Improving the Cognitive Toolkit
3 former b-heads (thanks alot Michael Behe
) answered this question
rather well. I'm putting the entire passages in because they are so worth reading, in full.
The Mediocrity Principle
As someone who just spent a term teaching freshman introductory biology, and will be doing it again in the coming months, I have to say that the first thing that leapt to my mind as an essential skill everyone should have was algebra. And elementary probability and statistics. That sure would make my life easier, anyway there's something terribly depressing about seeing bright students tripped up by a basic math skill that they should have mastered in grade school.
But that isn't enough. Elementary math skills are an essential tool that we ought to be able to take for granted in a scientific and technological society. What idea should people grasp to better understand their place in the universe?
I'm going to recommend the mediocrity principle. It's fundamental to science, and it's also one of the most contentious, difficult concepts for many people to grasp and opposition to the mediocrity principle is one of the major linchpins of religion and creationism and jingoism and failed social policies. There are a lot of cognitive ills that would be neatly wrapped up and easily disposed of if only everyone understood this one simple idea.
The mediocrity principle simply states that you aren't special. The universe does not revolve around you, this planet isn't privileged in any unique way, your country is not the perfect product of divine destiny, your existence isn't the product of directed, intentional fate, and that tuna sandwich you had for lunch was not plotting to give you indigestion. Most of what happens in the world is just a consequence of natural, universal laws laws that apply everywhere and to everything, with no special exemptions or amplifications for your benefit given variety by the input of chance. Everything that you as a human being consider cosmically important is an accident. The rules of inheritance and the nature of biology meant that when your parents had a baby, it was anatomically human and mostly fully functional physiologically, but the unique combination of traits that make you male or female, tall or short, brown-eyed or blue-eyed were the result of a chance shuffle of genetic attributes during meiosis, a few random mutations, and the luck of the draw in the grand sperm race at fertilization.
Don't feel bad about that, though, it's not just you. The stars themselves form as a result of the properties of atoms, the specific features of each star set by the chance distribution of ripples of condensation through clouds of dust and gas. Our sun wasn't required to be where it is, with the luminosity it has it just happens to be there, and our existence follows from this opportunity. Our species itself is partly shaped by the force of our environment through selection, and partly by fluctuations of chance. If humans had gone extinct 100,000 years ago, the world would go on turning, life would go on thriving, and some other species would be prospering in our place and most likely not by following the same intelligence-driven technological path we did.
And if you understand the mediocrity principle, that's OK.
The reason this is so essential to science is that it's the beginning of understanding how we came to be here and how everything works. We look for general principles that apply to the universe as a whole first, and those explain much of the story; and then we look for the quirks and exceptions that led to the details. It's a strategy that succeeds and is useful in gaining a deeper knowledge. Starting with a presumption that a subject of interest represents a violation of the properties of the universe, that it was poofed uniquely into existence with a specific purpose, and that the conditions of its existence can no longer apply, means that you have leapt to an unfounded and unusual explanation with no legitimate reason. What the mediocrity principle tells us is that our state is not the product of intent, that the universe lacks both malice and benevolence, but that everything does follow rules and that grasping those rules should be the goal of science.
The Pointless Universe
The world consists of things, which obey rules. If you keep asking "why" questions about what happens in the universe, you ultimately reach the answer "because of the state of the universe and the laws of nature."
This isn't an obvious way for people to think. Looking at the universe through our anthropocentric eyes, we can't help but view things in terms of causes, purposes, and natural ways of being. In ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle saw the world teleologically rain falls because water wants to be lower than air, animals (and slaves) are naturally subservient to human citizens.
From the start, there were skeptics. Democritus and Lucretius were early naturalists, who urged us to think in terms of matter obeying rules rather than chasing final causes and serving underlying purposes. But it wasn't until our understanding of physics was advanced by thinkers such as Avicenna, Galileo, and Newton that it became reasonable to conceive of the universe evolving under its own power, free of guidance and support from anything beyond itself.
Theologians sometimes invoke "sustaining the world" as a function of God. But we know better; the world doesn't need to be sustained, it can simply be. Pierre-Simon Laplace articulated the very specific kind of rule that the world obeys: if we specify the complete state of the universe (or any isolated part of it) at some particular instant, the laws of physics tell us what its state will be at the very next moment. Applying those laws again, we can figure out what it will be a moment later. And so on, until (in principle, obviously) we can build up a complete history of the universe. This is not a universe that is advancing toward a goal; it is one that is caught in the iron grip of an unbreakable pattern.
This view of the processes at the heart of the physical world has important consequences for how we come to terms with the social world. Human beings like to insist that there are reasons why things happen. The death of a child, the crash of an airplane, or a random shooting must be explained in terms of the workings of a hidden plan. When Pat Robertson suggested that Hurricane Katrina was caused in part by God's anger at America's failing morals, he was attempting to provide an explanatory context for a seemingly inexplicable event.
Nature teaches us otherwise. Things happen because the laws of nature say they will because they are the consequences of the state of the universe and the path of its evolution. Life on Earth doesn't arise in fulfillment of a grand scheme, but rather as a byproduct of the increase of entropy in an environment very far from equilibrium. Our impressive brains don't develop because life is guided toward greater levels of complexity and intelligence, but from the mechanical interactions between genes, organisms, and their surroundings.
None of which is to say that life is devoid of purpose and meaning. Only that these are things we create, not things we discover out there in the fundamental architecture of the world. The world keeps happening, in accordance with its rules; it's up to us to make sense of it and give it value.
Life As A Side Effect
It's been over 150 years since Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species, but we still have trouble appreciating the simple, brilliant insight at its core. That is, life's diversity does not exist because it is necessary for living things. Birds did not get wings so that they could fly. We do not have eyes so that we can read. Instead, eyes, wings, and the rest of life's wonder has come about as a side effect of life itself. Living things struggle to survive, they reproduce, and they don't do a perfect job of replicating themselves. Evolution spins off of that loop, like heat coming off an engine. We're so used to seeing agents behind everything that we struggle to recognize life as a side effect. I think everyone would do well do overcome that urge to see agents where there are none. It would even help us to understand why we are so eager to see agents in the first place.
These illustrate why it is so patently absurd when religious people suggest that science should show more "humility."
Last edited by uncle ebeneezer; 01-17-2011 at 07:29 PM..