Riots, Purpose, and Science

Back from my hols. Brain getting back in gear. Pouring with rain here in the Burgh. So much grimmer than that nice Cornish drizzle.

So whats happening ? Astronomically not a lot. Courtesy of the inimitable Crowther, there is an interesting analysis of the Australia vs South Africa battle for SKA, from a financial point of view.

Meanwhile, in other news… London’s burning, and Manchester too. Its all a bit depressing, and its tempting to pontificate on The Cause Of It All, but best not to. My opinions are no better than anybody else’s. But listening to the debate did pluck a philosophical nerve…

(A) Some say we have to understand why young people are doing this – they are poor, disenfranchised, bored, etc. (B) Others say – no ! We mustn’t look for excuses, its just selfish and criminal. Now, the citizen in me goes for B, but the scientist in me goes for A. The problem is that people tend to blend the concepts of  reason and excuse. It should be possible to stand outside a system, and say objectively ” ahh.. here are the reasons it happened”, and still be able to go back inside and say “I don’t care why. Has to stop”.

So here is the philosophical tickler. Sometime recently (lost the link..) Hawking provocatively suggested that there is no need for God, because Science is a self-contained explanation of the Universe. It seems to me that big daddies in the sky with beards, or creation myths, or all-pervading spirits or essences, ain’t really the point. What is outside Science, that patently seems to exist, and is an everyday human fact of life, is purpose or intention. In fact for science to work, you more or less have to switch it off, as I sketched above.

Aristotle had causation by purpose (teleology) as one of his four categories of cause. But we modern scientists hold no truck with that. (What is this obsession with holding trucks ?) Does this mean that Science is an incomplete world view ? Or does it in fact suggest that intention is an illusion ? Of course this is standard Philosophy 101 stuff, all tied up with free will vs determinism etc. But whats the gut instinct of the working scientist ?

14 Responses to Riots, Purpose, and Science

  1. Michael Merrifield says:

    Hawking provocatively suggested that there is no need for God, because Science is a self-contained explanation of the Universe

    Could he be trying to sell a book, perhaps? Maybe that even more prolific author, Anon, could make a sales pitch for the Bible by pointing out that there is no need for Science, because God is a self-contained explanation of the Universe (“The Bible is the word of God because it says so in the Bible, which is the word of God” — one person’s circular argument is another’s self-contained explanation!).

  2. It is, of course, possible to be sympathetic to the cause of (but not the excuse for) violence without condoling the violence itself (especially if it is not directed at the problem but rather at innocent people). When addressing such problems, one has to be careful to make it perfectly clear that one is addressing it because it is now seen to be a problem (thanks, perhaps, to the violence—although a peaceful demonstration would have been better and probably effective enough) and not caving in to the violence—otherwise, anyone with a penchant for violence can dictate the agenda of an entire nation. (One shouldn’t overreact in the other direction either; if someone detonates a car bomb in the name of a good cause, we shouldn’t automatically forsake that cause.)

    When he was Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt gave explicit instructions that, should he and/or his wife be kidnapped, in no case was a ransom to be paid. He saw, rightly, that doing so would invite the next kidnapping and extortion. In some countries (mainly in South America), this has become a part of daily life: people are kidnapped not because they are enemies in some sort of ideological battle, but only in order to extort ransom. A similar situation exists with pirates—they keep coming back because in most cases the ransom is paid (and, with no deaths, it doesn’t make the headlines). Some countries have made the mistake of giving armed rebels a larger role in government than they otherwise would have under a democratic system, in return for a promise to curb violence. Not a good start into democracy.

    Back in the 1970s, terrorism on the part of the RAF was a real problem in Germany. Today, it is essentially gone. One reason is probably because Schmidt never gave in to their (unreasonable) demands and made it clear that the state considered them common criminals and not POWs (a status they tried to claim for themselves). Even though there might be some justification for protest in today’s England, destroying the shop and hence the existence of a random shopkeeper (who might be worse off than the looters) is simply inexcusable. (News reports indicate that many of the looters are actually quite well to do folks who probably voted for the parties now forming the government.)

  3. MatthewH says:

    For those not familiar with left wing West German terrorists, a quick bit of translation:

    German to English:

    RAF == Baader Meinhof gang, or Red Army Faction

    English to German:

    RAF == Britischer Luftwaffe

  4. telescoper says:


    For what it’s worth, the expression “hold no truck with” stems from an old meaning of “truck” (derived from the French “troque”) which means an act of trading, a deal or a bargain. In this phrase it means generally “communication” or “dealings”.

    The word “truck” meaning a wheeled vehicle is from a different origin, the latin word “trochus” meaning a wheel, which came to mean what it does now because it was applied to the set of wheels underneath heavy (esp. naval) guns.

    Yours pedantically


    • andyxl says:

      Peter – I knew I could rely on you. Now. Are you a Free Willer or a Determinist ? And are you or have you ever been a member of the RAF ?

      • telescoper says:

        Neither. I think “free will” is a meaningless concept but also that systems can follow laws yet remain impossible to predict owing to complexity; this is certainly the case for people, most of whom are exceedingly complex, and for human societies which are complex to an even larger degree.

        I have never been in the RAF, but my Dad did his national service in it. Does that count?

      • telescoper says:

        ps. I think it goes without saying that science is an “incomplete” world view. There are many questions that science can’t answer, because it doesn’t even know how to ask them.

      • andyxl says:

        … and of course chaotic systems can be unpredictable in practice without being complex, being sensitive to initial conditions. But this is evading the question. You can have practical unpredictability in a deterministic world, but this doesn’t mean there isn’t such a thing as purpose or intention.

      • telescoper says:

        That’s not the question you asked….

      • andyxl says:

        Sorry, I guess its not the question I was asking in the comment stream, but its what I was after in the post itself

  5. Michael Merrifield says:

    Never really understood the dichotomy really. Just because my actions might be deterministic to someone in the unlikely position of being able to perceive all the causes and effects does not eliminate my ability to make free decisions, or make them illusory.

    And if this person were to try and in any way interact with me to show off this superior knowledge and prove that determinism was all there was, I could still do the opposite to whatever was predicted.

    The most that someone in such a position could do would be to say “I knew you were going to do that” every few minutes, which wouldn’t prove anything apart from the annoying nature of those who claim to know everything.

  6. Get rid of that ridiculous, outdated, medieval obscenity known as the “monarchy” and take all the money spent on it and put it toward astronomy.

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