Posts Tagged ‘Galileo’

The Dalai Lama, Science, and Buddhism

June 6, 2016

The Dalai Lama, whose shortened religious name is Tenzin Guyatso, is the 14th Dalai Lama.  Dalai Lamas are important monks of the Gelug school, which is the newest school of Tibetan Buddhism.  This current Dalai Lama was interested in science from a very early age, and this interest in science has grown as he has matured.  Although science and religion are often portrayed as chronic opponents and sometimes even enemies.  There is no historic antagonism between Buddhism and Science as there has been between science and the Roman Catholic Church.  The Roman Catholic Church put Copernicus’s work on the Index of forbidden books and tried Galileo by the Inquisition, found him “vehemently suspect of heresy”, forced him to recant, and to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.  Both Buddhism and science share the goal of seeking the truth, with a small t.  For science truth is, or should be, always tentative and always subject to refutation by the next experiment.  For Buddhism, especially as the Dalai Lama sees it, even core teachings can and must be overturned if science proves them wrong.  Most importantly, Buddhist training emphasizes the value of investigating reality and finding the truth of the outside world as well as the contents of one’s mind.  According to Alan Wallace, who spent years as a Buddhist monk before turning in his robes to become a Buddhist scholar and who is a long time participant in the dialogues between scientists and the Dalai Lama, “Four themes are common to Buddhism at its best:  rationality, empiricism, skepticism, and pragmatism.”

In 1983, the Dalai Lama traveled to Austria for a conference on consciousness where he met Francisco Varela, a thirty-seven-year-old Chilean born neuroscientist who had begun practicing Buddhism in 1974.  It was not surprising  that the Dalai Lama had never met an eminent neuroscientist who was also knowledgeable about Buddhism, so the young researcher and the older Buddhist hit it off immediately.   Even with his busy schedule the Dalai Lama told Varela he wished he could have such conversations more often.

The following year Varela heard about a plan that Adam Engle, an entrepreneur in California was working on.  When Engle heard from Varela about the Dalai Lama’s interest in science he decided he wanted to put some energy into making the Dala Lama’s interest in science something more than a passing fancy.

After having put a great deal of energy into the effort in October 1987, the Dalai Lama hosted the first conference of what had been named the Mind and Life Institute in Dharmsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile.  Many conferences of the Mind and Life Institute have followed.  Many parts of this book are taken directly from these meetings between scientists and Buddhist scholars in Dharmsala.

Some scientists saw the Dalai Lama as a bridge between the world of spirituality and the world of science, someone whose expertise in mental training might offer western science a perspective that has been lacking in its investigations of mind and brain.  He was invited to address the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2005, but not without controversy.  Some five hundreds members signed a petition protesting his appearance arguing that religion has no place as a scientific conference.  The Dalai Lama has offered the following answer, “Spirituality and science are different but complimentary  investigative approaches with the same greater goal of seeking truth.”  He told neuroscientists that although Eastern contemplative practices and western science arose for different reasons and with different roles, they share an over-riding purpose.  They both investigate reality.  “By gaining deeper insight into the human psyche, we might find ways of transforming our thoughts, emotions and their underlying properties so that a more wholesome and fulfilling way can be found.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Understanding Beliefs

August 3, 2015

Understanding Beliefs is a book by Nils J. Nilsson in The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series.  Perhaps a better title for the book would be “How We Should Believe,”  the reason for this should become clear by the end of this post.  Nilsson is one of the founders of artificial intelligence, and putting the concept of belief into computer science is quite valuable.

He does not work entirely  in the domain of artificial intelligence as he notes contributions from psychologists and neuroscientists.  He invokes Kahneman’s concepts of System One and System Two processes that have been discussed previously in the healthy memory blog.  System One processes run off more or less automatically.  System Two processes are more in the vein of what is regarded as thinking and require mental effort.  Our beliefs are processed automatically through System One and there is little evidence of additional brain activity..  When information contradicts our beliefs, the brain becomes active and if not immediately revoked, System 2 and effortful processing is engaged to deal with the conflicting belief.

