Friday, July 16, 2010

Illogical, Doctor...

A recent thread on a certain list gave me a Star Trek flashback--specifically to the countless times Spock would make some remark about logic (or its lack) that actually appealed to common sense. For as a rule, Spock's "logic" wasn't logician's logic but simply "what seems sensible to me based on assumptions I'm not about to publicize."


Anyway, this sort of logic is alive and well, especially in politics. In this case the topic was initially Polish radio, but it wandered:

Interesa demando....mi ankaŭ scivolis pri la logiko, sed verŝajne logiko ne ĉiam dominas. Vidu: en Usono ni ankoraŭ ne akceptis la metran sistemon, kaj multaj homoj dubas pri la fakto de evolucio.

Interesting question....I also was curious about the logic, but probably logic doesn't always win out. Look, in the US we still didn't accept [should be "ne akceptAs"--don't accept] the metric system, and many people doubt the fact of evolution.

This is sensibility as perceived by the speaker, not logic as such. As Devil's Advocate I could observe that

1a. The sole advantages of the metric system are that it's decimal and interlocked. Earlier measurement systems arose separately as needed, and they did so before we decided to focus on one numerical base. Even the metric system allows for non-metric time, for that matter: a metric minute doesn't have 100 seconds.

1b. The metric system is based largely on abstractions (e.g., the size of the earth) that are outside common experience, whereas the quantities found in earlier systems were everyday matters, such as the length of the average stride or the distance from elbow to fingertip. It's good to standardize measures, but perhaps at a gut level, resistance to metric comes from the impression that it's unnatural in its bases.

2a. "Evolution" is such an ambiguous word I wish it would be abolished. Stellar and planetary evolution are similar, but they have practically nothing in common with biological evolution. Different terms should be used.

2b. Even granting that we're talking about biological evolution--I suppose we are; it's the one most likely to excite this kind of short-sighted snobbery--there is the difference between evolution as science and evolution as history. To say that something is scientifically possible is not to say that it has in fact occurred in a given case. Is evolution scientifically possible? I don't know; it's outside my field. I do see potential problems, but the question is far more complex (given the number of scientific fields that must be not just consulted but mastered at expert level) than most people realize, whether they be for or against the idea. A paleontologist likely knows too little about genetics, ecology, physiology, and several other topics than he needs to know before pontificating. That's why I'm skeptical. The degree of knowledge required to construct a unified field theory of physics would be trivial by comparison: at least the numerous topics involved would be more closely related.

2c. Even granting that biological evolution can occur, the question remains whether it did occur in our case. And the strongest rational claim that could be made (again assuming that biological evolution is possible) would be that evolution appeared to fit the available data. And that gets into metaphysical and theological issues. Do we trust appearances? Do we rule out divine intervention? (Intelligent Design, as previously noted, is not actually opposed to evolution and does not require miracles.) Nor are we faced with an absolute either/or: What if everything was created specially but evolution has operated since then?

The moral of the story is that humility is a good thing. It's good to admit that we don't know it all, and it's valuable to realize that people we disagree with are not therefore idiots. They may show themselves idiots in other ways, but offending our sense of "logic"--of what is sensible according to our metaphysical prejudices--is not enough.

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