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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Blogger D said...

Hi Wei,

Will call you soon for a chat. But now right, do you mind changing your side bar that links me to just D or DC?

Please don't put my name. Scared if i get killed when say controversial stuff.

URGENT arr. Thank youuu.

12:01 pm, April 09, 2007  
Blogger cynical-idealist said...

This was quite an interesting read. I've never really put much thought into it, that sentience would destroy the tried and true laws of science.

Quite an interesting thought of the day. =)

2:39 pm, April 09, 2007  
Blogger Lao Chen said...


Cynical Idealist:
Oh no no, it is the other way round.

The tried and tested laws of science works to the observed degree of accuracy because sentience does not exist in balls. Otherwise balls would want to go to Mars, or eat caviar, or bounce, or do any one of the host of activities that balls usually indulge in.

All of which the current set of differential equations that we use would not be able to predict. Science would not have existed if balls (and elementary particles, for that matter) have a mind of their own.

3:30 pm, April 09, 2007  
Blogger cynical-idealist said...

Haha, I reread your post and realised that. Whoops.

4:54 pm, April 09, 2007  
Blogger Wandering Vagabond said...

Wei: Thanks for the change in name thing.

Tell u something honest, i normally find it very difficult to read very scientific article as such above. But this one was very well written, especially for people who are not so scientifically inclined. There was humour and that crowding around thing with the teacher indulging you guys in lowering the marks even more was ABSOLUTELY hilarious!

Btw, taken off quite a number of my articles after finding out how the key words will link my blog straight from google. SCARY! Cos i want to have a distinction between private life and work/career related.

Neways, yes Karim writes a lot of articles in various newspaper and was one of the partners of Raslan Loong. Johan is his elder brother.

5:56 am, April 10, 2007  
Blogger 小李飞刀 said...

While it seems a little superfluous to imbue inanimate objects with anthromorphic qualities such as intent, preference etc.. It does help the general public to 'understand' science. So its not all that bad. I guess sometimes you have to lower yourself to compete with opposing ideologies like creation science.

4:04 pm, April 10, 2007  
Blogger Lao Chen said...


Relax, this is not pure science; this is more like the philosophy of science. Hence the lack of technicalities.

Downgrading does happens, but sometimes it is the wording by people who know batter that can mislead those that do not.

I suppose almost everyone knows that balls dont want to climb trees; it's just that the expression of "the electron beam tries to move in a straight line but the magnet is trying to pull it to one side" simply lacks the elegant, absolute invariance that you would expect of any system.

8:08 pm, April 10, 2007  
Blogger lcf said...

Interesting topic... should we reverse things by making anthromorphic behaviour sounds like science.

Eg. when we are trying to snap a picture of the F-111, we constantly moving our focus point, pointing it towards the object, ie minimising 'the error' -- so we are a massive PID controller.

Eg. when we are trying to drive the car around a corner, we somehow know when is the time to step and accelerator and turn the steering, because we have learned them. So we have a 'model' in our mind, and we are constantly using it to predict our next action -- so we are a massive MPC controller again. OMG

10:05 am, April 11, 2007  
Blogger Lao Chen said...

Haha, that was the precise same thing i was contemplating 2, 3 days ago. New drivers suck beause they rely on a purely reactive, slow response feedback control (and we all know that results in huge errors and oscillatory outputs).

Through experience, it becomes predictive control with a higher frequency of inputs.

5:12 pm, April 11, 2007  

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