Saturday, August 27, 2005

Scholarship vs Science

Quite some time ago, an august person on another list I'm on (a list dealing with future methods of philanthropy) posted an essay in praise of St. Johns College as an example of a great center of excellence. This triggered some thoughts I had to write respond with.

Now it occurs to me that some folks on THIS list might also want to see it. The following expresses some thoughts that will seem familiar to many of you. But I think the distinction between "scholarship" and "science" is still poorly understood.

And it is a crucial distinction, having much to do with why our present civilization has been able to break with dismal habits of the past.

Anyway, it is a bit of a rant. Ignore it, by all means, unless this sort of thing entertains you.



Great Books of the Western World

St. John's University deliberately designed their curriculum around the "Great Books of the Western World", the paramount product of decades of endeavor led by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler at the most unique major college in America, the University of Chicago. The same institution that fostered Leo Strauss after World War II -- the intellectual godfather of today's neoconservative movement.

Now, I own a set of the Great Books and refer to them often. I have no trouble with the notion that Western Civilization is worth fighting for and that it is important to maintain strong connections to that culture's roots, stretching back to Greece, Rome and so on.

Further, I will freely admit that St. Johns and the University of Chicago produce fine scholars. (Any well-funded institution that attracts passionate teachers will do the same, whatever their theory.)

But I want to say something about the Enlightenment, which is supposedly the underlying meme of Western Civilization. It took many strange paths. The French branch is a perfect example of what can go wrong. Starting with the radicalism of the French Revolution, it aimed at huge reforms, liberating the individual from domineering institutions like monarchy, aristocracy and clergy.

But it veered off course by returning to the ancient habit of subservience. Having abandoned kings and clergy, the French transferred habitual reverence to a different class of professionals -- elitist scholars.

Though democratic in theory, French society is even today dominated by graduates of the Grand Ecoles who - whether they go into the government bureaucracy, the arts & sciences, or commerce - are considered an elevated order of being. They can do no wrong. Yes, aristocratic status is achieved meritocratically (by test scores) instead of simply inherited. But it still amounts to fostering an ongoing, cohesive elite.

rationalists-descartes-discourse-on-method-meditations-spinoza-ethics-rene-paperback-cover-artMoreover, the French believe that they are spreading a better/preferred version of the Enlightenment, by emphasizing reason and a European philosophical tradition that began with Plato, more than 2500 years ago. A tradition that was built up through Descartes, Kant, Hegel and so on, through existentialism, and all sorts of other isms. Including those that post-modernists preach in hundreds of dismal humanities departments and those that Leo Strauss preached at the University of Chicago.

(Cautionary note. I livd in Paris for two years and I know full well that all generalizations suck. I know many French people who do NOT think this way. My generalization is about the turn taken broadly by that wing of the Enlightenment.)

The University of Chicago is by far the most European-style university in America, especially with its emphasis on producing “scholars” in a more traditional sense... savants who win point by CITING prior savants. Sages who are thoroughly well-read in classics and grounded in the Platonic tradition, under which Reason is perceived as the opposite of

But here's the crux. Reason is not the opposite of superstition. It is a BRANCH of superstition. The French Enlightenment, the European  philosophical tradition, and scholasticism in general, are dangerously self-indulgent styles of mysticism that have (thanks heavens) very little to do with OUR branch of the Enlightenment. Or at least with its better and most successful aspects.

Freud and Marx (and Ayn Rand, for that matter) were among countless examples of once-promising intellects who got suckered down the ego driven paths of mystical shamanism, emphasizing incantations over experimentation. Guru-worship over the brash criticism of post-docs. Simpleminded "reason" over facing the true complexity of human nature.

In contrast, the Anglo-American Enlightenment, typified by Franklin, Madison, Lincoln, Wilson, Edison and Marshall, is not without idealism. But it is idealism rooted in a worldview that is fundamentally pragmatic.

Your goal is to find practical ways to get the most positive-sum games going for the most people, most of the time. And you do not let dogma stymie you from trying whatever may work, whether it is altering market rules to foster vigorous competitive creativity, or experimental education, or state
intervention to stop millennia of waste by letting children or all races and genders compete on a level
playing field.

Above all, you PRAGMATICALLY seek ways to overcome the one worst aspect of human nature...

...the one trait responsible for most of our tragedies...

...our propensity for self-deception.


Yes, this was in many ways repetitious of earlier rants... so I'll stop here. There was more. But maybe I'll post it in following commentary.


Anonymous said...

Greetings, Dr. Brin. Long time fan and reader of your work, first time commenter.

I also own a set of the Great Books, and would not want to be without them. I'm also aware that they contain a great deal of nonsense.

I think I see what you mean about "reason." The problem is that people use this word to mean [b]anything[/b] other than pure mysticism, including scientific empiricism. But, if I follow you correctly, you mean that "reason" is something like "Let's assume A; therefore B and C." (With A not being established, and the "fact" that A and B lead to C being assumed.)

It's interesting to see you mention Ayn Rand. I just finished reading [i]Anthem[/i]. Wow, a satiric dystopia without a trace of wit or humor. Anyway, it's ironic to see that Rand, the uber-individualist, is now the icon for a cult of personality not too different from that which surrounds her arch-enemies, the heroes of collectivism.

I'll stop rambling and just say "Keep up the good work!"

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Brin,

I'm here because I'm French and I wanted to give you my opinion about the French Enlightment.

I agree with every single word of the paper you quoted.


Wilson Kerby said...

Marvelous post. French "reason" is literacy-based, thus the intellectual elite. Kieran Egan in "The Educated Mind" does a wonderful job of laying out the traps of written language and the deceptions it hides.
The Enlightenment is gnostic. "I have access to the raw Truth, but you do not, because you do not possess my academic experience."
Classical mysticism, not the popular form, is agnostic; i.e. the raw Truth is unknowable. My humble view is that most of my self-deceptions lie in what I "know" versus what I am seeking. Same with George Bush.
I blog about this issue and its application to teaching. Request permission to quote. Link to your blog sufficient attribution?

Rob Perkins said...

I had a philosophy teacher at BYU who made that distinction between "science" and "scholarship" and warned his students not to conflate the two. Good to see others have similar taxonomies, IMO.

Anonymous said...

In fact, the French situation is wacky. I'll try to clarify.

You all are criticising the "Reason" as defined by the dominating "French Intellectuals", which are mainly "social science" guys and litterary intellectuals.

But. There is another part of the French population, engineers, scientists, citizens, who has a worldview closer to the Anglo-American's.

Sadly, it's rather a minority : in France people despise science, especially "hard" science... I happened to be a "hard sciencer" during my studies, so I know a big deal about that.

In my humble opinion, the current state of "Reason" in France is a complete betrayal of Descartes's legacy. Just check his book, "Discours de la méthode" to see how it was pragmatic, not scholar.

Anonymous said...

" . . . the paramount product of decades of endeavor led by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler . ."

Argh . . . Adler.

I have respect for books and peoples' feelings for books. A few years back, my father gave me a pile of stuff he'd picked up at The Strand that he'd thought I'd like. One of them was a Mortimer Adler book whose title I forget, but it was a slender paperback about the organization of knowledge. Triviums and quintiums and so on. I felt obligated to read it. Again, respect . . . when you start a book, you should finish it.


Oh, man.

I tried. I really, really tried. But man, what insufferable, lofty, useless twaddle!

I remember thinking, before I gave up: "If this is what educational theorists are up to these days, it is time to turn teachers' colleges into homes for special needs adults and put the students to work as teacher's assistants so they can learn on the job."

