Thursday, July 20, 2006

An Interesting Guest Posting...Post-Modernism, Science, and Religion

One of my interlocutors at the recent International Conference on Complexity was Blake Stacey. A very bright fellow to whom I will now give a brief guest spot, on account of some interesting books that relate to the Modernism Project.
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David, I mentioned Meera Nanda's Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India (Rutgers University Press, 2003). The week after the conference, I happened to discover that this book comes with the recommendation of Daniel Dennett, who mentions it approvingly in the preface to Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006). I originally made my way to Nanda via Alan Sokal, who draws upon Prophets Facing Backward in his essay "Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?", which is available from his NYU website.

The central irony which Nanda explores is that our common notion of postmodern ideas --- science as a social construct, "incredulity toward metanarrative", all that --- which we associate with the "political Left" is really an illusion due to a Eurocentric bias. If we look farther afield than the Parisian faculty lounge, we find that these same ideas have been appropriated by fervently nationalistic ideologues. In the ivory towers of the West, "postcolonialism" is a trendy pomo thing, a way of feeling warm and fuzzy after decades of imperialist stomping over these other cultures. Uphold the validity of their beliefs! Give them affirmation, confirm their customs and their "ways of knowing".

The problem arises when actual members of these former colonies pick up the postcolonial speech habits. Fundamentally, it comes down to the question of what you do when science, whether foreign or domestic, challenges a comfortable ideology. One approach, beloved by Young-Earth Creationists, is flat-out denial. Another, more akin to Intelligent Design, is to appropriate the words but leave behind the music: by practicing a kind of epistemological judo, one can adopt the useful fruits of technology while ignoring what the basic scientific discoveries imply about your belief system. At the same time, all the people who acknowledge the abundant evidence that science **works** --- and who therefore have a default respect for the men in white coats --- have a new reason to trust your ideological pronouncements.

Sokal's essay discusses how practitioners of "alternative medicine" have done this in the United States. There's nothing quite like a dose of quantum physics to make your aura vibrate at a higher harmonic and up the effectiveness of your uber-holistic Touch Therapy! And if the Medical Establishment comes along to question the effectiveness of this Touch Therapy, then you can whip out the "all world views are valid" line. It's not as good as real scientific evidence, but it can compel a degree of belief.

Nanda addresses how this has played out in modern India. One crucial difference between quantum altie woo in America and Hindu "Vedic science" is that the nationalist practitioners of Hindu "Vedanta" **do** uphold the primacy of one worldview: Western science is merely an imperfect realization of the truths spelt out in Vedic texts millennia ago. From page 197,

" [...] the Hindu right wing is modernist in a reactionary, anti-Enlightenment way. Hindutva is gobbling up modern science by declaring the Vedic knowledge systems to be at par with modern science in rationality and credibility. Proponents of Vedic science claim the Vedas to have presaged all the advances in modern science without admitting that in fact, modern sciences challenge the metaphysical foundation of the Vedic view of the world."

Notions of "decolonialization" have found a favorable home with these people, because they downgrade the primacy of Western science and insulate the Vedic alternative from disproof. The political beliefs of the French and American postmodernists don't matter, once their ideas have been spread --- ideas which those of all political persuasions can use to rationalize the antirational. (I'm tempted to use the word "meme" here.) The propositions of this "Vedic science" would be laughable if no one believed in them. Nanda summarizes Raja Ram Mohan Roy's **Vedic Physics** (1999) in the following words (p. 114):

"Roy's book is a compendium of absurdities where references to animals mean bosons and fermions, animal sacrifices stand for quark containment, where annihilation of dark-skinned people means annihilation of anti-matter, food is matter-energy, and where the reference to 10 directions stands for superspace, so on and so forth . . . ad nauseam."

Roy's ideas, and those of Vedanta enthusiasts like him, have been adopted wholesale by the Bharatiya Janata political party (now in opposition).

Nanda's book contains large amounts of interesting stuff which is not easy to summarize. Methinks the verbal ejaculations of postcolonials, whether in American literary journals or Vedic-science textbooks, are particularly resistant to my old-fashioned linear paradigm of thought.


Blake goes on to add:

bc_why_people_believe_cover.jpgOne quick note before I forget: on the subject of Ayn Rand, you should check out (if you haven't already) Michael Shermer's essay "The Unlikeliest  Cult", which was published in **Skeptic** magazine and reprinted as a chapter of his book Why People Believe Weird Things.

I was able to dredge a copy out of a Google hit parade:

Here's the money quote:

"The cultic flaw in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism is not in the use of reason, or in the emphasis on individuality, or in the belief that humans are self motivated, or in the conviction that capitalism is the ideal system. The fallacy in Objectivism is the belief that absolute knowledge and final Truths are attainable through reason, and therefore there can be absolute right and wrong knowledge, and absolute moral and immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered through reason to be True, that is the end of the discussion.

If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed. If your reasoning is flawed it can be corrected, but if it is not, you remain flawed and do not belong in the group. Excommunication is the final step for such unreformed heretics."

-- Blake Stacey


MY RESPONSE:

Randroids are what I call Platonists. And alas, the libertarian movement, which OUGHT to be supremely modernist and pragmatic and logical, is instead one of the modern movements most rife with romanticism, impracticality, misplaced idealism, obsessive cultism and an absolute dedication to incantations whose sole result is to provoke a drug high of indignation. Never practical and incremental improvement of markets or freedom.

Platonism is the very worst enemy of democracy and modernism because it is the romantic variant that KNOWS democracy and understands it, and yet loathes and despises it down to the very roots. It has poisoned so much of the Enlightenment and provides intellectual fiber to the mad neocon priests like Perle and Wolfowitz and other followers of Leo Strauss. True, much of their coalition is made up of OTHER enemies of the Enlightenment... neo-feudalist oligarchs and kleptocrats and future-terrified nostalgists. But these are the guys who betray us with open eyes.

see my article: Neoconservatism, Islam and Ideology: The Real Culture War

Slowly, we are coming to see that the real enemy is human nature itself, which seems always lured and tempted by certain things: Self-delusion. Incantation. Nostalgia. Self-serving demonization... and a level of self-interest that ruins markets instead of playing fair in them.

Human nature would destroy the Enlightenment, if it ever gets a chance, and snuff it out far LONGER than those same forces kept Pericleanism quashed, the first time. 2500 years of darkness. It happens so easily! The French wing of the Enlightenment got lured back into Platonism - believing you can attain truth through incantation.

Even American modernist ikons like Frank Lloyd Wright and Robert Moses gave into the temptation to become tyrannical gurus, in the wizardric tradition, rather than collaborative modernist pragmatists. Modernism barely survived their antics and the NAME was driven into the wilderness.

What a slender thread is the trail that leads from
Pericles, through scattered candles of light, to John Locke and
Adam Smith and Ben Franklin, who pointed us down a new
path.

One that is under attack even as we speak.

I think the very unlikeliness of this event helps to
explain why the stars seem so empty of intelligent
life.

And (as I have often said) this time our enemies have vowed. When it is quashed, they will NEVER let it be tried again.

51 comments:

monkyboy said...

I think you are giving the bad guys too much credit.

