Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Progress of Science and the Science of Progress

In a note to a friend, Einstein passionately described how "it is a magnificent feeling to recognize the unity of a complex of phenomena which appear to be things quite apart from the direct visible truth." True enough, but why? And why would he say this in a Valentine's Day card? Did he really think that this was an effective way to impress a girl? No wonder he ended up marrying his cousin.

Yes, the part about Valentine's day was a gag -- unless you're an ideological Darwinian, in which case that exalted feeling described by Einstein really must be just a roundabout way of getting chicks.

In a lecture, -- and this goes to the question of why so many scientists are leftists in spite of themselves -- Einstein advised that if one wanted to truly understand the methods of theoretical physicists, "I advise you to stick closely to one principle: don't listen to their words, fix your attention to their deeds."

The reason for this is that scientists are rarely philosophers, not even of science, let alone realms outside their narrow area of expertise. Ironically, this did not prevent Einstein -- who was obviously a decent man -- from nevertheless repeatedly beclowning himself and becoming the type of dreaded "public intellectual" that Thomas Sowell eviscerates in his new book on the subject. Many scientists almost suffer from a kind of philosophical autism that prevents them from transcending their little specialized rut -- or, from overgeneralizing their rut into a cosmic superhighway. In Einstein's case, many of his political sentiments are those of a child.

A rare exception -- as we have discussed in the past -- was Michael Polanyi, who was a first rate scientist during the first half of his professional life, but then spent the second half reflecting on the scientific enterprise. In The Logic of Liberty, he discusses the fundamental danger that leftist statism poses to science, with its attempt to control us from the top down: "the social orders most important to human well-being are spontaneous orders that result from the interplay of individuals mutually adjusting their actions to the actions of others. Spontaneous orders are the result of human action but not human design."

Again, the irony is that so many academic leftists oppose the spontaneous order of the free market, when they are primary beneficiaries of this same order as applied to science, which is (or should be) an intellectual spontaneous order. Whenever it becomes a top-down "command ideology," as in global warmism or ideological Darwinism, it undercuts the very conditions of a robust scientific enterprise. (And this applies no less to religious fundamentalists who superimpose their own top-down constraints on science; extremes meet, which is why the ID debate is mostly between extremist fundamentalists in each camp.)

Because the truth of the matter is quite straightforward: Polanyi believed that "for there to be a scientific order something more is needed -- a channeling 'device' through which the diverse actions of scientists are coordinated."

Now for the left, this command and control comes from the top, which again fundamentally undercuts the conditions of science. But for Polanyi, this "mechanism," as it were, is "the pursuit of truth. For Polanyi, it is in the belief in the transcendent reality of truth that science has its extraordinary character as an intellectual system" (Warner, from the forward).

So, just as our political liberty devolves into mere license if it is not guided by the telos of virtue, our epistemological liberty descends into a riot of philodoxy if not guided by the telos of transcendent truth.

And who would it be that attacks the very idea of transcendent truth? Yes, that is correct. Which is why attacks on religion are always covert attacks on the transcendent reality of the intellect and the possibility of truth. "Academic freedom" is not a value unless it converges upon truth. If it only converges on Marx, or Alinsky, or Gore, well....

As I have mentioned before, Polanyi draws a sharp distinction between what he calls the free society vs. a merely "open" one. The free society "is dedicated to a distinctive set of beliefs" toward which freedom is aimed. But the open society is just another name for chaos and dis-order with no spontaneous center oriented around truth. Its methods would include things like deconstruction, multiculturalism, moral relativism, etc.

Now, any materialist view of nature, be it Marxism, Darwinism, or scientism, can have no basis in the transcendent realities that make genuine science possible. A subtle transmogrification follows, one that ushers in a kind of monstrous science unhinged from humane civilization: "The rejection of those [transcendent] realities leads to a conception of science as instrumental, and this conception requires that science be used in the service of material ends" (Warner; emphasis mine).

And "In the hands of those who subscribe to the 'virtues' of planned science, the activities of scientists should be directly prescribed by the State. Science as public liberty is thus subverted...." Instead of a spontaneous order, we again have the top-down order of the state -- for example, as reflected in Obama's effort to personally settle the unsettled science of global warming through executive fiat. He wants to put an end to this science, just when it's getting interesting. Which, of course, is the whole point.

