In his new book The Big Picture, Sean Carroll tells us that the facts that make up context, bits of information that we often take for granted, are called “priors.” We assess our friend’s claim about a bicyclist, a horseman, or a headless person based on priors. He goes on to explain that priors are the way that scientists can asses the results of experiments. It’s how physicists confirmed the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle, and how they discounted claims of neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light.
Throughout the book, Carroll invites readers to indulge in little thought experiments and goes on to explain how they reflect scientific experiments, concepts, debates, or philosophical conundrums. When Captain Kirk gets beamed from the USS Enterprise to another planet and his atoms are reconstituted, is that the same Kirk? If you are about to open a jar of marinara, and it suddenly occurs to you that there might be a deadly pathogen inside that will destroy humanity as soon as you open the jar, do you have to have plain spaghetti instead? What does an astronaut dropping a feather and a hammer on the moon have to do with why we should see the universe as made up of patterns and laws instead of causes and purposes?