Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Advice for the purposeful dilettante

I ran across an article in the Economist lamenting the decline of the polymath. The article described the traditional polymath as a person with comprehensive knowledge of all or many fields. The article also briefly profiled prominent polymaths of the past and then discussed how difficult it is in the present for one to be a polymath. The main problem is that the sum total of knowledge has grown exponentially. Our era is one of specialists.

The article also described the phenomenon of specialists trying to keep generalists out of their field. When a newcomer arrives, the specialists often deride him as a dilettante. The dilettante is meant as a pejorative term. A dilettante, or dabbler, is considered beneath contempt because he has not paid his dues. Nevertheless, it is this dilettante whom I wish to defend.

Before I go too far, though, I should describe what I mean by purposeful. No question, there are aimless dabblers who never accomplish anything. But I do not want to completely disparage such dabblers. I often am one myself. Sometimes aimless contemplation after some hard work leads to serendipitous discovery. If it involves only a minor portion of your waking moments, a time of playful reflection refreshes one's labors.

And failing to accomplish something can be a distracting accusation. I have rarely been persuaded that accomplishment praised by others is necessarily most important. If I seek to understand a particular field to a greater extent than I did before, what business is it of the world whether I accomplish anything objective in that field? If my purpose is personal edification, then I have accomplished that goal. I have also laid a foundation for future building.

The key is "purpose." Random dabbling without a purpose is a waste of time. Psalm 90:12 is a prayer that God would "teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." Certainly this should be a primary goal.

One of the creation ordinances is to subdue the earth. This implies work, focus, and diligence. Those three factors, I believe, provide useful guidance to determine whether your dabbling is purposeful.

Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were called to tend and keep the garden. By extension and express command, we are called to tend and keep the earth. This means that we are to learn whatever we can about creation. It is obvious, being finite beings, that we cannot know everything there is to know or do everything to be done. But the division of labor implied by our commanded task does not mean that we are to ignore everything but our own little sphere of interest. The purposeful dilettante, as a generalist, attempts to keep up with the broad understanding of all his fields of interest. Because there are too many details, he must be a master of succinct summary.

One advantage the purposeful dilettante has over the specialist is that he can remain below the radar, as it were. He is not defending his lofty position from other competitors. If the purposeful dilettante can remain sufficiently aware of developments in his chosen fields of interest he can see what is being ignored. He can apply insights gleaned from other fields to unworked ground. By building a modest body of work in a neglected area, the dilettante may actually end up being considered a specialist. Should the dilettante be able to do this in several different areas, he may be consulted as a comprehensive genius. So, while the purposeful dilettante may not be driven by ambitiously craving objective accomplishment, diligent and focused work may lead to it all the same. The crucial point is that he is driven by what interests him, not what he thinks can bring him acclaim. Acclaim is a pleasant potential byproduct.

I have read that it only requires roughly 10% more effort than average to accomplish significant things. That figure may be high. I have observed in my own life that adding one half hour each day to a particular and focused activity provides me good progress. A half-hour is only 6% more of an eight hour workday. Yet, by using a half-hour per day for only a matter of weeks, I was able to learn the Hebrew alphabet and a significant amount of Hebrew vocabulary. After a month or so of consistent half-hour periods, I had learned enough Hebrew to be able to read the Hebrew Bible at perhaps a fourth-grade level. I'm still progressing.

Similarly, in the past, one half hour of consistent practice on the organ or harpsichord has yielded remarkable progress (for less than talented me). I can say the same thing about calculus, physics, Greek, and many other fields of endeavor. Consistent half-hour periods of focus allowed me to understand computer programming, complex software, political history, theology, and many other areas of knowledge.

I also know that a half-hour of dictation yields something around 1000 words. Of course, these words require editing and that requires additional time. But the thoughts are down on paper and available as material for further work. The only thing that limits my edification and growth is failing at diligence. And here is the other key point: native intelligence and brilliance are less important than diligence. I cannot change my native intelligence, but diligence is completely within my control.

So, in the end, the purposeful dilettante is purposeful because he is diligent. Advice for the aimless yet restless: follow whatever interests you. Follow it diligently. Ignore the name-calling from the specialists and press on. Your passion and your work is the reward. Should external recognition arrive, it is a blessing from God.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Role of Science

Proper science is always descriptive. It seeks to be predictive. It never is prescriptive.

I believe that confusing these categories is what is behind the muddled debate regarding the role of science and faith in Scripture.

