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Why should movies get the science right?

Why should movies get the science right? I have long heard that some/many sci-fi movies get the science wrong and I just sit there thinking -"well what's wrong with that?". I've managed construct a few bad reasons as to why they should get it right, but most of these are somewhere along the lines of: 'it might mislead people'. Your help will be much appreciated.

I don't think there's any general injunction about getting the science right, but sometimes getting it wrong can be a distraction. One example that's been discussed by various critics comes from Lord of the Flies. Piggy's glasses are used to focus sunlight and start a fire. But Piggy is nearsighted; his lenses would be concave rather than convex and couldn't be used to start a fire. (Thanks to John Holliday for this example, which he discusses in his dissertation.) Many readers won't realize the problem, but the glasses and Piggy's nearsightedness aren't just an incidental plot element. This is the sort of detail that Golding could have gotten right and once you know that it's wrong, you may never be able to read those scenes in the same way.

Needless to say, this doesn't show that getting the science right always matters. It surely doesn't. It's also plausible that these things will be matters of degree. The more esoteric the bit of science, and the less central to the story, the less it's likely to matter whether the author gets it right. Also, if we couldn't reasonably expect the author to get it right (say, because the relevant bits of science weren't known when the story was written), we will be more forgiving, though even we may need to make an effort not to let ourselves be jarred by the inaccuracy.

We could add that it's not just science that matters. I remember as a boy reading a Hardy Boys story in which part of the action took place in eastern Canada, in "St. John's, New Brunswick." This annoyed me and distracted me; there is no St. John's, New Brunswick. There is a St. John's, Newfoundland. There is a Saint John New Brunswick (and yes, the spelling matters.) The author could easily have gotten this detail right with a minimum of research. The story, of course, is a fiction. But like most stories, it's a fiction intended to bear a certain relationship to the real world. Imagine, for instance, an author who set a scene in Faneuil Hall in Boston, Connecticut. I'd need a pretty good reason to forgive the author for that oversight. I'd also need a pretty good reason to forgive an author who wrote a story with a physics professor character who said that electrons are bosons.

So even though fictions are, well, fictional, getting the facts right can make an aesthetic difference, and scientific facts can be among the ones that matter.

I don't know if this question falls as a scientific question but to my knowledge

I don't know if this question falls as a scientific question but to my knowledge, this is more of a question on the nature and extent of science, so I think this is more philosophical than scientific. My question is: is it possible for scientists to create a well-functioning human brain, or is the nature of consciousness so intractable that creating a brain would be next to impossible?

If scientists were to create a well-functioning human brain, I suggest it probably would have to involve the brain being part of an anatomically well-functioning body, whether the body is human or humanoid or mechanical (in which case one would have a cyborg of some kind). Philosophers have entertained bizarre thought experiments in which human brains function in vats and are subject to systematic, misleading electro-chemical stimulation, but I suggest this would not be a case of a WELL-FUNCTIONING human brain. It would instead by in a profoundly dysfunctional situation. Are there good philosophical reasons for thinking that it is impossible for scientists to create something that is anatomically an exact replica of a human being such as you and me? Some might argue that "being human" essentially involves the reproductive and nurturing processes that we underwent (and so they would seek to rule out conceptually the idea that a human brain and body can be manufactured in a lab), but this would (in my view) be strained (not obvious). I rather think it is in principle to produce a replica. What about consciousness? I am inclined to think the nature and reality of consciousness would impede the project of scientifically constructing a "well-functioning human brain."

As someone who is firmly confident that consciousness is the most obvious fact about our lives (I am not at all tempted by those who seek to deny the existence of consciousness or the mental), I am led to think that if there is a physical replica of me (and I am conscious), then the replica will be conscious. This would not, however, be the equivalent of asserting that consciousness is itself physical. One might hold that consciousness (as a non-physical state) supervenes or emerges because of the laws of nature or because of the inherent causal powers of physical objects and relations or because of an act of God, and so on. Even so, while I note that this is my inclination, it seems to be possible that (in contemporary jargon in philosophy of mind) there may be zombies -- beings who are physically indistinguishable from conscious embodied beings but who lack consciousness. This is a highly controversial claim. You might do a search for Dean Zimmerman on zombies for further reflection.

It is often stated that science is not 'value-free'. However, there are certain

It is often stated that science is not 'value-free'. However, there are certain established facts about the physical world, for example, that a water molecule contains one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, which irrespecitve of the values of observer or the social context in which this is observed, is just that, ie. an observable, indisptuable fact. How then can political or social environments alter or intrude upon such scientific facts whether they be about this planet, biology or whatever scientific enterprise one is studying. Surely, science in this regard is 'value-free'?

