Thursday, November 20, 2008

Without Hot Air

This image is from Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, a freely downloadable and very readable book about energy by David McKay, Professor of Physics at Cambridge. The width of a bar represents relative population size; the height per capita energy use.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why Bankruptcy Is the Best Option for GM

A great opinion piece in the
General Motors is a once-great company caught in a web of relationships designed for another era. It should not be fed while still caught, because that will leave it trapped until we get tired of feeding it. Then it will die. The only possibility of saving it is to take the risk of cutting it free. In other words, GM should be allowed to go bankrupt.

Brother can you spare a dime

NPR had a great piece on this depression-era song this morning. It was musically interesting and emotionally touching. I recommend that you listen to it and not just read the text on the web page. (To listen click the "Listen Now" directly under the headline.)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A religious basis for secular doubt

In "The value of uncertainty" I quoted Feynman on the value of uncertainty—that it's a positive value to be willing to live without knowing anything for sure. This is something that would be difficult for most religious thinkers, especially naive religious thinkers, to accept. But it need not be incompatible with religion.

First of all, the uncertainty need only apply to the secular world. One need not insist on holding that uncertainty in faith is a good.

Secondly, one can point to biblical pronouncements that man should hold dominion over everything he sees and that he should be a good steward of the land. To be faithful to those pronouncements one should understand that over which one is expected to exercise wise stewardship. To achieve that understanding requires science. And to be successful at science (as Feynman says) requires that one welcome doubt and never insist that today's answer is necessarily the answer forever.

So there is a religious argument for secular doubt. It would be very beneficial for this country if that argument would be made by respected religious leaders. To the best of my knowledge it hasn't been. At best enlightened religious leaders have said that science is not incompatible with religion. But none of them (as far as I know) have argued that science—and therefore secular doubt—is a religious good.

The value of uncertainty

In "Is religion good or bad?" I asked whether religion was good or bad. A related concept is the value of uncertainty. Here is what Richard Feynman said about it.
We scientists … take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure — that it is possible to live and not know. But I don't know whether everyone realizes that this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle. Permit us to question — to doubt, that's all — not to be sure. And I think it is important that we do not forget the importance of this struggle. …

This is not a new idea; this is the idea of the age of reason. This is the philosophy that guided the men who made the democracy that we live under. The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we should arrange a system by which new ideas could be developed, tried out, tossed out, more new ideas brought in; a trial and error system. This method was a result of the fact that science was already showing itself to be a successful venture at the end of the 18th century. Even then it was clear to socially minded people that the openness of the possibilities was an opportunity, and that doubt and discussion were essential to progress into the unknown. If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar. …

It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.