Dysteleological Physicalism

As a special behind-the-scenes tidbit for loyal blog readers, I will reveal here that The Pointless Universe was actually my second entry in the Edge World Question Center. My first, making the same point but using different words, was entitled “Dysteleological Physicalism.” To me, that kind of title is totally box office, and I’m happy to take credit for coining the phrase. (Expect T-shirts and bumper stickers soon.) But apparently not everyone agrees, and it was gently suggested that I come up with something less forbidding. Here is my original version.

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DYSTELEOLOGICAL PHYSICALISM

The world consists of things, which obey rules. A simple idea, but not an obvious one, and it carries profound consequences.

Physicalism holds that all that really exists are physical things. Our notion of what constitutes a “physical thing” can change as our understanding of physics improves; these days our best conception of what really exists is a set of interacting quantum fields described by a wave function. What doesn’t exist, in this doctrine, is anything strictly outside the physical realm — no spirits, deities, or souls independent of bodies. It is often convenient to describe the world in other than purely physical terms, but that is a matter of practical usefulness rather than fundamental necessity.

Most modern scientists and philosophers are physicalists, but the idea is far from obvious, and it is not as widely accepted in the larger community as it could be. When someone dies, it seems apparent that something is *gone* — a spirit or soul that previously animated the body. The idea that a person is a complex chemical reaction, and that their consciousness emerges directly from the chemical interplay of the atoms of which they are made, can be a difficult one to accept. But it is the inescapable conclusion from everything science has learned about the world.

If the world is made of things, why do they act the way they do? A plausible answer to this question, elaborated by Aristotle and part of many people’s intuitive picture of how things work, is that these things want to be a certain way. they have a goal, or at least a natural state of being. Water wants to run downhill; fire wants to rise to the sky. Humans exist to be rational, or caring, or to glorify God; marriages are meant to be between a man and a woman.

This teleological, goal-driven, view of the world is reasonable on its face, but unsupported by science. When Avicenna and Galileo and others suggested that motion does not require a continuous impulse — that objects left to themselves simply keep moving without any outside help — they began the arduous process of undermining the teleological worldview. At a basic level, all any object ever does is obey rules — the laws of physics. These rules take a definite form: given the state of the object and its environment now, we can predict its state in the future. (Quantum mechanics introduces a stochastic component to the prediction, but the underlying idea remains the same.) The “reason” something happens is because it was the inevitable outcome of the state of the universe at an earlier time.

Ernst Haeckel coined the term “dysteleology” to describe the idea that the universe has no ultimate goal or purpose. His primary concern was with biological evolution, but the conception goes deeper. Google returns no hits for the phrase “dysteleological physicalism” (until now, I suppose). But it is arguably the most fundamental insight that science has given us about the ultimate nature of reality. The world consists of things, which obey rules. Everything else derives from that.

None of which is to say that life is devoid of purpose and meaning. Only that these are things we create, not things we discover out there in the fundamental architecture of the world. The world keeps happening, in accordance with its rules; it’s up to us to make sense of it.

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52 Responses to Dysteleological Physicalism

  1. Aklıselim says:

    Not everything has to have a purpose i suppose. Anyway, when did it become a scientific quest to seek for purpose in the universe ?

  2. I was going to say that we need no neologism to decry the dysfunction of teleogogues

    But Google insists ‘teleogogue’ is a neologism I’ve evidently coined, and with George Will , William Kristol and Tom Bethell on the loose, it certainly looks like a rigid designator in the real set of pseudointellectuals

  3. Craig McGillivary says:

    Do you really want to argue that the number 2 doesn’t really exist? It isn’t a physical thing and it doesn’t seem to me just a matter of convenience. I say that numbers and other abstract mathematical objects really do exist. When someone dies what ceases to exist is not some spirit or immaterial soul, but rather the pattern that was them ceases to exist. If you don’t admit that abstract mathematical objects then people don’t even exist when they are alive. After people are not the stuff they are made of, but the pattern that such stuff forms.

  4. Brian Too says:

    Arrgh, lost my comment due to a misplaced click!

    OK, 60 second summary. I believe in “dysteleological physicalism”, or at least I think I do. I can’t pronounce it yet so give me a moment.

    On the other hand I believe in free will too. Dysteleological physicalism, taken to the extreme, undermines the very concept of free will. Apologies if you don’t mean to take it that far.