Nilsson discusses his own beliefs.  He does not believe that we ever have contact with an external world.  Rather we form concepts or beliefs based on the sensory inputs from an external world and the subsequent cognitive activity.  Moreover, these beliefs are weighted in terms of probabilities.  Nothing is certain.  That is, there are no beliefs with values of 0.0 or 1.0, regardless of how strongly the belief or disbelief is felt.   My views are identical.  These views are common among scientists and philosophers.  Here are some exemplary quotes:

“Objects” do not exist independently of conceptual schemes  We cut up the world into objects when we introduce one of another scheme of description.”  Hilary Putnam, philosopher.

“There was no way to hook up ideas with things…because ideas—mental representations—do not refer to things; they refer to other mental representations.”  Louis Menand, author, referring to thoughts of the philosopher C.S. Pierce.

“There is no quantum world.  There is only an abstract physical  description.  It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to found out how nature is.  Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”  Niels Bohr, physicist.

“The physicist constructs what he terms the physical world, a concept which arises from a peculiar combination of certain observed facts and the reasoning provoked by their perception.”  Robert Lindsay and Henry Margenau, physicists.

Nilsson advocates the scientific method as being the gold standard for confirming or rejecting beliefs.   When beliefs are modified, probabilities are adjusted, but beliefs are no entirely confirmed or discounted.  Near the beginning of the eleventh century, al_Haytham, an Islamic scholar who lived in Basra and Cairo, wrote the Book of Optics,which included a theory of vision and a theory of sight.  According to one authority, “Ibn al-Haytham was the pioneer of the modern scientific method.  His book changed the meaning of the term “optics” and established experiments as the norm of proof in the field.  His investigations were not based on abstract theories, but on experimental evidence, and his experiments were systematic and repeatable.  Unlike the Greeks, in his theory of vision rays of light came from the objects seen rather than from the eyes that see them.

Some of the European contributors to the development of the scientific method are Robert Grosseteste (c. 1125-1253), Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294), Galileo (1564-1642), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), and, of course, Isaac Newton(1643-1727).

Problems arise when the problem is how to change erroneous beliefs.  The default for people is what they already believe, and much effort is involved in changing beliefs.  Moreover, we tend to seek out information that confirms rather than disconfirm our beliefs.  The internet has exacerbated this problem.  Different sites cater to different beliefs and we tend to search for information that confirms our beliefs.

The psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert describes two separate mental activities for processing a new piece of information, comprehension and assessment.  Assessment involves comparing  what is comprehended with other information.  It is much easier to reject than to accept information that does not correspond with existing beliefs.  Moreover, people do not like to suspend judgment.  Closure is preferred.  However, doubt us a valuable defense against belief traps.

Great minds can embrace doubt  The physicist Richard Feynman said, “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing—I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing that to have answers that might be wrong.  I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about.”

I fear that if we contrasted what  Feynman said with the typical individual on the street, we would find that most people have definite opinions about many things the know nothing about.  And many of these beliefs fly in the face of accepted scientific opinion—evolution for example.

Nilsson believes that the scientific method offers the best way discovered so far to invent  and evaluation beliefs.  And he believes that the best antidote to belief traps is to express our belies to the reasoned criticisms of others.  But as you should remember from the previous healthy memory blog post on belief, that beliefs are extremely difficult to change.  The viability of Nilsson’s  remedies will be discussed in the next healthy memory blog post.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Prescience of Leonardo Da Vinci

July 5, 2014

Leonardo Da Vinci anticipated many great scientific discoveries.

40 years before Copernicus he noted, in large letters to underscore its significance, “IL SOLE NO SI MUOVE,” “The sun does not move.” He further noted that “The earth is not in the center of the circle of the sun, nor in the center of the universe. When he lived, it was not only believed that the sun revolved around the earth by that the earth was the center of all things.

60 years before Galileo he thought that “a large magnifying lens” should be employed to study the surface of the moon and other heavenly bodies.

200 years before Newton he anticipated Newton’s theory of gravitation. He wrote, “Every weight tends to fall towards the center in the shortest possible way.” In another note he added, “every heavy substance presses downward and cannot be upheld perpetually, the whole earth must become spherical.

