Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Big Sputter

First a quote from a scientist we all admire, even, adore: Richard Feynman:

[The Big Bang] is a much more exciting story to many people than the tales which other people used to make up, when wondering about the universe we lived in on the back of a turtle or something like that. They were wonderful stories, but the truth is so much more remarkable. And, so, what's the wonder in physics to me is that it's revealed the truth is so remarkable.

Feynman's quote, coming from one of the finest minds of the 20th century, is a good chance to understand the limitations of so-called scientific thinking.
Those other people were the ancient Greeks, the ones who invented philosophy, and "the tales"  that were made up were the attempts of empirical thinkers to understand the world we share. This last point was one made by Jan Cox, a leading 20th century thinker.  This picture of a turtle in fact surpasses the big bang theory in it's explanatory power. Such is not typical of the Greek stories, but in fact, since Feynman picked this story,  it lets me point to the characteristics of modern thinking. 

The Greeks and those of their successors who were also committed to an empirical explanation of the world, put the turtle, that ground loving creature to whom birds were inconceivable, not at the base of the support of the world, but at the bottom of an explanatory structure to signal not just their knowledge but WHAT THEY DID NOT KNOW. Newton at the sea shore. And what was that picture of a globe on top of a turtle explaining: that what we see can be understood, can be investigated--that the physical world was to be puzzled over. That the appearance of the world needed an explanation. And the turtle in the picture, what is the turtle explaining,? That you need to keep asking questions, pushing beyond any answers, to arrive at even a tentative conclusion; the turtle represents what Jan Cox would phrase this way: use a comma, not a period, in your thoughts.  The Greeks thought the turtle in a stack of realities would suffice to point to the unknown.

It is this realistic balance between the known and the unknown which has been lost by the physical scientists. Not by thinkers like Roger Penrose, -- but the main herd.  They feel they are on the brink of a Theory of Everything, and they forget how many times their TOEs have been stubbed in the past.  The modern mind cannot stomach the perspective that the truth is ---- partial. For what came before the Big Bang? What produced the Big Bang, ... okay ... What brought forth the multiverse[s]. The stout and brave empiricist does not pretend his answers are "true" in any imperial sense. 

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