Friday, 25 March 2016

Ideas and how they take hold

Lent 2016: Day 45 - Good Friday

For ideas to gather adherents, they must be couched in plausible language. The story told in the first part of Prof Jim Al-Khalili's documentary The Beginning and End of the Universe (BBC4) of how science came to accept the theory of the Big Bang as fact is interesting. It was not Einstein but a Belgian priest and astronomer, Georges Lemaître, who first postulated that the Universe was not in a steady state, eternal and infinite, but expanding rapidly from an initial singularity. Einstein famously poo-poo'd Lemaître's concept, saying that while his maths was sound, his physics was abominable.

It was only until after Edwin Hubble discovered galaxies beyond our own, and found that that the further away from our galaxy they were, the more rapidly they were accelerating away from us, did Einstein finally accept that Lemaître was right. The chance discovery by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of cosmic background radiation that is now known to be the echo of the Big Bang, nine years after Einstein's death, proved the theory to be correct.

It took the best part of 40 years for Lemaître's to become scientific mainstream. Ideas of a single mind need to be validated, cross-checked and subjected to intense scrutiny over decades before being taken seriously, never mind becoming the predominant way of looking at our world and our Universe.

Evolution is another example. The publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species and the theory of natural selection was found to be disturbing by Victorian society, as it upset Man's unique status in nature.

In yesterday's post, I wrote about "conscious life - emerging and continually improving". My brother wrote back and said that Darwin would prefer the phrase "conscious life - emerging and continually adapting" - replacing a loaded word with a neutral one. The concept of 'continual improvement' may be an example of the cognitive bias of wishful thinking, a desire to impose my deeply-felt hopes onto the evolution of consciousness. The notion of improvement suggests a direction and a purpose; whilst adaptation merely suggests outcomes based on suitability to environment.

Can animals think and feel as humans do? Worth looking into this article from the Christmas 2015 edition of The Economist. Mankind is becoming more sensitive to the idea that other species have feelings too. In May 2015, the government of New Zealand legally recognised that animals are sentient, paving the way to greater rights for animals.

The mystery of consciousness and science's other great unknown - dark matter/dark energy - are still a long way from being unravelled. We can come at these questions with mathematics, physics or biology, but it is our human intuition that leads the way; science follows with equations and experiments. Peer review, debate and hard questions will pave the way to establishing new knowledge. But strive to understand we must, and questioning established nostrums is part-and-parcel of reaching new levels of understanding of who we are, where we are going and the Universe of which we are part.

Richard Dawkins, the arch-atheist, will be remembered more for his concept of the meme - no, not a funny picture going viral online - the meme is the idea of the idea as a gene; spreading if they are good, dying out if they are not. The concept of the meme applies equally to jokes and fashion as it does to scientific or religious ideas. Only the ones that have something attractive in them replicate.

Religions are not subject to the same scrutiny as scientific theories; certain tenets, based on holy scriptures, are beyond debate, and a matter of faith. And as I wrote earlier this Lent, this leads to a certain stasis in matters spiritual; an unwillingness for religions to keep up with advances in science. My Lenten explorations are written in the hope for a solid bridge between the worlds of science and spirituality.

This time last year:
Russian eyes peering down on Jeziorki

This time two years ago:
New road and retail: waiting for Jeziorki's new Biedronka to open

This time four years ago:
Warsaw's Northern Bridge - its name and local democracy

This time six years ago:
What's the Polish for 'commuter'?

This time seven years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

This time eight years ago:
The fate of urban wetlands?

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