400 years before Darwin he placed man in the same broad category as monkeys and apes writing, “Man does not vary from the animals except it what is accidental” The accidental part is especially prescient as he is anticipating the basis of evolution, random mutations.

I’m curious as to whether any of these scientists were aware of Da Vinci’s writings and whether he had any influence on their work. Please comment if you have any information regarding these questions.

Stupidity Pandemic

April 1, 2014

Picking up from the previous blog that left with the exhortation not to follow the Krell to extinction it would be well to ask, where do we stand now? We are at the peak of scientific knowledge, but too much of the world lives at a subsistence level, and there are numerous wars and conflicts. Millions of people are displaced and have neither homes nor prospects. Terrorists are preoccupied with jihad. Even in the so-called advanced countries stupidity reigns. Many people cling to discredited dogmas and reject scientific findings. I find it quite annoying that many people enjoy the benefits of medicine and technology that result from science, yet reject the scientific basis on which these benefits depend. Worse yet, these individuals’ beliefs risk further advancements in science, technology, and medicine. Moreover, they prevent or hinder responding to problems with a strong scientific basis that need to be addressed. There is a member of the U.S. Congress who believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible and enforces his beliefs in his legislative actions. What is even more depressing is that citizens of a presumably advanced country elected such a man to office.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson proposed that Congress double funds for medical science, but to cut the entire social and behavioral sciences budget of the National Science Foundation. Although she is to be applauded for doubling funds for medical science, it is regrettable that she fails to see the relevance of the social sciences. One can well argue that most of our problems need to be addressed by the social and behavioral sciences, (To read more on this topic, enter “STEM’ into the search block of the healthymemory blog).
Debates in the United States center on whether someone is for or against Big Government. This is a meaningless question and a meaningless topic for debate. What is Big Government? Perhaps it could be defined in terms of the percentage of the GNP spent by the government, but that would still be a pointless basis for debate. The debate should be on what services should be provided by government and which by the private sector. Moreover, this debate should not be on the basis of what people believe, but on the basis of reasoning and evidence. Public policy should be evidence-based. Sometimes the evidence is there for the asking, but often experiments need to be done. When this happens, there is some evidence of intelligence. Unsupported beliefs indicate stupidity. To put this in Kahnman’s terms, we need System 2 processes, not System 1 processes (if this is not understood, enter “Kahneman” into the search block of the healthymemory blog.).
Too often a false dichotomy is made between science and religion; that you follow one or the other. Science and religion are not incompatible. First of all, it needs to be appreciated that science and religion are alternative, not competitive, means of knowing. The Dali Lama is a strong proponent of this point of view and also a strong believer in science. Next, a distinction needs to be made between religions and God. Religions are constituted of and by human beings, and religious promulgations and texts are from men. It is up to us individuals to decide whether they are the word of God. A belief in God should begin with an appreciation of our brains. If you believe in God, then the brain is a gift that came through evolution, and we need to make the most of this gift. This brain is the vehicle by which we work to understand the world. Science is a rigorous means of gaining this understanding. It is clear that this understanding comes gradually.
For a long time, the advancement of human knowledge proceeded at a glacial pace. I would argue that true scientific advancement began with Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and their use of the scientific method. Copernicus formulated the heliocentric theory of our solar system with the earth at its center. Galileo’s research putt him at odds with the Roman Catholic Church who saw his research as an assault on the Church’s monopoly on truth. They placed him on trial. Fortunately, others followed in their footsteps. As more engaged in these pursuits, knowledge advanced at an increasingly rapid rate. One of the ironic features of this advancement of scientific knowledge is that we have become more aware of what we don’t know. Dark matter is just one of these areas.
Unfortunately religious dogmas have had a depressing effect on the advancement of knowledge. This should never be allowed. What we learn through science, which is, or should be, the antithesis of dogma. Scientific knowledge is always subject to change subject to new information and new theories. Although we can never be certain, scientific knowledge provides us the best available information regarding what to believe and how to act. Science requires heavy use of System 2 processes, thinking. Dogmas allow us to rely on System 1 processes so we don’t have to think.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.