    So what permits both to coexist, if anything? Non-linear systems? Quantum mechanics? Emergent behaviour? Something else?

    Mechanistic descriptions of reality turn off great masses of people and have something to do with the popularity of psychic healers, palm readers, astrology, past life spirit guides, and all the rest. This pit of darkness needs to be filled with light and hope.

  5. FUG says:

    That a drug saves you suffering is the “coolness” I was trying to refer to, and I use that term only because I think references to technology to support scientific realism do not work because what we accept to be technology is value dependent. The fact that technology works depends on what we want it to work for, ergo this value-dependence. If it is we who create these values, then our technology is dependent upon what we value it to do as opposed to how our descriptions of the world match up to the world. One could, under the assumption that we create our own values, value suffering — and at that point the technology you’re referring to wouldn’t be something one is looking for.

    The fact of the event may be indisputable (although, truthfully, it’s not — whether events have ontological status is in dispute by some), but the description of that event need not include reference to “drugs” as we understand the word “drugs”. The event of “reduce suffering” could be characterized in terms of herbs which carry healing properties, for example — no molecular reference, but simple “objects” which carry “properties” ala supervenience physicalism, and these properties heal persons (in fact, I bet that most drugs taken are understood more in this way than in the specific molecular mechanism, and yet they still work). Additionally, since what we accept as technology is value dependent, and generally it is thought that one should separate values from descriptions of the universe, then clearly reference to technology does not give warrant that our descriptions of the universe correspond. That depends upon what we want our technology to do, which runs directly into the is/ought distinction: something that one very likely accepts if they believe that we create values, but descriptions of the world are somehow different.

    The daily use of scientific constructs by scientific persons does not imply correspondence to the world. Persons use Catholic theology on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean that it’s true. For something that may feel “closer to home”, Newton’s laws were used on a daily basis by the scientific community, and Newton’s laws brought about technology (and continue to do so). Newton’s laws, however, no longer are given ontological importance. Newton’s law of Universal Gravitation isn’t true. As such, we have here at least one example of a scientific construct that saw success, was used daily by scientific persons, helped generate technology, and has turned up false. Therefore, these criteria are not sufficient for arguing that a scientific construct is true in a correspondent sense, especially when arguing from scientific constructs to ontological conclusions. Therefore, the arguments presented so far are not good arguments that scientific constructs correspond to the world.

    This is salvageable by stating that Newton’s laws partially corresponded to the world. But if you grant that, then one has to admit that our current scientific models likely only partially correspond to the world and that we do not know which parts of them correspond. If that is the case, then one runs into trouble concluding ontological propositions from scientific models as we don’t know which parts of the model are approximately true, approximately false, or just plain true or false. (or however you describe a proximal theory of truth — some persons consider proximal truth to be untenable, though I do not)

    Even if we grant that they do, there still hasn’t been an argument that all that exists are “objects” and “laws”. That’s disputable even granting that scientific constructs represent the world in a correspondent sense.

  6. psmith says:

    @21. Tom:

    > … but abandoning the teleological phrasing reduces the chances it will trick or lure our human psychology into false conclusions and contradictions. Language can shape thought

    Yes, that is important.

  7. slw says:

    I much prefer my brand of compatibilistic existential realism.

    Physicalism to me seems to be kind of a tautology, it might just be that I am far too used to the idea that everything can be described in physical terms to even consider challenging that view.

  8. Michael Aye says:

    @FUG: Nicely summarised. But this
    > we don’t know which parts of the model are approximately true, approximately false, or just plain true or false.
    is exactly why I believe that the only way out is Popper.
    The fact that we use mathematics to describe the world, delivering in principle infinite parameter spaces means that our models can not be tested for all parameter space, by definition!
    Therefore the only notion that helps you out here, is to accept that a model can not be proven to be true. One can only accept it as long as it was not falsified, always ready to adapt, if there’s data that contradicts the currently accepted model.
    Also, the initial statement to say that objects follow rules does not make a statement about knowing the rules. And as long as we have rules, find them broken by new data, but then always find a more specific rule that works again, the initial statement has not been falsified. 😉

