Monday, November 15, 2010

A Lesson to Remedy Overconfidence

After a very busy weekend filled with making plans for promoting my rower next year, including exploring possible speed record attempts that have me really excited, I thought I would comment on a life lesson that the weekend reminded me of.

Of words I've heard that seemed way off base when I first heard them, these--spoken at the end of a conversation with the patent examiner of my first application--stand out: "Next time..." The entire comment does not matter here. It is the two words, "Next time..." that matter most.

Having invested a year developing a product to the point that I had tested it enough to believe in it; having spent a year learning how to write a patent correctly; how to research and specify and make the claims effectively in an arcane and detailed form; having called on favors from friends and family to test and comment on and draw the rower for me; the thought of "Next time..." seemed ludicrous. I was just so pleased to be DONE.

Two realizations had not yet set in for me, which would transform my attitude toward those words. First, once begun, an area of experiment and investigation takes on a life of its own--assuming there is enough success for the idea to remain "live." And second, it is very difficult, having already put in tremendous time and effort in an area, not to continue that effort when a promising way forward presents itself. The psychological momentum is just tremendous. Apparently the patent examiner knew all this--as well as the fact that I was far from having perfected my idea.

There are two applications here, for the analysis of Stephen Hawking's and Leonard Mlodinow's view that Feynman's quantum theory obviates theological speculations about ultimate origins. The first is indirect--a background point. Before making an application for a patent, it is crucial that a careful and thorough job of researching the "prior art" has been carried out. Hawking and Mlodinow cite Augustine's ideas from Book Ten of the Confessions about the interface of time and eternity, but utterly fail to understand, let alone appreciate them. Put simply, Augustine's "prior art," with respect to THE GRAND DESIGN, undercuts the Hawking/Mlodinow point of view. I will not link to prior posts on Augustine's argument here, since I have improvements to it that I want to introduce on this blog in forthcoming posts.

More directly, the authors believe that they have finished the work of knocking the life out of philosophical theology. (The direct quote, you will recall, is "...philosophy is dead." (p. 5.)) Well, "next time" the authors take up the subject--and I take no joy in stating this--they will need to think through the implications of their science with more precision. Which is to say that a resurrection of the supposedly "dead" discipline is needed, if they are to clarify their thinking.

An example will help:

"Though it may sound like philosophy, the weak anthropic principle can be used to make scientific predictions. For example, how old is the universe?" (sic., p. 154.) That's a line that--I would have supposed--would be found in the likes of my favorite cartoon, non sequitur. In fact, the thought process--and I may go into this in more detail in a later post--for the authors is a deductive application of current scientific understanding (of the processes that had to be in place to arrive at a planet like ours that supports intelligent life) to the question of the earth's age. But the process of deduction as a means of "advancing" scientific understanding is Aristotelian!

Don't get me wrong. I intend to take Hawking's and Mlodinow's word in all areas of their scientific expertise. Thus, I intend to accept the deductions by which they extend their understanding of quantum theory as it appliers to the origin of our cosmos. So this won't be the latest version of the Flat Earth Society. What it will be is a sober analysis of whether THE GRAND DESIGN is the end of anything.

And as I prepare my thoughts about that I could not help but recall the words, "Next time..." directed my way when I had made the mistake of thinking I had brought a subject to its terminus.

This will be fun. But I hope not to be mean spirited or flippant: it is precisely because THE GRAND DESIGN tells us important new things about the state of scientific understanding with respect to philosophical theology that it is important and interesting. And if Hawking and Mlodinow made a few mistakes and left a few stones unturned that an amateur theologian can point out and pick up, well, it was nice of them to set me up!

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