Beach-front Musings on the Nature of Science

This Father's Day part of my treat was a family day trip to the Oregon coast. We went to Pacific City and had a great time. One of the many things I love about that area (aside from the fact that it's never very crowded) are the fabulous geologic formations. The shape, color and unique makeup of these formations has lead me to an interesting hypothesis about a possible explanation for the unique style of North West native art. Noodling further about this hypothesis got me to thinking about the nature of science-vs-mysticism-vs common sense reasoning that illustrates many of the problems we face trying to rationalize one with the others.

Below is a composite of three NW native images that are pretty representative of the artistic style of Pacific rim native American cultures. These are the kinds of images seen on totem poles for example. I've always been fascinated by native art and have a particular fondness for the NW styles.

I've never really seen a discussion as to the origins of this style but when you walk around Pacific City you see the rock formations that are illustrated below.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize the similarity amongst these images. Similar mineral rich rocks are found up and down the Oregon coast, though these are some of the most currently accessible. It is not a huge stretch to imagine that rocks like these might have been viewed by native tribesmen of old and invoked complex images of animals, beings, etc. The first image in particular has naturally occurring rifts in its one 'arm' that look very much like fingers or claws of a mythic beast.

We talked as a family about this possibility and my daughter asked. "So is this where they got the idea? I mean it looks pretty obvious."

My response was the automatic answer of a skeptic; "I have no idea. It's possible but we certainly can't say for sure. We'd have to know a lot more before I'd be comfortable with that claim."

She responded, "Dad, what else could it be. Look at them. They look just like the paintings."

"That doesn't really prove anything." was my somewhat predictable comeback.

She rolled her eyes knowing that she was about to fall victim to one of my gentle science rants, but escaped in the nick of time by offering to run with the dog (the infamous hellhound) in the surf...

What struck me is how this little scene mimics the larger picture of science in history and society. Long ago, some artisans fashioned art that looks a lot like these formations. Whatever their inspiration, they presumably had no idea what these formations were and we have pretty good anthropological evidence that native cultures anthropomorphized many things as part of their spiritual beliefs. It's not too hard to imagine (at this point all we can safely do) that some one coming upon that first rock in centuries past might have though it was some kind of mystical bear, for example. At that point, something completely natural from the standpoint of its geological origins may have taken on a spiritual meaning creating a new 'reality' for those laying eyes on it. Later fellows would no doubt have been warned to avoid the wrath of the sea bear and would therefore inherit the observational bias of their forebears. With no competing world view to offer any alternate explanation habits form not dissimilar to Pascal's Wager - it's probably better to just avoid that rock if I don't know that it isn't a bear.

Now, being schooled somewhat in science and skepticism, and untainted by the lore of the NW as anything other than another quaint native mythology, I can understand the geologic origins of the rocks and understand how these perfectly natural objects and processes might have contributed to the evolution of a spiritual belief system. Might have of course being the important concept here. This point illustrates the tension between science and common sense reasoning - which is often neither. It looks obvious that these rocks are very similar to the art works. But association and similarity is not causation, which is the precise flaw in much of what comes to be called common sense. Coincidence leads to association which leads to causation in people's minds. That simple formula plays itself out daily in millions of interactions despite the fact that orders of magnitude separate coincident items and events from truly associated items from that tiny subset of true cause and effect relationships. Coincident association is easy and natural - cause and effect requires the discipline of science.

And this is the way the majority of Americans view the world: some of them see not the rock but a sea bear, some see the rock and the art and just know they must be related, whether factual or not, and a few see the similarity but need a lot more evidence before they can accept that one lead to the other...


Michael Lockridge said...

Fabulous example of how various people think. I tend to view things like your example as probable, but as you pointed out a lot more evidence would have to be acquired to draw any stronger conclusions. Ingested chemical agents alone, or in combination with viewing such structures, may also be involved with the origin of the artistic style.

Then again, the imagination is a wonderful thing all of itself.