Now, the capper. A few months back ther was a discussion about home schooling on Slashdot. I don't have strong feelings about this subject but pointed out that there are some subjects that simply don't lend themselves to home schooling.

One reply was highly revealing. Without replying to my point, he crowed about the virtues of home schooling, and linked to a jargon-laden site touting emphasis on the great books and a return to the good old days of the Triviatum and Quatrivirium and such rot.

David Brin said...

Quick responses before I post the conclusion to the St. Johns article here... in comments... (I think this is a good way to post an over-long rant. Those who are really interested can find the conclusion here.)

1. You may cite my postings here and quote from them. Just be sure and note that you tried to retain context... but may not have succeeded.

2. Good posts! As you’ll see below, some of you anticipated my final points.

Let me riff on science/falsifiable-pragmatism vs scholarship/incantatory-reason. I do not claim that all scholarship is invalid! History is 90% scholarship... though the 10% empirical part is what keeps it from being “bunk.”

The queen of Reason is mathematics, a logical system so rigorous and testable and well-designed - and well-corelated with the real world - that it can be mistaken for science. Still, we physicists know that mathematicians are our mad priest-cousins. And we must always take some care while listening to their incantations.

3. Thank you, Nao, for the French scientific perspective. My best friend over there is a graduate of Ecole Polytechtnique, and thus treated as a demigod... and he hates that. He is a proud engineer.

FOLLOWUP Conclusion on Science vs Scholarship:

I spoke about the desperate need to come up with means to overcome the human propensity for self-delusion.

When it comes to this absolute top-priority Enlightenment goal, the tool that has worked best is science. Because even when it is wrong - even when delusional 'experts' persuade their peers to accept some wrongheaded paradigm - that domineering paradigm nevertheless sows the seeds of its own destruction by fresh armies of rebellious grad students.

Not so with scholasticism, which rewards guru-worship and relentless extension of already-accepted incantations. Let there be no mistake. Science is not a cousin of scholasticism. It is the opposite.

Likewise, the real purpose of studying our past "Great Books" is not to idolize past thinkers or to win arguments by citing them. (The way "great books" are used in most scholarly traditions, ranging from Confucianism to Classicism to most forms of philosophy.)

No, we need to immerse ourselves in the foundation literature of Western Civilization and read the Great Books of the Western World for an entirely different reason. In order to study the MISTAKES they contain, the tragedies those brilliant and often well-meaning authors unknowingly caused, delusions they crafted and mental errors they made.

By probing the roots of our cultural history, we can (pragmatically) learn more failure modes to avoid.

(Paul Wolfowitz and many of the other Straussian neoconservatives urge that we should all read Thucydides. By all means! Let's ALL read Thucydides... especially the portions that describe how Athens, arrogant at her very zenith, spurned her allies and embarked on needless, faraway military adventures that sapped her strength, substituting bullying for subtlety. Read about a fellow named Wolfo-- I mean Alcibiades... and shiver at how quickly golden (delusional) hopes can fail.)

Above all, we do need to read the classics in order to thoroughly criticize and understand that miserable, deceitful grouch, Plato, whose hatred of democracy and citizenry and openness and science carried down through Hegel etc to inspire Marx and Hitler and most of the ideologues who made the last century a living hell.*

I've gone on too long. So let me finish with the normal caution (as I have before) that you not read into this anything so simpleminded as a "left-right" diatribe. The modernist agenda of the Anglo-Saxon Enlightenment is just as despised by the postmodernist "left", which rails against science just as loudly as anybody on the "right".

For every grouchy, right-wing Fukayama and Bloom, there is some insipid, recidivist crypto-Marxist infesting a humanities department, pushing twisted versions of Platonic mysticism on impressionable young minds. Only these lefties are different in one crucial way. They have no real power. It’s an important difference.

What I am asking for is an effort to step outside the traditional axis and realize that BOTH political wings are rife with "scholars" who share far more traits than separate them. And first among those shared (shamanistic) traits is an elitist hatred of the pragmatic men and women who made this country great.


* (The following is cribbed from:

Ironic? That Strauss should have lectured for decades about the intellectual faults and failures of a country and society that rescued him, sheltered, fed and pampered him? That tormented, dogma-wracked Europe should dare -- right after WWII -- to preach at happy, progressive, tolerant and pragmatic America?

Yet, Strauss's followers gobbled up a fervidly romantic nationalism -- cosmetically americanized -- but modelled on the same thought patterns that had turned the Old World into a living hell while making Strauss a homeless exile.

That is what Platonists do. They talk you into believing that black is white and then paying them for the privilege.

David Brin said...

Oh, Rob, feel free to weigh in on Mormonism some time, a religion that has some theological implications that are positively sciencefictional! (See the story "Stones..." at

Some people have tried to ridicule Intelligent Design by pushing the cult of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (see Wikipedia) as a satire. This is cute but it does not threaten these people with a plausible "equal time" worry.

But Mormonism could. Because Mormons can say: "Why stop Intelligent Design with this Earth and this cosmos? Clearly God is and was a complex system, vastly too intricate to have evolved naturally. He, too, must have had a Creator. Or at least that is what we believe... so we insist upon inclusion of Intelligent Design of Intelligent Designers!"

Now, of course, The Mormon Church will never do this. They have been soft-pedaling all the sciencefictional aspects of the faith for decades, in favor of eagerly trying to be accepted as another branch of Conservative Protestantism.

Still, a GROUP of Mormons could do this. It would use every line of the fundamentalists reasoning AGAINST them, and raise a spectre of a truly plausible competitor being raised with equal status in every class where ID is discussed!

Think about it. By their very own chain of reasoning, the origins of the originator become a legitimate concern! A flaw in their own theory and a topic worthy of both doubt and discussion. One example out of countless many (e.g. the cyclical universes of the Hindus and Mayans.)

They may object. They will. So? Fair play and doubt, the weapons they have used against science, can be double edged.

Time to bring it on.

David Brin said...

Good points. After long pondering, I have concluded that no individual human being can ever see through his or her own delusions. Hence CITOKATE (Criticism is the Only Known Antidote to Error) has become the aphorism that I push.

Or, in The Transparent Society, call it accountability.

Science does this inherently. But I have tried to generalize the process. For a rather intense look at how "truth" is determined in science, democracy, courts and markets, see the lead article in the American Bar Association's Journal on Dispute Resolution (Ohio State University), v.15, N.3, pp 597-618, Aug. 2000, "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit." or at:

(Many of you have already seen this paper.)

Anonymous said...

How odd that those French scholars seem to willingly put themselves in the position of the average common person - who isn't a scientist. Like me. I don't have a laboratory, not of any kind. If I wanted to disprove some guys theory, I couldn't because I don't have the equipment. Like most people, I rely on scientists or even scholars for an opinion on so many hard to understand subjects. I have never searched for fossils or dug up some neanderthals bones or analized someones DNA or let subatomic particles collide in an accellerator. This is beyond me.

Isn't it a good thing that scientists criticize each others theories, because nobody else can.

Rob Perkins said...


Re Mormonism: I know you've been to the BYU campus etc now and then for the Science Fiction Symposia held there (still being held there?)

So, you've met a few of us and conversed with a few of us, including some friends of mine.

But "Intelligent Design of Intelligent Designers?"

Ho boy. We might as well declare Orson Scott Card's aiúas Mormon Doctrine, if that's the case.

