Science Matters

RoboCopMichael Meuleman, one of my students, briefly talked about his passion for brain imaging and brain imaging technologies. It’s his dream to further work on speech reconstruction for disabled persons, using and developing brain imaging technology himself. Michael referred to famous physicist Stephen Hawking as one of many who could benefit from this research. As a matter of fact, Hawking already participated in attempts to convert his brainwaves into speech. Soon, RoboCop won’t be science-fiction anymore!

On my way home from school, I kept thinking about what Michael had said, and decided to do some reading on the subject matter. In amazing times like these, when valuable information is just a few worldwide web clicks away, I discovered the research my student was referring to quite easily: click to read it here.

Speaking of Stephen Hawking I remembered how Oxford mathematician John Lennox responded to some of Hawking’s philosophical claims in a book called God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design Is It Anyway? This again reminded me of something that same John Lennox said during a lecture – it actually blew me away at the time:

Applied to the research on brain activity for speech reconstruction, Lennox reasoning implies the following.

When we identify a person’s brain activity while that person is hearing or thinking about, for instance, the word jazz, we might see something like this:

brain activity

In order to enable people like Stephen Hawking to communicate more rapidly by using their brain activity, computers need to do two fundamental things (among many processes):

  1. Register the type of brain activity that is ignited by certain sounds – vowels, syllables, words…
  2. Interpret brain activity so it can be translated to certain sounds – vowels, syllables, words…

The thing is, brain activity as such does not give you any word. In other “words”, the full picture or complete reality of a word like jazz is not given in a scientific representation of brain activity. That activity needs to be connected to the word in question. Computers need to be programmed to decode certain brain activity and to recognize or interpret it as the word jazz. Brain activity itself is nor produces the word jazz. There already has to be meaning (and an entity which produces it) before we can ask ourselves what that meaning looks like in scientific terms. More broadly speaking, the things we can say in scientific terms don’t ever give us the essential reality of a particular phenomenon. Science can only begin to explore reality because of the mysterious fact that there is something to explore to begin with! It comes as no surprise then that science can be considered a highly spiritual activity, as it continuously refers to a reality which transcends its endeavors.

The tendency for scientism by the “secular fundamentalist” (see Chris Hedges) new atheist movement, as if science can answer all important or relevant questions, as if science can provide us full knowledge about the true nature of reality, should be discarded as a perversion of science. If phenomena would not reveal themselves to our eyes – whether we look through telescopes or microscopes -, we would not be able to gain any scientific knowledge at all. No scientific knowledge without the mystical realization of revelation. And no scientific or other knowledge that can ever “solve” the mysterious fact that there is something rather than nothing. In the words of theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman John Dyson (born December 15, 1923, only ten days before René Girard :)):

“The public has a distorted view of science because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.”

Freeman John Dyson

It’s amazing what science can do, but it’s even more amazing that there is anything to do at all. Hopefully we, human beings, learn to use scientific and technological knowledge for some good. At least one of my students seems up to it :), and I’m sure most of them are. And while we’re at it: science can never answer the question what goals it should help to accomplish – those questions are and remain philosophical and draw from many sources…

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