robot pathos

There’s something almost unbearably sad for me about the video embedded below (especially when listening with the sound off). Of course it’s funny too, but really sad-funny, I think. Somehow it reminds me just a little of a scene in Clive Barker’s original Hellraiser, which I saw ages ago and remember poorly. But there is a moment in it when some hideous creature or other is crawling on the floor struggling for its very life, and despite the horror we feel and the danger that this being poses for others in the film, still the pathos arises: this is universal, this is the yearning to be alive and to stay alive, and it’s achingly painful to watch.

My reaction to this video snippet here isn’t quite the same, as the robot playing the starring role is obviously not sentient or self-aware. The union of funny and tenderly sad here arises for me more out of a contemplation of our magnificently unquenchable desire for ever greater knowledge — and also from a reminder of our hubris. I imagine educators of another civilization somewhere playing this to their students, who merely find it silly. But the prof has something to say about it:

“The dear earthlings, so clever, and so proud of their intellects, became enamored of a concept they called ‘transhumanism’ or ‘post-humanism.’ Somehow the challenges of self-cultivation in all their fascinating profundity and brilliance weren’t interesting enough for them. They seem to have found them, in the end, not very dramatic or exciting, maybe too difficult. So, more and more, they spent their energies inventing increasingly powerful machines. They never stopped doing so, never felt the need to justify any invention whatsoever, never pulled back to ask the larger questions about life and value, sanity and balance. ‘In the scheme of things, what will this bring about? Where will it take us? Why do we want it? Do we even know?'”

“Eventually their machines destroyed their world. As we will see over the course of this semester, this is the most common pattern…”

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Coyne and Sheldrake again…

…this time in the pages of the New Republic, in an unfortunate ad hominem attack by the former upon the latter. Here is a sample of Coyne’s invective (note, “woo” is Coyne’s word for non-materialist ideas or perspectives): “went off the rails,” “misbehaving woomeisters,” “thinks himself an unrecognized genius, persecuted like Galileo,” “woo-spouting,” “paranoid,” “rant [what he’s referring to is far more restrained than Coyne’s own intemperance],” “paints himself as a martyr again,” “The Woomeister,” “paranoid rants.”

The occasion for all of this is Sheldrake’s post linked above, which discusses a genuinely problematic phenomenon over at Wikipedia involving that immensely seductive word “objectivity.” The trouble is that scientific materialism itself is a philosophical position that cannot be demonstrated “scientifically,” so to simply assert it as simple Truth and “objectivity” is an exercise in dogmatic intolerance.

As Sheldrake rightly points out, there really is an organization which calls itself “Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia (GSoW),” they really are (in Sheldrake’s words) “well trained” and “highly motivated.” They do “have an ideological agenda, and operate in teams, contrary to Wikipedia rules.” Susan Gerbic of said group really does have a training video up, and she indeed “glories in the power that she and her warriors wield.”

Topics which span cultural fault lines are naturally going to result in highly contentious Wikipedia Talk pages, as partisans fight to gain as much control as possible over the presentation of the article in question. We are not talking about an Encyclopedia Britannica article, where one person is asked to write something and a very limited number of editors join in the rest of the way. The “Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia” have a declared mission to steer a great many articles – and more as each week goes by – their way, along with sophisticated techniques for doing so. The problem is that they are unaware of any potential blindspots in their thinking. Specifically, I refer to that cultural paradigm of scientific materialism being simply “objective” “Truth.”

There certainly are areas of Sheldrake’s thought which I don’t follow, including “morphic resonance,” one of his central ideas. But there is no doubt that his thinking and work overall are at the very least worthy of engagement and at their best represent important critiques of certain tendencies within Science today.

What is always striking to me in Jerry Coyne’s writing is the ever-present shadow of “religion.” The word appears all the time, even when there is no reason for it to. In this current piece it announces itself twice significantly. Consider the following paragraph:

Many of you might know of Sheldrake. He enjoys a certain popularity in the US and UK among those who think that there must be “something more out there”—with “more” meaning psychic phenomena. I don’t really understand a penchant for things that aren’t supported by evidence, but that’s probably a failure of empathy on my part—as well as a product of my scientific training to doubt. I am sure, though, that some of the same psychological tendencies that promote sympathy for woo also promote sympathy for religion.

