Thursday, March 10, 2005

Dreams of Power

My rant against pop science was apparently taken in some quarters as a manifesto for a sort of militant, utopian rationalism. That's my own fault, of course. What I want to say - and how I say it - is constrained not just by my literary incapacities, but also by what I believe the specific people I'm addressing are willing to accept as valid arguments.

Anyway, it's an easy misconception to clear up. All I have to do is act naturally.

Cervantes said in a recent comment that "the question of whether we proceed on the basis of faith or science has great implications for the future of humanity." Whatever I lack in cogency, I more than make up for in my capacity for obsessive brooding, and I've been brooding about that statement for days.

It's a pretty typical claim for a "rational" person to make, in order to demand capitulation rather than accomodation from the stubbornly irrational Other. It sounds very sober and serious, and it adds a thrilling sense of urgency to the proceedings. Unfortunately, it's nonsense. In the first place, as human beings, we're going to proceed on the basis of faith and science, whether we like it or not. I see no reason to believe this will ever change, or could ever change; a philosophy that refuses to accept people as they are, and imagines that it can remake them in its own image, is deranged in theory and dangerous in practice.

In this regard, the distinction between faith and science is analogous not to the distinction between truth and falsehood, but to that between Scylla and Charybdis. If you insist that humanity must choose between truth and error, you must also believe that it has a reliable ability (and a willingness) to distinguish between the two. And anyone who believes such a thing is in no position to lecture anyone else about misplaced credulity.

Like religion, science is corruptible and can give rise to problems of power, authority, control, and dominance. We know all about this; we know about the Tuskegee Experiments and Dr. Mengele and - possibly - the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor, as well as any number of other grievous injustices justified by the science of some other era. And yet, it's apparently impolite to talk about these things when we talk about the future of science, much as it's impolite to talk to today's Catholics about the persecution of the Cathars. Those were the bad old days, after all, when people were ignorant and irrational.

I think I'm within my rights to say that science - and by this I mean the field as it actually, demonstrably functions within our society, and not the omnipotent, infinitely good, crypto-Platonic abstraction - could, at this moment, be leading us over a cliff. For that matter, we may already have gone over the edge.

Obviously, I really prefer not to believe that. In fact, I'm obliged not to believe that. And sometimes I even believe that science will solve the problems it's created (though I'm sure it will never learn to raise its victims from the dead). But this is hope speaking, not rationality. We hear much about the "self-correcting" nature of scientific endeavor; unfortunately, the corrections sometimes happen only after irreversible damage has been done.

Cervantes' claim seems to rely on an assumption that the solutions to human problems must be arrived at rationally (whatever that means in philosophical terms), preferably through use of the scientific method (whatever that means in practical terms). That assumption is objectively false. The only coherent criterion for judging problem-solving behavior is its ability to solve problems. Double-blind studies can solve problems, but so can an inspired guess. So can drawing lots or flipping a coin. So can dreams, as in the case of Kekule's "discovery" of the benzene's ring structure.

A system of ethics must be complete; it must be able to generate answers for moral dilemmas as they arise; if these answers are to generate a solution, they have to create emotional or rational assent despite the absence of proof.

Science is incomplete by definition, so at any given point there will be things it can neither prove nor disprove. Some people believe that humans will eventually know everything that can be known, and that all important questions will be answered. Whether that's true or not (I think it's delirious nonsense), that's not the situation we're in at the moment. If we're going to solve our problems, we have to make do with what we have. This includes centuries of rich intellectual and social traditions from all over the world, which compel belief in the same way that a moral argument lacking evidence compels belief: by being just, and thus by being worthy of being true. Some people argue that these traditions are inferior to science because they're not scientific. The utter incoherence of this argument is apparently a minor flaw to be worked out in the fullness of time.

In my opinion, it's not sufficient to call a concept religious, or scientific, and act as though you've settled the question of which one should guide our actions. The important questions about "the future of humanity" are ethical questions about specific uses of religion and science: Is it ethical to stone adulterers to death, or to deny certain groups of people rights? Is it ethical to conduct certain types of experiments, or to work on certain government projects?

If we're to avoid disaster, we'd better arrive at the correct conclusions, one way or another. But your status as a scientist, or a priest, does not in itself give you the moral authority to decide these questions for other people by decree. Among other things, you may have a conflict of interest.

Another question is whether progress comes most reliably from adherence to the rules of a system, or from the free interplay of ideas of all sorts. My suspicion is that a variety of ideas - right, wrong, and in between - is as important to a healthy culture as genetic diversity or temperature variation is to life itself. My problem with pop science books is not that they're irrational, or wrong, or silly, but that they constitute a form of argumentum ad verecundiam, in which the authority of, say, a physicist is supposed to be transferable to his or her ruminations on metaphysics or morality. Though I'd never argue that such books shouldn't be written, I object to the popular idea that the metaphysical fantods of a scientist are somehow worth more per pound than mine or yours or anyone else's, and it troubles me when people who swallow the propositions in these books see fit to look down their noses at the credulity of others. While it's interesting that Schrödinger was led by physics to embrace Vedanta, it's also interesting that millions of uneducated people lived peacefully and gracefully within that tradition long before it received his seal of approval.

