Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Limits Of Ignorance

Science - and the scientific method - constitute a process of fact-based and experimental demonstration-supported inquiry which allows Humanity to gain further understanding of the inner workings of the Universe, of Life and, ultimately, of ourselves - from all their complexities to the minutest of details. Such an inquiry has been taking place since the dawn of Humanity, who wondered about the growth and death of living things and of themselves, about weather phenomena (thunder, lightning, etc.), about those lights in the night skies, about sickness and health, about who they are and where they came from.

After centuries upon centuries of patient and dedicated refinement of the scientific method, allowing us to gain greater knowledge and understanding of Nature in so doing, science keeps finding itself increasingly under attack of late.

The culprits of such attacks? Primitive minds who fear to even catch a glimpse of reality which defines us, the world and the rest of the universe, and who's mysteries continue being revealed year after year of dedicated and patient scientific investigating, one tiny step at a time - all because such new and ever increasing understanding threatens their cozy, comfortable and intellectual sloth-driven ignorance and blind faith in a Creator God.

Case in point:

Today's column from one conservative Christian columnist David Warren, titled "The limits of science".

In said column, Mr. Warren endeavors to prove his conclusion that: "(...) none of the methods of empirical science are of any value at all, except by way of analogy and illustration, when we turn from the empirical realm to questions of "first causes," and the underlying conditions of human knowledge, faith and belief, that are dealt with in philosophy and, ultimately, theology."

You see, since the dawn of Humanity, the human imagination has constructed ideas to explain those mysteries which presented themselves every day and throughout every single human being's life experience. Hence, for quite a long time, paranormal "forces" explained all of what occured in the world and in the universe - spirits (mineral, vegetal, animal or human ones), phantoms (good or evil) and, of course, Gods, were behind it all. Because human beings reasoned, they automatically assumed that all things reasoned as well - but because they could not communicate with such forces or natural phenomena, it was the results and effects of the latter which defined said phenomena and their "attributed" spirits, phantoms or Gods.

We've had Wind Spirits, Sun Gods, Death Gods, Bad Luck Imps, Disease Demons, Guilty Conscience-Tormenting Ghosts, River Fairies, Sea Mermaids, Angry Thunder Gods, Good Humor (health) and Bad Humor (sickness) Sprites, Moon Goddesses, Bear Spirits, Wolf Spirits, Owl Spirits, Tree of Life, and so on and so forth.

Gradually, Gods became increasingly defined as paragons of human values, attibutes and/or dispositions, thus becoming more prevalent than spirits, ghosts and the like within the myths which were constructed to explain things like the birth of the World, the birth of Man, and other phenomena of Nature.

And when human beings began living in towns and cities, their Gods came to live with them - and thus Gods were viewed increasingly a Godly Humans who dwelled in specific, physical places.

Thus Humanity built houses (temples) to their Gods, thinking that those they worshiped as means to explain Life and the Universe would reside there - just like mortals lived in their own houses.

This was a significant evolutionary step for Gods.

Nevertheless - all those "explanations" of Life and the Universe through the actions of spirits or Gods were so far based on analogy and illustration.

Then came the "Greek Awakening", bringing us rational thinking, logic and philosophy.

This historic landmark of Humanity's road to increasing maturity was indeed most significant, because then the human imagination was not deemed enough anymore. Fantasy stories may be entertaining, especially told or written by talented and imaginative storytellers, but in the end they failed at fully explaining what was really going on all about Humanity, as well as within itself.

Hence, this was a significant step in creating the scientific method - a cornerstone event, yes ... but still not sufficient enough.

You see, logical thinking and reasoning does rely on knowledge - but when the knowledge used to base one's reasoning is wrong to begin with, then what we'll all too often get as a result is what we call today "garbage in, garbage out".

The classic example of this is the geocentric model of the Earth being at the center of the universe, whereas the Moon, the Sun and the stars revolve around our planet. This explanation was derived logically from simple visual observations and, consequently, became accepted as dogma. It was from this false knowledge that too many astronomers endeavored to logically construct models which would show how all heavenly bodies in the universe revolved around the Earth.