Great question; thank you for raising your point. I believe that the when the claim is made that science is not value-free various things may be involved. There might be at least four points to consider.

First, there is the thesis that the very practice of philosophy itself involves values --minimally, given a realist view of truth (which I hold and I think you do too, e.g. water is H20 if true if and only if water is H20)-- a commitment to discovering the truth about various phenomena, being reliable or trust-worthy in recording observations and constructing hypotheses, theories, reporting anomalies given such and such a theory, and so on. Perhaps this is not radical news, for it seems that virtually any social interaction in which we trust each others' reports / testimony, all sorts of values and commitments are relevant. But what might be added are three other points.

Second, the practice of science itself is guided in light of what scientists (or those who support the practice of science) believe to be valuable (or worthy of scientific inquiry).

In addition to that (number three) Thomas Kuhn, a prominent 20th century historian and philosopher of science, famously argued that scientific progress is often suffused with matters of value and subjectivity when individual scientists choose to retain normal science (as practiced in conventional, institutionally entrenched labs, classrooms, institutions, etc) or seek to bring about a scientific revolution (e.g. as we find with Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein...). All this is compatible with realism and your initial point that the atomic structure of water (for example) does not depend upon political or social contexts or the personal subjectivity of observers.

Fourth, perhaps physics and chemistry (which involve the water example) seem straight forward facts as distinct from values, but when we move in the direction of biology, values of various sorts come into play. This might be especially apparent when scientists employ terms like 'health' and 'disease' --whether in terms of organisms or ecosystems. The health of an organism seems the equivalent to the notion that the organism has some good or can be in a (for it) good state. It is also not uncommon for philosophers of science to contend that in the social sciences various concepts are social constructions (e.g. the diagnosis ADHD) and reflect more our values than "the facts."

I hope that is a helpful beginning. The philosophy of science entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is very helpful.

What insight can babies in scientific experiments provide philosophy? If we

What insight can babies in scientific experiments provide philosophy? If we really are born with blank slates, how does that explain why many babies will choose to look and gesture at the side by side photo of the model instead of the photo of the grandma? I really think philosophy will answer this alone instead of neuroscience.

I don't have a clear fix on the question, but insofar as I do, I don't see how philosophy alone could answer it. You seem to be saying that there's a real-world, repeatable phenomenon: babies in certain situations behave this way rather than that. That may be true—is true, far as I know. But if it's true, there's nothing a priori about it; the opposite behavior is perfectly conceivable and might have been true for all we could have said in advance. I don't see how philosophical analysis could tell us why things turned out one way rather than another. At least as I and many of my colleagues understand philosophy, it doesn't have any special access to contingent facts. A philosopher might come up with a hypothesis, but insofar as the hypothesis is about an empirical matter, it will call for the usual sort of empirical investigation that empirical claims call for.

As for blank slates, philosophy can't tell us by itself whether we're born with blank slates as minds, but as a matter of fact, there seems to be reason to think we aren't. The mind seems to come pre-wired in certain ways. Understanding what that amounts to calls for doing some science, whether it be cognitive science or neuroscience or whatever. Philosophers may have contributions to make to clarifying relevant notions and questions, sorting out methodological issues and the like, but what they can't do is sit in their studies and settle the answers by themselves.

Is science held to a lesser standard of proof than religion for analytic

Is science held to a lesser standard of proof than religion for analytic philosophers?

Interesting question. To begin, matters of "proof" are rarely involved in analytical philosophy of religion. In fact, the days of when any philosopher claims to "prove" a thesis in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of science etc seem past. Philosophers for a while seem to settle on advancing good or cogent arguments (or plausible counter-arguments and counter-examples) rather than claiming to prove a point. Though there are some philosophers who do think they have proofs. Galen Strawson, for example, claims (wrongly, in my view) to have proven that no person is morally responsible for any of their acts.

Proofs to one side, it is interesting to wonder whether the evidential standards differ among analytic philosophers when they consider claims in science and claims in or about religion. Roger Trigg is an interesting philosopher who contend that science requires a philosophical foundation and that foundation invites or provides some evidence for theism. Richard Swinburne takes up and defends a similar position. In general, however, many philosophers today subscribe to the greater authority of the sciences (especially the natural or physical sciences) rather than the authority of religious teachings. For a balanced approach you might look at the two volume work Science and Religion in Dialogue edited by Melville Stewart (published by Wiley-Blackwell).