For as Warner says, "All movements of thought and practice that attempt to render spontaneous order nugatory -- that are captured by the idea that all social order either is or should be planned -- also threaten public liberty and thus the fabric of a free society."

But what makes the left in general and Obama in particular triply dangerous is the return of the repressed -- the transcendent order which cannot be denied -- in the form of moral passion without moral judgment. This leads to a kind of frenzied earthbound moralism that serves as the justification for, say, a government takeover of healthcare, or of likening those of us who are not worried about global warming to "Holocaust deniers." Again, note the insane moral passion completely severed from the theological virtues that must guide this passion, e.g., prudence and temperance.

33 Comments:

Blogger walt said...

Promises to be a lovely day hereabouts -- and yet:

"...note the insane moral passion..."

Obama’s National Defence Review ignores Iran and Islam in favour of… climate change!

2/13/2010 08:44:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

See also Dean: Republicans Don't Believe in Science.

2/13/2010 09:00:00 AM  
Blogger walt said...

Bob,

Yes, when I read that article about Mr. Dean yesterday, I realized that "ONE OF US IS COMPLETELY DELUDED!"

2/13/2010 09:23:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Dennis Prager often plays a clip of Howard Dean saying that "the difference between Republican values and our values is that we don't like to see children go to sleep hungry at night." Nuance!

2/13/2010 09:32:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

""the social orders most important to human well-being are spontaneous orders that result from the interplay of individuals mutually adjusting their actions to the actions of others. Spontaneous orders are the result of human action but not human design."

Again, the irony is that so many academic leftists oppose the spontaneous order of the free market, when they are primary beneficiaries of this same order as applied to science, which is (or should be) an intellectual spontaneous order. Whenever it becomes a top-down "command ideology," as in global warmism or ideological Darwinism, it undercuts the very conditions of a robust scientific enterprise."

Exactly so... and what is most frustrating, is that these legions of smart people don't see that their top-down "command ideology" prevents further thought, prevents others from perceiving reality, thinking and responding appropriately... it creates a negative progression of geometrically expanding reactions - or non actions - that stops the very progress they claim to seek, in it's tracks.

Their top-down "command ideology" is enforcing stupidity downwards and outwards in an ever spreading grey cloud of knowthingness.

2/13/2010 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger black hole said...

Climate change policy, even if misguided or deluded, can't really harm and may be helpful.

Ever more effective methods of eliminating effluents into the air will need to go into place sooner or later...we use the atmosphere as an open sewer now, and the oceans, to some extent, but that era is coming to a close, just like the era of the street-sewers of Europe. Why not get a little ahead of curve, even if it is hysterical?

Humans are easily able to control their waste stream when a clear benefit is noted; see how the rise of public sanitation led to increased life-span in the 17-19th centuries. Climate change tech is a little nebulous but a step in the correct direction.

Politics, regimes, philosophies, etc. come and go but we only have one environment and paranoia and over-reaction in that arena are far preferable to complacence.

I open the floor for rebuttals.

2/13/2010 10:39:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

You'll have to settle for a headbuttal

2/13/2010 11:05:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Climate change policy, even if misguided or deluded, can't really harm and may be helpful.

Good stewardship is simply wise. But premising environmental policy on a proven fallacy is almost certain to do real, major and lasting damage to the very environment we wish to "save."

For reference, try reading about the history of Yellowstone. Or more recently, look into the "success" of building up coral reefs with used tires. There are untold numbers of examples of well-intentioned and short-sighted individuals who desperately want to "do something," only to end up being responsible for disasters of epic proportions.

To say that it "can't really harm" is naive, foolish and flat-out wrong. Until it is appreciated just how much harm may really be done by trying to "fix" complex systems according to poorly understood and grossly incomplete data, it's far better to do nothing.

(I should know better than to pitch perfectly good arguments down a black hole...)

2/13/2010 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger black hole said...

Julie: Your rebuttal is well-reasoned and and persuasive except the part where you say "it's better to do nothing."

That doesn't address the state of current practices, such as allowing internal combustion engines to freely belch forth into the air supply. By any standards this is madness, yet is so commonplace nobody remarks on it, much like people use to squat wherever without drawing a comment.

