Science and Misery

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Jorpho
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Science and Misery

Postby Jorpho » Tue Mar 17, 2009 4:40 pm UTC

Is science an inherently sad and miserable business?

Yes, you can talk about the joy of discovery and all the fantastic technology science has produced over the decades and the strongly demonstrable improvement in the quality of our lives that has resulted from the introduction of such technology.

But is it not also true that science deprives one of certainty? That from the scientific point of view, even though you can establish a pretty good trend in things, you can never be sure that tomorrow something might very well come along and force you to throw away (or at least heavily revise) everything you thought you knew?

Wrong as it may be, it is no wonder that people find security in certitude, in beliefs that one can freely impose on absolutely everything, safe in the knowledge that anything that doesn't conform surely will in the end one way or another, because there's only one way that things can be.

It kind of makes me wonder whether there aren't a lot of scientists involved in politics (there aren't, are there?) because a scientist might not be able to bring the same ostentatious, absolute conviction to the table that someone else could.

(Why yes, I might be in a bad mood today.)

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby doogly » Tue Mar 17, 2009 5:06 pm UTC

I have no fondness for certainty or security. This taste extends beyond science though. I am generally very happy. I remember being completely shocked the first time I became aware that some people valued security over happiness; it is such a foreign idea to me.
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Tass » Tue Mar 17, 2009 7:10 pm UTC

Its curious, isn't it?

That people talk of belief versus knowledge, when those who believe feels absolutely certain, and those seeking knowledge realise that one can never be completely sure of anything.

It may feel cold to realise that there is no sign anybody is out there making sure i will have eternal happiness, but I want the truth, I cant just decide something is true because it would feel nice and make myself believe it.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby scarecrovv » Tue Mar 17, 2009 7:19 pm UTC

Well perhaps I'd be happier if I was completely certain of everything. However, since I do, in fact, know that I would be stupid to be completely certain of everything, I am happy that I know this, because it lowers the probability by one more notch that I'm stupid.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby justaman » Tue Mar 17, 2009 7:58 pm UTC

The misery of science for me is the contract nature of it, having to find a new job when funding runs out really sucks.

Otherwise I love everything about science, the thrill of discovery and the satisfaction of having a result that confirms a hypothesis are the best.
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Charlie! » Tue Mar 17, 2009 8:22 pm UTC

I too am happy that I'm not dumb.

And, just generally, happy. Science does not seem to have made my life all emo yet, nor have I come in close contact with anyone whose life it has darkened.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby sgt york » Tue Mar 17, 2009 8:43 pm UTC

No. I love my work. It makes me very happy. It's never depressing when old data is turned over by new; it's expected and kind of exciting. It's actually even more fun because it means somebody else saw enough merit in what I did to build on it. The only depressing part about it is a kind of envy; "He kept looking and found something even cooler than what I did." Dammit.

When it comes to knowledge, it's not the having, it's the getting.

Oh, and I am not deprived of certainty. I just have a new certainty. It is the certainty that I don't know squat, never knew squat, and someday, maybe, if I work really, really hard and get really really lucky I might actually know a small fraction of squat. Like a nanosquat.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Sir_Elderberry » Tue Mar 17, 2009 9:23 pm UTC

Jorpho wrote:But is it not also true that science deprives one of certainty? That from the scientific point of view, even though you can establish a pretty good trend in things, you can never be sure that tomorrow something might very well come along and force you to throw away (or at least heavily revise) everything you thought you knew?

It's not about knowing everything, it's about knowing progressively more. And yeah, someone might come along and force a paradigm shift that makes your work obsolete, but so what? When that happens, we're that much fractionally closer to having the truth. Should I be sad, studying Newtonian mechanics, knowing that it's not correct? No! Newtonian mechanics is a baseline, a foundation, and the fact that the truth is actually even more exciting is no cause for disdain.

Wrong as it may be, it is no wonder that people find security in certitude, in beliefs that one can freely impose on absolutely everything, safe in the knowledge that anything that doesn't conform surely will in the end one way or another, because there's only one way that things can be.

I value truth above safety or certainty. Give me the inconvenient truth; not the reassuring lies.

It kind of makes me wonder whether there aren't a lot of scientists involved in politics (there aren't, are there?) because a scientist might not be able to bring the same ostentatious, absolute conviction to the table that someone else could.

