Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What is a State?

OK. Enough politics. I am a scientist, after all. Part of why I spend so long on politics, however, is that it makes for an accessible topic insofar as that I can contribute with little special expertise. As my science career progresses, however, I am more confident of my ability to contribute usefully to the world of science blogging.

Since I am in quantum information research, much of my science blogging will necessarily be talking about quantum states. As such, it's worth starting out by discussing the notion of a state more generally. I apologize to the quantum foundations people in the room, as I will likely butcher this horribly, but I've got to start somewhere, eh?
1 a : mode or condition of being b (1) : condition of mind or temperament (2) : a condition of abnormal tension or excitement
2 a : a condition or stage in the physical being of something b : any of various conditions characterized by definite quantities (as of energy, angular momentum, or magnetic moment) in which an atomic system may exist
Rather than start with a physical definition, I'll start with the computer science notion of a state-- at least, one notion. In computer science, we often think of the state of a machine as being that set of information which is required to predict (that is, to simulate) the future states of that machine. This is by necessity somewhat recursive, but we can disentangle it somewhat. If you're lucky enough to have a laptop where hibernation works properly, then you're already somewhat familiar with a state, as it is the state of the computer which gets written to and read from the disk during the hibernation and resuming processes. The contents of the computer's memory completely describe what it means for the computer to resume its execution, so that we may discover the contents of the computer's memory in the future.

In a very real sense, this is exactly what physicists mean when they use the word "state." If one knows the full state of a physical system, then they can predict as much of the future of that system as is allowed by the laws of nature. If, as Newton and others thought, those laws are deterministic, then that means that one can predict all future states of the system. The state of the system, then, is a description of the system so complete that it is for all intents and purposes the identity of that system. To take a materialistic view of myself for a moment, I am then equivalent to a full and complete state of my physical body. In fact, we can be recursive again and define my physical body as that whose state is necessary to describe me. (If you find this kind of recursive definition of self as satisfying as I do, you may also like reading Scott Aaronson's notes on a complexity theoretic approach to free will.)

For a specific example, consider a pool ball on a table-- we will presume for now that it cannot go up or down, despite whatever trick shots one tries. Then, if we wish to simulate the trajectory of this pool ball, we must know for at least one given moment exactly where it is, how quickly it is moving, in which direction it is moving, and the axis and magnitude of its spin. That is, we must know x, v and ω. If we know all this, then we may as well dispense with the table and simply run a computer simulation, as the state given by these three vectors completely describes the entire dynamics of that system. If one of those three vectors changes, then the pool ball is no longer in that same state. To put it yet another way, if we have two tables with one ball each, and if their states are identical, then the balls themselves are indistinguishable (not in the sense of indistinguishable particles, mind you, but in the sense of state discrimination).

The astute reader will note here that I have pulled a bit of a fast one on them. This notion of state is not the only kind of state that gets bandied about in physics. Rather, it is a special kind of state called an ontic state-- that is, one corresponding to reality. Statistics allows us to also speak of an epistemic state, which describes not reality itself, but our knowledge of it. Thus, an epistemic state is not in general sufficient to describe or simulate a system, but is a complete characterization of a given agent's interactions with that system. Unlike ontic states, which we assume to be objective in order to have a reality consistent with multiple observers, epistemic states are subjective. Two observers may validly have different epistemic states for a system in some fixed ontic state.

One may, in fact, go as far as to say that all states actually discussed in physics are epistemic, since we cannot even in principle have complete knowledge of a system. I do not subscribe to this view myself, but I find it helps to remind me that ontic states such as those discussed in the pool example are often states not of real systems, but of toy models we make to approximate real systems. A physical pool ball is much more complicated than a list of three vectors, and a true physical ontic state would reflect this.

Understanding these somewhat orthogonal views of a state helps clarify many counterintuitive aspects of physics, such as quantum teleportation. If, as is true in quantum mechanics, a state cannot be copied, then there is no physical difference between transmitting a state and transmitting an object with that state-- both lead to exactly the same state of reality after the fact. Thus, quantum teleportation can be seen not just as some sci-fi-esque "beaming" of an object, but something much more interesting: a clever way of communicating. Of course, fully exploring this is a subject for a future post.

