Monday, April 09, 2007

Sentience in pure science

Back in the dark days when I was in upper secondary school, our physics teacher was a large and lackadaisical man who by his flexible and whatever attitude allowed us to be slightly rowdier than what other teachers would tolerate.

An incident which remains stuck in my head occurred shortly after a term exam of minor consequence. A few of us were idle standing around the physics teacher as he marked the exam scripts. We openly laughed at some of the classmates’ impotent attempts at salvaging marks, and when the teacher gave each question a score, we would urge him to lower it. Occasionally he did, much to our entertainment.

A particularly hideous phenomenon I noticed on that occasion (but exists even in academia) was the projection of sentience onto mechanical systems. The question of “why does a rolling ball’s speed slow as it rolls up an inclined surface?” was answered with “because the ball is trying to go up the slope but gravity is trying to pull it down.”

By granting the ball and gravity sentience and intention defeats the entire purpose of pure science; it borders the behaviour primitive religions that imbue rocks and celestial objects with spirits and souls. In contrast, pure science does not allow balls and black holes to have intents of their own – otherwise two balls of identical construction would ‘want’ to climb different trees or conquer their own galaxies, behaviours which have not been observed and documented so far.

The construction of pure science partially revolves around the concept of repeatability, a concept which is destroyed by the introduction of sentience. However, it is not for the preservation of the current understanding of science that sentience has been disallowed to be introduced in the understanding of balls; it is because balls have been behaving so consistently that many think that the balls in fact do not have sentience whatsoever.

A nastier example of the projection of sentience is embodied in the common and easy to remember idiom, “nature abhors a vacuum.” Besides the fact that nature not only is given sentience but also emotions, this idiom also wrongfully generalises the behaviour of fluids. A question on HowStuffWorks asks “if nature abhors a vacuum, then why doesn't the vacuum of space suck away all of the Earth's atmosphere?” (The question assumes that nature dislikes a vacuum, but the answer is worse- through a series of logically unsound arguments, it suggests that “nature loves a vacuum.”)

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