  9. FUG says:

    Thank you. 🙂

    I’m afraid I’m at odds with Popper’s falsificationism, though I understand why one might go with him. I tend to think of him as a wonderful philosopher in his own right, given his time period, but one that hasn’t aged very well. My objections:

    1. An increase of falsifiability can only be well defined for systems defined in terms of mathematics, as his own examples show, yet qualitative data is just as important in scientific inquiry as is quantitative data.
    2. His logic solves epistemic philosophical problems related to Hume, but in that process doesn’t look anything like the scientific process. This is possibly salvageable if one were to come up with a mapping argument between Popper’s logic and how science works in practice, however…
    3. It may not be desirable to map out how scientific arguments work in a prescriptive sense. Such mappings may a priori stop creative and novel solutions to future scientific problems
    4. There are also philosophical problems with determining a point of demarcation between science and not-science, especially in the Popperian tradition. Popper basically assumes that science is that which is the best, and then goes about post-hoc justifying it within light of some philosophical problems, recent advances in physics, and a distaste for Karl Marx. Not only is the assumption not necessarily justified (i.e., I certainly don’t do science when I play baseball, for example. I just play until I get good at it, and I think this is a more efficient and fun way to learn), if we assume that science is the best…
    5. There is a problem with drawing a line between what knowledge we can have and what knowledge we can’t have. As Popper compares his epistemology to Kant’s, this seems to be what Popper is trying to do. In order to draw a line one needs to have some understanding of what’s on both sides of that line. As such, drawing a line between “knowable” and “unknowable” requires one to be able to know what is unkowable.
    6. That which falsifies a proposition isn’t an analytic truth of that proposition. In essence, falsficationism still requires what verificationism required — assuming some points that sound reasonable to draw conclusions from, i.e. judgment — but only tries to cover it up.
    7. I also argue for “Inference to the best explanation”, which runs counter to falsificationism. This isn’t a problem with Popper, per se, but just so you know where I’m coming from.
    8. Feyerabend does a good job of constructing a reductio ad absurdum of falsificationism in his book “Against Method”.

    As such, I think the best conclusion is that there is no basis for inferring ontological truths from science, at least not in exclusion. Looking at what science says may be necessary in our culture for concluding ontological truths, but not sufficient.

    To relate this back to objects and rules — I think this is a proposition that Karl Popper would argue is unfalsifiable, since it is existential and metaphysical. You can’t search the entire universe to make sure that all that exists are objects and rules [problem with existential statements], and “Object” is such a word that attaching falsifiable criteria to it becomes very difficult [problem with statements about metaphysical entities]. One would then be welcome to hold a belief in objects and rules, so long as they didn’t think it was scientific.

    To differentiate myself from Popper: While I disagree that all that exists are objects and rules, and I would prefer to see an argument for them, I’m not going to state, “And your belief in these things is unscientific!”, though Popper’s stance on science may temporarily “save” such statements. I can see it as a plausible enough inference for someone, and a possibly fruitful inference, and maybe a good scientific inference. So, I’m not against dysteologocal physicalism as a scientific ontology in some absolutist sense. I just don’t see a good basis for it, myself, and I don’t think science requires one to ascribe to only objects and rules as its basis for working. The reference to teleological thinking strikes me as bogus, because we still use teleology in our thinking, such as in the case of technology or engineering. So, I remain doubtful of this claim’s ontological status, and I remain doubtful of whether or not our stance on teleology has anything to do with the state of science today. Not that I think this essay was poorly thought out or bad or unscientific or anything like that. This essay struck me as the product of a lot of deep thinking, which is awesome, and the reason why I wanted to comment. I’m only voicing a counter-opinion.

  10. Matt B. says:

    Something is gone when a person dies, but it’s not actually a thing, it’s a process. The brain is a thing, and the mind “in” it is a process. But many people think of the mind as a thing that can be removed from it’s home. Fire is also a process that was previously thought of as a thing.

    I would have a lot to say about free will, but that wasn’t the direct topic of the post.

  11. Cosmonut says:

    Sean said:

    “Ernst Haeckel coined the term “dysteleology” to describe the idea that the universe has no ultimate goal or purpose. ….But it is arguably the most fundamental insight that science has given us about the ultimate nature of reality. The world consists of things, which obey rules. Everything else derives from that.
    None of which is to say that life is devoid of purpose and meaning. Only that these are things we create, not things we discover out there in the fundamental architecture of the world. ”
    ——————-

    This doesn’t make sense.
    Are you trying to say that a system obeying rules, *can’t* have a purpose or meaning ?