To close out this discussion of a state, I wish to be so bold as to assign a bit of homework until my next post. As you go about your day, think of what the states of objects around you might be like-- what information would you need to reproduce or to simulate those objects perfectly?

What We're Up Against

It's no secret that progressives, secular humanists, rationalists, skeptics and all other manner of forward-thinking individuals face a myriad of different uphill battles, not the least of which is to prevent our own internal disputes from causing us to lose sight of what we're working for. That's why I find it helpful to sometimes take a step back and simply look at what sorts of challenges we face.

In particular, I find that in my own life, I tend to surround myself with people that, while far from exactly like-minded, share enough of my concerns that it's easy to forget that I hold many views that are very far from what is considered normal, even to the point of being taken for granted, in modern society. Advocating for atheism (and more generally, for skepticism), for instance, is not yet seen as acceptable in much of the United States. This makes it even more paramount to look at what those on the other side believe, think, do and say. Were I more into the militaristic metaphors with which so much of the English-speaking world seems to be so infatuated, I would say that we must know our enemies to defeat them. Instead, I'm going to be a physicist about it and say that we must know the potential energy function in which we move about.

Without further ado, then, let me start by noting that ours is a society in which people are fine with saying shallow and narrow-minded things like this:
While I was living there it was voted one of the top 10 cities for singles. What were they smoking? I want some! In Seattle I met the geeky Microsoft guy who used a discount card on our second date at a horrible restaurant. I met the engineer that ensured me he was not “a typical engineer”. Yes, yes you are. Socially awkward. Inappropriate conversation. Typical engineer. Wait, inappropriate conversation? You want more details on that? Okay…well the words “penis” and “vagina” were used, complete with gestures. Yes, that really did happen. On a date. In public. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
This kind of casual prudishness and enforcing of gender norms in dating formalisms (such as how to pay for a meal) should be seen as a large barrier towards creating a tolerant and sex-positive society in which people are free and encouraged to find and make their own happiness.

On a closely related note, the sex-negative and anti-porn group Porn Harms celebrates Facebook's shameful act of censorship:
Thank you Facebook! They just removed a very inappropriate pro-porn page with links to pornography that our children had easy access to.
Keep in mind, this is the same group of people that proudly repeats Gail Dines in saying that "pornography is a 'cultural support system for violence against women,'" at once trivializing violence against women and insulting all those who work hard to make the adult entertainment industry a responsible one.

Of course, this kind of sex-negativity ties into and is fed by religious sentiments, such as those espoused in this Islamic tract that predates on the emotionally vulnerable, or this poster which uses Islam is used to justify the locking of women into narrow and repressive gender roles:
Muslim women dress in a way that is modest and dignified. The purpose of clothing is not only to protect oneself from physical elements, but also to protect oneself from immorality and pride. Some traditions of dress, and more generally, the treatment of women in some Muslim countries and societies, are often a reflection of culture. This is very often inconsistent and even contrary to Islam teachings. Prophet Muhammad said: "The most perfect in faith among you believers is he who is best in manner and kindest to his wife." [emphasis mine]
For all the poster's empty platitudes about the equality of women, there is no reasonable way to interpret the phrase "protect oneself from immorality and pride" here but to mean that women should feel shamed (that is, not proud) of their bodies in ways that men should not.

Not, mind you, that Islam is anywhere near alone in using religion to justify sex-negativity or misogyny. For example, the Christian fundamentalist Reformers Unanimous group advertises support for a questionable list of addictions, including "pornography addiction":
Help for: Addiction - Drug Intervention - Codependence - Rehab - Alcoholism - Meth Addiction - Gambling Addiction - Cocaine Addiction - Marijuana Addiction - Opiate Addiction - Codependence [sic] - Enabling - Nicotine Addiction - Pornography Addiction - Love Addiction
Amongst RU's approaches to what they see as problems is the gem that all we need to do is remember that "Christ is enough." If this reminds you of "Jesus Plus Nothing," pat yourself on the back. This kind of worldview, where religious sentiment is allowed to replace all other forms of thought, is a major driving force behind many of the political problems that we face in the world today.