My question is: does naturalism lead to scientific anti-realism? From a

My question is: does naturalism lead to scientific anti-realism? From a naturalistic perspective, there does not seem to be any Archimedean point from which to get an objective view - there is no ultimate meaning maker who can offer a “God’s eye view” of reality. Therefore, if one assumes philosophical naturalism, one must also deny the ability of science to provide objective information about the world. To quote Hannah Arendt, from a naturalistic perspective, “man can only get lost in the immensity of the universe, for the only true Archimedean point would be the absolute void behind the universe.” I really don’t see any way around this. Science, if understood as the pursuit of objective knowledge, can only stand on the shoulders of theism.

I confess I don't see a skeptical problem here.

It's true that any perspective I could occupy, no matter how broad, will be my perspective when I occupy it. But that truth is just a tautology: it's implied by everything, including by theism as much as by naturalism. It makes no difference to either of those positions.

Importantly, it doesn't imply that I can't achieve objective knowledge. From my perspective, elephants are bigger than mice: I perceive them that way. The fact that I perceive things that way doesn't imply that elephants aren't objectively bigger than mice, i.e., bigger than mice regardless of anyone's perception of them. Nor does it imply that I can't know that they're objectively bigger. To the objection, "But how can you know that you know this about elephants and mice?" one can reply with one's favorite theory of knowledge, which will explain how one knows anything, including how one knows that one knows that elephants are bigger than mice.

In short, I don't see how the inescapability of perspective implies the impossibility of objective knowledge, i.e., knowledge of facts that are facts independently of one's perspective.

For years, scientists like Stephen Hawking have made claims, maintaining that

For years, scientists like Stephen Hawking have made claims, maintaining that the awesome, sophisticated creativity of the world around us can be interpreted solely by reference to physical laws such as gravity. But could Hawking's claim is be misguided? He asks us to choose between God and the laws of physics, as if they were necessarily in mutual conflict. But contrary to what Hawking claims, physical laws can never provide a complete explanation of the universe. Laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions. What Hawking appears to have done is to make a category mistake and to confuse law with agency. His call on us to choose between God and physics is a bit like someone demanding that we choose between aeronautical engineer Sir Frank Whittle and the laws of physics to explain the jet engine. The laws of physics can explain how the jet engine works, but someone had to build the thing, put in the fuel and start it up. The jet could not...

There's a lot going on in your question, and I doubt that my response will cover all of it. But I'll say, first, that it begs the question against Hawking to demand that he explain "the awesome, sophisticated creativity of the world" if by "creativity" you mean something beyond the everyday creativity acknowledged by both sides of the debate (such as the creativity of human agents). Hawking doesn't accept the assumption that (for example) the laws of physics are the result of someone's creativity.

Second, Hawking would likely question your inference from the premise "All created things, such as the jet engine, require creators" to the conclusion "The laws of physics require a creator." The premise is true, but it doesn't imply the conclusion.

Third, it's not clear from your description of Hawking's view that he alleges a conflict between theism and the laws of physics. Rather, if I understand your description, Hawking claims that theism isn't necessary to explain what we observe. Now, if Hawking adds a premise to the effect that any hypothesis is false if it isn't necessary to explain what we observe, then he can generate a conflict. But such a premise is way too strong to be plausible.

Fourth, you appeal to the "sophistication" of the laws of physics as evidence of God's genius in creating them. But physicists prefer the simpler (and in that sense less sophisticated) of two hypotheses that predict the data equally well. You might reply that it's therefore the simplicity of the laws that suggests God's creative genius, but it can't be both the simplicity of the laws and their sophistication (non-simplicity) that does.

Why do scientists seem to dislike philosophy so much? (For example Neil deGrasse

Why do scientists seem to dislike philosophy so much? (For example Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss). Even Dawkins seems to have joined the club (which is odd given he now seems to spend most of his time making what seem to me to be fairly clearly philosophical arguments). Is it simply that they are using different definitions of the word than philosophy professors? Are they generally attacking just bad philosophy and taking that unrepresentative sample? Do they mean philosophy as in "that thing taught in philosophy departments" or some more abstract notion about the relations of ideas? I really don't understand what their problem is with philosophy (and why they don't define their terms)...

I'm not sure why Tyson, Hawking, Krauss, Dawkins, Coyne, Feynman, et al., express so much contempt for philosophy. But my best guess is that they're ignorant -- unaware -- of what philosophy is when it's done well, perhaps because they received little or no academic training in philosophy when they were undergraduate students. (By the time they reached graduate school in the sciences, it may have been too late for them to get that training even if they had been interested in getting it.)