To the first: I like the "Stones..." story, but I note that it contains a tired old misconception and at least two misunderstandings about the scope and results of proxy ordinance work. (The basic facts appear consistent with a major branch of folk-Mormonism, but the assembled thought is just not correct because it fails to incorporate other facts about it. But it does betray those conversations you’ve had.)

And, I note that the notion of “Intelligent Design of Intelligent Designers” has never been canonized. Therefore, in the first place, the “Mormon Church” hasn’t got any responsibility or mandate to defend or teach it, and there aren’t enough Mormons, even in Utah, to call for such a thing.

To the second, you've got to be kidding! That “softpedal” has to do with getting on and doing good with the civilization we’re in; there are pragmatic social and behavioral issues on which there are congruencies, to be sure, but ask a well-informed *Christian* sometime if he thinks the Mormons are One of Them.

Plus, I mean really, think about it: Who is going to give you the time of day to hear your worldview if you *start* with the stuff that gets instantly misunderstood?

Bear in mind, too, that this is a Church which runs a university system with roughly 40,000 students, and satellite curriculum programs at most major universities in the U.S. and Canada. (And a marvelously optimistic "perpetual education fund" for people in developing nations, look into that!). At each university, evolution *and* Evolution *must be taught* both for accreditation reasons and because the Trustees insist anyway.

Canonically, the Church has no official position at all on organic evolution (seperate from a question about the origins of man), except to encourage scientists in a passive kind of way to keep at it, or to hang it up and wait for God to explain it to us. A friend of mine compiled this about the subject. It's a far cry from Conservative Protestantism.

In those statements, you'll find an interesting nuance as well which informs the Church's position on the abortion controversy. That, too, is something of a far cry from Conservative Protestantism’s absolutist shibboleths.

And in any case, examine the religious affiliations of Democrats in the Senate and House. Or, if you're also willing, Orrin Hatch's position on embryonic stem cell research.

You're in for a perhaps comforting surprise or two about a Church you've ignorantly labeled as wanting to be a branch of "Conservative Protestantism". I’ve said it elsewhere before: Bush’s factions want us in Hell.

And, since I consider my religion modernist almost to the core, I'll probably have interesting things to say about your religion essay, so, if you please, hurry with that.

Anonymous said...

"Good points. After long pondering, I have concluded that no individual human being can ever see through his or her own delusions."

I disagree. What is testing all about? If a person believes that one ethnicity is inferior/inhuman and then meets a member that disproves this (I read an essay some time ago called "Why I quit the clan" that talks about this) then they can change their mind.

If you beleive that you can control gravity with your thoughts, then test it.

Carl Sagan's "The Demon Haunted World" contains a case of a person who believed that they could project themselves into the future and who eventually snapped out of it (while his therapist was starting to believe.)

Hell, John Nash in the book "A Beautiful Mind" slowly "woke up" from schizophrenia.

Lastly, how many devout Marxists have changed their minds about communism by going to the U.S.S.R. and seeing it with their own eyes?

Criticism has it's own place, and self-deception can be pernicious, but let's not assumed that the individual is doomed. Isn't that what science is all about? Test your ideas, then abadon them if necessary.


Mike Huben said...

Along the similar lines, several years ago I wrote skeptical criticisms of common usage of logic and rationality as rhetorical devices.

When science students ask me about what science is, I point out that science is not about truth. We'll never really know any truth. But what we do have in science is honesty: we can say honestly how well our theories fit our observations and how others can confirm the honesty of those claims.

The "scholarship is not science" point is tremendously important: any number of frauds (such as creationists) are scholarly, but not scientific.

Anonymous said...

I tend to disagree with the Great Books approach to education myself, though for different reasons. I don't think that teaching from the earliest available sources on a topic is good pedagogy. Try learning classical mechanics from Newton's Principia -- it's not really possible.

Rob Perkins said...

Another note. DB wrote:

"For every grouchy, right-wing Fukayama and Bloom, there is some insipid, recidivist crypto-Marxist infesting a humanities department, pushing twisted versions of Platonic mysticism on impressionable young minds. Only these lefties are different in one crucial way. They have no real power. It’s an important difference."

Um, excuse me? Sitting in tenure in a department at a university which accreditation boards require all students to pass through, that's not real power?

They might not have the guns, sure. But what they *do* have is influence over our *kids*.

David Brin said...

99% of kids pass near these jerks and merely grow stronger (or else more calloused). Only 1% are permanently affected...

... and half of those do NOT become copies of these dopes. Half, in fact, become radicalized simpletons in the OTHER direction. Perpetually seething at ridiculous caricatures. How else do you explain Ann Coulter?

Look, I have my own bone to pick with the crypto marxist postmodernist slime molds who conspire together to make little Nomenklatura Socialist Republics out of most English, Sociology and Lit departments. Their anti-future mania has resulted in SCIENCE FICTION - the truest and most daring and most american of all literary genres - being banished from any serious discussion.

The SF instructor on each campus (and boy do they need him!) is never granted tenure. Only two dozen campuses have escaped this outrage.

Oh, I hate em. But I refuse to exaggerate in my mind their power. They are insipid little whiners. And the only real harm they do is:

1. by serving as poster boys of bad liberalism, giving the "L Word" a bad name (when it actually is the source of 90 out of America's 100 greatest accomplishments.)

2. allowing moderate conservatives to inflate these jerks, so that conservatives can convince themselves that "the Left would be even worse than my own monsters."

Ain't so. They are bozos. And all of them put together cannot do as much harm as Rummy does in any given day.

Anonymous said...

Brin said: " SCIENCE FICTION - the truest and most daring and most american of all literary genres - "

Am reading Jack Williamson's autobiography [a gift from my uncle, who served in the Army with Williamson during WWII] and just finished to the part where he first encounters the pulp mag "scientifiction" of the day.

Considering H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Karel Capek I guess it's not UNIQUELY American [and Brin didn't claim that], but reading Williamson's recollection of how and why "scientifiction" so gripped him suggests how VERY American it is.

Rob Perkins said...

Is that "99%" verifiable in any quantitative way?

In any case, knowing what I do of university sophistries, and how very hard they are to deconstruct in a way that gets kids out of their thrall, I'd still hate for my daughters to be among those brainwashed by a loony English prof. And, a bro-in-law of mine recently failed a political science class, he says for ignoring the opinions his prof had on U.S. Foreign Policy.

Rummy is term-limited. Three and a half years from now he'll be a consultant again. Or retired; he *is* in his 70's, isn't he?

In contrast, goofballs like Ward Churchill are tenured. Far harder to get them fired in the next four years, even if they took a hit or two they're not completely gone.

(Though, in the case of Ward Churchill, I say let him keep talking...)

I can't explain Ann Coulter. Don't know if I really *want* to. (shudder) Just back away slowly and don't break eye contact...

Rob Perkins said...

Argh, it only now occurs to me that you were suggesting something philosophically equivalent to challenge the ID stuff.

Figures I'd get my buttons pushed and miss the whole point. Mea culpa, and now it makes a marvelously interesting idea to me, to suggest that ID of ID-ers equivalence, even if it's no more than folk-doctrine among us Mormons.

But what you do by doing that is relegate the question of origins back to comparative religion, a think that's only palatable to me if we *also* discuss "godless" or "accidental" origins on the same footing, while leaving the fossil record and the suppositions-from-data as an element of that discussion, with the details over in the science lab.

(I don't get it, anyway: I spent my youth learning all about Evolution in school, and it never did any damage to *me* or to my religious faith to learn it. The teachers were even careful to say, "Some of you, maybe most of you confess a religion which denys some of the things we teach here, but that's fine with us." And then we spent time going over the evidence.)

