Saturday, 17 March 2012

The tyranny of Science

As a free thinker, I love science and believe in the power and grace of reason. I think demonstrable truths through the use of logic systems alone simply beautiful. This is one of the reasons why I love thinking about axiomatic mathematics, linguistics, philosophy, etc. Not just arithmetic, not just eloquence and demagoguery...

Though I find myself at odds trying to find fault in intelligent discourse, I try and follow its logical and practical consequences. It's been my observation that we rarely have our cake and eat it too.

In his book, A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel wrote a passage that got me thinking hard about the "cake adage". In a chapter titled, Ordainers of the Universe, he writes about the origins of bibliographical organization:

Rooms, corridors, bookcases, shelves, filing cards and computerized catalogues assume that the subjects on which our thoughts dwell are actual entities, and through this assumption a certain book may be lent a particular tone and value. Filed under Fiction, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is a humorous novel of adventure; under Sociology, a satirical study of England in the eighteenth century; under Children's Literature, an entertaining fable about dwarfs and giants and talking horses; under Fantasy, a precursor of science fiction; under Travel, an imaginary voyage; under Classics, a part of Western literary canon. Categories are exclusive; reading is not - or should not be.  Whatever classifications have been chosen, every library tyrannizes the act of reading, and forces the reader - the curious reader, the alert reader - to rescue the book from the category to which it has been condemned. (p. 199)

How very Weberesque.

"Categories are exclusive..." and, therefore, convenient for scientific/mathematical investigation; being human (and human cultures) is not because life itself is not amenable to exclusivity treatment. Is the physical universe continuous or discreet? It depends: particulate matter is discreet (quantum physics) but the description of motion (and curvature) seems impossible without the notion of a continuum (theory of relativity). Some people have spent their entire scientific and philosophical careers trying to reconcile the dichotomy of continuity and discreetness. But it seems to me like tongueing a cut in the roof of your mouth; it heals only after you've stopped.

The axioms of continuity and discreetness cannot be regarded as mutually exclusive principles without reaching Zeno-type paradoxes: is the tortoise winning the race? - the apparent absurdities of Zeno's conclusions are reconciled by the concepts of infinitesimals and the limit in calculus. In sociological, biological and statistical analyses, a similar (granted, at a higher level) lasting, intellectually tenable peace has never really been sought. Though people like the great Gregory Bateson have tried.

That recent controversial piece by a respected climate scientist that compared the burning of all coal and fossil fuels in the world did not look into how the biosphere (including climate stability) and life in it would be affected, as if only the relative content of gases in the atmosphere mattered. I call this the DSM syndrome.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a categorizing exercise gone horribly wrong whose roots lay not in the advancement of quality of life and human knowledge but in the thinly-veiled economic interests of corporatism. There are historic precursors to this DSM syndrome: namely, the malleus maleficarum (the hammer of witches). Like the DSM after it, this ideological/theological tool was used to hunt down and eliminate "witches" in the 15th century Europe.

Sadly, there are many examples of applying arbitrary categories as if they were actual entities in human history. The categorizing imperative makes fools of them who have the presumption to weld them like weapons. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans one televangelist made a definitive statement to the effect that Jesus hated that grand old city. Little did he know (nor would he have the intelligence to seek out) that no one on the planet is immune to climate change. Does Jesus also "hate" the mid-western states who've recently suffered the devastation of tornadoes? How should the victims there be judged and categorized? Methinks them God-fearing peoples down that way. No?

The irresistible power of science (even psuedo-science) knows no bounds. Because it comes from the human mind like the seven cardinal vices all thoughtful people must remain always vigilant lest it starts to appeal to the least common denominator and wreaks devastation upon us all.

We must never forget that we are, all of us, more than the sum of our parts, that what we think we've mastered and categorized may be just an illusion, an unfounded presumption on our part. In the I Ching, the image of the wind carries both good and ill with it. This is science and technology par excellence: the wind itself is impervious but may carry with it stronger pathogenic agents invisible to the unweary.

Jay

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