Business as usual is not going to cut it, therefore doing nothing is not a good option.

That is black hole's counter-rebuttal, and that's probably where the matter will stop. BH doesn't see much in the way of middle ground here.

I have no further objections to the post.

2/13/2010 01:45:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

slack hole said "allowing internal combustion engines to freely belch forth into the air supply. By any standards this is madness,"

By any standards, perhaps, but by a reasonable standard, a sensible standard, one which takes into account the atmospheric parts per million, the current levels 'belched' and the ability of the atmosphere to recycle and regenerate - it is not only not madness, it is quite reasonable and A-OK.

Cleaner air would be better, sure, and I wouldn't want to go back to the air I grew up in in L.A. when we often couldn't see two blocks distance... but as is... we're good.

And by a reasonable standard, diverting massive percentages of our wealth (which by the way is not 'mere money' but the results of each individuals time and efforts, huge portions of our Lives which could otherwise be used to better our material needs, comforts and food supplies) in order to pour them down a black hole of bureaucratic graft and corruption - the modern day equivalent of forcing Mercury tablets down the throat of an ailing George Washington while opening his veins to bleed him further in a poorly informed effort to do something to save him, and thereby ensuring and hastening his death - is, to put it politely, Stupid.

2/13/2010 02:11:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Actually, I completely disagree. Given the generally increasing efficiency of the modern internal combustion engine, I think we're doing pretty well. Electric cars are nice in theory, but if you put all your environmental eggs in that basket, you're missing the not-so-hidden fact that cars still need power in order to move. Electricity must still be generated from somewhere, which means some form of turbine must be made to move very, very fast. If we were to switch every vehicle over to electric right now, the environmental benefit would be negligible at best, or possibly even negative.

You can't just say "internal combustion is bad, m'kay," without considering whether there are any viable alternative energy sources that would be capable of meeting humanity's current needs. There are not, at this time.

The fact that electric cars are improving and gaining in popularity is not a bad thing. But until power sources are allowed to develop that can handle the concomitant increase in loads without a significant increase in fuel consumption and waste production, to believe that electric cars make less pollution is to believe in a fairy tale.

2/13/2010 02:11:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

:D
I meant to say "I disagree with Black Hole," if that weren't obvious. Excellent points, Van.

I'd just add that the first time I went to DH's family place in San Bernardino, the air was so heinous you could see the haze developing at less than 100 meters, and I spent my first few visits to his family home trying not to drown in my own fluids. The improvement is massive, and meaningful. I'm completely in favor of improving fuel efficiency and air quality - but in ways that are meaningful and realistic.

Advocating death to the internal engine is neither.

2/13/2010 02:15:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I believe it was Bjørn Lomborg who said that the air today is actually cleaner than at any time in history (at least since it has been capable of measurement), which makes perfect sense when you realize how dirty it is to use wood for warmth and cooking.

2/13/2010 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger debass said...

"Which is why attacks on religion are always covert attacks on the transcendent reality of the intellect and the possibility of truth."
In Modern Facism by Vieth, he stated that one of the reasons for eliminating the Jews was their transcendent beliefs. He knew he could not overcome them and that after the Jews came the Christians. In Vietnam, when the communists invaded, the first thing they did was kill the doctors and the teachers. Eliminate the educated class to eliminate the possibility of truth. Same thing in Cambodia and Cuba.
wv-cation: opposite of dogion.

2/13/2010 02:25:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

And which is why one of the primary aims of cultural Marxism was to take over the educational establishment...

2/13/2010 02:31:00 PM  
Blogger debass said...

The cleanest and cheapest source of energy today is nuclear. Where are all the leftists clamoring for more nuclear power plants? When was the last one built? An entire country basing its energy policy on a movie. Unbelievable.
ps-these are rhetorical questions. I actually know the answer. I stayed at a Holiday Inn.
wv-buteeld: being hit in the ass with an eel.

2/13/2010 02:35:00 PM  
Blogger debass said...

