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delirium happy

Just keep on trying till you run out of cake

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Musings on science
A few months back, someone – I forget who butI suspect it may have been phoenixdreaming – linked me to a page asking this question: what do you fear to be wrong about most?

I'm not sure I particularly agree with the wording of the question. The idea is, what most shapes the way that you view the world, forming the foundation of everything else you believe, such that if some day you were to discover you were wrong your entire world-view would be shattered? The reason I don't think that it's well worded is that for me at least, the things that are most fundamental to me are the things that I fear being wrong about the least, because I'm supremely confident about them. They are the things that I have absolutely no reason to doubt.

Even so, I think that it's an interesting question, and it's something that I've been thinking about on and off since I first saw it. Here's my answer:

I would be most shaken to discover that I was wrong in thinking that the universe makes sense.

In a way, I'm surprised that nobody in the comments on the site where I saw the question answered something along those lines. It's something that hugely fundamental to pretty much everything, I think. Imagine the alternative. Imagine that the universe doesn't make sense, and that everything that happens is completely arbitrary.

I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. After all, it has done ever day of my life so far. If the universe were entirely arbitrary, though, maybe it won't. If the universe doesn't make sense then learning is impossible. We learn by making observations of the past and using them to predict what will happen in the future. I've observed lots of times that when I drop something, it falls to the floor, so I predict that if I drop something in the future it will fall to the ground and not float where it is or fall up to the ceiling.

If you think about it philosophically, this is actually quite a big assumption. You can only use the past to predict the future if the universe makes sense, if it follows certain rules.

Not only is this important on the fundamental level of allowing us to act with purpose and meaning, towards a goal, it is also very fundamental to the way I view the world. I'm a scientist. Not by profession or by qualification, but by the fact that the tenets of science shape the very way I think about everything.

I would say that the most basic fundamental tenet of the scientific world-view is what I have just described. It is the idea that the universe makes sense and follows non-arbitrary rules. The second tenet of science is that it is possible for us to figure out what those rules are. Everything beyond that is just window dressing.

To the non-scientific public at large, I think that there's a perception that science is about knowing a bunch of facts. Gravity falls off as the inverse square of distance. Evolution is caused by selection on descent with modification. The atomic number of sodium is 23. Whatever.

These facts are important and useful and can give us insights or allow us to discover and create new things, but they are not the heart of science. The heart of science is the method of discovering and verifying the facts, not the facts themselves. We make observations, and we use these observations to make hypotheses, then we test these hypotheses to make further observations. If necessary, we then modify the hypothesis. This process of observation and hypothesis never stops.

In science, the most important aspect of any idea isn't how we feel about it or who said it in the first place, but whether or not it's right. If some observation disproves a long-cherished theory, then the theory is thrown out. In practice, it takes a while, because you want to repeat the observation to make sure that you were really seeing what you thought you were seeing, and you want to try to figure out why the old theory worked so well for so long. But at the end of it all, when the dust settles, direct empirical evidence trumps all.

A prime example of this would be quantum theory. This went against pretty much all established physics. Everything we thought we knew was wrong. Of course, in most things we can observe directly, what we thought was right gives answers so close to the answers predicted by quantum theory that it's impossible to actually measure the difference, but still.

Science tells us that our best way of predicting reality is to look at reality, because reality makes sense. For this reason, in every aspect of my life, I always try to look for what is true over what is expedient, easy or convenient and I try always to be open to new ideas that challenge my existing thoughts.

This is not an easy way to view life, as you often have to face up to things that you really really don't want to be true. Wishing for something not to be true doesn't make it any less true, though, and the only way to effectively deal with it – whatever it is – is to admit that it is true.

To me, this is the beauty and the power of science. It applies to everything, without exception. Anything at all that we can ever encounter, we can look at it and say "ok, let's assume that there's some sort of underlying sense and pattern behind this, and then let's try to figure it out". Then if we know how something works, we can act accordingly. Forewarned is forearmed.

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Er-What about the properties of emergent systems, which can't be predicted, but have to be played out? Like the computer program Langton's Ant, that sort of thing?

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