Tuesday, November 01, 2005

What are the "basic questions" of life and the universe?

Just last month, I spent a week or so in "outback" Australia, and was a little taken aback when somebody mentioned that the town's water supply was not fluoridated.

This -- and several recent interesting TV programs about ice ages, global warming, nuclear energy and so on -- set me thinking about scientific controversies and the "big questions" of life, the universe, and everything else.

A few decades ago there was an extremely vigorous debate in Australia about the pros and cons of fluoridating our water supplies. In the capital cities at least, fluoridation nowadays is a fait accompli and rarely if ever rates a mention. In the aftermath of the December 2004 Asian tsunami, I saw a news report in which an Australian forensic dentist sent to Thailand explained how it was easy to tell the age of an Australian victim via dental evidence: the younger victims who grew up post-fluoridation had excellent teeth, while the older (pre-fluoridation) victims had rows of fillings. (It wouldn't surpsise me if the fluoridation debate is raging right now somewhere outside Australia, that's the way things go.)

That old debate about water fluoridation is but a minor example of the sorts of debate that come and go over time. Some of these debates are of more global importance, in a variety of fields affecting us all as global citizens. Some of them rage fiercely, others are conducted in a more sedate fashion. Some questions are of immeditate interest and significance, others are much more "long term".

Here are a few such areas:

  • Evolution, versus "creationism" and "Intelligent Design"? Religion versus science?
  • How can past events (last week, last year, last century, last milennium, in prehistory) be accurately analyzed and reconstructed?
  • Renewable energy, versus carbon-based and nuclear fuels?
  • Global warming, or not? Will there soon be a sudden ice age?
  • Is the earth flat? Probably not! ... But can the speed of light be exceeded? Can time go backwards? Are there multiple time-space dimensions, with multiple editions of you and me?
I am interested in hearing your considered views (without too many biases, prejudices or rantings) about WHAT are the basic questions that need to be raised in order to resolve such matters?

Please focus only on HOW the questions can be answered. Or even, if they can be. Scientifically? Rationally? By tossing dice? Via black magic, abstract logic, philosophical reasoning? How indeed?

Be sure to omit voluminous details! Link to your own blog or web site if you wish to direct readers to such details.

Finally, to put a different perspective on it, I used to be an avid reader of the Biggles books -- the "flying adventures of Biggles" --- written by Captain W.E. Johns around sixty years ago.

I vividly remember how one of them, Spitfire Parade, had as its frontispiece BIGGLES' PHILOSOPHY which went as follows:

When you are flying, everything is all right or it is not all right.

If it is all right there is no need to worry. If it is not all right one of two things will happen. Either you will crash or you will not crash.

If you do not crash there is no need to worry. If you do crash one of two things is certain. Either you will be injured or you will not be injured.

If you are not injured there is no need to worry. If you are injured one of two things is certain. Either you will recover or you will not recover.

If you recover there is no need to worry. If you don't recover you can't worry.

Perhaps Biggles' dialectical approach is the way to go!

A book that I read quite a few years go adopted more or less such an approach: The General Science of Nature, by Vincent Edward Smith (The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1958). Are the methods of Aristotle and Aquinas still applicable in modern debates (see http://www.morec.com/natural.htm for more)?

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Hey, guess what? Only a few hours after starting off this new blog, I happened across the following Web site: ... Ask Philosophers - "You ask, Philosophers answer"

OVER TO YOU for your contributions and feedback ...

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