Natural Sciences

Understanding Natural Phenomena 1: Introduction

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in the series Understanding Natural Phenomena.

In the beginning, science did not have a large and strong edifice of knowledge and techniques. But modern science is a force to reckon with. There is a recent book, The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life, by Hawking and Mlodinow (H&M) (2010), which demolishes the God hypothesis quite convincingly. This book even overcomes the vexing first-cause problem. Read it. It takes on, and answers, some of the deepest questions we all think about.

Science does not have all the answers, but the power of the scientific method is such that our answers keep improving with time. In any case, there is no other method for answering any question about Nature.

I summarized this book in an online article. But that is no substitute for the original book.

In a series of posts I shall try to explain some salient points made in this book in a simple language. But the question I want to address first is: If scientific explanations are so good, why is it that so many people do not know about them?

This is very tragic. Most people have not learnt even elementary science, leave alone the kind of advanced science needed to answer certain fundamental but difficult questions about our universe. I did not have any difficulty in understanding and enjoying this book because I am a trained physicist and therefore have the basic familiarity with most of the concepts used in H&M’s book. But what should be done about people who do not have a background in science?

Writing popular-science books is an obvious solution, but that is easier said than done. Advanced science tends to be very mathematical. On top of that, laws of Nature, for example the laws of quantum mechanics, are highly counter-intuitive. For me this is not difficult to accept. After all, laws of Nature have been there long before we humans came on the scene. There is no reason to expect that the laws must always be easy for us humans to understand. And yet it is crucial that this important feature of reality be understood and accepted by the public at large. This highlights the importance of bringing up children in an atmosphere in which they appreciate, at a very early age, the essence of the scientific way of interpreting any information or data. I shall dwell on that in the next post.

About the author

Vinod Wadhawan

Dr. Vinod Wadhawan is a scientist, rationalist, author, and blogger. He has written books on ferroic materials, smart structures, complexity science, and symmetry. More information about him is available at his website. Since October 2011 he has been writing at The Vinod Wadhawan Blog, which celebrates the spirit of science and the scientific method.

29 Comments

  • Eagerly awaiting the next post in the series. Your effort to explain the whole scheme of things in a simple language will be very much appreciated by those discerning intellectuals who did not have the benefit of a science education. Thanks a million.

  • I fail to understand why any triumph in science has to demolish or attempt to demolish God hypothesis?. In this article and probably the book – can the authors have avoided reference to God? Is it possible to talk about science without making reference to God?

    It seems that there is some unsupressible urge for free thinkers/rationalists to drag God and prove that he/she/it does not exist – get some mental satisfaction – then proceed to make their point.

    While I am a big fan of Dr Wadhawan’s writings – following statement in this article is not warranted.

    >>>which demolishes the God hypothesis quite convincingly.

    If science has figured out new knowledge about our universe, life etc – so be it. Let us study then with no reference to God.

    What is irrational here is rationalists simply throw a pot at God – just for the sake of it – just to justify their status as atheist.

    What is the provocation and context of bringing God here?

    Shrini Kulkarni

      • >>> Because the god meme has proven to be a big hurdle to understanding natural phenomena?

        That is a good point. God meme has been powerful influence on general public. But I think but by attacking God (meme) unprovoked and uninitiated – we would promote the God meme indirectly. Let us not drag God when we can make our point clearly.

        Another point I would like to make is clear distinction between world in which God lives and rules and natural world where science rules. Would this distinction be helpful in fighting God meme. We could simply say in natural world – here is how science explains the phenamenon. Rationalists could say God lives and rules in another world science has no acess to. This of course would require rationalists to accept there is a world where God lives and rules and science has no business to interfere.

        What you folks say?

        Shrini

          • Instead of NOMA, my suggestion to let God have his world and rationalists – theirs – is to think of God and Science as two paradigms (Thomas Kuhn).

            Paradigms are two different world views with no common measures. Each have their own vocabulary, methods and measures.

            The terms, methods of science as paradigm share nothing with those with God’s world.

            What do you say ?

            You did not respond to my question – why drag God in scientific discourse when we can make our point without God? You said God meme is strong hurdle – then should our science be strong enough to makes it own case?

          • You are misquoting Kuhn. He only talks about scientific paradigms (Ex: Aristotelian physics is incommensurable with Newtonian physics). Even then, his arguments aren’t without problems.