It's a combination of that--("Is global warming happening, Senators?" "Absolutely not, it's a rubbish scam." "Interesting you should ask that, after extensive review of the evidence I myself have concluded that it's very likely.")--and some latent anti-intellectualism--(To slam on a particular politician, look at Sarah Palin, whose entire pitch was that she wasn't some high-class educated person, she was just another person, like any average American. Somehow this makes people think she was fit to run the country.)--and also, scientists just plain might not like politics, perhaps as a corollary to this post: In politics, truth is very malleable.
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby cpt » Tue Mar 17, 2009 10:28 pm UTC

Once you know science exists, you can't go back to certitude. The act of discovering science gives you no choice but to be uncertain for the rest of your life.
(this is a good thing)


I agree with young Sir Elderberry on the politics part. Any scientist that has to listen to a politician "discuss" a subject, will quickly turn into a scientist contemplating suicide. A scientist looks at all the facts. A politician looks at all the facts, sees none, and then says what he/she was going to say in the first place.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Rentsy » Wed Mar 18, 2009 3:40 am UTC

I like being certain... even if I am certain of uncertainty. The fact that this is somewhat non-intuitive, but proven by everything, comforts me with the knowledge that it is true.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Jorpho » Wed Mar 18, 2009 3:49 am UTC

sgt york wrote:Oh, and I am not deprived of certainty. I just have a new certainty. It is the certainty that I don't know squat, never knew squat, and someday, maybe, if I work really, really hard and get really really lucky I might actually know a small fraction of squat. Like a nanosquat.
You see? Is this not lamentable in some ways?

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Charlie! » Wed Mar 18, 2009 4:05 am UTC

Jorpho wrote:
sgt york wrote:Oh, and I am not deprived of certainty. I just have a new certainty. It is the certainty that I don't know squat, never knew squat, and someday, maybe, if I work really, really hard and get really really lucky I might actually know a small fraction of squat. Like a nanosquat.
You see? Is this not lamentable in some ways?

Only if you've decided that ahead of time. "In some ways," it's lamentable that we're not all smoking crack 24/7, but in some "other ways" I'm perfectly okay that we're not. In short, your statement is a reflection only of your own opinion.

Quick question: do you regret starting this thread?
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Sir_Elderberry » Wed Mar 18, 2009 4:07 am UTC

Jorpho wrote:
sgt york wrote:Oh, and I am not deprived of certainty. I just have a new certainty. It is the certainty that I don't know squat, never knew squat, and someday, maybe, if I work really, really hard and get really really lucky I might actually know a small fraction of squat. Like a nanosquat.
You see? Is this not lamentable in some ways?

The alternative is a mind full of certain untruths. Which is a far more lamentable state of being.
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Jorpho » Wed Mar 18, 2009 4:10 am UTC

Charlie! wrote:Quick question: do you regret starting this thread?
...No, not particularly.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby sgt york » Wed Mar 18, 2009 5:21 am UTC

Jorpho wrote:
sgt york wrote:Oh, and I am not deprived of certainty. I just have a new certainty. It is the certainty that I don't know squat, never knew squat, and someday, maybe, if I work really, really hard and get really really lucky I might actually know a small fraction of squat. Like a nanosquat.
You see? Is this not lamentable in some ways?
None that I see. Truth is truth. Denying it is a path to suffering, accepting it is a path to happiness. How can the discovery of truth be ultimately lamentable? Sure, learning something bad and true is rough at first sometimes, but in the end, generally, it's better to know than to not know.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Minerva » Wed Mar 18, 2009 7:13 am UTC

I'll just leave you with this:

It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science — by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans — teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.

(From Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.)
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby diotimajsh » Wed Mar 18, 2009 8:35 am UTC

Hmm, am I the only person who finds that science gives a much greater sense of certainty than non-science? I mean, science has no pretense of infallibility, but compare it to the alternatives.

Why does it rain? Say, because God controls the weather. Yet why doesn't it rain when our crops are dying and we badly need water? Maybe we can infer that we're being punished: we must have misbehaved somehow. But in that case God alone knows what we did to trigger His ire! Sure we can look back at the last few months and pick out all the times we sinned, then do some post hoc ergo propter hoc work to conclude God punished us because of one of the sins we committed.

But if we keep an honest and detailed record of the times we sin and the times we don't, combined with a record of all the times God punishes us and the times He doesn't, God's will suddenly starts to seem either wholly inscrutable or wholly arbitrary. We can't find any reliable connections between sins that trigger God's punishment versus those that don't. So what gives?

(Substitute any pantheon or beneficent deities for "God" that you like.)

