Ming the Mechanic
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Wednesday, October 28, 2009day link 

 Then a miracle occurs
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I love this cartoon, by Sidney Harris.

For several reasons.

One is that this is a fallacy often exhibited by people trying to sell you an ambitious theory about something big and important, a theory that pretends to be all encompassing and consistent and coherent. But it has one of those "then a miracle occurs" in the formula somewhere. Usually the proponents of the formula hadn't noticed, and they'd tend to deny it if it is pointed out.

Think about the Big Bang, for example. Theoretical physicists can calculate what apparently happened in the first moments after that event and they can correlate the whole universe with it. But they usually carefully avoid any question of how come an infinitely small nothingness suddenly can explode, or where such a thing might have some from, or how come it can explode so neatly. A miracle happened, and then we suddenly can apply all these lovely formulas.

Or evolution. There are lots of signs that evolution is happening and that it has happened for billions of years and that it happens quite automatically. But the pink elephant in the room is how come it is happening in the first place. That's the miracle that any evolutionary biologist carefully would avoid to explain. Which is a bit like making a carefully and exhaustive study of automobiles without ever considering where they come from.

Take consciousness. A lot of scientific minded folks believe that consciousness is something that suddenly appears when you make a computer that is complicated enough. Just like life is something that happens if you mix a sufficiently complicated bunch of elements together. All of the elements can be carefully studied and catalogued and put under a microscope. But ... then a miracle occurs.

Of course, the thing to do, like in the cartoon, is to gently point out that maybe the formula needs a little bit more work at that point.

I also like it because I do believe in miracles. Existence, life, evolution and consciousness is pretty damned miraculous stuff. I find it delightful that life and the universe can't all be reduced into a neat and complete mental model that fits into the small head of a hairless monkey walking around on the surface of a little planet in the outer rim of a minor galaxy, but that there's plenty of mystery left. At the same time, it is fun to try (to understand everything). But there will usually always be a "then a miracle occurs" somewhere in the formula. And I think the answer is not to try to get rid of it, or pretend it isn't there, but to embrace it.
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