It's a busy day for me, so I'll cut things off right there, and leave you with an intemperate but admirable quote from Paul Feyerabend:

But dreams of power such as these are not only very far from my mind - they positively make me sick. I have little love for the educator or moral reformer who treats his wretched effusions as though they were a new sun brightening the lives of those living in darkness...I have only contempt for the fine plans to enslave people in the name of "god" or "truth" or "justice" or other abstractions, especially as their perpetrators are too cowardly to accept responsibility for these ideas but hide behind their alleged "objectivity."


Rmj said...

I don't want to reopen this debate, but I heard a scientist (the man who invented the laser) on NPR this morning, accepting a Templeton prize, and what he said was interesting.

Mind, I carry no water for the Templeton Foundation, and don't support their underlying philosophy. But he said religion was concerned with why we are here, and science with what is here, and I think that a fair distinction. Genesis is not a story about how earth was formed; it is a story about why God is Creator, and what our relationship to God is. Which is subtle but important distinction.

But what caught my ear, was his assertion that science, no less than religion, proceeds on faith. In science, he said, we call that "faith" "Postulates," because we assume their truth. But they can no more be proven than articles of belief. Which is an interesting assertion, in many ways, although not a decisive one.

And, to be fair, he also said that the nature of the universe is such that only a slight change would make it impossible for us to exist, which indicated, far short of 'Intelligent Design,' the existence of some guiding hand in Creation. Which is bunk, of course. But for a slight shift in DNA, we'd all still be monkeys, after all. And, as Wittgenstein pointed out about topology, with a slight shift in the universe, we'd have to re-write all our mathematics. Besides, with that "slight shift," evolution says life would have simply been different. Life as we know it, even for Christians, is hardly inevitable and immutable. The "image of God" could be a very different image indeed, and still be the "right" one.

Which are some of the problems you get into when you try to discuss these matters in these terms. Ultimately, our language is simly incompatible with our meanings. Which is where things get really interesting.

Phila said...

Yeah, I read about him thanks to janeboatler. I guess I feel more or less as you do. He makes some interesting points, and some...uh...not so interesting points. And frankly, I'm tired and my head hurts and I don't care to worry about which is which. It's all so goddamn pointless, really.

I had to get this post out of my system, but I could stand to give the subject a miss for a good long while. I've very definitely reached the absolute limits of what I'm willing to say about this stuff, and I feel frustrated.

And I'd like to apologize if, at any point during all this, I've seemed to imply that your religion boils down to nothing more than some sort of quaint utilitarian convenience that people should tolerate or respect. I can easily imagine that this might be more unpleasant to you than Cervantes' outright rejection of it. For what it's worth, that's not how I feel at all. On the contrary, I feel that most thinking - my own, in particular - pales into nothing before it.

Cervantes said...

Whoa! While I definitely believe that humanity needs to free itself from the delusion of God, I do not believe that science as such is the source of ethics.

Since your post is structured as a response to my beliefs, I'll give it the attention and the thorough and thoughtful response it calls for. I'm afraid I'm a little short of time and lucidity to do that here and now. How would you feel if I were to link to your post and respond on the Dialogue board?

robin andrea said...

phila---i'm with you on enough of this. my head is spinning and we haven't even opened tonight's dinner wine. i did get a chuckle out of your comment--

"All I have to do is act naturally."

back in the day we thought "act natural" was a wildly hilarious oxymorn. the easily amused, we were.

robin andrea said...

doh!!!! oxymoron is what kind of moron i am.

Phila said...


Sure, whatever you like! I'm interested to hear what you have to say, though I suspect that we may be dealing with a simple disagreement over what "science" means in this context. But have at it, by all means.

I'm sorry if it appeared that this was all addressed at your beliefs. It really wasn't. Or not exclusively, anyway. And I do hasten to add that I'm sick unto death of the whole subject! But perhaps by the time you get your response done, my batteries will be recharged.

Wayne Hughes said...

I think I follow the train of reasoning here, and there's certainly a lot of valuable merit to it.

Maybe it's only diametrically related but in 1990 a friend and colleague of ours, a very successful plant biologist, made the decision to radically alter her career, based in large part on ideas you've presented. Do a google on Martha Crouch, of Indiana University. There's some fairly old stuff still posted on her original decision, and some newer stuff on her current activities.

In ways I usually don't see in most people, she's quite a role model for ethical responsibility, given what she gave up.