Hmm. Dunno if I'll ever get a chance to be an activist for that sort of thing around here. I'm in Southwest Washington, and the school boards here are populated with an even mix of caring parent-types from across the political spectrum, who reach consensus on almost all these sorts of things. And who really resent it when an idealist rams a State or Federal law down their throats requiring this or that bit of curriculum. Especially when they don't actually also fund it.

I suppose I could stump for school board, tho that *is* a grand painintheneck that could reduce the quality of time I have with my own kids. It's a balance game, to be sure!

Ben Tilly said...

I am irritated at one trend that I see in many of the responses.

People point to literature, philosophy, etc and say how awfully they do things, and point to science for a contrast. With the underlying messsage being, How can they (in this case French academics) do things so stupidly?

This is more than halfway unfair.

As Kuhn pointed out, a large part of what makes science special is that scientists usually agree on how to judge contributions. Not always - infamously during paradigm shifts they don't, and often two groups of scientists speak past each other - but for the most part they really do agree on standards of enquiry. This leads to a shared world view and visible results that everyone agrees constitutes progress. The shared world view is quite demonstrable, for instance its existence makes possible the serial pricing crisis that In Oldenburg's Long Shadow talks about. And conversely the non-existence of a similar world view in the social sciences keeps it from happening there. (Search for "social science" in that document to get to the section that mentions that no shared world view can be documented in the social sciences.)

However what is special is not really the process that they use (which, incidentally, doesn't really match the popular descriptions very well), but the fact that science restricts itself to subjects that agreement can be reached on. From time to time hard scientists try to venture into foreign territory, like psychology, philosophy or religion. The results do not tend to be pretty. Conversely the social sciences are notorious for attempting to imitate how science works, with a notable lack of success.

Now it can always be claimed that the problem is with the people. And indeed some of the scientists who attempt to cross over can be regarded as flakes. (For instance Frank Tipler's Omega Point theory.) Likewise many of the social scientists who attempted to found their disciplines as a science, clearly didn't. (Example, Freud.) However a consistent history of failure suggests that there is something else going on, and I really believe that Kuhn put his finger on it by saying that it is the ability for a discipline to agree on a paradigm that makes it possible for that discipline to show the hallmarks that mark a science.

Note: Kuhn argued that we should not be always changing paradigms. This point seems to have been missed, in part because Kuhn's background in science made the point so obvious that he didn't waste much time in it, and in part because he was mostly read by social scientists and philosophers who had never experienced the power of unifying paradigms in their own fields.

Just as a random example, I've seen several make comments here based on Popper's famous falsification criteria for science. Which is a nice theory about how people might approach learning in a perfect world, but science doesn't work that way. Really. Most good scientific theories are wrong and known to be so as they are proposed. Science is about useful approximations (eg boundary layers in fluid mechanics), not ideal reality. Furthermore the theory of falsification is even falsified by parts of science that try to answer "ultimate questions". Einstein's theory of GR does not have any room for QM. Conversely QM when it was founded was known not to explain phenomena that were known about from GR. What Popper missed is that good theories are so hard to come by that you can't get rid of them just because they are known to be wrong. Instead you keep the useful ones and try to get an idea of how well they work.

(Ironic trivia. Karl Popper rejected Quantum Mechanics because a probabilistic theory was not amenable to falsifications. The double irony is that the technique that scientists use to statistically reason about probabilistic theories is closely related to falsification - they reject the theory if it makes the probability of the observations they get to be too unlikely. A triple irony is that many statisticians believe that this form of reasoning is fundamentally flawed - I won't explain that though, but you can look up Bayesian statistics if you're interested.)

So my point is that science is not better because it is a model for how to work. But science is better because it restricts itself to problems that are more tractable.

David Brin said...

I do not agree with this at all. (Though I do respect the well-spoken erudition and deeply knowledgable contribution.)

Science has entered all sorts of territories that WERE intractable and MADE them tractable, by gradually chipping away. (I portray this happening to the study of the human SOUL in Kiln People!)

What you are doing is obsessing on Kuhn and Popper -- and I am not saying that I don't do similar things! But you neglect to note how science deals with murky areas.

In fact, it allows LOTS of leeway for the speculative, for tinkering and poking. And yes, for using math and logic and reasoning and other kinds of voodoo guesswork and incantations, as well.

All it asks is that the DIRECTION be steadily toward falsifiable statements and improved predictability of outcomes. A lot of stumbling around is just part of the slop. And the human tendency toward willfull delusion and wishful thinking are taken care of through CITOKATE.

You say: "So my point is that science is not better because it is a model for how to work. But science is better because it restricts itself to problems that are more tractable."

But this is simply and diametrically opposite to what's true.

Hey... dig it... I make my LIVING by using the old ways. By weaving spells and performing incantations and doing "reason". I am very very very good at the old ways. And in fact I use them in service of a scientific age that has (Thank God) pushed those old ways back a bit.

We will never push them away completely. I don't WANT to! But as much as possible must be done to ensure that honesty replaces magic where it matters most.

Ben Tilly said...

Disagreement poses an opportunity to have a real discussion. However it also presents the potential of encountering conflicting self-reinforcing world views, in which case communication is unlikely. I hope we have the former.

I wouldn't say that I was obsessing on Popper and Kuhn. I brought up Popper because several others had brought up his ideas. I brought up Kuhn because he presented the ideas that I was interested in in a very memorable (if usually misunderstood) way.

First let give a link that summarizes my beliefs about how to best answer What do you know, and how do you know you know it? As I point out there, we tend to wind up with lots of self-reinforcing belief systems. Self-reinforcing belief systems show a limitation in your principle of CITOKATE. If you have a self-reinforcing belief system that says one thing, and the person that you're talking to has a self-reinforcing belief system that says a different thing, then the two of you will look at the exact same evidence and draw different conclusions. No matter how much you're criticized from a point of view that you don't agree with, it won't have much chance of changing your mind. And vice versa. And this is true even if you manage to magically eliminate the normal human tendancies towards being bone-headed and self-deceptive.

In other words my criticism of CITOKATE is that it won't help achieve agreement between people who have differing self-reinforcing belief systems. This is not to say that I think that CITOKATE is a bad idea! Quite the contrary. It is the best thing we have. But it can't always work.

I've found that you encounter lots of these self-reinforcing belief systems as soon as you explore most people's political or religious beliefs. In some cases a belief is demonstrably false and is potentially correctable, but it would take a lot of work to do that. In other cases it really is undecideable which of you is really right.

Now this seems odd to anyone who is trained in the hard sciences. Because in the hard sciences there tends to be an objective reality that is demonstrable to pretty much anyone who keeps an open mind and looks at the facts. (Or so it seems. Historically agreement often gets reached only after everyone who disagrees with the new theory dies of old age. For instance Fred Hoyle criticized the Big Bang to his deathbed.)

You point out that I don't address the murky areas in science. Fair enough. Often the ability of science to address a question is only discovered after scientists try to address that area and succeed. There are, however, occasions where science thought that it succeeded in answering questions, and then backtracks. Kuhn documents how the oxygen theory caused this to happen within chemistry. But the trend is towards expansion, and this is a good thing.

However there are subjects, sociology for instance, where people have failed repeatedly to introduce the scientific method. How can we tell that they failed? Because no theory has emerged with an objective basis that all can agree on.

This makes my description that science is better because it restricts itself to problems that are more tractable practically a tautology. Scientists don't say, "This is the line in the sand that we're restricted to." Instead they push the line, but the ones which cross it don't generate recognizeable science. That is, the boundary of science is determined by its success in getting consensus on how to tackle problems, which depends on how tractable the problems prove.