Sadly, one of the other major driving forces being political problems, at least in the United States, is racism. Take, for instance, the vile screed written by Mark Williams of Tea Party infamy, which includes this choice bit:
We Colored People have taken a vote and decided that we don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!
This is the same Mark Williams, mind you, that objects so vehemently to the construction of a mosque near 9/11 Ground Zero, and encourages the bombing of Mecca in response. This kind of abject racism lies at the heart of much of the Tea Party. Just ask Shirley Sherrod.

Since my attempt in this is not to depress you, I'll not go on in this vein. Rather, I will point out that for every one of the examples I've shown, there is someone who cares enough to work against that kind of hate, bigotry or just plain ignorance. Even if we disagree with these caring people on some fronts-- maybe even many fronts-- we must at least recognize that they are there, working for a just cause.

One of the key strengths of the spectrum of thoughts and ideals that includes such seemingly disparate causes as progressivism, rationalism, sex-positivity and feminism is that open-mindedness is (in general) celebrated. We can disagree with each other and still recognize what commonality we have in our goals. We do not strive, as our adversaries do, for perfect uniformity in thought and deed, but only for mutual respect of our fellow human beings and a dedication to truth. In short, we are not alone. That's good, I think, given what we're up against.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Am Sick: A flimsy excuse to use the phrase "evidence-based."

As the title says, I'm sick. Not deathly sick, but merely the massively inconvenient sinus problems one can get with the changing weather. As a part of trying to treat myself, I went down to the local drug store and bought a 50-dose bottle of pseudoephedrine (totaling 3 g of the active ingredient).

Had this been in the United States, the comically self-righteously named Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 would have meant that I was dangerously close to the 3.6 g/day purchase limit. Exceeding CMEA05 limits is criminally punishable, as some people have had the misfortune to find out by accident. Even if one does not exceed the given limits, CMEA05 requires that retailers maintain an archive of purchaser IDs for at least two years, establishing a worrying paper trail about one's OTC purchases.

The ostensible purpose of the law is right there on the tin: to combat what is seen as an "epidemic" of methamphetamine usage and production. The questions for any supporter of evidenced-based public policy, then, are whether this epidemic exists, and whether draconian measures against allergy and cold medication purchases help. I will leave the first question for now, as there are significant arguments to be made about what constitutes an "epidemic" of addictions.

Rather, I would like to focus on the question of whether or not such draconian measures are effective. Were they effective, we would expect that the rates of meth abuse in Canada, with its comparatively more lax laws regarding pseudoephedrine and other means of meth production, would be significantly higher. To truly argue this point, one would need to control for as many other potentially confounding factors as possible (different economic and cultural conditions, availability of other drugs, degree of enforcement of existing laws, population density, etc.), but we can at least take a first look at the data. Thanks to the help of Saver Queen, I was able to find statistics on 2009 meth abuse rates amongst middle- and high-school students in the US and Canada, respectively.

Only the Canadian source comes with error margins, so a formal hypothesis test is impossible, but we see that to the 95% confidence level on the Canadian statistics, between 0.8% and 1.7% of students in grades 7, 9 and 11 reported past-year usage of meth, while data from the estimated US rates lie within the 1.0% to 1.6% range (again, no error bounds on the US data). Since all of the US data linked to from here is consistent with Canadian statistics, we have no basis to even suspect that US rates are in fact lower than Canadian rates, in lieu of hypothesizing significant confounding factors.

My point with this is not, of course, to do a full analysis of the comparative rates of meth abuse, as that would require significantly more research than my stuffed-up head can handle right now. Rather, I simply wanted to give an example of how an evidence-based conversation about public policy might look. In particular, it has to start by deferring to reality and not simply to rhetoric.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Spock Fallacy

I love Star Trek. I love it quite a lot. (Just ask @masstreble over on Twitter if you don't believe me.) Buried within the Star Trek mythos are quite a lot of different wonderful, positive and utterly human ideals, and so it enjoys a special place in my heart.

