Since a very young age, I’ve been fascinated with science (I first fell in love with cosmology). Every year since, my appreciation of science has grown – though my knowledge of it not considerably as much — one of my chief regrets. In this post, I want to lay out some random observations I have accumulated in watching the science vs dogma debate play out.
#1: Epistemic Dictatorship
One day I found a comment on my blog post in which a friend and I debated back and forth on God, the Meaning of Life etc. The commenter had asked what is life, that he could not imagine it as a meaningless pile of interacting chemicals, and wondering where consciousness could have arisen. Another commenter, after spending many days lambasting me on my knowledge of cosmology (he held philosophical opinion above observational cosmological evidence, so I should have ignored him but I foolishly didn’t); anyway, after such lambastation heaped upon me for wishing upon humanity an epistemic dictatorship, being scientistic, and ‘just another guy confusing cartesian bifurcation for reality,’ he responded to commenter #1, saying that since it was impossible for consciousness to arise by itself, it must have been created by a conscious agent. Circular reasoning at its finest.
#2: The Irony of Denying Evolution and Cap and Trade
In America, the religious right have fervently set it upon themselves to make war upon the theory of evolution for offending their presumed sensibilities, and also, against global warming, taking particular issue with cap n’ trade. Of course, the sweet jingle of irony never lingers far from those who hold facts at bay. They disdain cap-and-trade, because well, they are fixated upon the short-term profits from coal/oil/gas/shale, much to the detriment of the long-term health of the biosphere, and the rank and file Republicans, whom have been indoctrinated to tying their economic security to the elite factions of the party, have lapped it up hook, line, and sinker; that being it will irrevocably extinguish short-term economic growth (unable to see that other businesses and technologies will pick up the slack for long-term growth). Evolution at its finest; using shortsighted animal instincts to focus on what is here and now, with the security and safety of short-term profits, all the while ignoring, or keeping at bay the uncertainty of the future, i.e., they preferably express the lower-order thinking we have accumulated from our evolutionary ancestors, giving their neocortex a much unneeded vacation. (And though I do not wish to offend anyone unjustly, I can just find no other way to express it. This is not to say that only the religious right express such dimwitted sentiment, but they are, unfortunately, the most pernicious about it. To be fair, the left have their own share of madness; anti-nuke despite it being the safest form of power generation, and anti-GMO despite the fact that even organic food today is in some shape or form, genetically modified and all we are doing is replacing blind evolution with purposeful evolution – something necessary if the worst of climate change does occur and increasing desertification and seasonal rain find themselves obfuscating our attempts at growing food.)
Then we have the anti-science people (in a more general sense), whom look to science’s past to discredit its present. These invariably crop up in science vs religion debates – usually invoking Stalin’s and Pol Pot’s atheistic, materialistic agenda, Nazi eugenics, Soviet Lysenkoism, or upon matters of white racial superiority.
These arguments fail flat for several different reasons. Firstly, and as most secularists are aware; the ‘atheistic‘ regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot denounced religion on the surface, but in reality, simply replaced the God in religion with the State. It was merely religion in another form and speaks more so than other examples to the danger of religion than of atheism. (Besides, the new atheist movement is not about just being an atheist. In fact, that is the last thing it is about. It is about using reason and empirically sound and validated methodologies to improve the lot of everyone.)
Back to the charge however of anti-scientism, and to attack their proposition directly; they assume – one might say demand – science must have gone from 0 to 60 immediately (0 being the blind superstition of our ancestors, and 60 being scientifically where we find ourselves now), without first passing through 1 to 59. (As if the Pentateuch, New Testament, and Quran just fell from the sky in one piece, instead of being the accumulated baggage of earlier religions and cultures – and that first religion from which the others derived, whatever it might have been, it is reasonably safe to say, was based on ignorance of nature.) Yet, while many excuses are made for religions failing in the past and present (and let’s face it, future), they point to science as if it was a cohesive, secular, and centralized entity that popped out of nowhere, and unable to find many solid examples of its failing today, look to its ignorant past so they may continue their smear campaign. (I am not insinuating that science is perfect. Far from it; from publication bias, to reporting bias, to funding bias, to inefficiencies in the peer-review system, to taxpayer research thrown behind paywalls. Science has a lot to set straight, but, as is so often the case with science, one by one, they are slowly but surely being tackled and will eventually be overcome.)