            I have no issues with god having its own world. However, that is with the caveat that religion is completely removed from any field in which it doesn’t make sense – and that includes some topics in ethics as well. But that is not the case in the real world. Religious apologists build these elaborate straw-worlds and pretend that religion has no big influence and act hurt when the inanity of their beliefs is pointed out.

            And to answer your question – it has already been answered.

          • I am not misquoting Kuhn. I am using his idea of paradigm to model a situation here. To me science and God are two paradigms. As Aristotelian, Newtonian and Einsteinian worlds are incommensurable – God and Science are incommensurable.

            >>> However, that is with the caveat that religion is completely removed from any field in which it doesn’t make sense – and that includes some topics in ethics as well.

            That is fair ask. But we are dealing with social systems – who can we ask to remove religion? One approach to convince the mass on science and rationality is –

            1. There are aspects of human life that are best explained and mediated by science and some are not (like emotions, values, personal relationships etc).

            2. Science provides best answer and method to acquire knowledge about natural world. Science is fallible but is self critiquing and self correcting (more often).

            3. An individual – gets a balanced view of the natural world and human systems (family, society) in it by embracing right mix of God and science.

            >>> Religious apologists build these elaborate straw-worlds and pretend that religion has no big influence and act hurt when the inanity of their beliefs is pointed out.

            Let religious apologists operate in God’s world. Challenge them when they encroach the world of science. Items like ethics, morality and values etc are controversial – the science does not have tools and methods to analyse how humans behave, what is right and what is wrong. That is not subject matter of science – at least natural science.

            Shrini

          • God and Science are incommensurable.

            As I said, incommensurability isn’t without problems. So your argument is untenable.

            Items like ethics, morality and values etc are controversial – the science does not have tools and methods to analyse how humans behave, what is right and what is wrong. That is not subject matter of science – at least natural science.

            Science has plenty of tools to analyze how humans behave (An example). And emotions aren’t the sole domain of religion.

            Also, you are comparing two different things and forming conclusions, which is wrong. Religion is a worldview. Science is not. Naturalism is. So to be fair, please compare a worldview vs another worldview. Ethics cannot be left to religion. We’ve thousands of years of data on what that has lead to.

          • >>> Science has plenty of tools to analyze how humans behave

            This is how science starts eating up and entering into anything and everything. It claims to know the crown of all reasoning and claims to inform us about all aspects of human life.

            This clearly is too much to claim for science. Psychiatrists and people who treat mental diseases – deal with humans as thinking objects not as mechanical subjects (reductionist approach). I think they approach the situation as humanist not as rationalist.

            The phrase “being human – greedy, angry, frustrated, excited etc” is something science cannot deal with effectively through its methods(I dont say religion or God can)

            Do you believe is there anything science absolutely has no knowledge of? or silent? muted? If there is nothing that science cannot explain – then science is becomes a non-falsifiable tool. What area of human endeavor, knowledge, framework of interactions – is NOT comes under subject matter of science.

            I am interested to know where science ends and something else begins (not God, religion or total ignorance). Science cannot be the only tool that humans in need in knowing the world and dealing with the world and people in it.

            >>> Religion is a worldview. Science is not
            I am lost here. What is science then – if not worldview? To me world view is view of the world as seen through some eyes/lens or like. Science is also world view to me as it mediates between feeling humans and outside world – provides tools to know and manipulate the world. There is a scientific world view of everything as you have suggested – including a marital dispute between husband and wife (emotions are manifestations of chemical reactions in brain – nothing more – as per science)

            >>> And emotions aren’t the sole domain of religion.
            Agreed. But not sole domain science as well.

            >>> Ethics cannot be left to religion
            Agreed again. Ethics is again not subject matter of science. There is no formula or theorem or experimental model that defines what is right or wrong for a person to do in daily life.

            I agree that ethics and morality can exist without religion. Ancient greeks debated about it in great lengths without talking about any religion.

            Shrini

          • It seems you have some hatred of science and are looking for excuses to not accept what it is capable of. You might as well embrace post-modernism or creationism or whatever philosophical system for which science is an anathema.

            Regards to worldview, I linked to the naturalism site. Even if you had read the introduction, you’ll know what I mean and not get lost in arguing about definitions. If you read further you’ll learn about the intersubjective nature of ethics. You’ll also learn how science informs, but by itself cannot determine ethics. You don’t start a debate on wide ranging issues expecting one/two line arguments. I take the time to understand what it is I’m arguing against.