They are only after money....not world domination. Even the Chinese recognize that they need to allow the people a certain amount of freedom the maximize returns...

Mark said...

A year or so ago I ran into a Krishna downtown who want to tell be about his religion and the science on which it was based. As often happens in these situations, about a half hour later or so he was trying desperately to get away from me as I kept wanting to learn more about his religion and tell him how I thought he was abusing the word "science". One of my greatest pet-peeves is when others hijack the word "science" for their own ends.

Anyway, I bought (er, donated money to obtain) the book he offered. I never read it but it is sitting in front of me: "The Science of Self-Realization" by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupàda, Founder-Àcàrya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

The back of the book claims: In this book you will discover the timeless science that great teachers have spoken for millennia, THE SCIENCE OF SELF-REALIZATION opens up the secrets of the self within, nature and the unicerse, and the Supreme Self within and without. There the world's most distinguished teacher of the science of self-realization talks about meditating and practicing yoga in the modern age, gaining liberation from the law of karma, achieving superconscioness, and much more. In all, the interviews, lectures, essays and letters chosen for this special book, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupàda speaks with startling clarity and power. He proves just how relevant the science of self-realization is to today's world and your own life.

For some reason, I thought of all this as how they were pushing Krishna in the West. It hadn't occurred to me they were doing the same in India for some reason.

Interesting.

NoOne said...

Since I'm a Hindu and a scientist, I thought I'd add a contrarian perspective. While it is certainly true that Hindu nationalists have appropriated elements of postmodernism to justify their Vedic-centric worldview, this dichotomy of scientific modernists versus backward looking traditionalists doesn't work for me personally.

The fundamental problem for science is the inability right now to deal with the problem of consciousness. (And please don't talk to me about Dennett. He doesn't have a clue about this problem.) Until this problem is cracked, you'll have all kinds of cracked worldviews rushing to fill this space (sorry, couldn't resist :-). Also note that the statement "modern sciences challenge the metaphysical foundation of the Vedic worldview" - taken from the essay - is nonsense since science does not have any commitment to a particular metaphysics. It is because of this lack of a metaphysics that Vedanta can (if it wishes) appropriate all kinds of scientific insights and incorporate them into its (now newage rather than traditional) worldview.

On a positive note, Stoljar's book on consciousness just came out. While I haven't read it, based on Stoljar's earlier work, I think it'll turn out to be the one of the very best works on the problem of consciousness.

Mr. Furious said...

NoOne - can you say more about why Dennett doesn't have a clue about consciousness?

I think his basic model - that consciousness is an emergent phenomena arising out of deterministic biological functions in the brain - makes a lot of sense. Maybe you can point me to a good critique, or make corrections if I'm paraphrasing Dennett wrongly. -howie

Tangent said...

If the Libertarian party is so broken and incapable of repair... why not abandon it and form a new party that espouses the aspects of the party as would function in the current sociopolitical scene and be more popular with the rank and file Americans who want something different but see Libertarians as a lost cause?

(Of course, most of the /really/ good names have been taken already. I still curse Ross Perot for chosing "Independent" as a party name, thus forcing my political affiliation to be "Undeclared".)

By revamping the political party into what the Libertarians /should/ be, but with reforms in it so it's not rigid and inflexible, we would then have a political front that would attract the moderate libertarians who want to reform their party but have been unable to get past their own hardliners, as well as attracting moderate and conservative Democrats as well as liberal and moderate Republicans.

Patricia Mathews said...

OT, but - your link led me to "Tomorrow Happens" which is current going - used - for $106.60.

You might want to point out to your publishers that with that kid if demand, it's time for a re-issue.

Rob Perkins said...

Perot chose the name "Reform", and proved that you can't sustain a party whose primary platform is "throw out da bums"

Francis said...

David,
I've never seen what you see in Libertarianism - you are the only Libertarian I have ever met or corresponded with who is anything other than a Romantic Fundamentalist believing that Freedom of the Individual is the One True Way ™ (and never mind the actual impact on freedom of allowing company scrip and company towns and other such rubbish (such as artificially induced starvation/dehydration distorting the price of water and food and other effects of de facto monopolies)).

For that matter, my experience with Libertarians is such that I equate them with a mash-up between Ayn Rand and the Cato Institute.

Would you mind explaining firstly what you mean by Libertarian and secondly why you are one?

On other notes,

The fallacy in Objectivism is the belief that absolute knowledge and final Truths are attainable through reason, and therefore there can be absolute right and wrong knowledge, and absolute moral and immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered through reason to be True, that is the end of the discussion.

You've just defined fundamentalism for me. As for dealing with rationalists, I normally bring out of the cupboard Godel's Theorem (there are things that are true but are unprovable in any system big enough to contain arithmetic), the Uncertainty Principle (and Observer Effect), and Chaos Theory. How between those three, you think you have the whole truth, I do not know. (Yes, we mathematicians can look crazy - but we are actually the only sane rationalists out there.)

And finally the thing I damn the multiple narrative post-modernists for is removing the concept of accountability - if everyone has their own "truth", then it gives you license to do as you please and not face the consequences.

NoOne said...

Mr Furious asked "can you say more about why Dennett doesn't have a clue about consciousness?"

First, I should mention that I'm in the David Chalmers school as opposed to the Dennett school which is why I have very strong negative opinions about Dennett. Anyway, if you want a serious book-length discussion on consciousness and the problems with Dennett's emergentist view, please see David Chalmers' _The Conscious Mind_.

palliard said...

@ Francis

A lot of people, including many self-ascribed big-l Libertarians, think of libertarianism as sort of Republicanism without all the religious fundamentalist culture war BS. This would be why they keep nominating crazed IRS-hating cranks to be president, I suppose.

Little-l libertarians, while not as loud, do tend to be a bit more pragmatic. They think everyone's happiest when pursuing their own dreams, and mostly-unfettered capitalism is the best way invented yet to facilitate that. But they're grounded in reality enough to realize that completely unregulated free markets quickly devolve into the fuedal robber-baron society you allude to. We already went down that path once... it would be foolish to repeat that mistake.

If you look at the many different social experiments that have been conducted in different parts of the world over the last several centuries, those societies that have prospered most have been propelled mostly by enlightened self-interest. Easy access to even small amounts of capital and education have done more to transform societies than anything else I can think of.

The problem is, the big-L Libertarian political party has been hi-jacked by people who advocate radical things that a lot of people immediately recognize as impractical or are so far out of the mainstream as the be negatively stereotyped: abolishing the income tax, legalizing heroin, removing the minimum wage, abolishing the social safety net... nobody's going to vote for that, I'm not sure _I_ would. That's why they keep nominating the aforementioned crazed IRS-hating cranks, it's really a marginalized group of hard-core objectivist kooks.

But the basic philosophy, that you do your best when you're doing what you want to do and have the tools and ability to do it, without a lot of interference... that has a lot of appeal to it.

monkyboy said...

Hehe, Palliard,

Libertarians trying to further their cause on the government-invented, government-funded internet are about as credible as a vegetarian working in a slaughterhouse.

It's saddens me to see scientists confirm my opinion of the current state of scientific research. Chasing after consciousness, extra dimensions and tiny little particles while the world turns into one big Jerry Springer show.