Before looking at the three categories, I think it is important to identify the fundamental premise of the discipline of science. This premise, which is necessarily an article of faith, is the belief in the uniformity and consistency of nature. Similar conditions produce similar outcomes. Science must assume this a priori. The entire discipline may be summarized as an empirical search for confirmation of this premise. As David Hume pointed out many years ago, empirical observation can never prove an absolute truth. In order for science to work as science, the scientist must assume that nature behaves consistently. The thoughtful philosopher of science acknowledges this. He is comfortable working with the tools of science while keeping in mind the scope of his exploration. Less thoughtful scientists deceive themselves when they attempt to bootstrap conclusions from observation as justification for holding the premise. This self deception rubs off on the world as well.

The descriptive role of science

We often hear of the fundamental laws of nature. Indeed, a scientist’s professional aspiration is to discover some fundamental law of nature. A thoughtful scientist acknowledges that a fundamental law of nature is a systematic description of observations. In other words, the scientist acknowledges that a law of nature is a man derived discovery, not a decree. However, many confuse this distinction.

One example of this was a conversation I had with my soil physics professor when I was studying advanced soil physics at my university. We were all familiar with what is known as Charles’s Law. This is a natural law that (among other things) describes the relationship between temperature and pressure of a gas. Generally speaking, if volume remains the same, when the temperature decreases the pressure of a gas decreases. This observation has been confirmed over and over again to the point that it is accepted as truth. In reality, it is a professional "rule of thumb," because real gases depart subtly from the ideal model.

The professor was discussing an interesting way of measuring vapor pressure within a plant by use of a thermocouple psychrometer. The device used a microscopic thermocouple placed inside a root or a leaf of a plant. Voltage was applied to the thermocouple, and through what is known as the Peltier effect, the temperature of the thermocouple element would decrease. At some point water droplets could be detected on the element. By knowing the voltage applied to the thermocouple, you could determine the temperature at which the droplets were formed. Through a series of simple calculations, applying Charles’s Law, you could determine what the vapor pressure of water was inside the leaf or the root prior to the experiment.

As the professor was describing this experiment, he asked us why the water droplets formed. I answered that it was because the temperature drop had reduced the heat of the system and therefore the number of collisions of molecules was insufficient to maintain the water in vapor form, so they condensed. The professor shouted, "No! It is because of Charles’s Law!"

My reflexive response: "I am sure water molecules behaved this way long before Charles had been born."

My relationship with the professor deteriorated after that point. He doubted that I would be a good scientist because I refuse to hold a natural law as foundational.

The predictive role of science

Having stated that the laws of nature are summary descriptions of observations, we can briefly consider the most powerful and useful aspect of it: its predictive role.

When a scientist gathers sufficient information to propose that he has discovered a law of nature, the test then rests on whether it can predict a certain outcome. This is seen in every area of science. For example, you come up with an idea that it takes a certain amount of heat to bring water to a boil. You measure the amount of heat applied to a small volume of water and then come up with the idea that a larger amount of water requires proportionately more heat to boil. If you can measure these things carefully and discover the relationship holds true, you become more confident that this will hold true in other cases. Other observers try the experiment and confirm the result. It becomes accepted as a proper model of the behavior of heated water.

Similarly, if you develop a system that accounts for the relationships of planets and stars, you can use that to predict a solar eclipse. Even though the system does not explain why planets and stars do what they do, it accounts for their behavior. It is a systematic summary that consistently predicts.

No question this ability to predict future behavior is a very powerful and useful. All of our technology, from something as simple as hammering a nail to very high-frequency transistor switches controlling cars, nuclear reactors, or deadly missiles, depends upon predictability. This predictive ability of science gives us its dazzling stature.

But while we are dazzled by the predictive ability of science and what technology has brought about, we must not forget the underlying premise: the uniformity of nature. All technical advantages and advances are based upon the fundamental assumption that matter and forces behave consistently. The fact that science has been so successful demonstrates the reasonableness of this assumption. But we must always remember that the reasonableness of the assumption, or the success of science, does not prove the assumption.

Science is not prescriptive

Here is where we find confusion. Because science, at its foundation, rests upon empirical observations, it can never explain the ultimate why. There is always the possibility that somewhere out there lurks an exception. A good scientist acknowledges this and seeks to test probability of this happening. But even this is limited by the number of observations one can make.

Some will forthrightly state that the teleological has no place in the inductive discipline of science. This is a fair statement, if consistently believed. If the scientist at the beginning consciously chooses to assume that there is no purpose behind a particular set of observations, he has foreclosed his option of asserting that there is no purpose elsewhere, because he has refused to look for purpose at the outset. As long as the scientist understands this fact, he is unlikely to be confused by his own conclusions.

