Is the era of science – at least the theoretical sciences – coming to an end? Does technological development require scientific theory anymore? Maybe not. What future does that offer?
Before we get to the more serious issue of cartoons and what they tell us about ourselves (and I am busy keyboarding the Batman essay with the right hand while keyboarding this with the left), I want to reproduce a comment I made at Massimo Piglucci’s Scientia Salon, on the problematic relationship between philosophy, science, technology, and politics.
It should be noted that many scientists have little understanding of politics or history; so the discussion between scientismists – those who think all knowledge can be reduced to the sciences – and philosophers (who are very aware of politics, both locally and globally) is pretty well skewered. The scientismists argue that philosophy is a waste of time; philosophers not only ask for the evidence for this, but for politically aware rhetoric, which scientismists are convinced is not necessary. The ignorance and childishness of scientismists is clear. We live in a social environment, and social environments are always politicized, and always require rhetoric to successfully navigate. The notion that a handful of mathematical formulas successfully “prove” the necessity of accepting scientific leadership in social discourse is worse than naive – it is out-right ignorance.
As an aside, I want to remark why it is that Scientia Salon is the one weblog that I regularly comment on. First, many of the blogs I follow do not require comment; second, some I follow actually contain complex arguments that require complex responses, for which I have little time. Also, of course, there are blogs that say exactly what I would like to say, so why comment on it? (Finally, there is The Armchair Pontificator, which is posted by god, so what can one say to it?)
But the primary reason is that Scientia Salon, for reasons not entirely clear to myself, has a deep resonance for the experience of intellectual debate I had in college and graduate school. So it is very easy to respond to both the articles and the commentary at that site, since to form my comments, I only need to remember arguments I heard, and responses I made, when I was young. That doesn’t mean that Scientia Salon is out of date; but this does suggest that intellection has not progressed much – in either the sciences or philosophy – in the past 2 or 3 decades.
There’s something unsettling about that. But after all, we are the playthings of history, never its masters.
Any way; what follows is a series of thesis statements that came to me after I posted a jeremiad satire suggesting that science was effectively worthless as a study. Obviously tongue-in-cheek – but with a kernel of truth I myself found unsettling.
There is one thing more needed to added to what follows. I tossed the remark off-hand, but on reflection, I worry that it is more true than I originally conceived:
In a world dominated by technology, theoretical sciences are no longer necessary.
Can we conceive of a future that enjoys the technology we do, without any of the sciences from which they are derived? Unfortunately, I think we can. We may very well be in the process of moving ‘beyond,’ ‘outside of,’ the sciences as theoretical constructs of the world in which we live.
‘Science gives us the most reliable knowledge we have about the world.’ So claim scientists – and indeed, many philosophers. However, the production of technology is so well developed, it may be on the way to making ‘knowledge’ obsolete.
But if that happens, all our current political paradigms could very well be swept aside.
An important fact behind this post: The Islamic Republic of Iran is heavily invested in the technology of atomic energy. It has no interest in theoretical physics – since this would involve Big Bang theories that contradict the Koran – and little interest in evolutionary biology, since this could only effect other animals (and of course humans are not like other animals, they were specially created). In short, Iran is heavily invested in contemporary technology; in the science claimed to form their foundation – not at all. The curricula of there universities necessarily reflect this, since Iran has an authoritarian government. Yet their technologists seem to be doing quite well under that regime. So apparently that foundation is really not so fundamental to the technology derived from it….
(It should be noted that, as thesis statements, what follows would need considerable argument to buttress; so they can only be presented as questions to consider, rather than finalized theories.)
THESES ON POSSIBLE HISTORIES:
Philosophy cannot be pursued under an authoritarian government; it inevitably produces ideas in violation of the ideology of the government.
Science can be pursued under an authoritarian government, as long as it does not violate the ideology of the government.
Technology can be developed under an authoritarian government without limitation, since the production of new machinery need not invoke any ideas violating the government’s ideology.
Once the logic of the scientific foundation of the technology is reduced to a logistics – the model reduced to machinery – technology can be developed without reference to that foundation.
Technology is history-independent, since its logistics are no longer dependent on the logic of the theories that first produced them.
To at least the extent that the logic of a science can be reduced to a logistic, the science is history-independent. Once a prior scientific theory has been superseded, its logic becomes reduced to a logistics supporting the superseding theory. (Thus the ‘Newtonian universe’ is dead, but parts of it are still practically useful in support of the current Standard Model.)
Philosophy is not history-independent. It’s logic does not reduce to logistics, and so it cannot ignore properly logical claims, including those of past theories its current theories derive from.
The danger of engaging in any practice that is history-independent is that there is no check against anyone developing a grudge against the past, against history itself. Reflecting on it takes too much effort, discussing it risks political difficulties; frequently it reminds us that what we consider important matters are, or may be found later to be, not so important. History is littered with false starts and mistakes. The wish here – ‘we are “beyond” making mistakes’ – is evident.
An informed intellect is necessarily open to historical knowledge, since this provides understanding of the development of the ideas in circulation in its contemporary social environment.
Those who believe themselves to be ‘history-independent’ in their practices thus tend toward anti-intellectualism.
Authoritarian governments hold that they are ‘beyond making mistakes.’ Even when they assert themselves as ‘the result of history,’ they equally assert that, having gone ‘beyond’ it, they are now independent of it. The logic of history thus reduces to a logistics of political control.
Authoritarian governments are anti-intellectual, since any history-dependent intellectual pursuit is considered a threat.
Like always tends towards like. Anti-intellectualism as an attitude tends toward authoritarianism as its ultimate political realization.
While it is true that the sciences thrive in a democratic republic, but many of them can thrive under an authoritarian government, and all technologies can. Philosophy can only thrive under a non-authoritarian government. A democratic republic is the least authoritarian government that is practically realizable. Thus the event of philosophy in a democratic republic is inevitable; the event of science therein is probable; the event of technology therein is merely incidental.
We like to think that intellectual progress, progress in the sciences, and in the technologies, along with political progress, all go hand-in-hand; because for a brief time, in the 19th century, they seemed to do so. But that was an accident of history – and history has many accidents. But history, observed objectively is a mess; politics even messier. The notion that ‘what succeeded here can succeed there,’ that ‘what succeeds now, will succeed then,’ is demonstrably false.
I fear the hours of what we know as ‘science’ are numbered. Technology will continue to fascinate us for some time to come – it produces new toys, new weapons, new pills to pop. But it doesn’t rely on science anymore. Forget about the debate between scientists and philosophers; the future may well belong to engineers, programmers, and other technicians And they are reaching he point of not needing either philosophy or science. They only need the material, and the logistics by which to manipulate them.
If they have a government – any form of government – supporting them, they don’t even need us.