus magic and religion

1. Read the narrative below.

2. Answer the questions below.

Science deals with probabilities, not certainties. Magic and religion, on the other hand, give humans certainty and comfort, even against death. With science, can we predict the behavior of the universe? No, because the laws of physics are quantum-mechanical and quantum mechanics is NOT deterministic. It permits theories only to predict PROBABILITIES. (Gell-Mann, 1994).

So, when we deal with half-lives of isotopes of elements, we are able to know only when 1/2 of the material will have decayed; we cannot predict when any one particular molecule will go. As an example, a small percentage of the Carbon on earth is tied up in an isotope, C14. “Normal” Carbon, C12, constitutes the vast majority of Carbon molecules on earth. The C14 isotope of C12 has a half-life of 57,000 years. This is very useful in Archaeology, because Carbon is so major an element in biological systems, particularly in bones, that we can date the skeletal remains of any animal by calculating the proportions of the remaining C14 isotope, to molecules of standart C12.

Put another way, the chance that any particular C14 nucleus today will still exist in 57,000 years, is 50%; after 114,000 years, 25%, etc, If so much is unknowable about 1 atomic nucleus, how unpredictable is the entire universe? Each alternative history of the universe that astrophysicists can develop, depends on the results of an inconceivably large number of “accidents,” or chance occurrences.

EXTRATERRESTRIALS?

Astrophysicists refer to any sapient extraterrestrial “spacemen”, or terrestrial sapient beings (Humans) anywhere in the universe, as Intelligent Complex Adaptive Systems (ICAS). Typically, ICAS can identify regularities in streams of data that they receive from the environment around them. However, it is easy to make two types of error: mistaking randomness for regularity, or mistaking regularity for randomness. Human ICAS make these mistakes regularly. Extraterrestrial ICAS should tend to evolve toward a balance of correctly identifying some regularities in any data stream, accompanied by both types of mistakes.

Superstition (Magic) typically involves seeing order where there is none. Denial amounts to rejection of clear evidence of regularities; we humans are able to detect genuine patterns, but they scare us so much that we cannot accept them, such as the inevitability of death. Both Superstition and Denial stem from fear.

We humans are scared of the unpredictability and the uncontrollability of the world around us. We have to account for the restricted capacity of our senses, and the restricted capacity of our instruments. We need to deal with our inadequate understanding and limited ability to calculate. So we impose on the chaotic world around us, artificial (cultural) order. It is comforting to see predictability, and even mastery, of the world around us. Magic, Myth and Religion are attractive, but unscientific, theories that provide comforts and regularities. And ultimately, they are part of the grand hope, and the grand search, for pattern in the universe.

QUESTIONS

a. Why do the Laws of Physics not allow us to predict the behavior of the universe?

b. What are some of the traits that we would expect to see in extraterrestrial ICAS?

 

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