To go through the charges one by one. There was no basis for Lysenkoism empirically, especially as established as natural selection was then, so while it may have hidden under the veneer of science; did not make it so. The soviet famines caused by such blind faith in Lamarckism was not exemplified by a scientific attitude, but unwarranted faith in an unscientific geneticist who put his faith before reality.
Now take racial superiority, which for thousands of years was coddled by the religious texts of the world. The churches instilled into the white, ignorant populations under their domain the required incentive to rationalize the subjugation of non-whites, and thus to the educated elite of their day seek meaning where there was none – this latter trait is basic human nature; all humanity suffer from its thorny thistles – to prove white superiority instead of deducing from first principles; namely, nature. (Scientists aren’t gods; they are subject to the same biases and agendas of power as were others. The word scientist didn’t even exist until 1833, so to speak of scientists before that is somewhat meaningless, they were just people with all their biases, shortcomings, and blind spots. For all of Newton’s genius, he was an alchemist, and Darwin set forth on the HMS Beagle to prove the truth of the Bible, and then almost didn’t publish his On The Origin Of Species for fear of backlash. And Galileo regarded the Bible as an alternate source of truth just as much as nature herself.)
There is also the further myth propagated into the European zeitgeist in that they were high, mighty, and superior to all others because they were the first to practice some proto-scientific methodology. Many religious people give credit (or take credit rather) for the church for harboring the scientific method and universities during the conflicts and plagues of Europe, which they indeed did, but they ignore the fact that it was only because the Saracens (Muslims as they arrogantly called them) had bought with them from the orient the translated works of Ptolemy, Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Hippocrates, and the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, which they had translated, copied, incorporated, and spent 400 years theorizing and building upon with funding from the caliphs (who considered it their duty to learn more of the world, and so poured money into scholarship and the building of huge libraries compiling such great works of knowledge as the Booking of Healing and the Canon of Medicine, the latter being a million words long). In the process far surpassing the superstitious peasants subjugated to the feudalistic and petty lords making war upon another over in ‘high and mighty‘ Europe. Though eventually, this constant warring would prove beneficial as it did not allow the rot of stagnation to take hold and thus encouraged innovation in the machinery of war, productivity, and agriculture – but which only took hold after the Muslims had bought all their knowledge and shared it freely. By the sheer dumb luck of being so ignorant that war was inevitable were the conditions so fortuitous, and thus paved the way, for the enlightenment; not forgetting the Muslims bringing with them the translated knowledge of the ancients, as well as their own formidable knowledge-bank. During the end of the 12th century, the scientific decline of the Islamic empire began as they began pursuing spirituality as opposed to science or knowledge for its own sake – such was also the case with China. It is only very recent that knowledge has begun being pursued for its own sake on a large-scale.
To attempt to taint science’s past – which is much younger than many people think) – to discredit its present is akin to watching a 12-month old baby take its first steps, watch it fall down several times, then tell it stop trying for fear of further failure and telling the young chap that crawling is a superior method of transportation (read: truth). Then, once the cute little baby figures out how to walk on its own and starts running and then jumping, they continuously point to those first few steps as prove that the baby started failing first, therefore every step it takes is to be looked upon as suspicious, and not proof that walking/running/jumping is superior to crawling. This, in a nutshell, is what people mean when they say science is an epistemic dictatorship, or refer to its practitioners as scientistic, and bladdy blah blah >>insert meaningless insult here<<.
Where the mindset comes from that demands reality conform to our subjectivity instead of the other way around, I will never understand. Never will I ever. And some of these people have the balls to call scientists arrogant for wanting to know the way the world really works…