It's not all good, though. For as much as Star Trek elevates science and rationality to being the centerpieces of its Utopia, it often cares very little for the actual practice of science. It is also, unfortunately, where we get one of the most quintessential embodiments of the fallacy that rationality must entail emotional detachment. Indeed, many people seem to believe that scientists and others who value rationality are somehow "cold" emotionally (of course, this would make sense if one considers the analogy between irrationality in game theory and the statistical distributions associated with temperature, but I digress). While it is true that many of us embrace our analytical natures and try to deconstruct, analyze and reduce our experiences, that doesn't mean that emotions aren't an important and vital part of that process, to say nothing of our lives on the whole.

We can reason about our emotions, and choose rationally to engage in some action do bring about desired emotional states. For example, I spent money to buy the equipment needed to play video games because I enjoy them, not because it makes sense when emotions are removed from consideration. Practically everyone does this to some degree, but part of being rational, analytical and self-aware is to exercise introspection about this process.

Ironically, I think that much of Star Trek has actually gotten this right, but what sticks in people's minds is the image-- the idea-- of Spock as being both the nearly platonic ideal of a rationalist and of being incredibly unemotional. This image, intended or not, seems to resonate within our culture, leading to that stereotype of the unemotional rationalist being reinforced.

People are, and in my opinion, should be emotional agents in addition to rational agents. The effect, then, of the Spock fallacy, is to create a false dichotomy between these two views of the human condition. Rationality may then be rejected on the basis of not being compatible with intuition or emotion. This is particularly and appallingly clear as applied to religious issues; atheism is often dismissed as lacking in emotional appeal (see Rebecca Watson's recent video on the subject for a good refutation of this argument).

Part of the problem is that in setting up a false dichotomy between rationality and emotion, it is all too easy to forget that rationality is, amongst other things, a strategy for finding the truth. Sometimes the goals of finding truth and being happy appear to be in conflict, and at these times, it is rationality that must win. This is not to say that emotions cannot play a part of such decisions, or that the importance of happiness is somehow overlooked by a rational analysis.

Since I am a physicist by training, I like to argue from limiting cases, and what could be a greater example of the importance of emotion than that of romance? Is it not possible to rationally argue, for instance, that in the interests of long-term happiness, a troubled romance should be ended? This may appear to be in conflict with the importance of emotions, and may even seem to play into the stereotype of rational analysis being "cold." On the other hand, is this not an example of how emotions and rationality can be happily wed?

Rationality and emotion need not be seen as orthogonal to each other, as indeed they are both important parts of being a full and complete human being. Instead of Spock, then, maybe we should think about what Julian Bashir has to teach us.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A case study of the less pleasant side of the Internet, examined.

Update: I forgot to credit @ebertchicago and @stevensantos on Twitter for pointing me to this article. Thanks!

The Internet is filled with wonderful people sharing their thoughts. You can find lots of deep insights on all manners of topics, serious arguments and debates from just about any position imaginable, and you can find intelligence analysis of complicated social issues.
On the other hand, you can also find things like this. Just the title gives away how seriously the author, Rich Deem, takes his arguments. When your article is titled "Why Sex With Robots is Always Wrong: The Impending Demise of the Human Species," (emphasis mine) you are sending a clear message that you are more interested in getting attention than in making reasoned arguments. It is absurdly hyperbolic to say that there is a threat to the survival of humanity itself posed by the specter of cyberdildonics.

Don't get me wrong, however. It is fully and entirely possible to have a mature, adult discussion of the moral, ethical and social issues raised by sexbots. It is even possible to do so via the use of fiction and parable. In TV and movies alone, we see examples like Chobits, Battlestar Galactica and Ghost in the Shell taking sexuality with robots seriously. Even series like Buffy and Star Trek deal with these issues to some degree. What doesn't do this, however, is the parable-like story penned by Deem.