Maybe, as you fantasize, this will some day go as far as addressing the human soul. But for the past, present, and forseeable future, science stops well short of that.

Now let me close with an interesting observation on people who are outside of science. If your intellectual life is spent outside of the boundary of what science has proven effective on, then for you, objectivity doesn't work! Bizarre, huh? But it is true. Objectivity only works if you can get people to agree on enough basics that they can agree on things. If you can't do that, then what will appear effective is going to be determined by rhetoric, politics, and other things that depend on taking advantage of human nature for impact.

With enough experience of this, I can see how people could come to discount objectivity. I don't sympathize, after all objectivity works wonders in lots of things, and if you have any choice it works better than the alternative. However people who thrive in an environment where objectivity repeatedly fails are simply not going to value objectivity. They aren't going to have well-developed theories on where it works and where it doesn't. They'll just believe that it doesn't work.

Which helps explain our current misadministration. After all if you've spent your life laughing at the naive people who try to blather on about objective reality and you get into power, how are you going to react? People tell you that you're wrong, and your reaction is, "Ignoring people like you got me in charge of this country!" And you're going to feel justified in ignoring them again! :-(

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Anonymous said...

Ben Tilly makes excellent points. I tend to agree with those who are saying that many areas of inquiry now seen as "subjective" will eventually come under the purvey of science. Be that as it may, Kuhn was right about one thing: science isn't (strictly speaking) about hypothesis and falsification!

Also, Qm and GR are not mutually exclusive, they are complementary at present, and there are many scientists trying to unify the two as we speak.

...because they're mutually exclusive! There are many easy ways to see why. Suppose you believe quantum theory and GR both apply universally. Then you believe that Planck's constant equals zero (GR) and that it equals its usual value (QM). That's self-contradictory.

These theories have been put through the scientific process which has tested them against every competing theory according to objective unchanging criteria of adjudication.

But they haven't been tested against the infinitely-many theories that no one has ever proposed -- many of which make the same experimental predictions as our current theories. (We know from set theory that there are a bunch of candidate theories like this.) So I don't see how Popperians can say that successful theories have "beaten" the competition when they've only faced a literally infinitesimal portion of their possible competitors.

Most scientific theories are not "known to be false" when proposed. They are known to be at least partially true, but the extent of their veridicality is not assumed before empirical testing (usually).

The notion of approximate truth is intuitive but extremely hard to put into words properly. Probably because logic tells us that any statement or set of statements is either true or false, period.

And our current theories are false. GR tells you that there can be electromagnetic waves of any energy, however small. That's been experimentally shown to be false. Quantum mechanics... well, it's hard to say what the mathematical formalism tells us the world should be like. That's where your buddy David Deutsch comes in with his many-worlds interpretation.

As for Popper's notion of verisimilitude, it's been formally proven to be insufficient. See and scroll down to the part about Miller and Tichy's proof.

Anonymous said...

David Brin Wrote:
The queen of Reason is mathematics, a logical system so rigorous and testable and well-designed - and well-corelated with the real world - that it can be mistaken for science. Still, we physicists know that mathematicians are our mad priest-cousins. And we must always take some care while listening to their incantations.

I think you've misunderstood mathematicians. They are what happens when you apply empirical principles to rationality. We therefore have one foot very firmly in each camp.

Mathematicians are often keen on scholasticism because for mathematicians it works. The level of criticism that mathematicians face to get a theorem is absolute - but once it has been through this absolute level of criticism, it is known to be right under the assumptions listed and can therefore be used without question (once you've verified that the assumptions still hold). There is no room for self-deception within mathematics as it combines the sheer clarity of rationalism with the error checking and humility of empiricism. (By its nature, although it gains a lot from both sides it only has scope in the rare places where empiricism and rationalism can both be used simultaniously, making it fairly limited).

Mathematicians are not your insane priest-cousins - they are almost your sane cousins from another planet - and almost invariably understand their "incantations" and why they work. (We confuse the hell out of a lot of rationalists as well).

On other notes, the problem with a designer having had to design the designer is that you then iterate/induct this back to reach an infinite number of entities each required to design the next one (which requires an infinite amount of space and time due to physical constraints making neither space nor time breakable into infinite pieces). The only ways I can see out of this are one self-generating God (or pantheon) who exists outside time or that time is a closed loop and we uplifted ourselves. The IDers could shoot down or coopt that one too easily.

Also, appears to be down (as does

David Brin said...

sayeth Ben Tilly “Self-reinforcing belief systems show a limitation in your principle of CITOKATE. If you have a self-reinforcing belief system that says one thing, and the person that you're talking to has a self-reinforcing belief system that says a different thing, then the two of you will look at the exact same evidence and draw different conclusions. No matter how much you're criticized from a point of view that you don't agree with, it won't have much chance of changing your mind. And vice versa. “

This is a valid point, illustrating just how severe the problems of human self-deception and romantic illusion really are. It demonstrates why first and second order attempts to get past self-deception have often failed. For example: Plato’s “know thyself” and use of reason. His Parable of the Cave. Buddha’s efforts to seek detachment. Yoda’s preachy .... but no, we won’t go into that here! ;-)

All simply veered into new styles of delusion. Even the vaunted French Enlightenment did that. We could very well do it, too. Our commitment to accountability and delusion penetration must redouble.

Alas, Ben, you are using your remark as an argument THAT delusion-reduction is hopeless, and you do it somewhat disingenuously, by posing it in a very pat and diametric way - as an obstinate confrontation of pure polar opposites. This is exactly the situation that romantics of left and right want us to find ourselves in.

Fortunatley, life need not be that way. A pragmatic problem solver would look at the very same situation you describe, and come up with dozens of ways to, say, bring in third parties, put forward experiments, discover and posit shared assumptions, break deadlocks. You really must read the disputation paper at: to see how this has already been pragmatically addressed in our great accountability arenas.

Addressed... not solved... but dealt with well enough to prove that the process generally works... and desperately needs to be improved.

“However there are subjects, sociology for instance, where people have failed repeatedly to introduce the scientific method. How can we tell that they failed? Because no theory has emerged with an objective basis that all can agree on.”

I agree with this. In 1999, Psychology Today polled scores of eminent psychologists as to what was the biggest breakthrough in 50 years. All named obscure and different and still disputable things - each time in his or her own specialty. A sure sign of failure... so far! But that does not mean we aren’t on the verge of real understanding breakthroughs. 100 years after they were promised.

“ If your intellectual life is spent outside of the boundary of what science has proven effective on, then for you, objectivity doesn't work!”

Tell that to a bullet, heading your way. Look, I explore these borderlands more than anybody you know. Your point is taken. Just don’t oversimplify.

We have built a civilization whose publicly-taught values emphasize to students the importance of evidence and objectivity, far more than any other civ ever did. Yes, this effort fails in half of the people... as the relentless Suspicion of Authority (SOA) propaganda campaign... and all the tolerance propaganda... fail in many people. Because all these messages push upstream against human nature.

BUT THE MESSAGES DO AFFECT MILLIONS. And more every year. In fact, I think this success is exactly why the romantics chose this time to go berserk and start a counterrebellion against the Enlightenment’s rebel worldview. They know this is their last chance.

Wintermute explains properly that scientific theories build up like cities. Bits and portions, sometimes whole blocks, have to be torn down at times. But the grand mega structures of city blocks and skyscrapers are MODELS OF THE WORLD and they have almost never (in 200 years) been proved wrong in a dramatically on-off sense. They grow because we build them. Pragmatically.

