Thursday, April 2, 2009

Lateral Transmissions: Creationism & The Scientific Tower of Babel

A few days ago I ran into the grocery store just to pick up some milk. I realized I could also use cereal, and juice, and a few other items. Since I hadn't picked up a bin, I stood at the checkout line straining to carry each individual item, looking like a buffoon. If I'd have just picked up a bin, it all would've been much easier to carry. It would’ve saved me so much energy. And you know, I do this all the time, which merely doubled my feeling of buffoonery.

On the ride back, I was chewing on a creationist argument (that an anonymous had posted here at Scientific Blogging) linking God’s creation of the world to the laws of thermodynamics. The argument seemed to rest on a loose and anthropomorphic interpretation of “energy” as something more akin to “life-energy”.

That’s an understandable mistake. “Energy” can be ambiguous. We have a subjective sense of energy, but then there’s the more objective scientific construct. In the grander scheme of things, picking up a bin in the grocery store wouldn’t have created new energy in the world. But by allowing me to optimize my muscles in accordance with the laws of physics, I would've saved energy; and for all practical purposes, I would've created it too, at least for myself, because then my muscles would've been less tired. I might’ve used the energy for some other purpose.

The flaws in creationist arguments lie in this type of confusion between subjectivity and objectivity. We’re all grateful for human life. This is a subjective feeling, though it's present almost universally. But there’s a desire to then frame the origins of life in a manner that’s as magnanimous as our gratefulness for it. Science, on the other hand, is explicitly built upon a strict separation of subject and object.

Creationism's objective/subjective mistake is understandable. The desire to commit it is as tangible as my feeling of “creating energy” had I simply grabbed a bin ahead of time at the grocery store. Afterall, to me that energy is quite real, and I could’ve spent it any number of more productive ways. But the act of picking up a bin is in no way magnanimous, or of a degree of grandeur proportionate to its subjective value to me. In this sense, the creation of life may be as "arbitrary" as the action of shifting multiple grocery items into a bag.

Beyond Creationism

The paragraphs above account for creationism's starting points or axioms, which almost always stem from man’s subjective amazement of being alive, sometimes explicitly sometimes implicitly. The rest of the creationist account can be summarized in the words, “From this, it follows”.

Herein lies the deeper mistake, which is significant because it’s shared by science as well. Godel’s refutation of logic set the most important tenant for contemporary philosophy. He proved that any completely logical system is inherently either non-complete or self-contradictory. “From this” it rarely does follow, but even if it did follow, and completely logically at that, then we still have little assurance that the account is correct.

Volumes of theology are filled with the rigid application of logic on top of these sorts of religious axioms. Parallel to this in Western intellectual history is the confusion of rhetoric for logic. Going back to Ancient Greece, Socrates commonly refuted his peers by asking questions like, “What are your definitions? And how does your argument follow from them?” He would then poke dialectical holes either in those definitions, or in the inferences that were made atop them.

This sort of debate appeared so solid that it stuck for centuries. The enlightenment championed the use of reason over all else. And logic, it was assumed, was an integral part of reason.

Ever since Godel’s theorem, logic has quietly slipped out of mainstream thought, leaving a void that has yet to be adequately filled. This is partly responsible for the rise of empiricism and the need for researchers to dirty themselves with collecting data – which is likely a step in the right direction, but these data are still analyzed using similar logical systems that aren’t immune to Godel’s diagnosis. Results to empirical studies are often given an undeserved air of objectivity, as if they were irrefutable. But fundamental errors are still often made, and they can be drastic. I elaborated more on some of these concrete errors in this comment (at the Chatterbox), and in a previous post.

All of which is to say that science starts with more objective and thought-out axioms than religion, but its flaws in logical deduction might make it just as - or only a little less - wrong in the end.

The Scientific Tower of Babel

Look at history from the rule of the Church to communism. The former rule was based God, the latter based on carefully thought-out central planning. The Soviets went so far as to embrace a scientific precision in their flavor of communism, individually setting prices for up to 24 million different items. Communism was worked to almost an exact science, and it all worked in theory – and beautifully in theory some said - not unlike some of the scientific theories we have to today. Its axioms vastly differed from religion’s, as did its glorified intentions. But both failed – and drastically, and with blood on their hands – for similar reasons.