Sigh...

Speaking of which...

Can we get your official predictions for the upcoming election, Dr. Brin?

Will the Democrats regain control of the House?

Will the Democrats regain control of the Senate?

palliard said...

@ monkyboy

Small-l libertarians are not anti-collectivist, as you seem to assume. Voluntary associations are the basis of a free society, and a government certainly can be voluntary, as can its projects... like these crazy intertubes we're commingling over.

The classic example is to imagine a world in which each person is individually responsible for maintaining the public road in front of his house... and then imagining the asshole neighbor down the block with the 20-foot-deep pothole in front of his house.

Reasonable people know governments have a purpose. But... shouldn't it have some limits?

Stefan Jones said...

"Flatonism is the very worst enemy of democracy and modernism"

I'm sure that was a typo, but somehow a very fitting one!

The pomo relativism / "vedic science" / use-of-quantum-science-to-justify -crap meme has been something that has infuriated me for years, BUT . . .

BUT . . .

. . . this sloppy intellectual wimp-out doesn't hurt American science as much as rampant anti-intellectualism, religious-right crankiness, and the perversion of science that benefits the bottom line of (for example) tobacco companies.

Fhydra said...

@ monkyboy

I don't think Brin is saying that the leaders in China or the US are trying to actively destroy the Enlightenment and achieve world domination. He's saying that human nature itself would do that. It would destroy all the progress that mankind has made because of nostalgia and self-delusion.

And you know what, I think Brin is wrong. Human nature is not our enemy. It has it flaws sure. It can over-rationalize and under-rationalize. It's prone to self-delusion and incantations and violence and general stupidity. But it's not bad. It's just human nature. It's our nature.

And all these ideals about freedom, the Enlightenment, maturity, and progess, they don't come from inhuman nature, they come from human nature too!

Brin, you seem to have this misguided notion that human nature is primitive, but it's more complex than that. It adapts, it evolves. We may always contain traces of ancestors that did geniunely evil things, but that's no reason to proclaim human nature as our enemy.

The founding fathers realized this. They didn't curse human nature. They used it, and they absolutely needed it so their experiment could succeed.

And human nature is the only thing that can save modernism. It already knows all the anti-modernist tricks. Think about it: We can use human nature itself, our ability to reason, our strength, and our ideals, to cancel out human nature's worst aspects.

We've done it before.

Francis said...

Palliard:
Thanks. Just a couple of observations.

Easy access to even small amounts of capital and education have done more to transform societies than anything else I can think of.

I would throw sanitation and contraception onto that list. But the interesting thing about all those with the exception of access to capital is that government provision has done more to ensure such access than anything else.

Reasonable people know governments have a purpose. But... shouldn't it have some limits?

Indeed. I don't know any socialists who'd disagree with you there...

I think what I'm doing is asking what small l libertarianism actually means. I'm only really aware of the loud (and stupid) type.

monkyboy said...

paillard,

Speaking of voluntary associations, Sadly, No! has provided us with a glimpse of one of Dr. Brin's fellow futurists and Lifeboat Foundation board members:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qk07p1sRBoM

Yikes!

Safeguarding humanity, indeedy!

http://lifeboat.com/ex/bios.atlas

Hehe, hope I kick it before the singularity!

Anonymous said...

Do you know the greatest advances in science happens when the old chair died and some radical was elected in his place?

Stefan Jones said...

How the right wing gets the public to swallow radical ideas:

http://www.swordscrossed.org/?p=50

David Brin said...

Frances, you ask a very good question about why I call myself a "libertarian" when - in fact - most of those who use that label appear to be google-eyed, lapel-grabbing, psycho-dreamers who would rather spout an incantation than tighten a bolt or do anything practical at all.

The present Libertarian Party dogma of obsessing on hatred-of-bureaucrats is a case of absolute barmy obsession on a single tree, when you are surrounded by an entire forest. As if freedom and markets and human creativity did not have OTHER enemies, long before meddlesome, do-gooder bureaucrats came along!

Claiming to be supreme intellectuals, most of these dopes don't know Plato from Pluto and think that Medieval ICELAND was a great archetype of human reified potential and freedom! (They cannot cite any better examples, from the past, poor things.)

Of course the driver is personal resentment, as it is in most political or religious or social dogmas. These guys who want Lord Of The Flies anarchy also preach that such anarchy should outlaw all coercion and force! (???!) But, again, when asked for a single example in all of human history, they choke and sputter, covering their ears ang shouting "Nyah!" (figuratively, but barely) when you point out that every prior era saw freedom and markets squashed by oligarchs and feudal lords, not bureaucrats. (They especially hate it when you ask "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?")

What is such a pity is that their general NOTION is the closest to correct of any dogma that is out there! The Enlightenment is the first experiment since Periclean Athens that erected modakities to maximize human knowledge and freedom. Moreover, by using that knowledge and freedom to hold each other -- and even the rich -- accountable, our markets and science and democracy created a boom of creativity and wealth that no other system -- feudal or socialist -- could ever hope to match.

(see: http://www.davidbrin.com/disputationarticle1.html )

What they have RIGHT is the notion that power must be distributed as widely as possible. That no paternalistic leader class can be trusted, not even do-gooders. Ah, but I am not asking them to TRUST anybody! I am asking that they see what already works, and use it.

If only they could put a song in their hearts and accept this fact... that we are halfway to a future age when individuality can be sovereign. Not because of social darwinism, but because all children grow up healthy, sane and formidable, an era when government CAN wither, because it is far less needed. If they could see this, and sing about it, and recognize that the state (if watched carefully) can even HELP bring all children to that level, then these libertarians might have a chance of seeming attractive and having influence over that trend.

Happy pragmatic incrementalists might actually make difference! Especially if they were vastly more FOR something (freedom/creativity) than bitterly and biliously AGAINST something (well-meaning do-gooders, damn them!)

I have a 4 part essay that I think you'd find REALLY eye-opening and interesting, at : http://www.reformthelp.org/

Seriously, it is part of an effort to change libertarianism, and so it is addressed at such peoples' sensibilities. You may squirm. But THINK, can you not see how American the mild/optimistic version of libertarianism is, deep down? How appealing in its way? If only it could be taught both compassion and a smile?

*** Moving on to post-modernism
I see that you are willing to see that this psychology of lazy smugness also affects the left. good.

Take the towering hypocrisy of the left toward the whole debate over nature-vs-nurture.

Ever since WWII, the formal and reflex position of the left has been that nothing is programmed into us, that humans are not pre-fated by genetics or inheritance. At its extremum, this can be a sick position, as exaggerated by Stalin and Lysenko. But as a reflex to resist and overcome past bigotries like Naziism, racism or any other classifications that limited individual opportunity, because of some born membership in a class or clade, it was a good way to lean. A necessary way for us all to lean, even when a little mistaken. In fact, some overcompensating and erring in this direction was the only way we could possibly have broken old, bad, and lazy habits and generalizations, some of them millennia-old. (This is why I disliked the BELL CURVE guys, even if they had some pertinent data.)

