A recent article in The New York Times' "Science" section about a study called "Linear Optical Trajectory" (LOT) has certainly generated a lot of press.
I must have read or heard four references to it in the space of about thirty hours; but, even though it pushed all my buttons, I resolved to forget about it. That is, until I saw it mentioned on the (18 January) Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update" segment. Somehow, that was the last straw — not that Weekend Update is a serious news source (but then again, what is), but when something ends up on SNL it does tend to indicate that it has reached the saturation point.
According to the article, a paper on LOT was published in Science in 1995 by Michael K. McBeath, et al., which sought to explain why baseball outfielders "run along an arc rather than straight toward the ball. The roundabout path enables fielders to keep the ball's image rising in a straight line."
Wow. That's really something.
Arizona State research scientist Dr. Dennis M. Schaffer has continued the research with his Frisbee-catching Springer spaniel. The article informs us that "… dogs use the same instinctive arithmetic to catch a Frisbee as outfielders do to catch a fly ball."
As I was reading the article, I was making mathematical calculations in my own little brain, specifically, what fraction of this complete waste of time was funded by government grant. My calculations were guided by the Corollary of Scientific Silliness, which holds that the fraction of research project cost that is funded by government is inversely proportional to its degree of seriousness. On this basis, I calculated the fraction to be approximately 0.92. (If government funding is not the cause, please don't tell me.)
Aside from their stating the obvious, I have some serious problems with their "findings." At least one purely technical aspect of the research sounds suspicious — that regarding the biophysics of optics.
The article quotes Dr. Shaffer as saying "both dogs and humans seem to have the innate ability to track an object flying through three-dimensional space by using information in the two-dimensional image on their retina."
This is either sloppy communication at best, or sloppy science at worst. The statement implies that the exquisitely sophisticated operation of human sight produces only two-dimensional perception, and that depth perception plays no role. Surely much of the ability to catch a ball (or Frisbee) is dependent upon the capacity for depth perception. If you don't believe me, try catching a ball or Frisbee, or driving a car, with one eye closed. You can certainly infer distances from experience, but it is nevertheless a scary experience.
But this is all really obvious. What seems to have caught everyone's attention is the preposterous claim that the tracking is the result of "instinctive arithmetic":
Of course, neither dogs nor baseball players use the strategy consciously. Their brains take in the image of the moving target, perform split-second computations to estimate their required speed and direction at any instant and make them act accordingly. These computations are what lie beneath the outfielder's grace and reflexive magic.
This is pure hogwash.
As an engineer, I live in a world of mathematics; but I assure you, subconsciously or not, when I'm throwing a Frisbee, nowhere in my mind are mathematical calculations taking place, and certainly not at the speed necessary to prevent the Frisbee from whacking me in the face. It is intellect and experience and reaction — it has nothing to do with math.
Control of one's faculties or things external to the self does not at all necessitate the use of mathematics; but of course control theory does employ mathematics. Changing direction — or any process control — does not mean that the process control algorithm described by mathematics is the same thing as that which it is describing.
Mathematics were developed by human beings in order to describe, understand, model, and imitate natural processes.
Perception can no more be linked to a mathematical algorithm than can "green," which can be defined as a point or range on the electromagnetic spectrum, be described to someone who has been blind from birth.
And what is true of intelligent human and canine systems is equally true of inanimate processes. Chemical reaction kinetics are predictable, and can be described by mathematics, but are the chemicals making the calculations?
A Unified Field Theory of existence is hopelessly illusive, though Aristotle was among the most promising. But Aristotle wasn't wrong, it's simply that a better mathematical representation of nature came along with Newton, and likewise with Einstein. But none are comprehensive.
That these scientists watching Frisbee-catching dogs think that mathematical calculations are being accomplished subconsciously, whether instinctual or learned, reveals much. Why do they confuse observing for being?
I wanted to learn a bit more about the credentials of the people working on this "research," so I did a little research of my own.
The only Dennis Shaffer I found at Arizona State is an Assistant Professor in their department of "Social/Behavioral Science." Ah — now we're getting somewhere.