          • I reiterate again – I have no hatred against science. As far as creationism/evolution – I have no particular position (that does not make we an anti-science guy). That fact I keen reader of likes Feynman, Popper, Richard Dawkins etc -I have firm grounding in science.

            It is this view of critical examination of methods and views presented to the world – I am curious to know the limitations of science where science stops and something else begins. From rational argumentation – I feel that there are worlds where science operations and there is a world sciences ceases to work.

            There is no intention of glorifying religion or debunking science here. If I can use the word – I am a trans-rationalist- someone who uses rational reasoning and scientific thinking at one end and use something else (which is not science) at other times. In my day today life as human – at times I behave irrationally – I do things that have faith element in them do things that are habits out of cultural conditioning (as Dr Wadhawan pointed out). I am seeker of knowledge of natural world. I read and appreciate secular and scientific works of research.

            >> It seems you have some hatred of science and are looking for excuses to not accept what it is capable of.

            No, I am not. I am looking for excuses. I don’t have to as I don’t subscribe to religious fundamentalism or like. While I accept science 100% in worlds it operates – natural world. No questions about that. I want to understand boundaries of science, limitations of science – using method of rationalist inquiry.

            >>> You don’t start a debate on wide ranging issues expecting one/two line arguments. I take the time to understand what it is I’m arguing against.

            OK. Let me read the link deeper and come back. I hope the debate is leading to some useful direction.

            Shrini

          • When I re-read my previous comment – there were many typos and grammatical comments. I wish there is a “delete” comment button when the comment awaiting moderation.

            Sorry about that.

      • I believe God’s plan for you is for you to write! You’ve shared that gift so freely and in such abundance to us all. You’ve blessed us, encouraged us, and given us hope with your pen. May God continue to richly bless your words!I have NOT read the series and certainly don’t intend to, but I learned a few days ago that the author of the &#h#16;8ot&28217; series, Fifty Shades, self-published through Lulu, and I think I might give that a try IF I ever finish my WIP.

  • In India many Gods are Brand-Equities and are part of a huge MNC like bussiness. This lobby has enormous amount of money and can afford to have sceintists in their payroll to counter spread of rational thinking in the society

  • The word ‘God’ was mentioned many times in the above discussion. The God hypothesis is an unnecessary hypothesis. In fact, it is a downright bad hypothesis. It ‘explains’ away everything, but we end up learning nothing.

    • Sir –

      >>> The God hypothesis is an unnecessary

      I must say a qualifier necessary – “In scientific/Rationalist/Atheist’s World”. I am not sure if you would say there is no world other than scientific world.

      Shrini

      • Then let me qualify it with some common use cases. The God hypothesis is unnecessary:

        -when it comes to understanding natural phenomena
        -when it comes to framing ethics
        -when it comes to having a fulfilling life

        • Great.

          >>>> when it comes to understanding natural phenomena
          100% Agree. Science is the best tool that we have to discover truths about natural world. No doubt about that.

          >>> when it comes to framing ethics
          Not really. While it is true there can be ethics/Morality without God. There are many counter examples in faith world of ethics and morality. In many cultures (like ours) – primitive ideas of ethics and morality formed in childhood through religious teachings. Again – it is equally true that one can get introduction to these things without any trace of religion/faith/God.

          It is wrong to state that we learn and imbibe values of morality and ethics from God/religion. It is equally wrong that there is absolutely no role of God/religion/culture in forming views on morality and ethics (especially in formative years of human life – childhood)

          So this is 50-50. Not clearly settled in favor science or God – it is a tie.

          >>> when it comes to having a fulfilling life
          Same as above. While an atheist can have a fulfilling life – so can a god-fearing, religious person. So this is 50-50 again. Not clearly settled in favor science or God – it is a tie.

          It is wrong to say that only by surrendering to God, following the dogma of religious principles or rituals one can have a fulfilling life. It is equally wrong to deny the role of God/Religion in some one (according to individual’s terms) having fulfilling life.

          A small detour – A question to all rationalists on this forum.

          On your daily human interactions with other humans and human institutions (friend, family members, people in shop, in office) what role does science/rationality plays?

          In what way the day in the life of a atheist/rationalist’s – differs from someone who is not a rationalist – in terms of the way they deal with other people and their emotions, needs etc.?