We may ask the same questions about the efficacy of prayer, occultism, faith healing, and new age practices for medicine. How come their success is always so unreliable? How do we even know they're working?


Scientific explanations and science-backed technology can be unreliable too, and granted there are areas of science that fare worse than others. (E.g., long-term weather predictions). But often scientists have a solid, quantified idea of how reliable vs. unreliable a prediction or method is, and in any case science affords many more reliable and comprehensible means than any mystical means can ever offer.

You ask about certainty? Personally, stepping onto an airplane, I feel a lot more certain that it will fly through the air and successfully convey me to a new destination than I do that performing a magic ritual will grant me the ability to fly unaided. And no matter how certain a local wizard may feel toward the potency of her magick, I sure as hell feel certain that she will plummet to her death (roughly in accordance with Newton's laws) if she leaps off a cliff, no matter how faithfully she shouts, "Feather fall!".
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby danpilon54 » Wed Mar 18, 2009 2:14 pm UTC

I would hate to be certain all the time. I can't imagine living a life where I don't try to learn something new or explore new possibilities. Life would be too boring if I was certain about everything. Science can be a form of adventure. It's partly about the end goal, but the act of doing it is rewarding in and of itself.
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Charlie! » Wed Mar 18, 2009 2:49 pm UTC

Jorpho wrote:
Charlie! wrote:Quick question: do you regret starting this thread?
...No, not particularly.

Huh, because hearing any criticism of your ideas might make you slightly less happy. Aren't you advocating life in happy ignorance?
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby headprogrammingczar » Wed Mar 18, 2009 4:15 pm UTC

Computer Science is pretty miserable (to the people who aren't learning/practicing it). About half the people who I tell I am taking CompSci ask me "so you fix computers?".
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Mar 18, 2009 4:21 pm UTC

Yeah, science doesn't deprive anyone of certainty. It merely deprives them of the illusion of certainty. I don't see that as a problem. I'd rather be pretty sure of something true than certain of something false, but maybe that's just me.
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Jorpho » Wed Mar 18, 2009 6:57 pm UTC

Charlie! wrote:Huh, because hearing any criticism of your ideas might make you slightly less happy. Aren't you advocating life in happy ignorance?
...No, not particularly. I suppose I was just wondering if there's a particularly clever philosophical counterargument beyond "but you're better off this way!"

(I should stop using ellipses that way.)

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby achan1058 » Wed Mar 18, 2009 8:52 pm UTC

I think my analogy will be a person in the middle of a highway. If you are not blind, you will be miserable seeing all the cars around you, but you can at least dodge some of them. If you are blind, well, you don't see the cars, and simply get hit. Ignorance might be bliss, but it is certainly not preferable.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Tac-Tics » Wed Mar 18, 2009 9:29 pm UTC

OP, what particular example of science are you thinking of? It seems like you have something in mind. It sounds like you're dealing with falsifiability in scientific philosophy -- that "theories" are never proved, and that that is a source of uncertainty in our lives.

Well, the only absolute certainty in life is you can't be absolutely certain about anything.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby qwefjz » Thu Mar 19, 2009 1:11 am UTC

doogly wrote:I have no fondness for certainty or security. This taste extends beyond science though. I am generally very happy. I remember being completely shocked the first time I became aware that some people valued security over happiness; it is such a foreign idea to me.


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Re: Science and Misery

Postby SummerGlauFan » Thu Mar 19, 2009 5:20 am UTC

Just because there is a level of uncertainty is not a weakness; in fact, one can consider it a strength. The moment someone thinks they know everything they need to know, that person is doomed to fail. Science recognizes that we cannot possibly know everything; the Universe is infinite, there is no way the human race could learn everything, even if every human being lived forever and spent every moment learning we would never learn it all.
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Zalzidrax » Thu Mar 19, 2009 8:02 am UTC

One philosophical point that often helps clarify things for me is that things are still the same things regardless of how I think about them. Just because I know everything is uncertain doesn't fundamentally change everything I thought was certain before. Those things are still the same, it is merely my understanding of what it meant for them to be certain has become greater. Perhaps so far that the best word to describe that understanding changes.

The fundamental nature of a thing is not in the words we use to so crudely describe it, even in our own mind.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby qwefjz » Thu Mar 19, 2009 8:08 am UTC

Zalzidrax wrote:The fundamental nature of a thing is not in the words we use to so crudely describe it, even in our own mind.