Certainly this oversimplification of the left is preferable to the right's neo-feudalism, simmering latent-racism and eager return to inherited entitlement.

Still, can you think of an exception to this reflex? A glaring exception? One that stands out so bizarrely and perfectly, as a total reversal, that you wonder why no one has ever pointed it out before as an outrageous example of utter hypocrisy? When you realize what I am talking about, and why this exception was contrived for wholly political reasons, you will blink and mutter. And you'll know that the left -- while far more harmless -- can be just as delusional as the right.

***Palliard, the conflation of libertarianism as akin to republicanism IS the great horrible and utterly tragic political conflation of our time. MILLIONS of Americans whose SOA (suspicion of authority) is somewhat libertarian-tinged (even if they do not use the "L word") hold their nose and vote GOP because of this awful mistake. Believing the lying weaselly and totally SOB rhetoric that republicans oppose Big Govt. And that "liberalism" always translates into paternalistic bureaucracy. When, in fact, there are NO ways in which today's GOP can be legitimately called the "lesser of evils."

As I have repeatedly said, the only people to de-regulate industries fairly, to reduce the number of non-defense federal employees, to reduce the number of regulations, to cut and slash at government secrecy, and to NOT GET INDICTED in horrid scandals were... democrats.

I have been screaming at the top of my lungs: "HEY YOU DEMOCRATIC FOOLS! WHY DON'T YOU RECLAIM THE FIRST "LIBERAL"?RECLAIM ADAM SMITH!!!!! AT ONE FELL SWOOP YOU COULD DRAW FROM THE MILLIONS WHO WANT PROBLEMS SOLVED, BUT PREFER MARKET SOLUTIONS. DRAWING THEM AWAY FROM AN UNHOLY COALITION OF FEUDAL LORDS AND KOOKOO FANATICS WHO WANT NOTHING TO WORK AT ALL."

What response do I get? Argggggggh. All they do is blink in my direction and call me crazy. Weird. In EFFECT the dems are pro-market. But they dare not ever speak the rhetoric. The rhetoric that would win.

***Monkyboy, you are flat out wrong that Enlightenment processes are part of basic human nature, which history demonstrates to be rapacious and directed toward reproductive success in all the old, cheating ways. Duh. We are mammals.

But what Locke pointed out was that EMERGENT PROPERTIES can arise OUT OF human nature. These emergent properties (a term from complexity theory, so Locke did not use it, per se!) do not erupt spontaneously or on their own. Here the libertarians are simply loony, when they say stuff like "market laws are natural laws." Feh! It takes a MACHINE to draw out the properties of reciprocal accountability and cooperative-competition, under rule sets that maximize output and minimize blood-on-the-floor. Rules hard-learned and developed after centuries of pragmatic trial and error.

The machine that does this is a new kind of civilization, unstable and always prone to tipping over, falling back into natural feudalism. But a machine so vastly better at reifying human potential that you and I cannot even picture the way our ancestors lived. It's like another species, another world.

Stefan Jones said...

I guess the Bush administration got tired of trying to suppress and pervert NASA's discoveries about global warming:

NASA’s Goals Delete Mention of Home Planet

***
From 2002 until this year, NASA’s mission statement, prominently featured in its budget and planning documents, read: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers ... as only NASA can.”

In early February, the statement was quietly altered, with the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet” deleted. In this year’s budget and planning documents, the agency’s mission is “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”

David E. Steitz, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said the aim was to square the statement with President Bush’s goal of pursuing human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars.

But the change comes as an unwelcome surprise to many NASA scientists, who say the “understand and protect” phrase was not merely window dressing but actively influenced the shaping and execution of research priorities. Without it, these scientists say, there will be far less incentive to pursue projects to improve understanding of terrestrial problems like climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

* * *

With the EPA run for the convenience of industry, forestry, and mining interests, I guess Mother Nature will have to pull her own weight . . . she's just a goddamn Welfare Queen when you think about it.

Fhydra said...

Umm... Brin, monkyboy wasn't the one who said that the Enlightenment was part of human nature. I did. However, I did not say that it came from our basic human nature. The phrase "basic human nature" didn't even appear in this thread until you said it.

But you're probably right about that. The idea of the Enlightenment probably came from an advanced human nature, one that's more mature, logical, and excited about progress. But it is still human nature. And as I said before, you should not declare human nature, our humanity, as an enemy, when it could possibly be the only thing that would save the machine of modernism from, as you say, our basic human nature.

I hate to say it Brin, but I think you've caught a bad meme. You seem to be saying that the ideas of the Enlightenment are so advanced, so mature, and so logical that they couldn't have possibly come from us primitive mammal-humans. They had to have come from something better than a man. Perhaps you could say... a superman.

And I would not go down that path. That's just another path laced with romanticism. It's much better hidden, but it's there, and the outcome of that path might even be worse than all your previous examples of romanticism.

monkyboy said...

I agree, fhydra.

Human brains haven't changed much in over 100,000 years.

It's a fair bet that there were a few societies in human history that managed to exceed Dr. Brin's upper-middle class SoCal suburban neighborhood in quality of life.

Even though they didn't have a Starbucks.

Francis said...

David,

First woould you mind getting my name right? Francis is the male variant and Frances the female one...

Secondly, I'm not American. Neither am I particularly leftist. Partly because over here, we have both a functional left (although it's suffered a long-term coup) and partly because (particularly at student level) we have a number of Trostkyite maniacs who are every bit as crazy as the loony right (and probably more vocal in the middle classes/student population).

On the other hand, many Americans take me as fairly far towards the left because my views approximate the (admittedly radical) centre-left in a country that's somewhat to the left of the US.

And I assume your example of left wing hypocricy is homosexuality.

Finally, from my understanding (correct me if I'm wrong), your reasons for identifying as a libertarian are somewhat romantic. The Libertarian Party has some good points to make, and you think that their existance is the symptom of a good thing. But you are somewhat ... disgruntled with the fundamentalist approach to their (admittedly good) ideas and want to give them greater depth and subtlety so they can impliment them.

My problem with that is that almost every fringe party of that sort does have a good idea at the core (we should end poverty and reduce inequality, we should save the environment, we should be proud of ourselves, [I could go on]). But that doesn't mean that diving in to a collection of fundamentalists is going to work or is even worthwhile.

palliard said...

@ Francis:

As one of those die-hard political fringe voters, perhaps I can explain it to you this way: come election time, I vote for the guy I want to win, and most people vote for the status-quo Ivy-educated business-friendly centrist nominated by the Demicans or the Republicrats, and call it the lesser of two evils.

Then they tell me that _I_ wasted my vote.

I am unconvinced that meaningful political change is going to emerge from the two-party system. There's no incentive for anyone directly involved to change anything.

Blake Stacey said...

Excellent! I'm glad to see that my guest post was able to provoke the same kind of arguments in the comment thread that all the other posts here have done. . . Ah, where would we be without repeatability?

My only nit is that (at least for me) the URLs I provided didn't show up in the posting. Here, then, are two pages from Alan Sokal's NYU website. First, this is "Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?" (PDF), and this is Meera Nanda's reply to her first critics (PDF), first published in the January--March 2005 Social Epistemology. The enlightening give-and-take in the latter is shorter and cheaper than the original book.

