Atanu Dey On India's Development

We cannot ignore what we don’t know

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Too often I see this quoted.

“Per laws of aerodynamics, the “bumble bee” cannot fly. Its body weight is not the right proportion to its wingspan. Ignoring these laws of science, the bee flies anyway.”

It is one of those seemingly profound statements that is actually devoid of the slightest shred of sense or meaning.

If we posit that there is set of laws that govern the universe — in other words that the universe does not behave randomly — then nothing that actually happens in the universe can be contrary to those laws. One either posits that the universe is “lawful” or it is not. If the former, then we continue our investigations; otherwise there is no point in debating any fact or making any observations as there is nothing systematic about the universe.

Our knowledge of that set of laws is limited but it is increasing with time. So it is not that the laws are deficient — our knowledge of the whole set is incomplete. Perhaps we can never know the entire set but in all probability we will get very close to knowing them eventually.

In some subjects we do know most of the relevant laws. The laws of aerodynamics or flight were not known very well, say, 200 years ago. It could have been possible that people then were mystified about how objects heavier than air could fly. Now we know better. We know that a commercial jetliner is significantly denser than air and yet it flies. For some people who are ignorant of the present state of our understanding of aerodynamics, the flight of bumblebees may continue to be a mystery. But most certainly there are people who are perfectly aware of how bumblebees fly.

Yes, the bumblebee flies. But, the bumblebee does not “know” the aerodynamics of flight. It flies without knowing them. That is not really surprising. We all do stuff we don’t “know” how to do. My internals are a mystery to me — I cannot tell you how my brain functions. The same goes for my liver, kidneys, pancreas — every bit of me is a mystery to me. I don’t know the laws that make the bits function as they do. The laws that I am fully ignorant of are working out for me how my internals work. I am not ignoring the laws.

The bumblebee does not “ignore” the laws of science because it is not possible for it to “ignore” laws. No one, not just the bumblebee, has a choice in the matter. I can choose to ignore the traffic law that I should come to a full stop at a STOP sign and instead do a rolling “California stop.” I cannot ignore the law of gravity. I don’t have a choice in the matter of physical laws that operate regardless of one’s state of mind or disposition.

The bumblebee flies because it is constructed such that it is capable of doing so. The laws that gave it that capacity is, to a very large degree, known: speciation through natural selection. The bumblebee does not know Darwinian selection. The bumblebee’s body is smarter than the bumblebee is.

And my internals are definitely smarter than I am — and I am thankful for that. Because if I had to know how to do most of the things that I need to get done, I would never get anything done and that would be the end of me.

  • gurumurthys

    You are mixing laws of science and laws of universe. Laws of universe are unchangable. But laws of science can change and have changed in the past. The first statement is perfectly valid only the second one is not sensible.