Social Science isn't exactly a "hard science" — I've always had a little problem with it being called "science" at all. After all, "social science" is a rather new invention, founded on the whole by philosophical materialists.
Dr. Shaffer's ersatz "discoveries" reinforce my belief.
But here we get to the crux of matter:
A question that interests scientists is whether navigational strategies are a product of evolution or experience. Researchers say there is no clear evidence to show whether organisms have an instinct for the calculus involved in pursuing a target, or whether they learn it unconsciously, by trial and error. Some believe that while the neural mechanisms used in computing an interception course are hard-wired in the brain, specific tasks must be learned.
It is not surprising that the same strategy seems to be used by dogs and baseball players, said Michael Land, a researcher at the University of Sussex in England.
"There is a lot of convergent evolution in sensory-motor tasks among very distantly related animals," Land said. "For example, flies and primates can track targets with their eyes using similar basic strategies, though those of primates are more elaborate."
Again, aside from stating the extremely obvious, it is evident that this research is seen through the typical evolutionary looking-glass. Is it any wonder that the current godless university environment only deteriorates science?
Because they cannot truly understand the nature they worship, much less the sensual qualities of man and beast, they ascribe to it mysterious abilities of subconscious mathematics.
That the universe exists and acts according to consistent and observable principles, regardless of human interpretation, is arguably the most important philosophical principle undergirding science. Implicit in that consistency is a Creator that created with purpose.
Aristotle is often given much credit for this thought, but I believe Abraham, who walked the Earth one-and-a-half millennia before Aristotle, is the father of modern science.
In Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus records Abraham, according to Hebrew oral tradition,
If these bodies had power of their own, they would certainly take care of their own regular motions, but since they do not preserve such regularity, they make it plain, that insofar as they co-operate to our advantage, they do it not of their own abilities, but as they are subservient to Him that commands them; to whom alone we ought justly to offer our honor and thanksgiving.
There are possibly other interpretations (but I'm not certain that Josephus' interpretation of this passage is correct), but does not this passage suggest that if there is any irregularity to the action of earthly and heavenly bodies, it is because they are subject to decay and destruction? And, that as subjects of creation they cooperate with man in consistency of purpose, functioning for his utility?
The monotheistic faith that sprang from Abraham received the blessing of not only faith but also this utility.
As Noahide Law is known by all through instruction, is it unreasonable to believe that even the Greeks benefited from the knowledge of the Hebrew faith, as Philo of Alexandria suggested? And as the Greeks discovered the thinking of the Hebrews, Islam re-discovered the thinking of the Greeks, and in turn Christians from them.
Is it any coincidence that Science flowered in the West, in effect only among the intellectual sons of Abraham? Generally, only after exposure to Western thought, did the remainder of the world make significant discoveries of their own. The exceptions prove the rule.
Indeed, even Sir Isaac Newton, who "stood on the shoulders of giants," credited his understanding of the physical universe to his Christian cosmology (as did others).
Modern man has been led to believe that before the instant of The Renaissance, or even The Enlightenment, man was an ignorant savage, enslaved to a Paleolithic church; but there is a bit more of a continuum from the educational system of the church (whose love of truth extended to the sciences) to that of the "modern" university than that which is usually reflected in pop modern history.
But as the formerly great universities reject God, what is seen in the face of so many scientists is a vain contempt for the past, seeing every living being as a random mutation of atomic impulses — a sterility of thought that could devolve any dog-lover into a cold Cartesian.
Rejecting the roots of truth, they threaten to usher in a new Dark Age.
The eyes are among the most mysterious of organic systems. Michael J. Behe's Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution reveals the concept of "irreducible complexity," which precludes the existence of systems (of which eyes are among the most obvious example) that could have evolved by random mutation because multiple elements had to be in place simultaneously in order for them to operate at all. In other words, there is no "transition phase" to the visual system, nor are any found in nature. There are eyes of varying complexity, but they all are fully functional and irreducibly complex.
Our researchers might learn something from Behe about sight — who knows, they might even improve their LOT in life.
January 24, 2003
Brian Dunaway [send him mail] is a chemical engineer and a native Texan.
Copyright © 2003 LewRockwell.com