In other words, they would ask the question "How do the heavenly bodies move around the world?", thus assuming that they did to begin with ... because their own eyes would show this.

No one ever thought about the illusion of movement granted to one who stands on a bridge and looks down on the running waters below.

Furthermore, philosophy had similar - if not worse - inherent problems. That is why it has always been characterized by various "warring" schools of thinking who espoused specific views and concepts, all derived through reasoning and logical (but experimentally unproven) assertions, thus arguing without end and with nothing but hot air. And even when one such school would gain primacy, it did not mean at all that it held the "truth" - because of the simple reality of "garbage in, garbage out".

Hence, philosophy remained - and still does - as much a prisoner of analogy and illustration, just like theology (whether in its previous, simplistic myth-making incarnation or its current one).

That is when two other major historical landmarks occured.

One was the increasing need not just to observe and derive explanations (theories) for said observations, but for experimental demonstrations of said explanations. In other words, this gave the birth to the scientific theory, which must not only be based on observations but, if it is "right", it will predict experimental results and/or additional observations. If experimental results/observations differ from what the theory predicts, then the theory is either flawed (and needs to be reworked) or is plainly wrong (and another will take its place - only to be likewise relentlessly "tested" in turn).

The other was the subtle but quite significant change in the way questions in scientific investigations were asked: instead of asking "How", which assumes potentially false knowledge to be "true" (or as dogma - see above), investigators began asking "Why", which turns out not to assume anything to begin with. Furthermore, asking "Why" gave birth to the scientific hypothesis, which must be verified by observation and experimental results. Once a hypothesis is thus verified, it becomes an established observation or fact of reality.

Hence, a solid scientific theory will be comprised of one or numerous verified hypotheses, all backed by repeated experimental and verifiable demonstrations, in addition to offer an overall explanation of all these results underlying a phenomenon, as well as predicting the outcome of other experiments. Eventually, a scientific theory who has been proven time and time and time again to be right becomes accepted as a Law of Nature.

Therein you have the essence and purpose of the scientific method.

A classic example of these two breakthroughs in defining the scientific method begins first with Copernicus. He asked "Why do all heavenly bodies revolve around the Earth?", thus not assuming the above-mentioned geocentric model to be dogma. The result? He devised observational experiments, compiled the data and realized that only the Moon orbited around the Earth, but neither the Sun or the other heavenly bodies. And from that same data, he proposed his heliocentric hypothesis - i.e. the planets, including Earth, orbit around the Sun.

Of course, we all know the effect his discovery had on all the prevailing primitive minds of his time ... he was attacked while this newly emerging scientific method was condemned already as Godless and going against the Holy Scriptures.

Because, to paraphrase David Warren above, the only value of the scientific method is "by way of analogy and illustration" - like theology and philosophy.

Then came Galileo. Building on Copernicus' work, he not only further demonstrated the validity of the heliocentric hypothesis, he further refined it as a bona fides explanation (i.e. scientific theory), which not long after his passing became accepted as a Law of Nature - i.e. this is how our solar system is organized, and Earth is but the third planet among others which orbits around its primary star which we call the Sun.

And again, we all know what happened to Galileo, as the primitive minds reacted with renewed outrage at this "science" which dared to not only contradict the comfortable and reassuring ignorance-based Holy Dogmas, but also had the unmitigated gall to take it upon itself to demonstrate and prove its explanations - quite unlike theology and philosophy!

And therein lies the "threat" posed by science, which not only seeks to understand and explain reality, but furthermore strives to ensure the validity of its explanations.

Which means: question everything that is not supported by facts or which has not been demonstrated or proven as a fact.

Again, quite unlike theology and philosophy - who rely solely on imagination and logical argumentation or, in other words, solely on analogy and illustration.

Another shining example of the scientific method contributing in actually revealing and explaning our reality is Louis Pasteur - he not only explained the fermentation process and why we get sick - i.e. "it's the bacteria and other microorganisms, stupid!" - but he also shot down in flames once and for all, through experimental demonstration, another ignorance-based dogma called spontaneous generation - which was supported largely by the creationists of the time.

Then, of course, there is Darwin who proposed his scientific theory known as evolution.