Wintermute, you must admit that individual scientists CAN be as dogmatic, egotistical and foolish as anybody. They are human. (I’ve known some who were insane.) But they were raised at least to PRETEND a level of cheerful and mature acceptance of falsifiability. And as thousands of scientists and grad students aggregate, this mature side becomes additive while CITOKATE enables the immature impulses to cancel each other out.

Let me repeat. In a properly designed accountability arena, effective processes become additive while destructive processes somewhat cancel each other out through opposition and criticism.

This is the positive-sum game of the Enlightenment. (Again, see disputation essay.) It is why science works. If you tune the rules right... and values... then competition brings forth emergent properties that resemble cooperation! (See EARTH.)

Isn’t this the great attribute that has long been claimed for markets? That competition synergistically creates cooperative results? Of course the platonic libertarians are absurd. This only really started happening when markets were regulated by practical-idealistic men.

Re Tipler. He is hilarious, brilliant, loony, insufferable. A true sign that we have a great civilization. Any other would have burned him by now. And me. And most of you. Stay burnable.

sayeth Dave: “But they haven't been tested against the infinitely-many theories that no one has ever proposed -- many of which make the same experimental predictions as our current theories. (We know from set theory that there are a bunch of candidate theories like this.) So I don't see how Popperians can say that successful theories have "beaten" the competition when they've only faced a literally infinitesimal portion of their possible competitors.”

Alert! This sounds an awful lot like Platonic “reasoning”, Dave. You ignore how both evolution and the human imagination work. By a process (messy) of successive culling. Whole classes of possibility space are eliminated because they are obviously unsuitable.

Who judges “obvious”? An eclectic array of selection processes. Both in nature and in the minds of a diverse array of experts.

When it comes to ideas, COMPETITIVENESS ensures that bright young people will keep going back and exploring idea space for missed nuggets that their elders foolishly tossed aside.

Francis, I accept your re-definition of mathematicians! Certainly the planet they come from is more logical than the one that sent us 5,000 alien software designers, now living in an enclave called Redmond WA. Sometimes, when using their product, I can actually figure out why they did something... and my head hurts. They have logic... but it is bona fide alien logic.

“On other notes, the problem with a designer having had to design the designer is that you then iterate/induct this back to reach an infinite number of entities each required to design the next one (which requires an infinite amount of space and time due to physical constraints making neither space nor time breakable into infinite pieces). The only ways I can see out of this are one self-generating God (or pantheon) who exists outside time or that time is a closed loop and we uplifted ourselves. The IDers could shoot down or coopt that one too easily.”

You miss the point. Because you are logical. The reason for my proposal is to start getting some other religious tracks going in the evolution debate.

You see, the fundamentalists are right-now living a smug illusion, without thinking ahead to what will grow in the field they are sowing.

They believe that by parsing things in a very vague and universal-theist way, they can unite all religions against science. Even if the Jews & Mormons and Catholics are okay with evolution, that does not matter. By fighting for equal footing for ID in the schools, they figure they will win a battle of memes.

But that victory will become ashes in their mouths if a competing quasi-religious meme also gets in the door! Suddenly, their own boys and girls would start learning about Hindu and Mayan cyclical creations, for example!

Seriously. I think the best thing we can do is urge Hindus to flock to Kansas and start attacking evolution from THEIR perspective, supporting the creationists and demanding that cyclical theories also be given equal time. The fundamentalists will utterly freak.

And I do think the “Intelligent Design of Intelligent Designers” (IDOID) could easily slip right in there, too. Both IDOID and cyclical creation are alternatives to evolution that logically satisfy the ID folks’ yearning for "fair play"... while implying utterly non-biblical conclusions.

(Alas, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, while hilarious, does not do this.)

Many of the creationist types will quickly rediscover their respect for separation of church and state.

sorry my web site appears to be temporarily down...

Anonymous said...

Who judges “obvious”? An eclectic array of selection processes. Both in nature and in the minds of a diverse array of experts.

Right... but I don't see any independent justification for the fact that these methods of culling out the "obvious" are reliable. Especially since most arose out of evolution, a process which aims not at producing creatures who believe the truth, but rather at making creatures fit to survive in their native environments. This is a point made dramatically clear by cognitive science studies which show that the brain "edits out" unnecessary information from our senses.

What evidence do we have, on an evolutionary picture of science, that this sort of thing isn't happening on a much larger scale with our theories?

(In the end I have to agree with you, because science is really the best we have, but I'm just trying to drive home the point that the foundations of knowledge are largely mysterious.)

David Brin said...

And I agree with you. Except... look at what YOU are doing, by poking at the reliability of the exploratory process. You are acting out the very same process of imaginative skepticism that OUGHT to enable us (semi-randomly, though guided by competition) to find hidden nooks in idea space.

Yes, even that process may miss great, huge, gaping areas that humans are incapable of envisioning.

Hence the other great meme pushed by the sciencefictional wing of the american wing of the Enlightenment.

OTHERNESS. An active raging hunger to meet the alien and talk to it.

W.B. Reeves said...

One of the great things about this blog is that you don't have to rush to comment on a discussion. If your point has validity, the probability is that someone else will raise it. This allows for a progressive, qualitative refinement of the discussion, something largely missing from our public discourse.

I find myself in far more agreement than disagreement with Dr. Brin. The disagreements, I believe, proceed from differences in perspective rooted in our differing social positions. Dr. Brin is a Scientist, Educator and writer while I am a layperson, earning my living in commercial enterprise and a much less successful wordsmith. One could say that Dr. Brin dwells on the mountain while I dwell in the valley below. The problem is that, while the mountaineer sees farther, the majority of the population dwells in the valley and nothing much, in terms of politics, will be accomplished without them.

I agree that scientific methodology is the most reliable tool we have for distinguishing fact from fancy. The difficulty lies in the fact that, while Science is concerned with what is, politics is about what people want. Most people judge science the way they judge ideas generally, on the basis of utility and convenience. Take a valley person up on the mountain and they'll enjoy the view. Point out that the storm clouds up river could produce flooding and they might move to high ground or they may ignore your warning because it would spoil their plans to go fly fishing. Right now there is a category five Hurricane bearing down on New Orleans. Care to wager how many folks will refused to evacuate?

The proclivity to ignore unpleasant realities as well as the drive for security is, I think, ingrained in the human animal. The two often intertwine. The paradox here being that one cannot have real security by denying reality. Further paradox, one cannot achieve security by embracing reality either. What is at stake is not actual security but a subjective sense of security. People's "comfort zones" as it were.

Science is about testable hypothesis, not absolute truth. Contingent probabilities, not static certitudes. As such it is contending against human traits that have been animating forces in human affairs since before the advent of civilization. If the scientific method is to have any chance of overcoming these traits, its exponents have to have a clear comprehension of what they are up against. It isn't simply a question of reforming education or staking out a moderate middle ground. It is a question of reforming human psychology and the conditions that shape it.

I don't blame anyone for wanting to avoid this approach. The problems and dangers involved are manifest. It isn't at all certain that we as a species are up to the challenge. I don't think it can be avoided though.

Coming at things from this angle gives an entirely different perspective on some of the issues under discussion. If we observe a recurring phenomenon of mythmaking throughout human history and thought up to the present day, it isn't assumed that this is the product of particular streams of tainted ideas. Rather it seems more likely that such ideas are themselves expressions of underlying primal dynamics.