    We humans also consist of things which obey rules. Then in what sense can we “create purpose and meaning” ?
    Conversely, if we can have purpose and meaning, despite being “merely systems obeying rules”, then why can’t the Universe ?

  12. Cosmonut says:

    The only sensible argument I know on these lines is that in something can have a purpose or meaning only with respect to some larger system – quite independently of whether its made of things obeying rules or not.

    So, if we define the Universe to be “All that is or was or ever will be” – then there is no larger system, hence it can’t have a purpose in this sense.

    But “meaningless” is not quite the right word to use – as it is usually applied to things which *could* have had a purpose, but don’t.
    Eg: A meaningless sentence, a purposeless regulation.

    I guess one could say something like, “The Universe transcends meaning” (hmm, sounds very guru-ish 🙂 )

    Note, if you define the universe as just our system of stars and galaxies – then it could conceivably have a purpose or goal with respect to something beyond it.

  13. Kristian says:

    I find it amusing, if somewhat sad, that although the *reason* for the holier-than-thou attitude has changed over the centuries, the attitude itself is the same. And so are the unsupported arguments made.

    We *do not know* if the universe has a reason for existing. We *do not know* if the universe has a goal, or an end-state, or even an end. Everything we learn suggests that for every answer we find in science, there are always new questions. Which does not mean that the answers we have found are not real, but merely that every time we expand our little circle of knowledge, we find that there are still new mysteries, and now we know of even more things we do not know the answers to!

    “Physicalism holds that all that really exists are physical things. Our notion of what constitutes a “physical thing” can change as our understanding of physics improves”

    This is not a statement worthy of a scientist. It cannot be falsified as long as any new discovery, by definition, is just another “physical thing”. If this is what Physicalism holds, then physicalism holds nothing.

    “Any new thing that we discover exists, is a thing of the only type we said can exist, because it exists.” Wow, what a bloody miraculous prediction!

  14. Ian says:

    Sean says “Ernst Haeckel coined the term “dysteleology”…” Yep, Haeckel made up a lot of stuff including monera, and the biogentic law
    The problem with proving dysteleology is that it assumes you know how the designer, which you do not believe in, works.

  15. Steve Esser says:

    “None of which is to say that life is devoid of purpose and meaning. Only that these are things we create, not things we discover out there in the fundamental architecture of the world.”

    So the most important aspects of human experience is not part of the physical world. Like in the Sam Harris discussion, you appear confident that human experience and values are not to be found in the physical world. Yet I know you are equally confident they are not grounded by anything supernatural. And finally, despite the lack of explanation for these phenomena you don’t want to say they somehow don’t exist or are illusory (which would seem to follow).

    Don’t you think we can do better?

  16. Baron P says:

    “The world keeps happening, in accordance with its rules; it’s up to us to make sense of it.”
    If there are universal rules, they serve at least one universal purpose.
    If not, such rules would be unenforceable, and their alleged existence undeducible by us humans. My sense making guess is that the universe serves not one but an endless number of acquired purposes, the ones we are most aware of being ours.

  17. Baron P says:

    “None of which is to say that life is devoid of purpose and meaning. Only that these are things we create, not things we discover out there in the fundamental architecture of the world.”

    So are we humans then presumably the first instance of the acquisition of purpose in our, or any, universe?

  18. Sphere Coupler says:

    We are the cognitive sensors of the Universe.

    Universe (s) obey laws, they can not overstep this boundary, each and every function obeys a Law known and unknown to humans. The Universe contains sensors in the respect that interaction does occur, however the interactions are decisive and can not contain any action not specifically obtained by the preset dynamic laws determined at the start, whether their was one start or many does not influence the sensor ability to act accordingly. We as humans have the ability to act indecisive. We can stand under the piano as it falls from the rigging or we can step out of the way. We share this with the natural world to a point, less evolved forms of matter such as stars must obey laws.
    The divide in the human mind between adherence and cognition is still fought out today as theocracy and science, while these two tools of man have had equal value in the respect that they have both played a part in direction and longevity of mankind, the world is now faced with a new parameter, one that has changed the relationship between the Universe and mankind, humans at their present number are no longer able to stop the progression of science without utter failure in the population.

