Archive for September 2017


The religion of science

September 11th, 2017 — 3:37pm

Science is not normally considered to be in the same category of thought as religions. And in some ways, it is in a different category. It doesn’t have quite the same ossified structures of most other religions, and it doesn’t have any human-like gods. But then it isn’t as old as most other religions, which in their own youth were also fervently bubbling with new ideas. And if we widen our conception of gods to include such abstracted but eternal entities such as ‘Truth’ and ‘Reason’, then science does have those gods. In thinking itself as superior to all (other) religions, science is exactly the same as them.

By framing science as a religion, we can gain a handle on science’s role in modern society and give it the tools to defend itself against the attacks from other schools of thought which beset it from time to time. Science is too easily dismissive of other systems of thinking, which incorporate irrational elements, or frame the acquisition of knowledge in a different way. By dismissing these systems and their followers, science is itself dismissed by the people for whom religion is important. By these people, science is already seen as a kind of religion, so to better present itself as an alternative to religious thinking systems science can look at it own roots, its own dogmas and eternal truths, its own miracles and prophesies.

When people dismiss science, they often treat it as a disparate group of people who are acting without an ethical framework or who are motivated by self interest. They fail to see that science has a hard ethical framework of its own. One ethical stance that science takes is its stance against dogma. At its heart, science encourages skepticism, and it encourages the questioning of its own dogma. This itself, is of course a kind of dogma. Science uses this method, this dogma, to find Truth. Finding Truth, knowing Truth, is where the quest of science is identical to that of many religions.

Science is not an acid bath of skeptical thought, and doubt has its limits.  To do science, it must be accepted that the only truths that matter are those which can be arrived at through observation of material phenomena.  There is no truth value given to realities which cannot be detected and reproduced and corroborated by multiple people. If anything, the dogma of doubt by default tends to regard such phenomena as false—this includes all the false gods of other religions.

Because all realms beyond the material fall into this category, Science can be dismissed as not grappling with many areas which religion touches such as life after death. By dismissing them, it can lacking the sort of gravity which a religion that has an all-powerful wish granting all knowing creator can claim to have. To answer these concerns science can point to its own deep eternal logics and methods, the beauty of its mathematics and the miracle of the universe.

But it can also point to the power of its own prophesy and the miracles which it can work. Here is where science shows its power over the old gods. The erection of lightning rods on churches was the moment when the scientific god of reason won its battle against these old cosmic foes. The march of science has been unstoppable ever since, winning battle after battle against the old schools of thought, conquering the demons of disease and famine, foretelling the rains and discovering the ancient stories of the earth.

Scientists can be cast as outsiders to culture, their roots not being grounded in the founding mythology of peoples, and having no sanctified rituals which are part of the daily life. But actually the roots of science are as deep as the bronze age. Many scientists would think it was a slur to call science a religion, but I think it helps us to understand and revere it for the powerful system of thought that it is. And in times when other religions seek special treatment from the state and science is cast as a mere mode of employment, I think it could benefit from some acknowledgement of its sanctity.

 

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New book: Bleeding Nose Poems

September 11th, 2017 — 3:10pm

Nones. No good can come of it.

So here is my new poem book: “Bleeding Nose Poems”. Is that a bit weird? The acronym is BNP, unintentionally.

 

You can buy it over on Lulu, but better still, send me a message on Twitter and I’ll send you an autographed copy, wherever you are.

A

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Evolution or Revolution

September 11th, 2017 — 2:54pm

A meritocracy is a kind of evolution, a social evolution. Like biological evolution, its business is to reward the survivors, and winnow out the weak. It is a hard game but the rules are set by Nature herself.

For all its advantages over less obviously fair systems of resource allocation, like systems based on dynastic rule, one disadvantage of a meritocracy gives license to those who do well in it to pat themselves on the back a bit for their good genetics and intelligence (forgetting the role of luck). It does not encourage charity – it believes that there really are ‘deserving poor’.

But perhaps meritocracies aren’t so different to dynasties after all. For if meritocracies are a good principle, why keep them only one generation deep when they can be inter-generational? Dynasties are simply meritocracies that are allowed to build up the merit from generation to generation. The opportunity to do so is itself part of the reward which a meritocracy provides to encourage us to strive. Evolution certainly passes on its rewards in this way, allowing species to accumulate their advantages.

Unlike a meritocracy though, evolution acts unevenly on organisms. Sometimes the competition is fierce, such as when landmasses join and a region is flooded with a new species; or when the climate changes and resources become scarce. But for many other times the competition wanes and organisms can become more experimental and exuberant, such as often happens on islands where e.g. dodos can experiment with flightlessness in the absence of predators. Most of these frivolities will quickly become extinct when the competition increases again, but occasionally some new idea is hit on which gives a significant advantage, a new weed emerges to conquer the world.

Possibly these little evolution holidays are essential to the development of complex new traits. Endless competition for resources is not a constant factor in any ecosystem, for sometimes resources are abundant.  So it should also be in a meritocracy – as well as the competition in the marketplace of ideas, there needs to be a safe place for experimentation.

Funnily enough this happens naturally if you allow dynasties to exist, as the rich create and inhabit a playground which is free from the competition under which everyone else must work. It also happens in the modern world within certain institutions – or with the apparatus of a beneficient state – perhaps one which provides a living wage – which takes the heat off the need to constantly engage in the struggle to succeed. The advantages of social apparatus over dynasties is that dynasties essentially rely upon the slavery of much of the population, whereas a social safety net enslaves no-one.

Where meritocracies fail I think, is where they fail to address that need for some space to play. Life needs room to innovate, there need to be good times as well as hard times. It’s a misconception that only through constant struggle will the best be brought out of us. This is the lie that is behind austerity movements, and the cutting of state safety nets. The argument for such cuts, when you get down to it, is that people must be left to make their own way by merit alone, there is no helping hand. But this is a myth – for a properly functioning system we must make resources available. Otherwise we will quickly revert to dynastic rule – and of course that seems to be happening with the vast inequalities of wealth that are now the norm in the west. Perhaps this is the natural consequence of the market-meritocracy that has existed in the west.

But a meritocracy is not the only way evolution can happen to society. The alternative is if instead of struggling against each other, we join together in the struggle against the wider universe – against the challenges posed by the Earth’s capacity to support our growing population for instance. For this we must come together and think as a single brilliant organism, and leave behind the sordid game of keeping each other down as we scramble to be at the top of the muck pile.

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