Wednesday, October 14, 2015

First-Thing-in-the-Morning Thought

The New Atheists complain when theists insist that their naturalism is itself a kind of religion, but the problem with modern scientism is precisely that it is not a religion or rather, since religion isn’t quite the right word, not an aspirational ideology or value system. The scientists and their commercial and military employers have made a concerted effort to demystify science, to assure everybody that the scientists don’t form some sort of priesthood, that their motives aren’t alien but merely commercial (better living through chemistry) or at worst patriotic (better bombs through nuclear physics). The originality and power of science, however, like all the other great human institutions, can not he explained by its utility, though religious fundamentalists and reactionary politicians only tolerate it, to the extent they do tolerate it, because they need the technology it makes possible. I once asked the philosopher Paul Weiss what God was good for in his system of metaphysics. Weiss answered. “Well. Some things are good for something and some are good for nothing. God is good for nothing.” Science is (or was) like that.

It is a commonplace that the various philosophical schools of antiquity were not simply the bearers of differing opinions about the world but were the promoters of alternative forms of life, just as the Indian philosophical systems that were growing up in the same era, the atheistic ones just as much as the theistic or mystical, were all aimed at achieving liberation and transcendence. What is less often understood is that the very project of theoretical knowledge through mathematics and empirical inquiry was also just as much a practice as Pyrrho’s skepticism, Plato’s idealism, or Diogenes’ cynicism. What developed from the speculative activities of the Ionian physicists through the research activities of the peripatetics and the Alexandrian museum was not based on a universal human impulse though Aristotle famously claimed that all men naturally desire to know. The scientific enterprise is an artifact, a cultural creation, something we chose to value or perhaps don’t.


JimV said...

I didn't understand this essay for beans (as my grandfather used to say). It might be because our world views are so far apart that I can't see yours from where I am.

As I see it, the scientific method is quite similar to, and based on, natural evolution:

1) Generate many ideas randomly.

2) Test them to see if they work.

3) Record those which work in some form of memory, to pass them on to posterity.

In biological evolution, the "ideas" are random combinations of genetic code which might adapt populations for better survival, the test is survival and reproduction, and the memory is DNA.

It seems natural to me that biological creatures formed by this process would "think" using this same general process, with several meta-levels. The basic level is that those with good ideas tend to survive and reproduce better than others. The meta-levels are that we can test ideas by peer-review, experiments, computer simulations, and so on, without waiting to see which population's ideas help them survive better.

This process can be circumvented when people refuse to consider new ideas and stop testing their old ideas. That is what happens when one has a narrow religion or ideology.

Therefore I don't seem anything mystical or dualistic about human thought, as the results we have obtained so far using our brains are no more impressive (in fact much less) than what natural evolution has done and can do. For example, after about 100,000 years of technical development, we invented the synthetic fiber nylon. Less than 20 years later, bacteria had invented a way to digest it.

Anyway, from my world view, using the scientific method (I am not a scientist, but I used it in engineering design work and computer programming - it works everywhere) is the opposite of having a religion or ideology - and thank evolution for that! (Or, as I like to say when I see a televangelist ranting on TV briefly as I shift channels, "There but for the grace of there being no god go I.")

Jim Harrison said...

I think you underestimate the originality of science as a historical phenomenon, but you're mistaken if you think that I'm bad mouthing it by considering it a cultural artifact. Human beings obviously have to make a living, but a huge amount of what we've cooked up to survive happened well outside of science and its forerunners (natural philosophy,Ionian physics, etc.). An older generation of scientists would huffily deny that they were mere empirics, i.e., what we might call technologists. They'd probably dislike your understanding of science because you assimilate it to natural selection and therefore to worldly advantage. The others may want the benefits of understanding nature, but we simply want to know. The disinterested quest for knowledge may pay off in the long run, but that's not our game.

What you take to be obvious plainly wasn't (and isn't) obvious to many human beings. It's a matter of fact that there are alternate values. You don't think you have an ideology, but then nobody thinks they have an ideology. Well, almost everybody. I'm pretty sure I've got one.