Melissa said...

David,

Have you read "The Physics of Superheroes" by James Kakalios?

I've seen it advertised but have not seen a copy yet.

monkyboy said...

Cool paper, Blake.

Let's not forget, though, that science is actually a filter.

Science forces us to ignore things that are one-offs or are truly stochastic in nature.

Yet these things do occur.

Think of science as a soccer referee that catches most of the big things (goals) in a game, but keeps missing the smaller penalties that continually occur behind his back.

Think of the backers of psuedoscience as the fans who see all these unflagged penalties happening...

And as I said before, the only difference between the Big Bang Theory and the Bigfoot Theory is the amount of the funding they get...neither are real science.

Francis said...

Science forces us to ignore things that are one-offs or are truly stochastic in nature.

Tell it to the people trying to model the Big Bang and the quantumn theorists.

David Brin said...

Actually, monkyboy, you have been most helpful by very well illustrating the problem. You have just demonstrated a very clear LACK of understanding of what science is and how it works.

As a market system, science is based upon sompetitive truth-finding. That means that some bright graduate student who detects a one-off does NOT look away from it with a grouchy sniff. Yes, many will do that, but SOME bright postdoc or hungry assistant prof will see not an offensive disparity...

...but a potential career opportunity.

The reflex of romantics is to perceive things of the Enlightenment in romantic terms. Hence scientists are portrayed as authority figures and turth arbiters, like priests and wizards. And because Suspicion of Authority is seen as one of the modern Good Things, science is thus a stodgy authority to be resisted.

Post-modernism attacks it on all fronts. From "there are many truths" and it's all bullying with texts" to "science misses all sorts of things that eastern mysticism perfectly understands."

But those eastern mystics... and shamans and herbal doctors and such... used the same human brains, over thousands of years, to watch for corelations and repetitions that could be gathered into lore. Indeed, REPEATABILITY is their claim as well! So it's not about one-offs, after all!

Except that they were vastly less efficient, taking tousands of years to accumulate some half-truths that we are now exploring with PET scans. I do NOT say this in order to denigrate! In many ways we are standing on their shoulders... and alchemy and astrology... because it took millennia to gather the tools to be ready for the leap.

The point is that science is vastly more egalitarian and less authoritarian than nearly all of those old priesthoods and such. Want to see a guru? Look at secretive, nasty, vicious, close-minded, and patronizing YODA!

See more in STAR WARS ON TRIAL... hot in the stores this week.....

;-)

monkyboy said...

...but a potential career opportunity

True, no different than the thousands of Rush Limbaugh wannabes who spew illogical crap, not because they actually believe it, but because they see a potential career opportunity.

There's nothing very complex or romantic about naked greed.

The trouble is, these fools (scientific or political) used to provide some entertainment value.

I kinda miss ol' Kreskin...

http://tinyurl.com/jfsov

The Big Bang and Higgs boson guys lack his showmanship.

David Brin said...

What's interesting here, folks, is that he's not even REMOTELY interested in perceiving anything new. Sigh and alas. It must be nice to be so sure.

monkyboy said...

Sorry you feel that way, Dr. Brin.

I enjoy reading your posts and I do try to learn from them.

Here's what I think I've learned:

Some bad guys are trying to take over the country using the following methods to defend themselves from exposure and counterattack:

1. They hide stuff from public scrutiny.

2. They spread disinformation.

3. They try to destroy the very yardsticks we use to measure success and failure with.

The first two methods are straightforward, but the third one is kinda tricky. Once they get something going that gains them power or money, like the Iraq war, they defend it by:

a. Making many different predictions, ignoring the ones that were wrong and playing up the few that were right.

b. Making very vague predictions that can be interpreted as accurate no matter how things turn out.

c. Making predictions that are far off in the future to ensure years of money or power flows to them before any judgement has to be made.

d. If all else fail, just by claiming they need more time before their predictions come true.

I think if we want to win this battle, we have to fight everyone who uses these methods, not just the ones we disagree with.

Rik said...

One could get mean, paraphrase old Fishbone and sigh: 'give a monkey a brain and he thinks he's a boy'.

If I'm a scientist worthy of the name scientist & I dismiss your theory, it's not because it isn't "widely accepted", but because mine 1) explains more, and 2) predicts more. Of course I must provide proof in the real world or models (testing, experiment). This makes some things, like psychology, much more of an Art (not to mention weather science (read: climatology)), but so what? Let's call this the Deutsch Criterium, after scientist David Deutsch (Fabric of Reality).

Rob Perkins said...

Now then:

There's "science", that is, the methodology of advancing observations, finding patterns, and testing them. Every third grader I know is taught that.

Then there's "science", that is, the institutions of research and higher learning, and the infrastructures of funding and provisioning, in which hungry postdocs and assistant professors seek and find their career opportunities.

A question often worth asking is: How many of those obscure scientists see their ideas quashed by other "scientists" in positions of authority in their institutions, because of this or that funding priority (we don't do cold fusion funding at all in this country, forex, because of that embarrassment years ago at the University of Utah, and this in spite of the fact that failures also teach us things about science!) or because even with a decent hypothesis the idea "doesn't seem fruitful"?

Is it a market system? I dunno; there might be elements of meritocracy in it, but you still have to get your ideas past the priesthood of science journal editors. One hopes that those editors adhere to an ethic of meritocracy, but there are plenty of sour-grapes stories refuting the idea, and there is also the simple truth that there are more papers than time to read them, I'm sure.

(If they'd only stop spending money on paper, and spend it on websites and *more editors* instead, I wonder if there'd be a net gain there.)

It's not helped, furthermore, by the popular elevation of scientists as modern priests, appealed to by journalists, educational filmmakers, and trial lawyers alike in furthering their ends in their fields, touting the pronouncements of scientists as proof of one truth or another. In other words, we chose scientists to take the place of priests, after we chose a relatively secular society. So in a way the pattern continues as it ever has.

David Brin said...

Monkyboy said: “I think if we want to win this battle, we have to fight everyone who uses these methods, not just the ones we disagree with.”

Agh! And you zero in on SCIENTISTS as prime examples of this?

Scientists are the only clade of human beings in all of human history who are relentlessly drilled with the lesson of human self-deception and delusion. They are the only group subjected to intense training in methodologies for testing assumptions and evaluating whether perceived corelations are merely subjective wish-fulfillments or have some objective repeatability.

Above all, since it is blatantly obvious that all of this training WILL NOT MAKE MUCH DIFFERENCE ANYWAY (human nature will trump “objectivity” every time), the scientific PROCESS has been set up to promote relentless and ferocious reciprocal criticism. The archetype of accountability, with physical nature as the ultimate critic.

It is this very process that the neocon mystics most despise in their “war on science”. It is why they dismantled Congress’s independednt scientific and technical advisory apparatus. (And it is why liberals should make science and the beleaguered military heroic victims to be rescued, not enemy classes.)

Is this process of scientific objectivity-testing perfect? Of course not! It needs (and receives) copntinuing criticism and improvement. And thus, I am happy to listen to suggestions how it can be made even better. Improvements in cross-checking and critical methodology are implemented all the time.