          Shrini

          • Understanding the natural world is intricately linked to ethics. False beliefs about the world lead to bad ethics. Reincarnation and Karma are false beliefs about the world. And they do lead to abominations like the caste system (bad karma in past life = low birth in this life). That’s just one example amongst a multitude. So I’m truly baffled on how you decided on the 50-50 number. Are you suggesting that we cling on to bad ethics just because religious virtues are still in vogue?

        • >>>Understanding the natural world is intricately linked to ethics

          This does not mean all ethics and morality have roots only in and arise out of our understanding of natural world. There are examples to demonstrate that roots of ethics and morality have completely to do with faith/God and like.

          >>> False beliefs about the world lead to bad ethics. Reincarnation and Karma are false beliefs about the world. And they do lead to abominations like the caste system (bad karma in past life = low birth in this life). That’s just one example amongst a multitude.

          Agree. Caste system is bad. Social reformers through ages (many of them having strong religous backgrounds – beliving God) have fought these social bad practices arising out of false beliefs. Not sure Mahatma Gandhi and other india social reformers fight against such problems – is out of their knowledge of natural world. As stated earlier – you can be perfect believer and fight problems out of bad beliefs.

          >> So I’m truly baffled on how you decided on the 50-50 number.

          Let us take this example. Let us say there is one rationalist for every believer (in God). For every rationalist saying his/her ethics has no relation to God hypothesis – there is one beliver saying all ethical conditioning is only because of of God.

          For every rationalist who belives that he is leading a fulfiling life without God in the picture – there is a beliver who thinks that his/her fulfilment life is due to God.

          if you conceed that world population is split between 50-50 between belivers and rationalists – would’nt this example demonstrate that there are people whose ethical and moral grounding is totally attributed to God and religion?

          Do you belive it is possible for someone to attribute God completely or partially for their ethics?

          >>>Are you suggesting that we cling on to bad ethics just because religious virtues are still in vogue?

          No. As social reformers have shown the path – we don’t have to cling on bad ethics or its causes. These folks (some inspite being believers) fought bad social practices (like caste system, Sati, child marriage etc).

          You can be a believer yet fight some bad effects of bad ethics

          Shrini

          • The thing with religion is, even well meaning reformers go wrong because of false beliefs about the world. For example Gandhi was terribly wrong in his approach to the caste problem.

            You will not find something like Human Rights or Women’s rights or Affirmative Action in any religion. What religious apologists usually do is, point to people who have been inspired by later day philosophies (like the ones from enlightenment era) to take up social reforms, but as such people still identified with a religious label, make the false connection that it is religion which lead to the reforms. This for me is a despicable form of dishonesty where to justify one’s one inability to let go of archaic and useless labels, good that has come from outside of religion is co-opted into religion.

          • Satish

            >>>Do you belive it is possible for someone to attribute God completely or partially for their ethics?

            What is your response this query of mine?

            Do you consider this as a counter example to the argument that “Understanding of natural world is intrensically linked to ethics?”

          • Yeah, it is completely possible. But it is also completely different from saying the god hypothesis has any use in framing ethics. As I said, you’d be hard pressed to find some modern day ethics in any religion. The only way is to co-opt them into religion by a revisionist reading.

  • “There is no reason to expect that the laws must always be easy for us humans to understand. And yet it is crucial that this important feature of reality be understood and accepted by the public at large.” Very well said. May I add to it? It is just as crucial for the public to be convinced that there IS a logical way of deducing and understanding the laws of nature quite reliably—namely, the scientific sequence of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, analysis, etc. My point is that, while scientists may often evoke some awe in the lay mind as adepts initiated into esoteric knowledge (much as shamans and priests did, in olden days), the fact that this knowledge is not acquired by some revelation, but by a systematic process of learning that is quite open and available to anybody who takes the trouble to go through with it, is not so readily appreciated.

    “This highlights the importance of bringing up children in an atmosphere in which they appreciate, at a very early age, the essence of the scientific way of interpreting any information or data.” Again, very well said. One might also add that this scientific way is by no means intuitive, or hard-wired into our brains (these having been hard-wired for evolutionary survival, rather than understanding quantum mechanics ‘intuitively’), and must be cultivated with discipline. This last requirement is perhaps why such a small fraction of the general population is comfortable with, or facile in, scientific concepts.

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