"And which is why one of the primary aims of cultural Marxism was to take over the educational establishment"
They seem to be succeeding.
http://www.crossroad.to/Quotes/Education/soviet-unesco.htm

2/13/2010 02:45:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Ding dong, the stick is dead / Which old stick? / The hockey stick! / Ding dong, the wicked stick is dead

2/13/2010 03:28:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Obama proposes tenure test for right to vote.

2/13/2010 03:32:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Way off topic, but since everyone's gotten quiet I guess it doesn't matter much.

I've been reading Zohar, and just came across the part about the meaning of the Sabbath. Interesting that it seems to be a mirror of the meaning of Easter weekend, unless I've misunderstood.

It is a good book, but definitely one to read slowly. It might be interesting reading the full five volume set sometime, but to do so could take ages.

2/13/2010 08:57:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Or perhaps "mirrors" is the wrong word. Maybe "complements" would be better.

2/13/2010 09:15:00 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

wv: anubus (Egypt's Greyhound, perhaps?)

2/14/2010 05:08:00 AM  
Blogger John said...

Bób:
¨But the open society is ... chaos and dis-order..¨ Popper´s ¨The Open Society¨ did not suggest ´chaos and disorder.´
Soros hijacked a useful concept - to mis-lead, perhaps; this true-to-type theft displays elitist statist contempt for Truth.

2/14/2010 06:00:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I have some problems with Popper anyway, so it doesn't bother me that Soros has tarred him through association.

2/14/2010 06:25:00 AM  
Blogger John said...

Popper offers useful guidance. His examination of totalitarian cultures and of our experience in the 20th Century provides a toolbox for free societies: Ideas matter.
I am certain I do not have a complete grasp of his work. Can you suggest research avenues, for me?

2/14/2010 07:05:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Popper is an entirely profane thinker, so his philosophy is intrinsically limited. I think Polanyi addresses some of the same themes, but in a manner that is entirely compatible with higher thought.

2/14/2010 07:11:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Of course, his critique of Marxism is entirely sound, but I think you can see how his rejection of absolute truth would appeal to someone like Soros, when the whole idea underpinning America is that there are absolute, universal, and transtemporal political truths. Many Europeans, because of the traumas of World Wars One and Two -- not to mention their whole bloody history -- conclude that the real problem is the human belief in absolutes, whereas we believe that the real problem is the absolute truth about human nature.

2/14/2010 07:33:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

And I guess there's no new post today. I need to get some remunerative work done....

2/14/2010 07:35:00 AM  
Blogger walt said...

'Tis an auspicious day for remunerative work.

2/14/2010 08:00:00 AM  
Blogger black hole said...

The comments by Julie and Van, and by GDB, are lucid and complelling. I therefore recant my position on internal combustion engines. I feel they are sustainable.

Nuclear? Probably also sustainable and useable.

2/14/2010 10:44:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

John said "Popper offers useful guidance. His examination of totalitarian cultures and of our experience in the 20th Century provides a toolbox for free societies: Ideas matter."

No, in fact he doesn't offer useful guidance, and the reason why is because ideas do matter, but only if they have a relation to reality. However, since Popper and his hero Hume deny that we can ever know reality at all, or any Truth about it, they in effect cut off both your legs and leave you standing there with nothing to stand on... and then cheerfully serve you 'leg of lamb' for lunch (personally... I wouldn't eat it).

See previous One Cosmos post & comments regarding popping Popper.

Btw, here's an Updated link for the one that I'd ref'd in the comments (the author is an Objectivist, but hits the essentials quite well).

2/14/2010 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger ge said...

i am 1/3 or so responsible for this song
happy VD!

a fan did the video

2/14/2010 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger John said...

Thank you all for the links.
Heavy reading, here -
a. Popper cannot be responsible for the mis-use of tools by Soros.
b. Plato through Marx to Obama:
we reap what the Tyrants planted - Popper warned us.
....................
www.etymonline-com: PROFANE
1. characterized by irreverence or contempt for God or sacred principles or things; irreligious.
2. not devoted to holy or religious purposes; unconsecrated; secular (opposed to sacred ).
3. unholy; heathen; pagan: profane rites.
4. not initiated into religious rites or mysteries, as persons.
5. common or vulgar.
: Popper is surely #2, poss. #4
..............................

I am new to Blogs: can someone guide me to directions for searching?

2/14/2010 01:57:00 PM  

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