But to fail to recognize that science is VASTLy more self-critical and mature than ANY other field of human endeavor? Failing to note this pure fact only demonstrates deeply, deeply profound ignorance about science. No longer a benign error, this ignorance constitutes a damnable failing of modern citizenship. And I mean that.

(Dig it. Science INVENTED effective criticism of authority! Top nobelists still act like high priests, true, because that kind of psychological crap is in our blood. But in science, that kind of pomposity makes them targets in the eyes of the best grad students. What more can you ask for?

(Indeed, this is the very reason that I became a scientist myself! What? You think it was easy? I was born to be an artist! My family background and upbringing and talents were those of a romantic poet and raving author. But I put all of that on hold, in order to pursue a craft that was vastly harder for me. Because I looked around and realized -- ALL other civilization had art! Art is easy!!!! But only one civilization ever invented honesty... and assigned a million skilled people to strive to implement it, over the raging objections and resistance of human nature. Wow! I wanted to be part of that. And I was... for a while.)

No, this “high priests” bullshit is part and parcel of the antimodernist rant that pervades BOTH the left and the right.

Which brings us back to: “I think if we want to win this battle, we have to fight everyone who uses these methods, not just the ones we disagree with.”

Har. Try applying this to nonsensical mania of the left!

Just yesterday I attended a Peace Rally in my district (the infamous CA 50th) a sparse desultory thing, devoid of hope or ideas, and talked with (or tried to) the ultra-liberal democratic Congressional candidate trying to unseat the monstrous Daryl Issa in the district next door. I came away depressed by her inability to even contemplate reaching out to the better/smarter conservatives in a district that was gerrymandered to BE a district of and for conservatives. (Trying to promote Santa Monica liberalism in such a district is a betrayal, since it guarantees Issa perpetual sinecure, when we might be saved if the democrats ever pushed Murtha types here.)

Wandering away, my son and I dropped by the Paranoia Table, heaped with books and CDs ranting an almost infinite range of 9/11 conspiracy theories. Including that horrific example of leftwing Big Lie dizziness, “Loose Change.” The goggle-eyed woman behind the table lectured me about the “burning temperature of kerosene” and told me that she was the one who clued the Loose Change guys in to the REAL fate of flight UA 93... that it was landed at NASA Lewis Center in Ohio and the passengers quietly disposed of so that a crash could be faked in Pennsylvania... (huh?)

Allow me to cite a person who deserves great respect, because he comes to this blog and has the guts to slug it out.

“I think if we want to win this battle, we have to fight everyone who uses these methods, not just the ones we disagree with.”

Mark said...

We need to accept the reality of the perception of science. Most on this list understand the fundamental difference between scientists and high priests, but I think it is perfectly understandable that most people do not. All the average person sees from both types is a bunch of elite men debating amongst themselves and preaching to the masses below. The average person is no more likely to test for neutrino mass than get a one and one interview with God; ultimately they are asked to just trust the elite men to get the answers correct.

This is a problem and one not easily solved, particularly in a way that does not attack the high priests; if forced to choose between the two the priests probably win.

I'm often accused of only believing in that which can be directly observed. Even ignoring the fact that most modern science is several steps away from 'direct' observation, this isn't true. I believe in many, many things that are not observed and are not directly supported by science.

Love. Truth. Happiness.

But I do not believe in anything in direct opposition to scientific understanding. I can never seem to get across this critical difference.

Big C said...

monkyboy said:
"Science forces us to ignore things that are one-offs or are truly stochastic in nature."

Science does not force us to ignore either of these things. Even "one-off" events that occurred in the past leave effects behind that can be observed to infer what happened. Isn't the Big Bang such a "one-off" event? And scientists continually study stochastic processes using statistics.

"Think of science as a soccer referee that catches most of the big things (goals) in a game, but keeps missing the smaller penalties that continually occur behind his back.

Think of the backers of psuedoscience as the fans who see all these unflagged penalties happening..."


This is a flawed analogy. To use your metaphor, it's more like the soccer fans are screaming at the refs that they're missing all these unflagged penalties, so the refs set up extra video cameras and use instant replay to try and find what the fans are screaming about. When the video in fact doesn't show the penalties the fans claim are being missed, the fans blame the refs for being "dogmatic," "closed-minded," and "part of a conspiracy to make our team lose," for not accepting the fans' word over all the available evidence.

"And as I said before, the only difference between the Big Bang Theory and the Bigfoot Theory is the amount of the funding they get...neither are real science."

This is demonstrably false. The Bigfoot theory is not accepted because it has no credible evidence and none of its predictions have been confirmed.

The Big Bang Theory made a prediction that the birth of the universe would leave behind a background cosmic radiation signature. And that signature was found.

And scientists don't claim the Big Bang is 100% fact. It's a well supported theory because it can account for almost all astronomical observations with a coherent explanation. As soon as a better theory can explain more than the Big Bang does, it will supplant that theory, just as Einstein's general relativity supplanted Newtonian mechanics.

In contrast, the Bigfoot Theory (that such a creature exists) has had none of it's predictions confirmed. We've got grainy video and dubious footprints. We've been looking for Bigfoot for several years now. Shouldn't we have found Bigfoot droppings? remains? A live specimen? Are Bigfoots so stealthy that they can remove any trace of their presence in our forests (except for the aforementioned footprints and grainy video)? Or is there a simpler explanation? I'm not 100% sure Bigfoot doesn't exist, but I'm also not 100% sure the sun will rise tomorrow. But all the available evidence indicates I'm justified in confidently considering these things true until I see evidence to the contrary.

Rob said:
"Is it [science research] a market system? I dunno; there might be elements of meritocracy in it, but you still have to get your ideas past the priesthood of science journal editors. One hopes that those editors adhere to an ethic of meritocracy, but there are plenty of sour-grapes stories refuting the idea, and there is also the simple truth that there are more papers than time to read them, I'm sure."

These are valid concerns. Scientific research, like everything else, is a human endeavor carried out by humans. People can make mistakes and are biased and may reject good ideas out of hand. However, the process of science is set up to correct for the problems of human nature and self delusion; a point Dr. Brin has been hammering on.

Yes, a bright grad student may get his/her first paper rejected and his/her ideas dismissed. But that student can keep collecting evidence, doing more experiments, making more observations. He/she may come back with more data supporting the idea. There are also several relevant journals a paper can be submitted to.

I guess it's possible that every editor and peer reviewer in a given discipline could collude to reject a new idea, or, less conspirationally, they just all have the same biases such that they reject the new idea. I find this unlikely because scientists, like other groups, are a diverse group of people who all have different viewpoints. And they are taught to first and foremost consider the evidence for an idea above all else. Some of those reviewers are going to see through their biases.

Other researchers may set out to prove the idea wrong by replicating the experiments. It's possible an unscrupulous rival will forge results to discredit the idea, but it's less likely that all the grad student's colleagues and rivals will be similarly motivated to cheat; especially since they are all competing with each other, and the consequences of getting caught forging data are severe. Utimately the idea will be judged on the evidence, and will eventually get a hearing.