But people, including scientists, can be blinded by success and forget their original commitments and assumptions. Because a particular model is successful in explaining and predicting future behavior of matter and energy, it is easy to fall into the notion that such an outcome must occur. But this is actually begging the question. Asserting dogmatically that an outcome must occur because it has always occurred in the past is merely incorporating the original premise into the conclusion. In other words, you do not prove your premise by saying things always occur in a certain way because they always occur in this way.

This bootstrapping of the premise into the conclusion is where modern understanding of science goes astray. It is one thing to come up with a model saying that the force of gravity requires planets to orbit around the sun in a certain fashion. It is quite another thing to say that this is why a planet orbits the sun the way it does. Nobody has explained why there is gravity, or even what it is about the mass of an object that gives it a certain amount of gravity. This is only taken as a given. So far, we can only say gravity exists because it exists. True, you can measure the force and you can use the strength of that forced to predict outcomes, but you have not explained the force.

The scientist contemplating gravity, magnetism, electromagnetic forces, or any other property of what is found in creation, is really no different from the primitive man who may have observed the fact that the sun comes up in the east every morning. In both cases, the assumption of uniformity is based upon observations taken at face value. In both cases, the men accept the observed facts without explaining them further. And, in both cases, the answer to the question of "why must this be?" can be legitimately answered by "because God made it this way."

The scientist, atheist or not, can have no rejoinder to this answer. He can refuse to account for God as creator and develop a system accordingly. But, because the system is closed and limited only to a fixed set of observations, he cannot rebut it.

I grow weary of good-faith attempts by Christians who try to refute science by using science. You can never use science to explain the ultimate why. Accordingly you can never use science to offer an alternate explanation of the ultimate why. The question is simply outside the scope of the system.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Government Fiat, Purchase by Fiat

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a stay on the sale of Chrysler to Fiat. This is an extraordinary move. Last Friday the Court of Appeals out of the 11th circuit, I believe it was the 11th circuit, from the District Court of New York, granted Chrysler's efforts to sell to Fiat. Last Friday the Court of Appeals gave the state of Indiana pension fund until Monday at 4 PM to ask the US Supreme Court for an emergency stay. The US Supreme court granted the stay. In one sentence Justice Ginsburg stated that the stay would be in effect until further order of either her or the court. This is wild news.

From a quick reading of the story, Indiana complains about Chrysler's bankruptcy on two points. First the bankruptcy court changed the rules or the statute, so that bondholders are not considered priority creditors. The second issue raised by Indiana, is that the TARP legislation was not meant to be applied to automobile manufacturers. Justice Ginsburg apparently believed that there was some merit to these arguments. This has the potential to be a major defeat for the Obama administration.

Regarding the TARP legislation, Congress passed this bill expressly stating that this was only to be used for ailing financial institutions. As the Indiana director of pensions has pointed out, later Congress attempted to pass a bailout bill for the automobile manufacturers. The obvious question is, if Congress had thought that the TARP legislation was intended to help automobile manufacturers, why would it have attempted to pass legislation dealing with automobile manufacturers? In essence, Indiana is arguing that the TARP money being used to bail out Chrysler is unlawful.

It is a compelling point. If the Supreme Court takes up the case and decides that the TARP money was appropriated unlawfully, this would undo both Chrysler and GM bankruptcies. The very issue is whether the rule of law should be applied even during emergencies, or whether we have made an executive government that is allowed to appropriate funds and interfere with the economy based upon nothing more than fiat. It just occurs to me that there is an interesting double entendre here, Government fiat versus purchase by Fiat.

My guess is the more likely outcome will be that the Supreme Court will evade the issue. There are plenty of reasons that it might do so. It may decline to determine the constitutionality of the TARP legislation because it may instead choose to address the bankruptcy code. If it decides to address the bankruptcy code, it could narrowly rule that the pension fund is entitled to priority status. That still would be a blow to the bankruptcy workout for Chrysler. It would also be a blow to the GM bankruptcy. But it would leave in effect the TARP legislation, and how the executive branch has been implementing it, without meeting the issue head on. Of course, the Supreme Court might decline to do anything at all. All we have at this moment is a temporary order issued by a sitting US Supreme Court justice. The entire panel may discuss it and decided to decline certiorari.

In any event, there are a lot of nervous lawyers on behalf of the government right now. And I daresay Fiat may be taking a second look at its decision to purchase the Chrysler assets. Also waiting in the wings, there is a lawsuit or two or maybe several, that challenge Chrysler's ability to negate dealer contracts. These are interesting times. It really boils down to a political issue. Does the executive branch have carte blanche authority to meddle with the rule of law.

BTW, I dictated this while driving on my commute, using Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10, Professional version, and a Panasonic digital recorder. It works suprisingly well.