Rather, we get breathless statements like:

This page is going to seem rather far out and unrealistic, given today's moral standards. However, the standards are rapidly changing, and within a few years the human race will be in a position in which sexual immorality could exist on a widespread scale.
Setting aside for a moment the tiresome and troublesome phrase "sexual immorality," it is hardly the case that we are on the cusp of some global sexual crisis. Humanity is on quite a few cusps, but "increasing sexual perversion and increasingly pervasive virtual sex happening through the expanding acceptance of online pornography" is not one of them. Pornography has been an integral part of human sexuality for no short length of time, and though it is easier to access and disseminate via the Internet, that is by no stretch of imagination any more of a threat to human survival than the widespread availability of pictures of cats doing silly things.

Certainly, there are changes that we must be aware of and that we must learn to deal with, but Deem's use of the word "perversion" indicates right away that he has no interest in real social issues. Rather, he is content to stick to the fiction that there is a limited set of morally acceptable ways to enjoy consensual sex-- that somehow, there is a universal standard for the Right Way to Get It On that was set in stone billions of years before sex itself was produced by evolution. In some sense, this must be a comforting fiction, as it would seem to release one from the duty to challenge and improve their ethics and to actually confront real problems rather than producing absurd and comical windmills for tilting at.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Surely there is comedy to be found in how Deem communicates fevered nightmares to us? We're in luck:
Instead of magnesium frames covered with thick plastic, the robots were eventually designed using lightweight carbon-fiber composite designed to mimic the structure of human bones moved by pulley systems to generate the full range of human motion. The hard plastic was soon replaced with fabrics that felt like real skin. Thus, the transformation from machine to android was nearly complete. [emphasis mine]
This is the sort of statement I should expect from a creationist screed ("Why are there still machines if androids have been invented?"), and so I shouldn't be surprised to find that Deem takes pride in being a creationist. Rather than positing the existence of a wide range of robotic systems for various purposes, Deem's story has robotics doggedly pursuing some ultimate goal, which happens to be the same goal as his creation myth: humanity. The "transformation" described is but one more comical example of the bizarre and devout anthrocentrism to which creationists and such seem to hold. Indeed, in his hypothetical world, why is it a linear progression from ASIMO to android? Is there no room in this imagined future for a market that sells intentionally un-lifelike sexbots, or limited-functionality sexbots that appeal to the working class stiffs? No, of course there isn't. In Deem's world, the pornography and cyberdildonics industries don't at all resemble those in our world:
The first of these sex robots were crude, non-animated versions introduced in the early 2010's [sic]. However, soon top programmers and engineers were hired away from the automakers and computer companies with offers of up to ten times their average salaries, similar to what had been done with their movie businesses in the late 2010's [sic], when they had hired away Hollywood's best CG programmers to turn out realistic-looking virtual pornography movies. [emphasis mine]
In the real world, adult entertainment makes a lot of money, to be sure, but not so much as to be able to poach off talent en masse from three of the largest industries that our society has ever seen. In general, while pornographers have often been early adopters of technologies, they do not have the resources nor the social standing to revolutionize entire branches of science, such as Deem hypothesizes his future pornographers to have done with robotics:
Money from the adult entertainment industry, in their push for realistic motion and conversation, had accelerated the technology in what would have taken decades to only a few years.
Of course, Deem is not content to run roughshod over facts concerning economics. Indeed, we see that he is perfectly willing to perpetuate some of the most trite and easily debunked of gender-based stereotypes:
Although the newly designed FACA [ed: female anatomically correct android-- read, sexbot] looked good, they were still somewhat clumsy and had trouble with all but the most common colloquialisms. For the average male college student, this was not a major problem, since conversation was not his major intent. However, when companies tried to market MACA, the male counterpart, to the female college crowd, the acceptance was less than stellar... [emphasis mine]
Never mind that in the real world, people have complex and varied approaches to their own sexual lives. In Deem's world, it's simple: men like to have sex and women like to talk. Not that the stereotypes end there, mind you:
Acceptance among the male population evolved rapidly as men realized they could get an ideal "woman" whose only goal was to serve him. Entertainment companies became more bold as FACA were advertised as being "better than sex." In addition, FACA were adept at gourmet cooking, cleaning, and household chores, so that one could always use utility as an excuse to get one. [emphasis mine]
As a male, I am deeply offended by Deem's sick insinuation that my ideal of a companion, spouse, sexual partner or anything else is a being that wants only to serve me. This flippant remark, I suspect, betrays some of Deem's own attitudes towards his fellow humans. Certainly, I don't think that a healthy mind could project such a warped view of gender and of humanity itself onto the whole of his fictional society. Moreover, the implication that since his sexbots are replacing women as sex partners, they must also replace women at housework betrays some very regressive and oppressive notions of gender roles that are better left in our past than our future. Deem's future seems to be one in which women are no better than appliances with genitals, and in which as soon as appliances are endowed with artificial genitalia, women are left with no place at all in society. Not my idea of a positive future, or even of a realistic dystopia.