I don't think they're using different definitions, at least not systematically. Krauss does claim that physics has redefined the words "something" and "nothing," but I think he's deeply mistaken (see Question 4759). In general, I find that when non-philosophers, including scientists, reason about philosophical issues, they do so sloppily: making elementary mistakes in inference, conflating concepts that ought to be kept distinct, and so on. That's unfortunate but not surprising, since reasoning well about philosophical issues takes training: why shouldn't it? My sense is that their rigorous training was focused very narrowly on particular topics in physics or biology, and outside that narrow range they're no better reasoners than the average person -- and perhaps worse, because the deference they've been accorded as scientists has made them overconfident (hence insufficiently careful) about topics outside their specialties. Nor do I think that they're attacking just bad philosophy, because I'm not convinced that they can distinguish bad philosophy from good.

You'll find these complaints raised elsewhere on this site, including at Question 4552 and Question 4636.

I recently heard it claimed that objectivity in science requires direct

I recently heard it claimed that objectivity in science requires direct measurement of all variables of interest, because we can only validate an indirect measure, or estimate, of some variable by comparing it to direct measurement; without such calibration, a proxy measure is empirically meaningless. I think the latter claim is false (and hence, so is the first). Suppose that in some empirical situation we have reason to believe there is a natural quantity X, the value of which we cannot measured directly, but we have some proxy measure Y which we hypothesise is proportional to X. We also find that the value of Y correlate with directly measurable variables A, B and C, which are believed, on sound theoretical grounds (i.e., parsimoniously consistent with all relevant evidence), to be determined by X. I think this would justify taking Y to be a useful estimate of X, absent evidence to the contrary. I suspect that there are many examples of this kind of reasoning in many different areas of science. I...

Your specific argument in terms of X, Y, A, B, C doesn't quite work. I don't know what it means to say that "the value of Y correlates with directly measureable variables A, B, C"

I think that your overall point is fine. Our measurement of many scientific quantities e.g. Avogadro's number, Planck's constant is indirect, and calculated from direct measurements. That does not mean that these measurements are infallible--both direct and indirect measurements can be erroneous.

It is also worth worrying a bit about what is meant by a "direct" measurement: does it have to be something we can see unaided, or can it be something we can "see" or "detect" through an instrument? There may be no important distinction between direct and indirect measurement.

I am a scientist with very strong desire for personal growth.I acknowledge the

I am a scientist with very strong desire for personal growth.I acknowledge the undeniable practical values of science in making better world. However, I am wondering how being a scientist would contribute to my own growth and self-actualization.(regardless of financial or social gain of being a scientist). Also is it worthy to put my life on practicing science which mostly involve in a very narrow research area. I mean if putting so much time and energy on such tiny bit of knowledge is really good and in accordance with my ultimate goal of being self-actualized?

I think the best place to start is by asking yourself what "self-actualization" is supposed to be and why it's so important. The phrase "self-actualized" has a sort of aura about it, but I'm not sure it's a helpful one for thinking about how we should live. One of my problems with the phrase is that as it's often used, it seems to mean something that has to do with a rather narrow sense of bettering oneself.

Wanting to live a good life is a noble goal. Part of living a good life has to do with making good use of the gifts one has been given, to borrow language from the religious tradition. And I sense that that's part of your concern. One doesn't want one's life to be devoted to trivial things. But most of us have to make a living, and making a living by doing routine science doesn't seem ignoble—not least since one can never be sure what the larger consequences will be. So if you find satisfaction in doing science and do it well and conscientiously, I'd say you have nothing to be ashamed of.

But on the larger question that I think may concern you, I have a lot of sympathy with broadly Aristotelian ideas of what "self-actualization" might amount to: the cultivation of virtue. I don't mean this in some prim and proper sense. I mean that there really are traits of character that we think of as virtuous: kindness, courage, fairness, honesty, generosity, and a great many others. On this view, how well a person is living is measured by the extent to which they lead a virtuous life. This doesn't amount to living the life of a prig. The people we often admire have traits like humor, appropriate irony, adventurousness and various others that make them into what we often described as well-rounded people.

To return to your specific question, all of this is quite compatible with making science the center of your working life, if that's what you want to do. Of course, if you feel that being a scientist leaves you unsatisfied, it's obviously just fine to consider what else you might do. But if you like being a scientist, that leaves ample room for living a life worth emulating; no need to feel guilty.

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