    We must continue, as we always have, only not like before.

    Universe may very well follow the laws from the beginning, however as an existential part of the Universe we can manipulate the laws on a consistent basis at the cognition level and therefore press the
    exceptions farther than our Universal medium. Even though the Universe must follow the laws that govern it, We can, at will, break the pattern of universal flow, interject and minipulate the laws whenever we see fit. We are only bound to the laws to the degree that we do not fully conceptualize the completeness of the Laws…Yet.

    In the respect of whether the Universe is pointless, I must draw your attention to the facts at hand,
    The Universe Must dogmatically obey the dynamical Laws that have been determined by the matter/energy coupling dynamics and have yet to be fully understood by humans,
    Humans, a product of Universal Evolution, strive to understand the Laws and processes that created said product.

    Cognition is the Universal process to understand itself and this may well be a fluke, yet you can not deny that this is the reality we face! It is observable. The Universe was not created for our benefit, we evolved within these Universal laws to sense and understand, to question. An atmosphere conducive to our development was created by the Laws of the Universe. Cognition is the point.

    You may counter that not all humans are actively pursuing this endeavor, yet if you Disrupt Natural selection (and human prejudice)and cancel out those actively productive in the advancement of mankind, those who are left, are now forced to take up the challenge or subsume to a lower population standard of existence. It is predominately the longevity of critical mass of humanity that has allowed us to advance.

    You may also counter that this as a anti-form of the Anthropic principle, (Which has been given the negativity of too simplistic) yet Evolution is based on a simplistic process of natural selection over time. Yes, we are a species of exploitation, and have needed to be, to advance, yet our advancement has also led to great knowledge of the ills we inflict upon our home world and incites mitigation and correction.
    By denying that cognition is unique to the human species, you are missing the fact that cognition is a unique point within the Universe, how can that be pointless?
    Even if/when other cognitive life forms are found not on this Earth, cognition is the point!
    Cognition is unique, We exist!
    Yes, from a non-cognitive Universal viewpoint, time, space and our cognition may be meaningless.
    Yes, the Universe can exist and continue without us, and this would be pointless from my perspective.
    We are literally the product of our environment.
    It really depends on what viewpoint you use.
    Cognition IS the point, at this time in Universal evolution.

  19. Steve Turrentine says:

    But isn’t dysteleological physicalism just another name for what we used to call materialism?

  20. CaliFury says:

    Seems to me that you’re confusing the map with the territory. That humans create a conception of rules doesn’t make the rules “real.” Nor do our rules bound the behavior of the Universe. They’re our rules and the Universe will do whatever it does–including presenting us with the occasional black swan.

    Science (and “dysteleology”) are tools used to create ideas and test whether they match fairly well with phenomena that we don’t control. There could be a hundred pesky gods hiding between the muons that we haven’t seen, yet.

  21. Arthur F. Arthursson says:

    If physicalism is true, then there is no such thing as a “soul” or “mind” existing separately from the body and independently of brain processes.

    So, how do you explain the around 3,000 cases studied by Ian Stevenson (University of Virginia), of children aged 2-4, who remembered their own (often violent) death and had recollections of a previous life? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Stevenson / http://www.doctorshangout.com/forum/topics/dr-ian-stevenson-the-pioneer

    If just one of these 3,000 cases is true, then the mind can indeed exist independently from the body, reincarnation is a fact not a myth – and hardcore physicalism is disproven.

    Free will is another indication that physicalism might be false, and if you object that it is just a feeling we have, where does this feeling then come from? There must be a reason for it´s existence, right?

  22. mk11 says:

    If you try to use a general term such as “things”, you run into limitations inherent to language and belief frameworks,. Obviously, if I believe in spirits or souls then I will classify them as “things” behaving according to “rules”. There is ample literature on the subject.

    Science has advanced and discarded previous frameworks largely based on an interplay between measurement and theory, instruments become more precise, better measurements are made and theories amended to better reflect the new data.

    There is an obvious problem of scale here, you say that given an object’s state and environment we can make predictions about it’s future state. Well yes, but the most useful (and testable) ones are at our own scale, the infinitely small or large are rather trickier.