Admittedly, the process is not perfect. Some ideas may be unfairly rejected and/or neglected from study. But science is the best systematic process we've got for discovering new knowledge. Improvements are always possible, such as Rob's suggestion for bigger web publishing for journals.

Finally, Dr. Brin, allow me to take the contrarian position to your contrarian position about "human nature". I agree with fhydra that human nature is not the enemy. Haven't you always been saying that human nature is not a black/white, good/evil dichotomy? We are complex mixtures of good and bad impulses. The success of the Enlightenment (as you've said many times) is to foster our good impulses while canceling out our bad ones. Yes, we've always been cheaters at heart, but we've also been barterers at heart, willing to give and take.

Reciprocal altruism is as much a part of our makeup as the propensity to cheat when we can get away with it. The trick, as you mentioned in your horizon theory essays a few months ago, is to expand our view of who is in our "family," and thus worthy of that reciprocal altruism, to the limits of the entire human race and beyond.

The Enlightenment is special, and worthy of praise and defense against those who would destroy it, but it was just as much a product of "human nature" as the misery of our ancestors (and living fellow humans across the world) under feudal tyrants throughout history. Locke, Jefferson, Franklin, et al. were extraordinary, but they were still human. And they weren't perfect.

Rob Perkins said...

David,

The only point I really wanted to make is that scientists are people, and that because of that, whatever the ethic, the same sorts of feifdoms form in the population.

It wasn't meant to excuse institutions or arrangments where the feifdoms form faster.

David Brin said...

BigC you are right to remind me of earlier statements about the surprisingly positive parts of human nature. Indeed, those parts were essential in order for the Enlightenment Project to happen at all... even as a fluke and unlikely, lucky-chance emergent property, rather than a first order effect of human nature.

Indeed, I will go farther. I believe that one of the higher candidates for a "Fermi Paradox explanation" is that intelligent life does emerge many times across the galaxy... but that it destroys itself through lack of foresight and self-control. Either in self-imolation spasms or through whimpering decline and degradation into "intelligent" but grinding poverty on ruined worlds.

Yes, this is an old explanation, but I give it a twist. Because I think it possible that - despite our self-criticism (in fact, BECAUSE of it) - we may be among the few destined to cross this crisis quickly and arrive at a civilization that is truly worthy of the name.

Think of a sapient life form descended from bears, or tigers, or paranoid zebras. Could they, no matter how smart, show the complex MIX of gregarious and individualistic ... competitive AND cooperative... traits that give us our intellectual breadth and variability, out of which self-criticism and mutual accountability/creativity can arise?

Moreover, now posit that even WE fell into oversimplifying social patterns that quashed creativity and criticism, 99% of the time across our history! Nearly all human cultures, dominated by feudal elites, suppressed the ferment of reciprocal criticism that lets a culture find its mistakes in time.

Read Jared Diamond's COLLAPSE in order to see how frail we are to ecological error. Alas, Diamond's few "success stories" were also towering failures. For although they avoided eco-error, they did so by enforcing brutally conservative regimes, devoid of any ambition to grow and learn and improve. A wretched prescrtiption and if that is our only path to survival, I choose glorious collapse.

Hence, am I more pessimistic than Jared Diamond???? Perish the thought. And yet, in the context of the Fermi Paradox, it seems that I must be.

This fluke of ours, this project that arose out of the genius of Pericles and Locke and Franklin and million proud craftsmen, is very clearly an anomaly. Under the traditional and deeply human-nature driven social DIAMOND, the very best you could hope for was the genteel meritocratic imperium of Old China, in which Confucian noblesse oblige and civil service testing still allow a smidge of social mobility. That, certainly, is the vision updated by Lee Quan Yew in Singapore, and pursued by China today. It is the finest "pyramid" of them all, and they see it as the best "natural" human society. And they think we are quite mad. And they may be right.

But that path of theirs only slows down the grinding failure mode of genteel decline. I know this, because the stars tell me so. Because, blatantly and obviously, the Confucian pyramid is a social pattern that must have been tried many times among other life forms. It is a simple extrapolation of self-interest among rulers and ruled, after all. A little smarter than most feudal patterns. One can easily imagine it happening out there...

... because it happened (in various ways) so many times here! And here's the point.

The Fermi Paradox. The sky appears so empty. A Great Silence. Something is "wrong". There are many explanations. I am the one who has catalogued them, after all. But if this one is THE explanation ("Intelligence destroys itself") then the traditional pyramid - even the superior Confucian version CANNOT BE WORKING. It is obvious, pervasive, and the stars tell us that it must be wrong.

What might work is a gamble on something different. So different, so demanding, so "emergent" and contrary to FIRST ORDER animal nature that it was extremely rare on Earth, as it may have been rare across the galaxy.

Our new Experiment may be just that sort of thing. It is vibrant. It finds errors. It yells and spews noise, mixing individualism and community in chaotic ways, stirring cooperatin and competition in a vast brew. Oh it may be all wrong. It may be as awful, self-indulgent and immature as the Confucians - and the President of Iran - say it is...

...or it may be our hope. It may be THE hope of every race that is suffering and languishing out there in a desert of their own wastes... all of them in need of rescue, awaiting the first race to rise up enough to attain Star Trek levels of success, joy and generosity. What a fate for our descendants.

To go forth and rescue and teach them. What a destiny. Better than any portrayed in religion OR science fiction.

But...

...as I sit in this heat wave, I am left to wonder. ARE we smart enough? The Experiment is failing. Now, boys and girls. Right now, on the brink of our success. The neo-feudalists and their terrified-of-tomorrow allies are making their move. And the heat, the heat, this damned heat may be telling us that it is already too late.

I don't really believe that. I can't.

But oh, the irony. To have the tools in our hands. To ALMOST rise up and become the rescuers. The heroes that the suffering Milky Way eagerly yearns and waits for.

What a destiny that would be. So vastly more grand and fitting than anything told in Revelations! A destiny fitting of the Children of God. Apprentices, picking up His tools and setting forth to do high and noble work, both merciful and grand, making Him proud.

Oh, to have a destiny like that in our grasp... and to JUST miss!

That would be too painful. So very much worse than death.

david brin

Stefan Jones said...

"Just yesterday I attended a Peace Rally in my district (the infamous CA 50th) a sparse desultory thing, devoid of hope or ideas"

That is horribly discouraging. When a vital tool for expressing public concern and valid dissent is abandoned to the freaks who protest everything, we're in trouble.

Was it just the prospect of sons being drafted that got average Americans motivated enough to take to the streets during Vietnam?

Have we become complacent, media-addled couch potatoes, filtering out anything unpleasant?

Or so buffaloed by the ranters on the Right that we avoid doing anything that might get us marked as (gasp!) "hippies" or "not supporting the troops?"

* * *

Just saw DB's latest post.

Maybe it is time for a rub-our-noses-in -it SF novel about FAILURE? Unpleasant to write, but a great excuse to mercilessly skewer the bringers of folly . . .

monkyboy said...

rik,

David Deutsch? What about Karl Popper, who said they same thing earlier and better.

Big C,

I didn't say the Big Bang Theory isn't interesting, just that it isn't "science."

As for "pseudoscience," during my fifty trips around the sun, I have seen exactly two events that science can't even come close to explaining.

