09 May 2009

John Steinbeck on the Progression of Mystery

I guess we're all, or most of us, the wards of that nineteenth-century science which denied existence to anything it could not measure or explain. The things we couldn't explain went right on but surely not with our blessing. We did not see what we couldn't explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world was abandoned to children, insane people, fools, and mystics, who were more interested in what is than in why it is. So many old and lovely things are stored in the world's attic, because we don't want them around us and we don't dare throw them out.

John Steinbeck from The Winter of Our Discontent

I don't know why, but the religion/science question has heated up in my circle lately. Everything I've been reading has been coming back to the question. Even when I'm just trying to read a novel, there it is.

Today, I was thinking about what I was like when I was a teenager. Regrettably, I was one who knew it all. It wasn't until my early twenties that I was able to make decisions out of my vast knowledge and wisdom...and it wasn't until the last few years that some of these decisions have come home to roost. I wonder if science (I'm talking about the ideology/religion of science that pervades our culture) is in that early twenties phase. The knowledge has been met with resources and now it's on like Donkey Kong.

A list of scientific accomplishments whose conseqences are mostly unknown:
  1. Genetically coded plants who only respond to proprietary fertilizer and herbicide.
  2. Cell phones vs. brain health
  3. The long-term effects of an industrialized diet
  4. The internal combustion engine and its possible link to climate change
I'm not saying we throw out science, scientific progress, and cell phones, I'm just wondering what science's 30s will look like. Will we be too far gone?


CharlesP said...

A) One of the problems religious people have when they look at people of a scientific bent is that they see the scientific world-view's preference for fact and reality and think this has robbed them of wonder and awe. What they fail to see is that the reality of the universe is far more wondrous than the fictions we've constructed and named God. One also only has to listen to any number of "fans of science" to realize that Steinbeck's worry that we've relegated wonder to the attic is grossly misplaced (listen to an episode of This Week in Science, or read Sagan's Varieties of Scientific Experience for good examples).

I don't believe that there is no value to be found in religion though. What I do find is that most religions have committed the intellectual sin of taking themselves too seriously, mistaking "truths" for facts, and failing to realize that they holds truths in the way that all other good fiction does. One can learn as much truth from Harper Lee, Frank Herbert, or John Green as one does from Buddha, Mohamed, or Jesus Christ. One of the keys to "truth" is not that you're getting the right answers, but that you're getting the right questions.

When a religion (or at least the adherents of it) has determined it
possesses information inspired from a supernatural being it places that
information in an unassailable realm of the mind which decrees THIS is the truth by which all must be measured. It has been said of the Dalai Lama that when he heard of evidence for the age of the universe contradicting his ancient texts he instructed "his people" to change the texts. This is how a belief system should work amongst people who fully realize that they are human. If a belief contradicts the facts, it is not the facts which have the need of changing.

B) One could make the comparison that this "early 20s"-ness is
universal to all human endeavors (though I'd argue that you're
perception of science is wrong). Religions have taken an "explanation that worked" and tried to use it as a hammer in all tool-needing situations (burn a heretic may be wrong, but it can "work" when the group is small, it keeps people acting the desired way and promotes group cohesion... but when you're running a country or continent you can't kill all the people who don't agree with you or act the way you want). Political ideologies likewise: How many Republicans, democrats, communists, objectivists, or even my own libertarians have taken their
political ideology and applied it universally as a solution to all
problems? How often does that work?

The problem in general with our endeavors is that we have evolved to repeat a behavior until it fails so catastrophically that we can't deny it anymore. We hold on to whatever worked for us in the past, even though we know that historic success is no indicator of future success. One of the reasons science works is that it is a self-correcting mechanism. Scientific method says "Try this. Didn't work? Try something else. Repeat." Whereas a closed system like Christianity says something akin to "Try this. Didn't work? God said to do that, so try that again, you must have done it wrong (and even if you didn't do it wrong, you may
just have to wait until you die to know how well you did)." Sometimes it will work, but if it doesn't include a mechanism for change it doesn't work in the long run. The reason any of the successful religions have worked at all is because either they started with a big enough umbrella (not too dogmatic about my way or the highway), or because they adapted
(if the church hadn't adapted in the face of evidence that the world was round, or germs cause disease, they wouldn't have stuck around because a system that did buy into those would become too successful to compete with).

