Sunday, October 27, 2019

The joy of solving Rubik's cubes

Some loosely and tenuously connected musings, nothing more:

  1. Let's divide scientific investigation into two categories: the experimental sciences and the historical sciences.

    Generally speaking:

    The experimental sciences involve experiments which can be setup under predetermined conditions and repeated. This in turn can be done by teams of different scientists at different places and different times. The cumulative repetition, if the experiment is successful in proving a hypothesis or theory, fosters greater confidence in its accuracy.

    By contrast, the historical sciences involve a singularity. A one-time event which cannot be repeated. Consider the big bang in cosmology or the origin of life and evolution in the biological sciences. We can't playback the big bang or how life originated and evolved. Closer to home, I have in mind historical and archeological research, SETI, and forensic medicine.

    This doesn't necessarily mean one can't be as confident in theories investigating singular historical events as one can be in theories based on experiments. For example, inference to the best explanation arguments can be quite reasonable.

  2. Atheists often demand evidence for God in answered prayers and miracles. They want God to demonstrate to them that he exists.

    Perhaps some atheists would be willing to see some "extraordinary" miracle like God writing something like "the Bible is true" with the stars. Although I recall a prominent atheist (it might've been Peter Atkins) who said that even if God performed an extraordinary miracle, he would chalk it up to a neurological dysfunction and disbelieve what he saw.

    In my experience, though, most atheists demand repeat experiments to test whether an answered prayer or a miracle is truly from God.

    However, why should prayers or miracles be subject to repeat experiments? We'd be treating God like a mechanical miracle dispenser. That's not how personal agents work. If I want to test someone and see if they will give me something, I don't ask them to sit in a controled environment, under the watchful eye of people hired to record his every action, and repeat my question to him over and over again to see if there'll be a different result.

    Instead, I think prayers or miracles might be better investigated using the tools of investigation in the historical sciences rather than the experimental sciences. Such as inference to the best explanation. Consider the people, circumstances, related events, etc., in and around a purported answered prayer or miracle, on a case by case basis, rule out other possibilities, and so on.

  3. On a completely different note:

    Most people enjoy reading, listening to, and/or watching stories.

    At the same time, we enjoy re-reading a good story or re-watching a good movie, even though we know the entire story including ending. We love to re-experience our favorite stories over and over again. For example, many people love to re-watch their favorite movies or television episodes.

    However, this isn't true for every story. There are some good stories which we wouldn't want to re-read or re-watch even if we could. Perhaps the stories are good but they're too personally difficult or even traumatic to read or watch again.

    Also, there are often stories which we find delightful that we couldn't watch again. Take murder mystery or detective stories. We might enjoy Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie, but once the case has been solved, we're not all that interested in going through it again.

    I presume that's at least partly because it wasn't so much the story itself that was captivating but finding out what the ending was. Discovering whodunnit. The joy was primarily in untangling the thorny knot of the mystery.

    Similar things could be said for other things besides literature. Take the sciences or math. Some scientific or mathematical problems are fun to do on one's own even though everyone knows the answer or how they'll turn out. Other scientific or mathematical problems are more like solving a Rubik's cube or finishing a crossword puzzle.

    Just as there different types of scientific investigations, such as investigations focused on repeating and reproducing the same experiment as well as investigations focused on solving a mystery or a puzzle, it's interesting there are stories we enjoy re-experiencing time and time again as well as stories we enjoy but could only read or watch once.


  1. There are certain things that cannot be demonstrated in a laboratory, such as an earthquake or a supernova. However, one thing which in theory *could* be recreated in the lab is the origin of the first self-replicating organism. The experiment would have to be done fairly, of course. Experiments which show how the ingredients of life could be created prove nothing. After all, a machine which generates letters of the alphabet is not the same as a machine that produces the complete works of Shakespeare.

    There is something else that we need to bear in mind. It may be possible to generate something like a specific nucleotide under the right conditions. But those conditions are not necessarily the same as the conditions under which some other ingredient of life would be created. So we can’t assume even that all the ingredients of life could be created together, much less that the ingredients could all assemble themselves into a self-replicating organism.

    So scientists who study the origin of life face a truly enormous challenge. Personally, I don’t believe that they will ever be successful. And that raises another question: Should scientists be able to claim that the origin of the first self-replicating organism is a purely natural event, even if this can never be demonstrated? Wouldn’t this be a case of blind faith?

    1. Thanks, David. You bring up good points!