Doubling down on his commitment to narrow and harmful gender roles, Deem continues on to inform us that in his future:
Sperm banks sprang up all over as women who wanted to have children were forced to pay exorbitant prices, since very few men were interested in donating [...].
Men in this funhouse mirror view of sexuality have no interest in reproduction or family-building, so that all it takes is an overgrown sex toy to demolish his one, true Nuclear Family. So consumed with libido are his future's men that as long as they have a warm body (never mind that it's one devoid of a mind) to have sex with, they have no other desires or motives that may at all involve flesh and blood women. As much as this is patently misogynistic, condemning women to a status just slightly elevated from that of a washing machine, it is also a patently misandric view. Just as much as women should find Deem's futuresex revolting for what of himself he projects onto it, men should be outraged at his reduction of the complex whole of humanity to some cartoonish interplay between sex-crazed men and meek women. The climax in Deem's twisted fantasy seems to be when he declares that:
Men who owned a FACA disdained the company of real women, with all their incessant demands and mood swings. The sexual revolution was complete and we were all the victims.

In spite of all this, I must give Deem credit for the sheer multitude of ways that he manages to prove himself foolish. For instance, consider the near glee with which he sets up strawman versions of those with whom he disagrees:
Population control groups and environmentalists were thrilled that the human birth rate was now rapidly declining well below replacement levels. Several women's groups formed an alliance in an attempt to outlaw the sale of FACA. Virtually all attempts to legislate against FACA were either blocked by male legislators or in the courts as restricting freedom of speech.
All in the space of three sentences, Deem presents his reader with conveniently packaged and easy-to-hate caricatures of population control, environmentalism in general, feminism and the freedom of speech. He doesn't even try to understand or explore the reasons why environmentalists may want to keep the human population at sustainable reasons, but instead describes that they are thrilled to see the decline of humanity itself. Feminist groups he brushes aside as relatively powerless and reactionary groups easily defeated by "male legislators." Freedom of speech is seen in Deem's bizzaro world as some thin shield for "sexual immorality," whatever in the hell that is. He even sees fit to revisit his disdain for the protection of speech later, declaring that:
The Supreme Court has ruled that nearly all forms of pornography are first amendment "protected speech." There is no reason to believe that a machine would not fall into that category.
What we see from this serial strawmanning is that, just as rich and nuanced explorations of human sexuality have no place in Deem's reckoning, nor do subtle and qualified arguments. In fact, look at what Deem holds up as an example of courtroom drama:
In the middle of the examination, the defense attorney suddenly grabbed the FACA and slammed it to the ground, scattering pieces of the machine all over the floor. Suddenly, the facade of humanity was gone, as the lawyer asked if anyone was going to charge him with a crime. The last challenge against the widespread use of FACA had been crushed.
Though I think that the attorney in question is supposed to be a villain of Deem's narrative, it is still amazing that Deem leaves no room for his villain to actually argue. Rather, he must make his point through sheer brute force, eschewing any subtlety and any finesse that may help the readers identify what exactly the attorney believes in that is so reprehensible to Deem.