C) Many/most major religions can be described as attempts at a cohesive world-view which tries to encompass both the physical world (how it got here, what it is, etc) and the philosophical realm (the why we do what we do, what should and shouldn't be done, etc). Generally the underlying metaphor is one of a supernatural string puller responsible for deciding not only how the physical realm will move, but how the philosophical questions should be answered. While this metaphor worked in a largely pre-scientific/pre-industrialized age, it begins to break down when the supernatural reasons are explained away with perfectly natural reasons, and the philosophical realm is better handled when we look for the answers for those questions in reason, experience, and thought than when we look for answers via divine edict. When religion makes claims about facts (X happened Y way) it steps into the realm of science, which is where the science vs religion debate becomes most heated.

D) Your examples aren't necessarily scientific accomplishments. Genetically modified plants responding to proprietary fertilizer and
herbicide are more capitalistic exploitation of scientific endeavors. Cell phone function is scientific, but the widespread use (which is where brain health really comes into play) is less a matter of science and more a matter of capitalism again. Industrialized diet is more a question of how supply and demand have been met organically rather than
scientifically, an extension of the movement from hunter/gatherer
society to agricultural based one. Many of the advancements in
agriculture that promoted it to an industrialized diet would be
scientific ones though. These are examples not of scientific outcomes, but, because science is not value based, the use of the results from scientific outcomes being further shaped by ideologies wholly unrelated to science.

The internal combustion engine is the most interesting one to me.
Burning of fossil fuels wasn't a matter of science (coal was burned for heat because it heated things), but the use of them to efficiently "do work" (via things like the internal combustion engine) was. The internal combustion engine (and its electric generating fossil fuel burning cousins) added much to many lives, relieved much pain and suffering from manual labors, and allowed for more time for
philosophical/relational/etc experiences. Now it looks like there was a limit to the benefit there, as extended and growing use has the potential to hose up the planet and make a lot more pain and suffering to future generations. The uniqueness here is that the scientific method is the most likely means of identifying, not only the problem, but a solution to the problem as well. When the problem caused by religion was the inquisition it wasn't more (or more perfect) religion that was needed, it was a more thoughtful philosophy. A working philosophy can move. It is a journey. Divine edicts don't move unless the divine
intervenes, and somebody saying "God told me" is rarely a convincing argument to change another's behavior (unless it happens to be accompanied by financial or physical power).

E) You seem to be primarily stating that the scientific world-view is looking more at what it CAN do, and not minding what it SHOULD do. This is a general human problem (more concerned with what we can, vs should, do). And it is a problem where science holds very little opinion, and religion is spectacularly inadequate to address. Religion can't answer what a scientist should do if it is making claims of facts based on faulty data (like a self-contradicting work of semi-legend from centuries past) as a means of justifying its position.

When the philosophical ethicists, moralists, & politicians can get past the debate regarding authority from "god", and into one regarding authority from reason, then they can begin to address the shoulds and shouldn'ts more honestly and practically. We are a self-interested species and this isn't a debate which will ever be answered once-and-for-all because even if something is arrived at that "works", humanity (or at least members of it) will decide to make an end run around that for the sake of a quick buck (or power, or whatever).

Jason Campbell said...

Yep. Today on NPR they had a whole peice about cancer among farmers in India and they think it all goes back to the "Green revolution" in the 60s where America came in and showed them how to use pesticides and hyrbrid seeds, etc. Massive increase in produce ... just one side effect, cancer.

Jeff Luce said...

Charles. Thanks for the pushback. You are money in the bank for thoughtful responses (although, you broke a cardinal sin: comment longer than original post...haha). My main response to you is this. I know that **technically**, science is value free. I just don't think this is possible. Also, I think your evaluation of the "scientific progress" misses. I don't think that capitalism and science can be separated as easily as you did. Again, **technically**, science is value free, but I don't buy it. Thanks again for the feedback!

Jeff Luce said...

Jason, When I watched King Korn, a documentary about corn production in the USA, my mind kept coming back to this question: How will this (this type of production, industrialization, and agriculture) affect my grand-kids. My gut felt apocalyptic fear. Oh, I wrote a BRILLIANT piece about growing corn in my front yard. It was actually nominated for the pulitzer in agriculture-related blog posts. Seriously, everything I'm reading about industrialized agriculture scares me.