Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Mentioning institute affiliations is not enough - IV

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible .- Oscar Wilde

In his piece, Sanjeev fails to differentiate between levels of analysis. For example he asks, 'which particular cell or atom or subatomic particle feels it all?' This is like asking, 'When you stretch a rubber band, which atoms undergo the maximum stretch? 'Chemists will talk of interactions between atoms and molecules. A car mechanic will talk of larger aggregates of matter like cylinders and spark plugs. As Richard Dawkins says in The Extended Phenotype, 'At every level the units interact with each other following laws appropriate to that level, laws which are not conveniently reducible  to laws at lower levels.'

You cannot analyse the lowest level using the laws used at the highest  level. If a chemist thinks in terms of spark plugs or a mechanic thinks in terms of atoms both will become dysfunctional. The building blocks used at one level (say, sense organs) are analysed in detail at another level (say, the cells that make up those sense organs). Each provides some information that adds to the overall picture but none of the levels can be fully understood if they are studied in isolation without any reference to other levels.

Sanjeev also does not distinguish between proximate and ultimate causes. A proximate cause is an event which is closest to, or immediately responsible for causing, some observed result. It explains biological function in terms of immediate physiological or environmental factors. The ultimate cause is one which is usually thought of as the "real" reason something occurred. In biology, ultimate causation explains traits in terms of evolutionary forces acting on them. For e.g., take the case of a cheetah chasing a gazelle.

You can say that the cheetah's visual system registers the gazelle, its hunger pangs cause its brain to secrete some hormones which cause the relevant muscles to contract. You could step back a bit and talk about the genes that made the proteins that make up the hormones and muscles, about the effect of a mutation on one of those genes, etc. You could step further back and look at the evolutionary history and say that cheetahs that could run a bit faster than others in the population caught more gazelles when they were hungry, so they survived better and produced more offspring on average and over many generations their genes came to dominate the population. Most of the energy for the evolutionary process is obtained from sunlight.

Now if you omit all the intermediate processes and just say that the cheetah chases the gazelle because the sun shines, it sounds strange. Sanjeev does a similar thing when he says that thoughts and emotions are caused by chemical reactions.Such blurring of the dichotomy between the immediate short-term explanation and the underlying long-term explanation of the same behavior is done by Indian gurus. IIT graduates are expected to to do better.

If not his IIM connection, Sanjeev's IIT connection should have given him a better appreciation of the methods of science. But as the Salem hypothesis - It holds that people who claim science expertise, whilst advocating creationism, tend to be formally trained as engineers - shows, engineers seem to have difficulty with biology. As for me, having studied engineering, I find biology, especially evolutionary biology, more interesting. Jerry Coyne says in Why Evolution is True:
Among the wonders that  science has uncovered about the universe in which we dwell, no subject has caused more fascination and fury than evolution. That is probably because no majestic galaxy or fleeting neutrino has implications that are so personal. Learning about evolution can transform us in a deep way. It shows us our place in the whole splendid panoply of life. It unites us with every living thing on earth today and with myriads of creatures long dead. Evolution gives us the true account of our origins, replacing the myths that satisfied us for thousands of years. Some find this deeply frightening, others ineffably thrilling.
No points for guessing which group I belong to. I find the idea that I am related to a cabbage fascinating rather than disturbing. Sanjeev seems to be uncomfortable about scientists saying that life is chemistry. Whether he likes it or not, it is true but life is more than 'just' chemistry just as football is more than 'just' physics.

Analysing the chemical composition of chocolate doesn't mean you lose the ability to taste chocolate. Regarding a flower as a lure sculpted by evolution over millenia to attract pollinating agents does not mean that one can't appreciate the beauty of a flower. Regarding a bird as a small dinosaur does not mean one can't appreciate its splendor (or indeed, a poem about it; one of my favourite poems is  Shelley's To a Skylark). As Richard Feynman said, scientific knowledge adds to the beauty of nature; it doesn't subtract.

(I wanted to write a bit more but felt that these posts were becoming too long and decided to stop. Ever since I got the neuro-headset, I have flouted the fundamental idea of the Elizabeth Taylor school of blogging. And if you are wondering what that is, she is supposed to have told a husband of hers, 'I shan't keep you for long.' In other words, I have not erred on the side of brevity and conciseness for quite a while.)

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