Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Natural Law

When I was younger* there was an advice columnist in the newspaper called 'Marilyn vos Savant' who supposedly had an IQ of around 180.  I remember reading this column occasionally.  One day, she wrote something like "According to the laws of physics, a bumblebee cannot fly.  Its wings are too small.  But the bumblebee flies anyway because it does not know this."

I remember being amazed at the stupidity of this statement.  She was not commenting on our incomplete understanding of natural laws, she was seriously advocating that the person ignore expert advice and attempt to proceed in something through simple-minded willpower.

Even to my young mind, it was obvious that an insect cannot break or ignore the laws of physics.  I reasoned that a bumblebee flies the same way a helicopter does, with small 'wings' moving really fast.  If anyone said that the laws of physics did not allow the bee to fly, then those people were simply wrong and needed to do more research.  I knew, at a very deep level, that the laws of nature were the inviolable, that the only thing that could be broken was our understanding of them.

I now know that this understanding of the world is alarmingly rare.  It is not how most people naturally think.  Most people seem to operate under the assumption that the laws of physics and chemistry and biology are like the rules of a slacker parent, and can be ignored or argued against if you try hard enough.  They think that reality can be shaped by willpower or argument, the same way that the opinions of people can be shaped.

I am not sure why I understood the power and pervasiveness of the laws of science at such an early age.  Maybe it was the books my parents gave me to read, or maybe it was a quirk in my brain.  It was probably the latter.  Most people have tendency to anthropomorphize everything.  Little children tend to think that the sun, water, trees, and other natural objects have personalities and intentions.  Primitive religions also follow this pattern.  It takes a lot of education to convince most people that the mental systems they use for dealing with people should not be used for dealing with inanimate objects.  A lot of people, like that columnist, never seem to learn this lesson.  They go through life anthropomorphizing reality itself, with the result that they believe and say things that are incredibly dumb.

For some reason, I am not affected by this tendency to the extent that other people are, and this has been the case for as long as I can remember.**  It has been easy for me to understand and accept naturalistic explanations of things, and learn the laws and patterns of science.  What has been harder for me is understand that most people are handicapped by their own emotions and intuitions and unstated assumptions about the world, to the extent that they find it very difficult to understand and absorb scientific knowledge and apply it to their daily lives.

*Sometime in elementary or middle school.  I have a horribly bad memory for names, dates, and other such details in my own past.

**I have, however, made the mistake of overestimating the mental abilities of animals.  It was only very recently that I learned that cats cannot understand the significance of pointing at something.

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