Pharyngula

A mystery explained

I was wondering why Vox Day, that lunatic, was asking me my definition of science—it turns out that that same day he posted the request, he was publishing a screed against science in WorldNutDaily. His lack of an adequate definition doesn’t seem to have stopped him from condemning science, whatever he thinks it is.

For if all knowledge is inherently good, then it is a moral imperative to scientifically determine the relative intelligence of Asians and Zulus once and for all. But is everyone really comfortable with the possibility of determining that men are, in scientific fact, intellectually superior to women? Or vice-versa? The cowardice of scientists regarding such controversial subjects, their nominal dedication to absolute scientific truth nothwithstanding, is powerful evidence of their lack of faith in the inherent beneficence of science.

I don’t think Day quite understands science here—he seems to think it is a foregone conclusion that men are “in scientific fact” superior to women. If we had some consensus on what “superior” actually means in this context (and we don’t, which is really the reason work in this field makes many of us turn up our nose in disgust—it seems to really reflect a conditional bias rather than any kind of empirically testable measure), then maybe it would turn out that women are “superior”. We don’t know. It’s probably a very bad question, an attempt to reduce an answer with multiple dimensions to a crude and grossly simplistic linear scale.

So no, we aren’t afraid of the question. We think it is a stupid question.

If “religion” is to be held culpable for the Inquisitions and the jihads, “science” is certainly no less culpable for the historical ravages of scientific socialism, the gassings of World War I, the National Socialist Holocaust, the fire-bombings of Tokyo and Dresden and the American abortion atrocity, to say nothing of the possibility of nuclear devastation as well as the inconvenient perils of global warming.

Actually, I don’t hold religion culpable — I hold people, the perpetrators, responsible. Religion, science, nationalism, preferences in cheese, whatever…people will find reasons to fight and kill each other, in the absence of ethical constraints on their behavior.

My gripe with religion is that it claims to provide such a sense of ethics, and it does no such thing. It’s a failure. In fact, it’s a distraction—too many people substitute church attendance for morality, and think they’ve fulfilled their social obligation to be good by listening to some ranting nitwit sermonize on how homosexuals will burn in hell.

Science does not claim to hold any moral weight. Arguing that it is bad because it doesn’t impose behavioral guidelines on people is as silly as arguing that religion is bad because it doesn’t help design better digital signal processing chips for cell phones. On the other hand, damning religion for moral irrelevance is a valid complaint, since “it leads us into moral behavior!” is one of the first excuses out of any apologist’s mouth.

The other point that Day makes, and is actually, I think, his central argument, is an interesting one, and you’ll be horrified to learn that I think there’s a germ of truth in it (but only a germ—don’t give him too much credit).

Sciencists (those who believe in science as a basis for dictating human behavior, as opposed to scientists, who merely engage in the method), like to posit that Man has evolved to a point where he is ready to move beyond religion. A more interesting and arguably more urgent question is whether science, having produced some genuinely positive results as well as some truly nightmarish evils, has outlived its usefulness to Mankind.

Man has survived millennia of religious faith, but if the prophets of over-population and global warming are correct, he may not survive a mere two centuries of science.

It is entirely true that living in a lower-density, more primitive, socially unadventurous state might very well lead to a more stable, longer-lived human species. Early agricultural societies dominated by a religious hierarchy were highly successful, and provided the foundation for our current culture, so sure, one could argue that stepping back into the pre-industrial period before science might well be a much more sustainable solution. Heck, why stop there—the hunter-gatherer lifestyle endured even longer, and has a much lower impact on the environment. From an evolutionary point of view, there isn’t necessarily any particular advantage to being smarter.

That’s a deeply cynical view that Day has—that ignorance is better than knowledge, because awareness hurts and technological progress brings great risks. I guess I must be more optimistic than a weird Christian nihilist, because I think it’s better to aspire to a better world than to give up and slide back into some benighted religious illusion.

We’ve been ready to move beyond religion for a long time now. We’ve just been held back by the fearful and the hidebound. And at this point, if all you’re concerned about is species longevity, we may beyond the point of turning back—our only hope may well be in increasing our knowledge, rather than abandoning it.

Comments

  1. #1 David Marjanovi?
    March 6, 2007

    the American abortion atrocity

    Aha. Abortions are only done in America. Interesting. You never stop learning…

    But I think in this phrase you mean that it is a vague and subjective question, yes?

    I’d say that this particular question is a wrong question, like “why did Napoleon cross the Mississippi”. It doesn’t make sense to say any answer to that question is right or wrong — the question itself is wrong.

  2. #2 David Marjanovi?
    March 6, 2007

    the American abortion atrocity

    Aha. Abortions are only done in America. Interesting. You never stop learning…

    But I think in this phrase you mean that it is a vague and subjective question, yes?

    I’d say that this particular question is a wrong question, like “why did Napoleon cross the Mississippi”. It doesn’t make sense to say any answer to that question is right or wrong — the question itself is wrong.

  3. #3 Kseniya
    March 7, 2007

    LOL @ Blake!

    I get the Eloi point, but I don’t think Vox wants to be a Eloi or a Morlock. I’m thinking more along the lines of Leige Lord.

    This reminds me of a story called “I Still Call Australia Home” in which starfaring folk from a war-torn Earth, an Earth in danger of annihilation, search for a new home, a new earth, out there among the stars. They fail and, space-weary and homesick beyond measure, they return home to find the globe dark.

    Nearly dark, that is: Earth is quiet, but not unpopulated. Many more years have passed on Earth than in the starship, and the people below have solved the problems of overpopulation and aggression – but not by abandoning science and technology. What transpires is heartbreaking, but the outcome isn’t relevant to this thread, and I wouldn’t dream of dumping a spoiler here anyway. ;-)

    And furthermore

    Dawkins popped up on the quote generator just now. He address the good-vs-evil issue beautifully and concisely:

    “If you want to do evil, science provides the most powerful weapons to do evil; but equally, if you want to do good, science puts into your hands the most powerful tools to do so. The trick is to want the right things, then science will provide you with the most effective methods of achieving them.”

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