Without those images or symbols to describe it, how does it exist? People often forget that without thoughts, there is nothing.
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Zalzidrax » Thu Mar 19, 2009 10:22 am UTC

qwefjz wrote:
Zalzidrax wrote:The fundamental nature of a thing is not in the words we use to so crudely describe it, even in our own mind.


Without those images or symbols to describe it, how does it exist? People often forget that without thoughts, there is nothing.


How can I describe in language the act of thinking and understanding (albeit) incompletely without language?

Anyway, things must encountered mentally to exist to oneself but those things are not determined arbitrarily by one's state of mind.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby andyisagod » Thu Mar 19, 2009 12:54 pm UTC

Jorpho wrote:...No, not particularly. I suppose I was just wondering if there's a particularly clever philosophical counterargument beyond "but you're better off this way!"


I was wondering if there was a decent philosophical argument for your position that science is a miserable business. You seem to have assumed that people doing science might be upset because new research might come along but I don't really see why this would be the case. Perhaps different things make different people happy and as a wild guess the kinds of people who are happy doing scientific research are normally the ones doing it.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Jorpho » Thu Mar 19, 2009 2:25 pm UTC

andyisagod wrote:You seem to have assumed that people doing science might be upset because new research might come along but I don't really see why this would be the case.
Who said it applies only to research? Do the same principles not apply to everything in life, such that there's nothing you can really count on?

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Mar 19, 2009 2:30 pm UTC

qwefjz wrote:Without those images or symbols to describe it, how does it exist? People often forget that without thoughts, there is nothing.

No, people do not "forget" any such thing, because most of them don't ever believe it in the first place. Yours is a purely philosophical position, which is furthermore in direct opposition to the fundamental axiom of all scientific thought: Objective reality exists and is self-consistent.

(Note that I did not say science blindly assumes this to be true without basis. Rather, scientific claims and theories only work on the basis that this is true, much like mathematical axioms and the theorems that result. And this isn't a problem, because if objective reality doesn't exist or is inconsistent with itself, it's not like any other explanation is going to work worth a damn, either.)
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby andyisagod » Thu Mar 19, 2009 2:39 pm UTC

Jorpho wrote:Who said it applies only to research? Do the same principles not apply to everything in life, such that there's nothing you can really count on?


I don't think that science means theres nothing you can really count on, if the electron was discovered to be a composite particle tomorrow it wouldn't invalidate all of the work done in QM so far. My computer wouldn't stop working and it wouldn't make me sad. If you don't have science then you actually have a lot more uncertainty in your day to day life. Science has a much better track record of being right than any other belief system in this respect having a steadfast belief in god or whatever won't help you predict the weather.

You still haven't demonstrated a link between science and misery at all really. Maybe science makes you uncomfortable but there are many people very happy 'believing' in science so i doubt science itself is inherently miserable.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Pastinator » Thu Mar 19, 2009 4:35 pm UTC

Actually, I'd rather take certainty over knowledge that I may not be right, but I can't.
I can't bring myself into believing something that can be falsified, nor disbelieve established science, sometimes it does feel lonely, but most of the time to be honest, it doesn't really affect me.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Indon » Thu Mar 19, 2009 4:45 pm UTC

Jorpho wrote:But is it not also true that science deprives one of certainty? That from the scientific point of view, even though you can establish a pretty good trend in things, you can never be sure that tomorrow something might very well come along and force you to throw away (or at least heavily revise) everything you thought you knew?

Why?

Couldn't I just say, "Okay, science is great and all, but we're done. Everything we know now is absolutely correct," and strive to convince myself of that fact? That way, I gain all the benefits of science to that point, and certainty as well!

In fact, I would argue a lot of people do precisely this.

The problem with that, is that it makes learning things painful, instead of fun. So the more you learn, the weaker a strategy it becomes.
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby danpilon54 » Thu Mar 19, 2009 8:22 pm UTC

Indon wrote:
Jorpho wrote:But is it not also true that science deprives one of certainty? That from the scientific point of view, even though you can establish a pretty good trend in things, you can never be sure that tomorrow something might very well come along and force you to throw away (or at least heavily revise) everything you thought you knew?

Why?

Couldn't I just say, "Okay, science is great and all, but we're done. Everything we know now is absolutely correct," and strive to convince myself of that fact? That way, I gain all the benefits of science to that point, and certainty as well!

In fact, I would argue a lot of people do precisely this.

The problem with that, is that it makes learning things painful, instead of fun. So the more you learn, the weaker a strategy it becomes.