That brings up something I have long and often thought about. What constitutes proof? I have examined (informally) mathematical proof, legal proof, and discussed the idea of proof with many people.

I find that most people develop their own concept of proof over time. Some submit to formal systems, such as religion or science. Most tend to believe that their prefered system is either absolutely right, or at least the prefered system. ;)

Imagination, desire, compulsions, repression, fears, and many other factors make up the individual world view.

All of that being said, I enjoyed your observations and photos.


Harvey said...

If more of our "believer" brethren were able to see and understand the basis for their beliefs (as Michael seems to do), we might have a much easier time dealing with each other. Believing, absent any real proof (which is, after all, a requiremnet for belief) is all well and good, providing one can at least understand why not everyone will see things as you do.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Michael and Harvey: thanks for the comments. The nature of proof is an interesting topic. I suspect that for the average person in the average situation adequate proof is whenever a point is reached where we are willing to act on the information or use it as a basis for some foundation for the future. far below the standards needed for scientific proof which is part of the disconnect. If there is a 'God of the gaps' then this is the gap (that void between everyday concepts of proof and scientific ones) in which it lives.

I also agree that the civil conversations we have been able to hold from time to time about these complex issues are a lot more productive than a lot of what passes for discussion in the blogosphere. I appreciate the thoughtful and respectful tone that you all bring to the conversation.

Asylum Seeker said...

Gaaahh! Those first two rocks look like scrambled faces staring deep into my soul! Kill it, kill it with fire!

Agreed with Harvey, since I do think it is important to understand how other people can believe the things they do. Agreed with Michael, since I guess it is kind of hazy what actually counts as reasonable evidence or proof for something, and really depends on what you are trying to determine. Much less is it clear what counts as sufficient proof...

Anyway: civility is overrated! Still probably a good thing though. Shouting matches really aren't pleasant to look at, even if they might be more entertaining than they ought to be.

Anonymous said...

Proof is the standard by which x is judged. But what's the standard? Culture, religion, science, "science", math, family etc.

Our standards are so liquid depending on the situation; and our minds move right along with them too.

You guys have undoubtedly read articles, seen tv shows, or even conversations where the standard moves from religion to "science" or science to culture in the blink of an eye.

Anonymous said...

Nice pics by the way Pliny.

Jared said...

Hey, Michael, that's the beauty of the sciences, nothing is ever proven absolutely. In light of new evidence, new conclusions and models may be illuminated. All presently available evidence may indicate one thing, but new discoveries may point in a new direction.

What you find in many sciences (on average) are progressively improving approximations of reality due to the gathering of evidence. The pursuit of this evidence is science; the formulation of models based upon these observations is philosophy.

Most scientists are also, in the broad sense, philosophers; gathering data as scientists and using these data to formulate tentative hypotheses according to a theoretical framework. Taking the observations of many observations to formulate additional models (theories) or, if possible, slightly modifying existing theories to include the new evidence.

"What constitutes evidence?" is, in my opinion, a more relevant question relating to the sciences. It is also a question which is easily answerable. The question of "proof" is a subjective claim based upon quantity and quality of evidence which will vary between two individuals, as such, it is irrelevant.

Additionally, something need not be "proven" in order for available evidence to indicate a conclusion. Well done research will reliably reproduce very similar results if given highly similar conditions. This reproducibility is what qualifies something as "evidence." While a ball accelerates towards the Earth at the same rate in a vacuum as a 30kg block of lead does not prove gravity exists, but it certainly provides some evidence. The observations of various planet orbits do not prove relativity, it does provide evidence, as does the observation that gravity precipitates in waves. These are, and I stress, not proof, but evidence.

I have a post coming up all about "proof" after I finish reading and annotating "Evolution and Ethics" (edited by Clayton and Schloss, 2004).

Stacy said...

Ummm... I agree with your daughter.

(ducking and running) :-)

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Stacy - ppppppppppppfffth! ;)
Ok, so I get into my Eddie Albert, the American Farmer, mode on ocassion

I think my daughter is getting wise; she keeps hiding my soapbox from me....