They didn't make me doubt science, they just made me very aware that science only works on a subset of reality.

Dr. Brin,

It's a little early in the game to accept the Fermi Paradox, isn't it.

Aren't people (and machines) still churning through the SETI data?

Big C said...

Dr. Brin, your points are well taken. I do see the principles of the Enlightenment as our best hope for the future. And I see those principles clearly under attack and losing ground today. Your response was eloquent, inspiring, thoughtful, but also ... just a bit romantic. And I don't think that's a bad thing! As you've said yourself, romantic ideas, of being a "chosen people" or being "destined for greatness" appeal to every human being on an instinctual level. If a speech like this stirs people to responsible action, I'm all for it.

However, I must point out that your scenario of the Enlightenment as this almost impossible rarest-of-rare events in human history, and the social diamond as an extremely fragile construct that might be destroyed at any second, glosses over a key observation.

As I mentioned before, as much as we are programmed for cheating and exploting others to secure the success of our offspring, we are also programmed for reciprocal altruism. We had a discussion about this last year on your blog regarding some primate studies that bear this out.

Of course, people will practice reciprocal altruism best when dealing with people they consider closest; within their tribe or family. The novel idea of the Enlightenment, to which we owe a great debt to those individuals of vision, was that reciprocal altruism, and accountability, should apply not only to one's closest relatives, but to the entire human race (and maybe even beyond that). That, in effect one's "tribe" is not their family, or close circle of friends, but in fact all of humanity.

As you discussed in your horizon theory essays, this idea grows and fosters best when people don't have to worry about the security and welfare of those closest to them. If I'm confident that my family has enough resources to prosper, and I see that we in fact have much more than the resources we need, I can lift my head up and see the plight of those people who are further away from me but in need of help.

It took a truly extraordinary group of individuals to recognize these principles and codify them, but once they did, these ideas caught hold and spread. Even now, with "neo-feudalist" tyrants trying to quash the Enlightenment, they must pay lip service to its ideals. They must use the language of freedom and accountability even if they don't believe in them. They must profess respect for science even as they try to corrupt its self-correcting methods. Because the Enlightenment was so successful and so appealing to our human instincts for fairness and reciprocal altruism, those who seek to destroy it cannot directly overthrow it, but rather must try to corrupt it from within.

The social diamond is fragile and it is in danger, but perhaps not quite so fragile as you suggest. Enlightenment principles do after all appeal to our innate sense of fairness. Even if we might all be cheaters and exploiters if we could get away with it, we do realize that cheating is bad. And if people can expand their horizons and really do start to view all of humanity as family ... well, there are severe consequences for a person who is caught cheating a brother, sister, or cousin.

But I do agree it took a leap to get us here. And that leap was the Enlightenment. And it seems that step hasn't been taken to where we've gotten at any other point in human history. But does that mean we enshrine the Enlightenment as a miraculous event that has almost religious significance (maybe even fixing its principles and lessons as immune from CITOKATE?)? Or might that path lead us back to yet another romantic dogma, with the same failure mode?

Big C said...

monkyboy said:
"I didn't say the Big Bang Theory isn't interesting, just that it isn't "science.""

And I refuted that assertion. Notice that my response wasn't about how "interesting" the Big Bang is, but rather what evidence has been collected for it, and why it is accepted as a scientific theory. Do you have a different definition of "science" than the one I'm familiar with? Correct me if you don't agree, but the basic process of science is:

1. Make some observations about an aspect of the universe.
2. Propose a hypothesis that explains these observations.
3. Propose a set of experiments or observations that would confirm or refute the hypothesis.
4. Perform the experiments or observations and check the results.
5. Accept or reject the hypothesis based on the results.
6. Repeat as new observations and data become available.

The Big Bang Theory has gone through all these steps and been accepted. It continues to survive as a viable theory because no evidence has been found to refute it and no better theory has been proposed. That meets my standard definition of "science." The Bigfoot Theory has gone throught these steps as well, but the results have been negative. Thus I provisionally reject Bigfoot and accept the Big Bang. I directly refuted your equivocation of the Big Bang and Bigfoot. Do you find a flaw in my reasoning?

In principle, the scientific method should work on any aspect of reality that can be observed and measured. We are limited in the tools we have to make measurements, so of course science cannot explain everything. However, science is the method we have that is least prone to human error and subjective bias. But it is not limited in the respect you alluded to in your soccer analogy.

monkyboy said...

Hehe, Big C.

I'm a steady state kinda guy.

Every morning I wake up and the universe is still there reinforces my theory much better than the Big Bang guys and their primitive clicks and whistles...and I didn't even need a $10 billion collider to get my data.

Rob Perkins said...

Do such novels sell? Maybe... Wasn't Asimov's Foundation series about such a failure?

Stefan Jones said...

in the 60s and 70s David Brunner wrote some wonderful, well-informed Awful Warning novels.

Some had hopeful endings, some ambiguous, some not.

Best sellers? Not sure, but they are very well respected.

_The Sheep Look Up_

_Stand on Zanzibar_

_Shockwave Rider_

DB's own _Earth_ is in the same genus as these sprawling, multi-perspective works.

Stefan Jones said...

"Every morning I wake up and the universe is still there reinforces my theory much better . . ."

O.K. . . . that's just pathetic.

Really.

Low-grade solipsistic inanity.

Note to self: quadruple number of grains of salt taken with anything monkeyboy writes.

David Brin said...

Now chill. Monkyboy teases us. Since DonQ lapsed, we have been poked by a new volunteer. Let us enjoy it, and smile.

Anyway, the universe teases us with notions of scale and continuity every singel day.

Tony Fisk said...

David,
Just to help restore your sense of perspective, we in Melbourne are complaining about the cold (and the dry! oh, the dry!)

Stefan: I wonder about protests, whether they're an accurate measure of discontent, or whether they're better thought of as an indicator of how much disgruntled folk think the government is willing to listen.

eg: just prior to the Iraqi invasion, Melbourne and Sydney staged the biggest anti-war protests since Vietnam (over 100,000 in each case).

The cries of dissent were ignored completely.

After the event, subsequent protests have been much smaller affairs, but I doubt those 2x100,000 people have suddenly seen the error of their ways!

I think they're just keeping their powder dry!

(and enduring the ache. oh, the ache!)

Rob Perkins said...

I prefer to think of the Big Bang as something quite distant and less relevant to daily life than, say, the weather.

It's interesting science, in that its research might uncover a new insight or two about physics every now and then, but probably won't shift paradigms in my lifetime.

Regarding ineffective protests, of course they were ignored. Seated governments have had 40 or more years to figure out how to coopt or route around street protests since the first ones were successful at molding public opinion.

monkyboy said...

I was kinda kidding you guys, Stepan, but consider:

One problem scientists haven't managed to solve yet: They still need a paycheck to support themselves and their families.

Assuming a constant funding level for science, every dollar that get spent on research equipment means there's one dollar less to hire scientists with.

The $10 billion we're spending on the Large Hadron Collider means roughly 10,000 fewer people can spend there lives working as scientists...

Is it worth the tradeoff?

Plenty of good science (perhaps the best) was done with very little funding...