A scientific theory which has been supported and proven and demonstrated over and over and over again - especially thanks to the modern fields of cellular biology, molecular biology and genetics.

Evolution is inching closer and closer to becoming a genuine Law of Nature - like the Law of Thermodynamics, the Law of Electricity-Magnetism, the Law of Gravity, the Law of General and Restrained Relativity, the Laws of Genetic Inheritance, etc., etc., etc..

Let us return to Mr. Warren as he demonstrates his utter ignorance and non-understanding of the crucial distinctions between science and theology/philosophy. I have picked three choice excerpts from him; first excerpt:
"(...) I have discovered that this useful word, "scientism," appears in too few English dictionaries (...) The purveyor of scientism is not necessarily an incompetent, or irresponsible, or even a mediocre scientist, in his own narrow field of specialization; always supposing he has some genuine expertise in any field at all. While he is frequently all of these things, too, they are not what define his pronouncements as "scientistic." Rather, the label "scientism" applies to all who imagine that natural science, and the methods of natural science, take precedence before, and have authority over, every other field of human reasoning and perception. To a truly "scientistic" worldview, not only philosophy and theology, but psychology, art, culture, law, and general morality, are answerable not to their own terms of reference, but to some authority in a lab coat who has bred clouds of deformed fruitflies, and killed a lot of mice."
Like the primitive mind that he is, Mr. Warren seeks to mislabel all scientists who dare to outline the fundamental differences between science and theology/philosophy, and how such difference are critical in deciding whether one accepts scientific facts as opposed to believe in religious/philosophical dogmas.

And of course, his petty intellectual sloth-driven mind makes him contemptuous and dismissive of scientists by grossly mischaracterizing and stereotyping them as "lab coats who have bred clouds of deformed fruitflies, and killed a lot of mice" and thus without any validity whatsoever. After all, how dare scientists demonstrate and prove their explanations, when theology/philosophy are incapable of even attempting the same?

Hence, science is geeky, cold, no-social-skill, lab-enclosed sillyness while religious values and myths are serious and humanly fulfilling. Science is detached from reality, unlike theology and philosophy! And those who seek to show what science is truly about and demonstrate its validity in seeking to explain the universe are guilty of "ignorance" (talk about accusing others of what one actually is!).

Nevertheless, that is essentially what those like Mr. Warren said at the time to Copernicus, Mendel, Galileo, Newton, Pasteur, Darwin and so many others. That is what Mr. Warren is saying to all current scientists - including yours truly.

Second excerpt:
"'Darwinists' - which is to say, those exponents of scientism who have elevated the general principles of Darwin's quaint Victorian evolutionary scheme to a form of religious orthodoxy, and defend it by traditional fanatical means, from heretic-hunting to the commission of pious frauds.


The philosophical position corresponding to scientism is called "Positivism," and was systematized by Auguste Comte (the man who coined the term "sociology") in the 19th century. He was building upon the revolutionary heritage of the French Enlightenment; but he was also expressing the God-like aspirations of parlour atheism in the Victorian age -- its "determinism," or faith that once everything is known, everything can be predicted. Lamarckianism, Darwinism, Marxism, Freudianism, and Phrenology were, to my mind, five other expressions of this naive determinism, that belong today in a Museum of Failed Victorian Ideas.
Here, Mr. Warren falls into the usual trap that his ignorance-based primitive mind ilk always fall into. Since they are either incapable of understanding, or refuse to understand, how the scientific method works (as I vulgarized above), they still think of science as they do of philosophy and theology - i.e. it is all about logical reasoning and what one believes it to be sound or not. Hence, those that have accepted the reality of evolution are in fact believers, in the primitive minds of Mr. Warren and his ilk, like any other kind of philosophical school of thought or any other religion.

Furthermore, ignorants like Mr. Warren always go back to the "Victorian" era, seeing science as still largely about philosophical reasoning and equating it with other "isms", all the while willfully refusing to acknowledge the actual reality of what science has become, how it works and what it does.

Hence, science is the same as philosophy and theology - again, an ignorance-based view in the little minds of Mr. Warren and his ilk.