Likewise, the collapse of various schools of thought birthed by the Enlightenment into mythmaking and quasi-medieval scholasticism is less a comment on their intellectual flaws than it is testament to the strength of social, cultural and intellectual inertia. Someone once described this as the dead hand of the past weighing like a nightmare on the mind of the living.

I think we are living through a period of similar collapse. Or perhaps a latter stage of the same continuing collapse after a relatively brief interregum.

Following the end of WWII the East-West divide created a temporary stasis, as all issues political, social and cultural were subsumed in the competition between two hostile blocs. The potential for Nuclear annihilation insured that Science would take a place in the councils of power which it had hitherto never achieved. The Arms race and its subsidiary, the Space Race, buttressed this pre-emminence, giving it the illusion of permanence. It's instructive that the decline of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union corresponded with this period.

This rough stability, based on a balance of terror, could not continue indefinitely, although it is interesting to recall that many at the time thought it would. With its passing, all the traditional centrifical dynamics in human experience began to reassert themselves. This was as true for the Western World as it was of the Eastern Bloc and the world at large, albeit less dramatic in expression.

Under the circumstances, I don't think nostalgia for the Cold War Liberal consensus is a realistic starting point. The only available substitute for Soviet totalitarianism is the threat of Islamic extremism. The absurdities of scale aside, such a substitution would in no way inhibit our home grown religious fanatics who are perfectly willing to sign on to a war against Islam. In addition, the powerful economic interests whose support would be required for such a revived consensus have spent the better part of the last twenty years undermining science whenever it conflicted with their business agenda. Is there reason to presume they would change course at this late date?

Besides, the last, best chance for such renewal has already gone glimmering. It expired in the bloody sands of Iraq, the victim of partisan politics supported by the connivance of the two constituencies mentioned above. With it has gone any chance that science or scientist can retain their previous status.

No, I think that if we are going to have a chance of turning the anti-modernist tide, we need to recognize that our social and political conditions have fundamentally altered. Strategies must change accordingly. Amongst the ruling elites science has been demoted to a commodity that is purchased or not purchased as need warrants. Its asking price is currently below that of Corporate interests and the atavistic desires of the Theocrats.

In politics when you lose your base you have to find another one. In desperate circumstances it doesn't pay to be too choosy. At the moment the only place where there is a ferment of mass resistance to the main forces of anti-modernism is on the leftward side.

If you explore this ferment you will find it has little to do with French intellectual conceits or Po-Mo theoretics ginned up in the pursuit of academic careerism. These things have never been emblematic of much beyond the confines of the academic industry. I've yet to meet anyone active on the political Left outside the faculty lounge or Graduate School who has anything but scorn for them beyond their basic questioning of how we know what we believe we know.

In politics, particularly the electoral kind, you don't succeed by waiting for people to come to their senses. You succeed by launching effective counter-movements which change the existing political calculus. For that you need people who are willing to go up against entrenched power, lots of them.

The whole Iraq debacle gives a good illustration. The drive to divert the counter attack against terrorists into an invasion of Iraq rolled right over the institutions that might have been expected to guard against such folly. The Democrats, in keeping with the nostalgia for an outmoded model of consensus politics, split the difference. It didn't save them at them at the polls.

The only thing that inhibited this drive to disaster was the anti-War movement, which was smeared as far Left even as it mobilized masses of citizens. Three years after, when the majority of the predictions made by the war critics have come to pass, the population at large has come to recognize the legitimacy of the earlier criticism. Those on the pro-war side who ought to have known better are now moving into opposition. This dispite the fact that the official party of opposition continues the bankrupt policy of splitting the difference.

If there is going to be an effective movement to defend modernism it is going to have to take root in the available political space. It can't be built by pretending that there is a rough equivilance between current alternatives. To do so would simply make it hostage to those who, left to themselves, haven't had the intestinal fortitude to challenge the anti-modernist reaction.

Placating people who see the existence of charlatans like Ward Churchill as an excuse to make common cause with the likes of Pat Robertson is a waste of time and energy. Such folks aren't likely to respond to anything other than the demands of political self interest.

What I think far more urgent is finding a way to address the broad public in a language they understand, giving a credible explanation of their stake in modernity. A prerequisite for this is that advocates of modernism must do so independent from existing Institutions. Otherwise they are likely to be seen as shills. That the credibility of our institutions has sunk so low is tragic but it is a reality.

Hmm. This comment seems to have become a bit of a rant itself.


David Brin said...

Mr. Reeves speaks very eloquently. I enjoyed his long contribution very much.

I do not agree, however. I believe a firm break must be made with the loopy left for innumerable reasons. Foremost is the fact that it allows us to couch the argument in terms that are NOT left-right.

You say that we must use this horrifically malignant meme because the principal opposition to monsters of the right is an alliance that includes monsters of the left.

I say that those monsters on the left are the poster boys and strawmen that are giving the William F Buckley's of the world the excuses to keep fence-sitting, when just 200 of them could save us all.

Find me another group with as much power to change things as, say, 200 genuine old fashioned, patriotic, pro-science and modernism conservatives, if they had the guts to stand up together and join us in a movement that is orthogonal to left-vs-right. They could save us at a stroke.

And boy am I steaming mad at them for not having already done so!

So maybe my hope is forlorn. Maybe we'll be stuck with a devil's bargain, having to fight the apocalyptic troika by allying ourselves with the left. But alas, that will not work. Practical politics, gerrymandering, small-state electoral advantages and so on all add up to utter defeat.

(Though I plan to offer some practical palliatives. See

--- other matters!

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There is even an online test community using a working prototype! A few new members may be welcome, especially if you have relevant experience or interests. ;-)

Anonymous said...

You miss the point. Because you are logical. The reason for my proposal is to start getting some other religious tracks going in the evolution debate.

I can't see it flying (like the spaghetti monster). This is for two reasons - the first is that I really can not see pressure building for what is essentially an obvious and petty subversion of a movement, and the second is that by deliberately getting it added to the curriculum we are surrendering the moral high ground - helping in the adulteration of the curriculum to score cheap political points, and demonstrably surrendering our side's respect for the truth. It simply isn't worth it, however fun the idea is.

What I want to see added to curricula are the basic tenets of Natural Philosophy: that God made the world, and therefore we can get closer to understanding what God intends by studying his direct work - i.e. the world.

There are several reasons for this- the first (and probably most important) is that what we are presenting is a positive step rather than an obvious attempt at ridicule and easily dismissed. The second is that people genuinely believe this - and that it is fairly hard to argue against (particularly if you don't resort to Mancheanism*). The third is that it makes falsification of evidence (and distortions of scientific evidence) rankest blasphemy.

Instead of trying to create an astroturf (you can't call IDOID grassroots) clash amongst the religious conservatives, it would be a better use of time and resources (from almost all perspectives) to produce (or rather rebuild) a grassroots meme that is not direct opposition, but helps convert some of the other side and bring them over to the side of empiricism.

Oh, and your website appears to be back :-)

* Used here to mean the heresy that Satan is an equal of God.

David Brin said...

I will try to address your concerns in a mature way in my theology paper, next month.

Still, you ignore the power of diversity. I am not proposing that sage and mature science and modernism try the Hindu+IDOID gambit. By all means, stay elevated and adult...

...while some group of cranks goes ahead and flies into Kansas to file on behalf of Hindus and Mayans and IDOID believers!

It is called plausible deniability. ;-)

Hey, they invented it!

Seriously! Arethere any other candidate theologically-based alternate creation myths that could get around the fundamentalists trick of couching ID in generalist Deist terms?