    Also when you say that the ” “reason” something happens is because it was the inevitable outcome of the state of the universe at an earlier time.” that is about as useful as saying it is god’s will, since the complete state of the universe at any given moment seems quite hard to measure. Again, it can be useful locally and scaled to our level or as a belief framework, but it is just that.

    Various cultures, including our own, have developed increasingly useful and refined technologies using frameworks which to our modern eyes, seem totally absurd. Since everyone delights in citing Newton, it is perhaps worth noting that his system relied on a god. I’d argue that internal consistency and practical applications or achievements are a better measure of a framework than rationality, especially when considered from the perspective of another one.

    As I read on this site: “Ordinary matter … accounts for just 4 percent of the cosmos.”

    If that is correct (we could haggle a bit on the precise means of quantifying the unknown) and science is only making observations about the material, then it is quite a leap to extrapolate general insights on the “ultimate nature of reality” based on a very partial dataset. That is not to say that science is not useful, obviously it is, but that it has certain inherent limitations which tend to be glossed over and that should perhaps be kept in mind.

    Mind you. I’m not arguing for the existence of god(s), the soul or spirits, just that no belief framework is as rational as it would like.

  23. Sphere Coupler says:

    “Also when you say that the ” “reason” something happens is because it was the inevitable outcome of the state of the universe at an earlier time.” that is about as useful as saying it is god’s will, since the complete state of the universe at any given moment seems quite hard to measure. Again, it can be useful locally and scaled to our level or as a belief framework, but it is just that”

    The term “reason” is a *why* generalization of science, giving it purpose rather than deduced function, *reason* is a humanistic quality that can not be applied to a higher understanding of the Universe.
    Example; the reason the sun sets is because the earth blocks the sun, it is the (why) question that differentiates observation/human experience from the how question of cognitive induced science. Through the logical deduction of how, an understanding arises.

    Why does the sun set?
    How does the sun set?

    Two different questions.The first one is a shallow question, Why it sets is almost meaningless, How it sets, tells you a lot more.In science it is important to ask the correct questions.

  24. Dan P says:

    FUG,

    > Newton’s laws, however, no longer are given ontological importance.

    Then clearly ontological importance is of little importance. Luckily the people I know who use Newton’s laws successfully give little thought to ontological importance and, whatever it is, I expect it has little role to play in doing science and generating technology.

    > we have here at least one example of a scientific construct that saw success, was used daily by scientific persons, helped generate technology, and has turned up false.

    Both scientists and technologists are adept at using Newton’s laws with great success. Attempting to label them with a simply binary ‘false’ is extremely naive. Maybe you’d find it interesting to spend some time observing how science and technology are used in the real world.

    > Persons use Catholic theology on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean that it’s true.

    Scientists study the world finding general principles that appear to hold. Technologists make use of these principles to generate technology. This has been a successful process for many centuries. The success of these principles in endeavours such as technology is part of what is meant by “scientific truth”. “Correspondence”, “ontological importance”, these are philosophical terms that are of little relevance. I recommend you abandon them. Maybe Catholic theology has some set of principles and some means of measuring the success of these principles. If so, maybe there is such a thing as Catholic theological truth. I have no idea. I find Catholic theology uninteresting and its values pernicious. I’d rather do science and generate technology.

  25. FUG says:

    Wouldn’t the same retort work towards “doing science and generating technology”? If I find these uninteresting and their values pernicious, would it follow that I ought to recommend you to abandon the pursuit and relevance of them? This is generally the basis for creationist rejections of science, and I must say that I find such reasoning to be a bit backwards. Further, there is a slew of scientific jargon that, taken in a certain tone, sounds just as irrelevant as “ontological importance”, “teleology”, and “being-within-self” (such as “complex conjugate”, “1,3-dimethylpentane”, or “saccharomyces cerevisiae”), so I don’t think the ability to point at words you don’t know the meaning of and realize that they’re not connected to your particular interests implies that one should abandon studying their meaning or using them in relevant conversations.

    And, truthfully, while I don’t think abandoning philosophy is a very good idea, the entire purpose of my argument was to divorce science from ontology. In that regard it seems that we’re pretty much in agreement.

    I would certainly enjoy the opportunity to observe how science and technology are used in the real world. However, I don’t think that my characterization of “false” here is naive, at least at present. Perhaps you could show me in what way that it is?