The stakes in science today are certainly milder, but each year science plays a larger role in society and policy. The difficulty in modern day science is that there’s no funding for dissenters, which leads to a lack of proper reflection. Much of science is marred by confirmation-bias, often unchecked by the peer-review process, which has just as many holes as science itself. Without the restraints that other business endeavors have, accountability is quite difficult, and experts simply argue that the scientific results justify themselves. The picture is eerily similar to that of creationism, especially when you look at basic science, which is less chained to real world results. The more I look at it, the more I've come to question its correctness. For now it certainly seems like the most logical method to advance mankind's knowledge. But I can't shake the suspension that - similar to pedestals formerly held by religion and logic - a large portion of the scientific endeavor might prove to be an understandable mistake.

Arguments from both sides of the creation/science debate – and when you look at the rhetoric used, it really is creationism vs. science – are partisan and acidic, with each side claiming higher ground. I’ve come to the point where I unquestionably side with evolution and science.

But I admit unease, however, when I turn back to look at modern-day science in and of itself. It’s not that it’s “just a bunch of theories”; it’s our awkward pursuit of science; the basic assumptions that are often left unquestioned; the centrally dispersed funding (which artificially steers science in this or that direction); the non-role of dissenters (and the lack of meaningful dialogue that it creates); and in some cases, I guess it is just a bunch of theories. In compiling all these factors, I worry that we maybe building our own scientific tower of babel. And while I in no way presume to have the solution, a suitable place to start might lie in an attitude of humility, not unlike the sort characteristic of the pious Christian.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photos: (1) 2005_062_17, 01/16/2006, by chuckp; (2) thε allεgory oƒ Camεra & Obscura . . , 09/23/2007, by Jef Safi; (3) Portrait of Godel, 1906-1978; (4) 2009/365/4 Non-Euclidian Geometry Snow Paths, 01/04/2009, by cogdogblog; (5) I had to stop and look up..., 11/27/2006, by Jasmic; (6) cheese making, 11/25/2008, by cdine; (7) The Tower of Babel, 1563, by Peter Brueghel the Elder.

Video: (1) Music video, 08/24/2007, by steffi51, music by the band Godspeed You Black Emperor from the song "Terrible Canyons of Static" on their 2000 album, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.
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  1. Once again Kerrjak, a very insightful article.

    A problem I see with science and knowledge is that most scientists seem to assume that they are dealing directly with knowledge, rather than walking a path towards knowledge.

    The day that I am unable to see the path is the day that I shall stop pursuing and writing about science and philosophy.

    Meanwhile, I am grateful for life - all of life, and grateful when others accept me for my mind, rather than my nationality, religion or wealth.

    If it came down to people liking me for my worldly wealth I would have no friends. :)

    And so, I am grateful for the intellectually stimulating challenge of debate amongst friends. I might almost say, without meaning insult: "May we never fully agree."

    Best regards.

  2. Completely agree on the "may we never agree", Patrick.

    Along those lines - or perhaps a more intermediate view on agreeing - I think people place too much emphasis on agreeing. It's unfortunate that people often put so much stake in their opinions that they become a more important driving force than learning about reality. I've met many highly intelligent people who frame their points as to be confrontational. Some do it intentionally, but many just b/c it's the norm. It's a shame b/c it sucks you in to the point where you feel a need to defend yourself, & everyone loses touch of the topic at hand. (I had some past entries on the transparency of opinions; see, if interested, the labels, listed below, for "opinion", & on a related note, for "Tocqueville").

    But I think that it fits right back into this post's theme of humility. b/c there's something very egotistical about - not necessarily opinions in & of themselves - but some people's inner need to define themselves by them, & to defend them at all costs. Every person can't help but be attached to their own opinions, but at the same time there's a need to recognize that they are *just* opinions.

    The more I think about the more I'm intrigued by the role of humility in much of this. Some aspects of Christianity take it a bit far - like the notion of original sin - but humility seems like such a useful tool in approaching other people & the world. b/c true advances in knowledge spring from an inner-sense that you really don't know everything. If you think you know it all, then what's the point, really, of anything? & as we all know, there are lots of really smart people, some at the forefronts of science, who think & act like they know it all. It's not just that it makes people cocky & rude; it's a real hindrance when it comes to problem-solving, evaluating one's efforts, & making real advance.


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