Having declared us all victims of the sexual revolution, Deem ends his story and progresses into a realm where he is even less able to hold his own: facts. I am not the best person to debunk and deconstruct his claims, such as that the viewing of pornography leads to a "trivialization of rape as a criminal offense." Luckily, however, there are those bold and wonderful few, such as sex educator Violet Blue, that tirelessly fight against the anti-porn movement by debunking lies, exposing poor studies, presenting studies that contradict anti-porn narratives and by educating people about sexuality in general. For more, I direct interested readers to her site dedicated to the pro-feminism sex-positive and pro-porn movements, Our Porn, Ourselves.

As for myself, I shall be content to leave this story here, and to instead concern myself with those parts of the Internet in which intelligent and mature discussion is to be found.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Science and Faith

I've been silent for far too long, but recently, I've felt the need to return to putting my views on display. Perhaps it's egotistical, but there it is. Blogging is one of the primary means of participating in global conversations that is available today, and there are too many conversations worth having to sit idly on the sidelines.

One of those important conversations is on the nature of science and faith. It is often claimed that science requires faith, or that science is its own religion, or that science is somehow built on a house of cards. This post, then, is a manifesto to the effect of demonstrating that none of these is true. Science is, at its most basic, the formalization of those ways and means of learning that work. No one definition captures all of science, as the methodology itself of science changes as we learn what methods work and don't work. When we learned of the placebo effect, for instance, evidence collected without the aid double-blind randomization was no longer seen as good enough. That is, we identified a weakness in the very way that knowledge was collected by the medical sciences, and we fixed it.

To learn about the world, we don't need faith in anything other than the existence of something that can be learned. To then say that this simple and universal axiom is somehow a manifestation of faith in any religious sense strains the word beyond all usefulness and turns it into nothing more than a vehicle for ad hominems. Taking as a given the existence of patterns is what keeps us from thinking that we shall find ourselves to be bananas in some near-future moment, to pick one of the less strange possibilities. A world where anything can happen is a world without patterns, rules or causality. I have yet to meet any system of religious thought that rejects the idea of causality itself; indeed, we rightfully label as "insane" those people who reject causality. One can always go down the rabbit hole of hypothesizing an adversarial universe that merely seems causal by some cosmic coincidence, but down this path lies nothing but the most dismal form of navel-gazing. In order to function, we must take as axiomatic the existence of patterns.

In this way, science is the ultimate expression of pragmatism. If something contributes usefully to the realm of human knowledge, then science can and will adapt itself to incorporate this new knowledge. If you'll pardon a rhetorical bit of oversimplification, science has moved from armchair philosophizing to stamp collecting to a mathematical endeavor to the huge range of approaches we see today. Throughout human history, however, one thing serves as a strong indicator of what works and what doesn't. Without evidence-- objective and reproducible evidence-- we know nothing. Human memory is fallible, as is human reasoning. We are all too easily convinced of what is patently false, and thus must expand knowledge outside of the fragility of our minds. Thus, evidence is paramount. There is no faith to this, but only empiricism and pragmatism.

Of course, to fully refuse the "science is faith" claim, I would have to first understand the claim. I must admit that I find myself unable to do this. Despite my attempts at understanding the views of those around me, this is one point which fiercely resists my analysis. I admit that I am at a complete loss for any arguments as to the faith-based nature of science. If you have some, I'd love to hear them, as I hate leaving my arguments incomplete. It's rather unsatisfying, to say the least.

There are those who will, no doubt, interpret what I am saying here as some strong claim of science as omniscient or infalliable. Nothing could be further from my views. Science is, after all, a human affair, and we make mistakes. This is why our whole methodology is designed to minimize the room for the flaws inevitably introduced by our own human limitations. Moreover, science does not know everything-- simply more than any other systematization of knowledge available to humans. The nature of science is to expand knowledge, and as such, the realms of human experience off-limits to science are continually shrinking-- never growing. Neuroscience, for instance, demonstrates that human emotions are at least in principle subject to objective and evidence-based analysis. Anyone who takes SSRIs for clinical depression indirectly benefits from this shrinking of the unknowable. Why should we mistake the limits of our current methods as being intrinsic properties of the world itself? That seems like the ultimate leap of faith. To hold some phenomenon to be permanently beyond the realm of understanding, regardless of how much humanity grows (or how much our post-human descendants grow), is to take an unpalatable amount on faith.