Monday, December 4, 2006

What's this site all about?

Some have argued that the scientists are gradually becoming a new type of priesthood. By this it is meant that the discussions about truth have become increasingly authoritarian. Something is claimed to be true because some scientist "said so". Few people are sufficiently specialized to be able to challenge an opinion on factual, evidence based, grounds and to interpret the data for themselves. In most debates people just throw at each other with quotations from different "sources". This bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the way theological debates were conducted during the Middle Ages.

The words Immanuel Kant has written more than two hundred years ago seem to be now more relevant than ever:

"Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] 'Have courage to use your own understanding!' – that is the motto of enlightenment.

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after nature has released them from alien guidance, nonetheless gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians. It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.

The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them (including the entire fair sex) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult. Having first made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone. Now this danger is not actually so great, for after falling a few times they would in the end certainly learn to walk; but an example of this kind makes men timid and usually frightens them out of all further attempts."

Probably one of the greatest scare tactics employed today, and which is used to ridicule the enlightenment ideal, is that of the necessity of being specialized. People are bullied into thinking that they cannot know everything and are tricked by incompetent high school teachers and sensationalist TV programs into thinking that things are much harder to understand than they really are. And the tacit assumption is that if you cannot know everything then you have to obey and accept what the "experts" tell you – although you don't understand their reasoning.

However, I think that the specialization of knowledge is highly overrated. One needs specialization to do things but doesn't need it for understanding them. You don't need to know all the details in order to get the point. It's the other way around: you need to get the point in order to be able to understand the details.

"One of the biggest problems for society in general is synthesizing knowledge," said the physicist turned stock market speculator J. Doyne Farmer. "Society is a very complex organism, and the need for increasing specialization has driven everyone to levels of specialization that have created enormous information barriers."

And the issue isn't just how to take everything and to put it in one place or in one book, the issue is how to make that place your own head. A book that is not read and understood doesn't really contain information, it is just a mere piece of material. Similarly, an encyclopedia that gathers all the knowledge but from which everyone only reads and understands small pieces doesn't really contain all knowledge. It is like that story of the elephant and of the people groping in the dark each getting a hold of only a small different part of that huge animal. But does the elephant of all knowledge really exist if there's no one to see it from a sufficient distance so he or she could perceive it in its entirety?

A key concept at work here is that of approximation. You can know something without knowing all the details. And this approximate knowledge is sufficient for most purposes. It lets you understand what's going on and, most importantly, it let's you understand the connections between various pieces of knowledge. And this also allows you to have a different, less parochial, perspective on what you do know in detail. It might also give you unexpected clues via one analogy or another.

But, above all, this is the only thing that allows you to contemplate how little we actually know. If one succumbs under the illusion of the necessary specialization one can very easily imagine or fantasize that if the entire puzzle of the human knowledge would be pieced together one would obtain a fairly complete picture of the entire world. Not so! This puzzle is very far from being complete and it's useful to get a feeling of its modern limits.

So, this site contains a general description of what I think is the essential scientific knowledge from quantum physics to economics and history (or it will contain this sometime in the future). One might object that I'm grossly overstepping my boundaries and I'm writing about stuff that's not really part of my field. Indeed, I am. My specializations are in biophysics and in plasma physics. Everything else that I know is self-taught. But that's the whole point. I think that all the information that I present here should be common knowledge.

[Note: this site started in December 2006; the dates of the posts prior to this are the dates when the articles were first written.]

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