Most right-thinking people today consider the preservation of endangered species to be an ethical imperative. The underlying assumption (correct in the vast majority of cases) is that the endangered species have been brought to the brink as a result of careless human activities. Habitat destruction, hunting, pollution, and other aspects of the modern industrial age have stressed the biosphere so heavily that some ecologists consider it to be a mass extinction event. One of the many animal species facing extinction in coming years is the Tasmanian Devil. However, unlike many others, the Devil is going extinct because of a naturally occurring pathogen: Devil Facial Tumor Disease. This raises an interesting question: Should human beings always seek to prevent the extinction of animal species, regardless of the cause of that extinction?
I was just reading some of Ted Chiang’s excellent short story collection “Stories of Your Life and Others”, and was reminded of a story of his I read much earlier, Exhalation. This Hugo-winning short story didn’t just catch my imagination and sense of wonder (something that a good Sci-Fi writer can do extremely well in the short format) like Asimov’s Last Question, but also is a wonderful pedagogical tool for explaining thermodynamic concepts. I won’t blow any of the fascinating world that Chiang built, but I will tell you that the final revelation the protagonist faces is a perfect illustration of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This story is such a good way of explaining it to people, precisely because it is a story. Any skeptic or psychologist can tell you that the emotional connection a good story provides is among the most effective ways of compelling people (after all, what is mythology but a good collection of stories?). So, in other words, go read his story here:
Time for the second 400 word essay of the term. This week’s topic is quite a bit more philosophical: “There are things in the world that cannot be understood by science”. Those who know me will know which side I took: the negative! It’s very hard to discuss a complex topic like this in so few words – I actually went 50 words over the limit this time… don’t tell anyone!
I recently received a copy of “The Spiritual Brain” as a gift – so we’ll see if Mario Beauregard will manage to overturn my materialism (not likely – I’m 20 pages in and he’s already questioned the validity of the theory of evolution, and revealed that he is funded by the Templeton Foundation).
Without further ado – this weeks essay:
Topic: There are things in the world that cannot be understood by science. (CON)
In this paper I defend the position that the scientific method can, in principle, understand everything in the world. I take this topic to be a philosophical question of the nature of reality, separate from the pragmatic question of whether or not science ever will reveal everything – before, say, the collapse of civilization (I think it likely will not).