And then what about the things that happen that don't fit with our current understanding? Do you call them magic? I believe this is what most people a few hundred years ago did.
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby Jorpho » Thu Mar 19, 2009 8:31 pm UTC

andyisagod wrote:
Jorpho wrote:Who said it applies only to research? Do the same principles not apply to everything in life, such that there's nothing you can really count on?


I don't think that science means theres nothing you can really count on, if the electron was discovered to be a composite particle tomorrow it wouldn't invalidate all of the work done in QM so far. My computer wouldn't stop working and it wouldn't make me sad. If you don't have science then you actually have a lot more uncertainty in your day to day life. Science has a much better track record of being right than any other belief system in this respect having a steadfast belief in god or whatever won't help you predict the weather.
So you're saying that despite all the talk of the all-pervasiveness of uncertainty in this thread, science can be thought of as yielding things that aren't uncertain after all? I am intrigued.

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby achan1058 » Thu Mar 19, 2009 8:36 pm UTC

Jorpho wrote:So you're saying that despite all the talk of the all-pervasiveness of uncertainty in this thread, science can be thought of as yielding things that aren't uncertain after all? I am intrigued.
Maybe instead of using the word uncertain, you should actually use likelihoods and probabilities. Yes, science can never be certain. That's for mathematics, and even with that one cannot be certain on the consistency of the axioms. However, science is just providing answers that are 99.99...% certain, while other belief systems are providing with much less certainty (or correctness, for that matter). That is all.

To use my analogy from before. Cars that you don't see still kills you.

To add, let's just say if you have a way that is completely consistent and can solve everything, by abuse of Godel's Theorem...... (not that it should necessary apply to the real world, but I personally believe it does)

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Re: Science and Misery

Postby idobox » Thu Mar 19, 2009 9:59 pm UTC

Without those images or symbols to describe it, how does it exist? People often forget that without thoughts, there is nothing.

No, people do not "forget" any such thing, because most of them don't ever believe it in the first place. Yours is a purely philosophical position, which is furthermore in direct opposition to the fundamental axiom of all scientific thought: Objective reality exists and is self-consistent.


What I think he means is: there could an objective and universal world out there, but we only have access to the information our senses give us, or that world might not exist, and it wouldn't change anything, and if the there is no one to observe the world, it doesn't matter whether the world exists or not. And this is an important matter in science, because all we have are measures, but do not know if they fully represents reality.

About the OP, I wouldn't say science brings misery, but fear. When you know nothing of physiology or bacteriology, and the local priest tell you diseases are caused by demons to punish sinners, you are reassured, because you feel you have a way to control this danger. And then science happens, and explains to you diseases are caused by a number a thing, that you can prevent some, cure some other, but that for some, you can't do anything, and you loose the feeling of being able to control anything. Each time science explains a phenomenon, but do not give you the ability to control this phenomenon, you face a world that is a little more incontrollable and frightening.
Also, science has debunked a lot of comforting ideas. The Earth is not flat, your perception is false, your intuition is wrong, you cannot trust your instinct to understand the world. The Earth is not the center of the universe, and is in fact a quite common feature of the universe (ok, known habitable planets are not that common, but we couldn't observe them with our best telescopes). Humans are not special, but evolved from animals. Humans are not special, and share a lot of cognitive capacities with some animals. Humans are not special, and are a blink in Earth's history. Free will is an illusion, your thoughts are a results of neuron organisation and chemicals reactions.
The list of comfortable ideas science has debunked is very long, and the adverse effects of knowledge have been known for a long time. The story of genesis is exactly that: humans are no longer happy stupid animals because they know good and evil, so god punishes them until the end of times. Prometheus is eternally punished for revealing the science of fire to humans, and Pandora let all the diseases of the world loose when opening the famous box, because of curiosity. There are many myths that warn us against too much knowledge, because the truth is often less comfortable than our illusions.
If there is no answer, there is no question. If there is no solution, there is no problem.

Waffles to space = 100% pure WIN.

achan1058
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Re: Science and Misery

Postby achan1058 » Thu Mar 19, 2009 10:48 pm UTC

idobox wrote:The list of comfortable ideas science has debunked is very long, and the adverse effects of knowledge have been known for a long time. The story of genesis is exactly that: humans are no longer happy stupid animals because they know good and evil, so god punishes them until the end of times.
I always saw this story in another way: Eden is not a place of perfect happiness, and in fact is no better than the world we are currently in. Because humans "eat" the apples, they know that the world they are in is not eden, and hence they left.


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