24 March, 2005 at 21:44 Leave a comment

God, Chance, Laplace, Darwin and Science
(via Edge: WHAT EVOLUTION IS: A Talk with Ernst Mayr – http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/mayr/mayr_index.html)

“…one of Darwin’s great contributions was that he replaced theological, or supernatural, science with secular science. Laplace, of course, had already done this some 50 years earlier when he explained the whole world to Napoleon. After his explanation, Napoleon replied, “where is God in your theory?” And Laplace answered, “I don’t need that hypothesis.” Soon after, Laplace was dismissed…”

“…when Darwin published “The Origin of Species”, the leading Cambridge University geologist was Sedgwick, and Sedgwick wrote a critique that asked how Darwin could be so unscientific as to use chance in some of his arguments, when everyone knew that God controlled the world? Now who was more scientific, Darwin or Sedgwick?…”

Let us see the background. The belief in a clockwork universe, as exemplified by the mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace [1], held that, in principle, if one had an accurate measure of the state of the universe and knew all of the laws that govern the motion of everything, then one would be able to predict the future with near perfect accuracy. Our brains and actions can be seen as systems too and hence can be predicted. Laplace, if one might recall, wrote celestial mathematics and was a young genius. He corrected Newtons model that God runs the universe like a clockmaster oiling it and correcting it once in a while. So much for Newton and his genius. Laplace is often immortalized in these words “God is an unnecessary hypothesis” but yet, Napoleon fired Laplace as he tried “to reduce the workings of the ministry to a series of predictable infitesimal events” and did not account for God (or more correctly, human error er, wisdom). But many people vouch that given enough information, every system (life, universe, brains) is accountable and predictable.
We now know that this is not true, since science was mistaken in its assumption that everything is either a fixed point or a limit cycle. Enter chaotic cycles and chaotic systems. It turns out that chaotic systems are not just exceptions to the norm but are, in fact, more prevalent than anyone could imagine. Chaos is everywhere: in the turbulence of water and air, in the wobble of planets as they follow complicated orbits, in global weather patterns, in the human brain’s electrochemical activity, and even in the motion of a child on a swing. In all of these cases the complicated motion produced by chaos prohibits predicting the future in the long term. On the other hand, phenomena that were once thought to be purely random are now known to be chaotic. Notice that randomness is different from chaotic.
These are quite interesting statements because I think whether it is Darwin, Sedgwick, me or you, science has always provisioned for an _unexplainable variable_ in every theory. Darwin called it CHANCE. Sedgwick called it GOD. Today, we call it CHAOS. Essentially, it means that all theories are unscientific or scientific as any other. It is merely a question of what words we use to describe the concepts and elucidate our explanations and shield our failures. We cannot call our ancestors fools (no matter how tempting or blatantly obvious it might be) because they did not have the luxury of equipment and technology as we have today but yet, were wise enough to attribute the exceptions to some variable that could not be formalized. In fact, even today, we do not know how many variables there are in explaining a phenomenon. Like say, the time taken for an apple to fall from a particular height could be different (if we can measure accurately enough) depending on the geographical location or time of the day or the position of Mars. Go figure. And we are also at a risk of being called fools if in the future, our uni-centric theory is seen as chauvinistic if it turns out that there is not just one but many many universes.
Let me cut the chase. My theory is that there cannot be any facts. Not even theories. Nothing is predictable. We cannot predict, especially the future. The good news is however that chaotic systems admit prediction in the short term. Hence, a theory rings true for a while even something that seems so stupid like the geo-centric theory. So, inspite of some auxiliary (and perhaps, critical but unknown) information missing, all our theories hold till that point there is a direct exception. When we do get an exception, we attribute it to chance/God/chaos. This is just another way of saying that nothing is a fact in our world. 2+2=4, evolution, planetary motion etc. included. But still we have satellites in space and have open heart surgeries and the web. That is the beauty of it all. Amazing!

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