IDOID is clearly one. Cyclical creation is another. By any way of looking at things, they DESERVE treatment equal to ID. Any others?

Tony Fisk said...

Quoth DB:
By all means! Let's ALL read Thucydides... especially the portions that describe how Athens, arrogant at her very zenith, spurned her allies and embarked on needless, faraway military adventures that sapped her strength, substituting bullying for subtlety. Read about a fellow named Wolfo-- I mean Alcibiades... and shiver at how quickly golden (delusional) hopes can fail.)

"They who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them."

Perhaps Wolfowitz and co. should follow their own advice?

On the 'Queen of Reason'. I've just finished reading "The Music of the Primes", by Marcus Du Sautoy which follows the history of mathematics as it relates to figuring out the whichness of the why of prime numbers. (A much more rollicking read than you'd think!!)

I like the irony that, at the same time that Hilbert(?) was delivered a lecture extolling mathematical rigor in the quest of proof for all assertions, Godel was delivering one just down the road proving that it just couldn't be!

(Reminds me of an old Omni cartoon featuring two boffins gazing with mild concern at a blackboard covered with calculations that end with a zero, and under which there is a piece of broken chalk and a pair of spectacles. The caption reads: 'Prof. Schlemmer has just proved he doesn't exist!')

On 'Pastafarianism'. Personally, I lean towards Douglas Adams' 'Benjism': that the universe was created and maintained by a race of pan-dimensional superbeings (aka 'white mice') on a quest for universal knowledge. Indeed I maintain that, since it is the older theology, Benjism is more deeply rooted in the public subconscious and so requires less up front explanation: essential for a satirical meme.

Both followings have their merits: a predilection for cheese being one.

I take a more serious tilt at the IDer meme in this posting. Comments welcome. It could do with a bit of the sight o' Kate!

('The sight o' Kate is a fearful thing' ...ono! I feel the 'guiding strand' of the pasta moving me to more clathrate poetry!!)

Meantime, I note the firefront has moved on....

Rob Perkins said...

Popper? Kuhn?

As I stood there teaching a class in church today I intoned, "I even like esotericisms, like saying the word esotericism."

This elicited a "duh what?" from a few of those who don't geek out on the dictionary quite like I do (though I haven't yet sprung for an OED on CD; I hear they're working on a new edition and I'm waiting for that one! :-) )

But, I find myself going "duh what?" among you people! Argh... I never wanted to study navel-gazing, though being exposed to new epistemologies is always a fun afternoon!

At any rate...

On other notes, the problem with a designer having had to design the designer...The only ways I can see out of this are one self-generating God (or pantheon) who exists outside time or that time is a closed loop and we uplifted ourselves. The IDers could shoot down or coopt that one too easily.

I've seen an Evangelical do it. He moved his goalposts from "Universe" to "Metaverse" and kept talking about his ground-of-all-being Spirit God being the only thing possible.

I can't explain the Mormon IDOID idea very well, mostly because I think it's not a very well-formed idea in the first place. I figure if God is alive and we're gonna meet him, he'll be willing to 'splain one day. Meantime I'd like to build a moon colony or two...

(but I'll thank you all kindly not to trade that last D for a T to make some kind of unkind joke...)

Regarding ID, perhaps it would be interesting to note the ongoing battle between Utah State Senator D. Chris Buttars and the entire education establishment in Utah. He plans to insist on ID being taught *someplace* in the school curricula there, even if he has to pass a law.

Google his name and "intelligent design" for more, and click on the links to the Deseret News articles.

And this: for a copy of an op-ed written by BYU geologists regarding the fossil record. The last sentence is particularly telling, and quotes an old Mormon leader: "We do not show reverence for the scriptures when we misapply them through faulty interpretation."

Tony Fisk said...

(but I'll thank you all kindly not to trade that last D for a T to make some kind of unkind joke...)

I may not agree with your beliefs, but I respect them, and I don't know *what* you are referring to ;-)

But, I am experiencing extreme difficulty not adding an 'e' to the name of that Utah senator of your'n.

Oh well, if his will be done, you can point the 'entire Utah education establishment' at my tilt (see above). It's just the sort of situation I envisaged when I posted. (As to it's usefulness, well...)

Mike Huben said...

I've been getting "production miniplant" spam for years. While it might be a cool idea, that's no reason to assume it makes business or economic sense. Especially in an era of instant communications and cheap transportation of goods.

If the idea is to use them in someplace remote, then the question is whether they are appropriate technology.

Anonymous said...

Hi Wintermute,

Regarding the falsehood of QM and GR, I think you're right that we're sort of saying the same thing. I agree with you (I think) that both theories are strictly false and approximately true. But I'm suspicious of the latter notion because we have a well-worked out, formal description of what it takes to be exactly true, and nothing like that for approximate truth. Also, I think that the strict falsehood of the theories is all that Kuhn needs to motivate his point against Sir Karl.

W.B. Reeves said...

Dr. Brin

I'm glad you didn't find my rant too tedious. I appreciate the kind words. Would it surprise you overmuch to know that I too hope you're right? It gives no pleasure to play Cassandra. One must call them as one sees them though.

If you succeed in sparking the conscience of the Conservatives you can be sure that I would stand with you. Meanwhile I'll keep my fingers crossed.

A couple of books that I would recommend for those interested in exploring Left perspectives on Modernism. "The Age of Extremes" by Eric Hobsbawm and "All that is Solid Melts Into Air" by Marshall Berman. Perhaps you're already familiar with these.

Thanks for the link. I'm in the process digesting the documents now.

On the subject loonyness, let me share a brief anecdote. Years ago at Atlanta World Con I was hanging out with Brad Linaweaver in the Libertarian Suite. I had the opportunity to hear a rather tipsy guy hold forth on why Socialism, Marxism, et al, were false doctrines. His argument was that no one could know anything with any degree of predictive certainty. His proof? Why, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle of course.

How he reconciled this with Ayn Rand I have no idea. People are capable of talking themselves into damn near anything.


Ross said...

Just a quick request: could someone please compare this "scholasticism" (which always makes me think of Asimov's "origin question" scholars) with the Talmudic tradition? To score highly as a Talmudic scholar you also must be able to back up any point with sages. Is this another example of the same thing? If so it seems to me that it predates the Enlightenment by a few centuries and that the scholastic thread of the Enlightenment may actually be considered a contamination of the Enlightenment.

Anonymous said...

"The mere questioner has knocked his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it. This is what makes so futile the warnings of the orthodox and the boasts of the advanced about the dangerous boyhood of free thought. What we are looking at is not the boyhood of free thought; it is the old age and ultimate dissolution of free thought. It is vain for bishops and pious bigwigs to discuss what dreadful things will happen if wild scepticism runs its course. It has run its course. It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself. You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves. You cannot fancy a more sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world. It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy more quickly and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by the application of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the absurd pretence that modern England is Christian. But it would have reached the bankruptcy anyhow. Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted; but rather because they are an old minority than because they are a new one. Free thought has exhausted its own freedom. It is weary of its own success. If any eager freethinker now hails philosophic freedom as the dawn, he is only like the man in Mark Twain who came out wrapped in blankets to see the sun rise and was just in time to see it set. If any frightened curate still says that it will be awful if the darkness of free thought should spread, we can only answer him in the high and powerful words of Mr. Belloc, "Do not, I beseech you, be troubled about the increase of forces already in dissolution. You have mistaken the hour of the night: it is already morning." We have no more questions left to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers."

--GK Chesterton