This is, of course, the convenient way to attempt to dismiss evolution and the overwhelming and undeniable scientific support it has, as I mentioned above.

So in essence, what Mr. Warren is saying is that scientists run on faith, not on demonstration - like philosophy and theology.

Therein lies the limitations of ignorance that have always been displayed by the deniers of scientifc facts, as still displayed today by Mr. Warren and his ilk.

Science is not, and can not, by virtue of the scientific method, be a matter of faith.

Science is about acceptance of demonstrated facts which explain our reality. Period.

Having said this, let us amuse ourselves further at the expense of Mr. Warren's shameful ignorance with this third and last excerpt from his feuille de chou of a column:
"The word "science" means simply "knowledge," and in grasping that we can immediately see that the methods of science vary with the particular discipline. The kind of precision that is possible in physics and chemistry is simply not available to the student of biology and natural history. The kind of condescension that is possible in studying plants and animals, is simply not tenable in studying human beings. And so on. Those who, like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, define "science" in a way to cross all fields, do a terrible disservice to the cause of science, by designing a straitjacket for it.

About the most that can be reasonably said is that science is "knowledge" of an especially technical kind, gleaned by empirical reasoning from testable material evidence (...)
This is what you get from someone who has absolutely no idea what one is attempting to talk about - including a further displayed ignorance of the scientific method.

First, Mr. Warren is plainly and flatly wrong about the lack of precision in biological sciences - to this effect, I give you again cellular biology, molecular biology and genetics ... as but three examples among so many.

Then he speaks of condescension in studying animals and plants. Aside from the fact that the only condescension observed here is throughout Mr. Warren's column, he willfully refuses of course to acknowledge that human beings are but a species on this planet, an animal like all others, evolved like all others.

In essence, he is calling for the end of any scientific inquiries with regards to the human being - whether biomedical, genetic, etc.. - in other words: let us remain ignorant so that we rely only on theology and philosophy ... like we did in those ancient times.

And to say that science is "knowledge of an especially technical kind" futher illustrates Mr. Warren's severe affliction of intellectual sloth and shameful ignorance.

Knowledge has always been used by human beings to devise new technological applications, ever since the dawn of Humanity. As we further understand Life, the structure of Matter, the Universe, and Ourselves, we devise new ways from such knowledge to improve our daily living conditions, our daily activities, our health, our means of transportation, and so on and so forth.

As we undertand more, we are able to create better tools and means to improve our lives.

And in turn, we devise improved and/or new means to continue our scientific inquiries into Life, the Universe, and Ourselves.

That is how we keep maturing not only as civilizations, but also as a self-aware, abstract-thinking species.

That is what we do, it is the very essence of who and what we are.

Unless, of course, one is a primitive mind like Mr. Warren and his Christianist ilk - who keep reminding us of the infantile stage of maturation we would still be stuck into, had we chosen to remain cloistered within the cave-like confines imposed by the limits of ignorance which have ever been promulgated and espoused by primitive minds like them.

(Cross-posted from APOV)


Anonymous said...

Wow. I wish I had as much down time as you to write this kinda shit . . .

chakratease said...

Thumbs Up! As a philosophy major and trapped by analogous thinking I have an image of you in a while lab coat dissecting the frog (ah-hem) while he's still alive!! screaming "This isn't happening, there is no knife, there are no pins, you know not what you do!" (Ahh this is the analogy that keeps on giving, I'm getting the philospher's rush) All the while you are moving his organs around, explaining how it all pieces together.

Like the aformentioned frog, there ain't no way he can indure introspective surgery on himself and survive, unless by a miracle, he recieves the kiss of reason and transform into a man.

Ohhh, but that kills my analogy, I need him to stay dead in a dark cave for years on end playing games with shadowpuppets.

Superb writing and thorough explanation!

Mentarch said...

Anon@9:22 AM - and your point is ... ?

Chakratease: hehehe ;-)

Again - the main point is that science, like philosophy and theology, uses imagination as well as logic deduction and "analogy and illustration" ... however, science strives to demonstrate the validity/reality of its explanations of Nature and the universe, rather than "remain" (for lack of a better word) at the level of logical argumentations ;-)