Wednesday, May 7, 2008

addendum to post 'faith in technology'

An astute reader pointed out several things with regard to my post, 'faith in technology', posted on facebook. I will attach his comments in full after my response.

Alex does not really take a contrary viewpoint so much as say that science has never tried to yield a theory of 'truth' that is unequivocally true. Instead, he argues, science is given such stature in our society for its "astonishing effectiveness at solving our problems and making our lives more comfortable". Now, I will start by simply saying that Alex and I really have no substantive disagreement; he has conceded that it is 'easy' for me to make a successful religious or epistemological objection to scientism, but that I am not really disputing the usefulness of science in society.

I'm not sure Alex should allow me that. To me, that concession is made under the assumption that epistemologists and armchair theologians may come up with incontrovertible proof that science is wrong, but the improvements that it has brought to our lives through medicine, communication, transportation, etc. all show just how important science is to our society.

Now, any disagreement from me will be just how far and important epistemological objections to scientism are, and I would rather save Alex time than bother rehashing an argument to that end. However what I think he does not see is that science does make knowledge claims, with very damaging implications. A cursory look at the latest New York Times Magazine that purports to demonstrate exactly what is wrong with your brain if you have anxiety is not a constructive way to look at the mind. Modern psychotherapy has successfully medicated an entire nation of people with little mind for the consequences on our long-term sanity.

But Alex would probably object to my polemicizing against science with psychology as a surrogate. I'll leave him with one big, unanswered question:

Has science really made life better?

A few qualifications: I do not think that you can convince me that atomic theory has made life on earth better off. Similarly, I do not believe that the advent of coal-fired power plants has not necessarily made the world a better place. Of course, if you consider only the past and the present as case studies for your consideration, you would disagree (and be correct). But science itself is discovering what it has wrought in the form of global warming, lack of natural resources, etc. These problems, however, are not limited and are not going to be 'patched up' by science in order to make a better future.

They all stem from the one, fundamental problem of science: tunnel-vision. Alex may claim that Einsteinian Mechanics is better than Newtonian mechanics, but like he says, all scientific theories have a use. And unfortunately, this use involves a necessary separation of an object from its environment, and a denial of its relationship with all other things in the environment from which it was taken.

This mentality, older even than science proper, is given rise to in Greek metaphysics and epistemology; it is the idea (which has found itself perverted and extended beyond all reasonable limitations in modern analytic philosophy and its cognates, cognitive and the other behavioral sciences) that an object can be mastered and permeated through with our comprehension absent its surrounding environs. I do not dispute that science is the way of the future; I simply want to raise a simple, yet in my mind quite important objection: Every scientific advance that has been the cause of a problem (anti-depressants, utilization of fossil fuels for energy and heat) could have been tempered in order to avoid its consequent problem. However this is not the job of science, because contrary to what Alex believes, I think that science does make a knowledge claim, however bedecked it is in the robes of humility and good conscience.

Addendum to my addendum: Alex further claims that science is self-correcting, and that most scientists test their theories to the breaking point in order to further refine their theories and the current science. Does he really believe this? I would ask him: is it not the case that a scientist comes up with a theory which he then conducts experiments to prove rather than disprove his theory? To paraphrase my favorite philosopher: Every instance can be made to accord with a law, and a law can be made to account for every instance; I simply deny that in doing this you are actually following rules or creating laws.

Alex's Original Comments:

Sure, science may be something we almost worship and diefy, but it is mechanistically distinct from all other religions. While all of them are born from an unending quest for "Truth", science is the only 'religion' that fully takes into account the potential for human fallibility an bias in misleading our ascent to this divine understanding of the universe - and this is where the scientific method is born. With the scientific method, and with agreement upon certain metrics (distance, time, pH, etc.), humans of all shapes, sizes, colors and cultures are able to replicate the findings of others and test hypotheses- the hypothetical descriptions of reality provided by others.

It's agreed that science doesn't nor ever will yield "Truth" - for every epistemologist will raise hell whenever a scientist asserts that his/her theory is "known" to be true. However, the utility of our theories is confirmed as people worldwide repeat the experiments and find similar results.

Take Atomic Theory. To be blunt, Atomic theory was born as ejaculate from the intellectual masterbation of mathematicians found itself resting smugly upon phenomena nobody could explain. The math worked - it allowed people to predict with stunning accuracy the amount of given chemicals that will be used up or produced in certain reactions. Once the math worked, people had to come up with explanations for what the math seems to be describing - and so they said that billiard balls called "atoms" are the building blocks of all matter. The mathematicians didn't stop there. Call them nymphomaniacs or what you will, but the mathematicians time and time again pushed the frontiers of understanding of the subatomic world - and scientists had to come up with concepts that fit the math.

Nobody has ever seen an atom, much less an electron, proton, neutron, gluon or what have you (let's not mention this obscure concept of "energy").

So, we have no way of knowing if this concept of an "Atom" is actually "true". However, regardless whether or not these scientific theories are true, they still yield stunning accuracy of metrics and provide firm foundations for making predictions when we're faced with a novel scenario. Regardless whether or not we "believe in atoms", adopting atomic theory will allow an individual to take huge strides in understanding how the physical universe works.

This will be the case until some other guy, maybe some nympho mathematician, maybe some labrat, or maybe some little kid who asks a piercing question about matter, discovers some phenomenon (using metrics we've agreed upon) that atomic theory fails to explain, no matter how much we try to stretch it...

Then, the race is on to generate an all-encompassing theory. As a matter of fact, mathematicians and quantum physicists are confronted with this right now as they try to find out a theory that unifies all of the forces of the universe (the sadly named "Theory of Everything" - what happens when we find some phenomenon that this theory can't explain?)

This self-correction of science is what makes it so different from other religions. Buddhism, under our homeboy the current Dali LamaTenzin Gyatso, is one religion that has similar self-correction (they assert that you should never believe anything preached in Buddhist philosophy if your own experience proves otherwise), but nobody is actively trying to disprove the tenets of Buddhism. In science, there are geeks everywhere that would give a kidney to come up with a new and better theory - and so they try to push theories to the limits and find that anomaly that can't be explained by the present theory....

Philosophically and theologically, it's easy to make an argument that science is just another religion. However, it's important to notice the mechanistic uniqueness of science that yields its astonishing effectiveness at solving our problems and making our lives more comfortable. Science and math, founded on the premise that there are metrics and logical tools (cummulative addition, etc.) that we can all agree upon, allow us to correct the basic tenets of these 'religions', and this active self-correction is what makes all the difference. This self-correction, when powered by armies of geeks worldwide who are playing by the same rules, allows for such a rapid advancement of science that generates the myriad technological advancements we see today.

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