This is revealing, I think. First, “something more out there” – more, that is to say, than what is contained in a purely materialist philosophy – becomes effectively reduced to the phrase “psychic phenomena.” What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t Sheldrake believe certain “psychic phenomena” exist? Yes, he does, but nonetheless I would say Coyne’s sentence is misleading. “Psychic phenomena” is a vague phrase encompassing everything from easily mockable fringe beliefs to non-materialist ways of seeing grounded firmly in “evidence-based” practice. Then there is the link between “sympathy for woo” and “sympathy for religion.” What “religion” is he talking about? The word encompasses an extraordinarily vast and varied field of views, ideas, practices. It claims some of the most degraded as well as some of the most realized beings in our human experience.

And then later in his piece he complains about a BBC interview with Sheldrake concerning the Wikipedia war over his own (Sheldrake’s) page, on the grounds that the opposing side wasn’t represented (though he reports the BBC’s intention to do just that sometime this week). At which point there follows this parenthetical remark: “[Note: the BBC interviewer, Dan Damon, describes himself and his wife as ‘keen churchgoers’].” The implication is as clear as can be: a “keen churchgoer” is de facto suspect as an inquirer into this matter of Wikipedia integrity, in a way “The Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia,” well, aren’t – at all. They’re simply “objective” defenders of The Truth, of course.

(For anyone who wishes to compare Coyne’s characterization of Sheldrake with the latter himself, I embedded in a previous post his “infamous” TEDx talk here. You may disagree with Sheldrake there to one degree or another but I really don’t think it can be said that Coyne’s constant references to him in this article as “paranoid” and a ranter, as someone who likes to proclaim himself a “persecuted” “genius” and “martyr,” as someone “off the rails,” are demonstrable. This can be said also of several interviews I have heard with Sheldrake.)

Pinker and Wieseltier’s discussion on science and the humanities

There have been several exchanges recently between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier in the pages of the New Republic regarding the relationship between science and the humanities. Yesterday (September 26), there appeared this set of responses, which is well worth reading carefully and contemplating. The essay of Wieseltier’s which immediately led to this is here. It too is eminently worth reading. In fact, I consider the latter to be about as lucid, incisive, and elegant a statement as I’ve seen on the subject.

Wieseltier has become a beacon of brilliant sanity in this matter of the domain and role and limitations of Science, and the irreducible centrality of the humanities to human culture.

More about this particular exchange another time.

a response to Sean Carroll concerning scientism (1)

Sean Carroll, a physicist at Caltech, recently posted a piece entitled “Let’s Stop Using the Word ‘Scientism.'” His basic argument – which is the same as Jerry Coyne’s and others – is that the word is vague. Like Coyne, he wants us to cease using it, entirely replacing it with criticisms of specific scientific claims or practices, as they come up. Let’s take a closer look at this.

If we are not permitted to use a word like “scientism,” then we are not permitted to voice the idea that the word “science” is capable of ever masking any significant degree of self-deception. We are instead required to view it as possessing some sort of transcendental status that somehow bypasses human mediation. In other words, “Science” must be viewed as simply “The Truth,” a universal epistemological trump card, and basically incorruptible.

(I capitalize the word here, and in certain other instances, when I specifically wish to emphasize the notion of science as an entire “way of seeing,” distinct from either doctrinally religious views on the one hand, or those more broadly humanistic, on the other.)

Since that is so, this argument goes, the notions of dogmatism, extremism, ideology, and religious “fundamentalism” have no parallel in Science as a whole. The paradigms and practices of science require no overarching philosophical View – which would, of course, need to be supplied by humans, and would therefore be fallible. Nor is science capable of radically straying into any kind of cul-de-sac of error. Therefore, it’s unnecessary and even obfuscating to have a word for this danger. The danger doesn’t exist.

