Ten Questions About Science

The Guardian has published this article today with ten questions science ‘must answer’.

Some of them are good, a lot of them are quite irritating. So to save science the trouble of answering them, I will.

DISCLAIMER: These answers are my opinion, and are therefore 100% correct.

Kathy Sykes: What is consciousness?

You know when you switch an old style TV off and the picture would dwindle to a little dot in the middle that eventually winked out? Consciousness is like that happening in reverse, only the human brain is the TV. Consciousness isn’t a thing, it’s an emergent property of a set of actions which are undertaken by part of our body, without our express consent.

This emergent property leads us to mistakenly conclude that there is an independent being called ‘me’. That error of perception is consciousness. Change the underlying process and you change the conscious ‘experience’. A meaningful understanding of what consciousness ‘is’ may not actually be possible.

Joan Bakewell: What happened before the big bang?

Ms Bakewell says “To simply declare – as some scientists do – there was no space or time before the big bang and that the question is therefore meaningless is hard to accept”. It’s the ‘simply declare’ bit that gets me. As if scientists are just invoking their own authority without evidence.

I’d suggest anyone interested in question this reads a book or two, the latest Stephen Hawking is very readable on this particular question – also try Marcus Chown. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because the English language can be used to formulate a question, that question must be meaningful or valid. I expect most people would have less problem with ‘where was I before I was born?’, or ‘where did fish live before the sea formed?’.

Time, space and matter are the universe. If there was any time and space before the Big Bang then that would have been the universe, and we would still need an explanation. Things can’t pre-exist the conditions necessary for their existence.

This doesn’t explain how the universe was made, just why this is a non-question.

Mark Miodownik: Will science and engineering give us back our individuality?

If science and engineering have taken away your individuality then you need to try harder. Perhaps what science and engineering have done is reduce the opportunities to be ignorant, I guess it’s harder to be creative in a factual framework than one where you can just believe any old shit.

What’s so great about individuality anyway? We need to get away from this idea that every human being is so utterly unique and wonderful. We’re all basically quite similar. What science etc has done is make it easier to have a long, enjoyable life – the real challenge is how to widen that opportunity for people across the world, without utterly depleting our finite resources.

The way to strive for uniqueness (if you want to) is to buy less stuff, spend less time consuming media other people have created, and spend more time simply interacting with other people and creating media of your own.

Tracy Chevalier: How are we going to cope with the world’s burgeoning population?

We’re not. Either the population stops burgeoning or we cease to cope. There is not an infinite amount of stuff in the world, therefore there must come a point where the stuff:people ratio is unsustainable. Either we work out how to balance things and slow down or we reach a point where we have no choice but to have less because there’s not enough to go round. There will then inevitably be a massive war over what’s left and the overpopulation will be sorted out that way.

Marcus du Sautoy: Is there a pattern to the prime numbers?

Probably not. Maths is just something humans made up, after all. The fact it describes and predicts the behaviour of the universe more accurately than language doesn’t mean the universe has hidden exciting, magical clues in it for us.

Brian Cox: Can we make a scientific way of thinking all pervasive?

I hope so. But not so all-pervasive that we lose the spark of creativity that comes from our most deep-rooted inherent flaws.

John Sulston: How do we ensure humanity survives and flourishes?

See question re: population. I don’t think we can do both. If you want ‘flourish’ then we need to lose large chunks of the population and replace them with robots which undertake menial tasks. The remaining people can then make art, fuck, and eat pan fried seabass to their heart’s content. Or we can be less greedy, breed less and have a hope of remaining in existence.

Andrew Motion: Can someone explain adequately the meaning of infinite space?

Motion begins this question by saying “The idea of there being no end to space seems logically impossible”. Well boo hoo, thankfully the universe does not run on logic. Just because something doesn’t make sense to the human mind doesn’t mean it’s not reality. I don’t understand how bats navigate using sound – I doubt a bat would be too bothered by this.

Likewise the universe, having already given us the gift of (albeit illusory) consciousness, does not also owe it to us to be comprehensible. Infinite space means you can theoretically keep going in any direction forever, except you can’t because you’d die after a few hundred thousand miles. So I wouldn’t worry about it.

Lionel Shriver: Will I be able to record my brain like I can record a programme on television?

That book you wrote about a couple who fall in love and play tennis was incredibly fucking boring. Conversely ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ is one of the best things I’ve ever read. No you can’t record your brain like a TV show. Have you any idea how much hard disk space that would take? What programming language would the relevant software be written in?

To do this in the level of detail you describe would require an effectively 100% complete understanding of how the human brain works. Which I suspect is impossible, and if it isn’t then it would be absolutely terrifying because it would mean you could recreate anyone who ever lived just by scanning their brain and clone them in a software environment which would, to them, be indistinguishable from reality. Then you could do all sorts of horrible shit to them and it would be indistinguishable from doing it to the ‘real’ them. This is not something you want. Stop trying to come up with kooky philosophical conundrums and write another cool book about a psychotic murderer. Please. Thank you.

Piers Sellers: Can humanity get to the stars?

I don’t reckon the light speed barrier will ever be broken. Of course new science could be invented that changes that. But that assertion alone doesn’t mean that everything we currently know will be overwritten. I reckon light speed is one of those things we’ve just got to deal with.

You can use ‘science doesn’t know everything’ to argue for or against literally anything. Try it. Including every belief you currently hold. Sooner or later you’ve got to go ahead and form opinions based on what is currently known, and risk being proved wrong hundreds of years after you die. So no, I don’t think we will, especially if we go on depleting our resources at the rate we currently do.

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One Response to “Ten Questions About Science”

  1. eskoala Says:

    I was all ready to stick in my proverbial science oar(?!), yet here you’ve covered what I would have said but in a funnier and more eloquent way. Thanks, and damn you, equally.

    Also, I think there might be a pattern to prime numbers, but if we haven’t found it yet, it’s not a very good one. More like the universe sneezed and left us the tissue. No, wait, that’s the big bang again, isn’t it?

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