That is the argument. In support of it, Sean provides nine examples of how the word “scientism” is used in one instance or another, claiming that these taken together represent a vagueness or lack of specificity. They are worth reproducing:

1) Science is the source of all interesting, reliable facts about the world.
2) Philosophy and morality and aesthetics should be subsumed under the rubric of science.
3) Science can provide an objective grounding for judgments previously thought to be subjective.
4) Humanities and the arts would be improved by taking a more scientific attitude.
5) The progress of science is an unalloyed good for the world.
6) All forms of rational thinking are essentially science.
7) Eventually we will understand the important questions of human life on a scientific basis.
8) Reductionism is the best basis for complete understanding of complicated systems.
9) There is no supernatural realm, only the natural world that science can investigate.

Now, is Sean implying that all definitions must be reducible to a single thought, a single sentence? If not, I do not understand his point. Six of these nine statements (points 2-7) all go together, forming, indeed, a philosophical perspective that can most certainly be disputed.

First, let me isolate the three that do not seem fairly placed. I would question Sean’s ability to find more than a few scientists, if any, who would assert that “science is the source of all interesting … facts about the world” (point 1). Maybe such people exist somewhere, but they would be rare. His second adjective “reliable” is maybe a little more in line with the other points, but “interesting” is too vague, I think.

Point 9 contains words difficult to define for these purposes (“natural” and “supernatural”). It is presumably in the list because a segment of people who attack science do so from the perspective of religion, often religious fundamentalism. However, it’s not actually relevant here: notions of what is “natural” or not do obfuscate the question. There are more than enough of us deeply concerned about scientism who don’t make use of a concept of the “natural” in doing so.

And finally point 8 is rarely heard: few people will actually assent to being a reductionist. Certainly reductionism manifests as part of the larger syndrome being referred to by scientism, but the mantle of reductionism is not commonly claimed by scientists.

This leaves points 2-7, which very much do all cohere. A given individual might slightly downplay one or the other, as indeed Sean states. But in practice these can be discussed together as indicating a basic view of reality and valuation of human endeavor (and they can all be easily found in for example Jerry Coyne’s writings). Here’s one way of doing it, with only a few additions for linking purposes (the original points are in bold):

All forms of rational thinking are essentially science. Since rational thinking is our only means for getting at the truth of phenomena, the progress of science is an unalloyed good for the world. For the same reason, the humanities and the arts would be improved by taking a more scientific attitude, while philosophy and morality and aesthetics – again following on from the equation of rational thinking and science – should be subsumed under the rubric of science. Being founded and practiced upon rational bases, science can provide an objective grounding for judgments previously thought to be subjective. And when the humanities and arts (along with “philosophy and morality and aesthetics”), as above, are placed upon firm scientific ground, eventually we will understand the important questions of human life on a scientific basis.”

Even though I took more-or-less the entire core of the previous paragraph verbatim from Sean’s own points 2-7 rather than formulating it in my own words, it forms a definition of scientism that isn’t half bad, I would say. In a second post I will try to show the blindspot in this view, and some of the ways in which it is very dangerous.

the Rupert Sheldrake TEDx talk controversy

I’ve only just come across this story. Rupert Sheldrake had been invited to give a TEDx talk at the University of London as part of an event devoted specifically to “Challenging Existing Paradigms,” and then – as a result of complaints from P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne – TED thereupon removed the video from their YouTube channel, relegating it to a somewhat obscure corner of their site.

The video however (embedded below) was very popular, as was the original event itself, and an outcry erupted over this action. Finally the video was given its own page with a forum devoted to the issue and an extensive discussion ensued, the great majority of whose contributors have been supportive of Sheldrake and opposed to the TED response.

It’s a very interesting story which highlights crucial issues in science and the nature of truth today. I haven’t had the chance to think enough about Sheldrake’s main theoretical contribution of “morphic resonance,” which I don’t feel I properly understand. But what he has to say in the interviews I’ve read with him about unquestioned materialistic assumptions and reductionism are indisputably central critiques.

His scientific credentials are not in dispute (PhD in biochemistry from Cambridge), but his work is unsurprisingly dismissed as pseudoscience by much of the scientific establishment. Interestingly, he was able to spend some time at the ashram of the great Benedictine monk Dom Bede Griffiths in Tamil Nadu before Griffiths’ death in 1993, and in general it seems that his work very valuably attempts to integrate scientific attitudes and trans-scientific philosophy and practices.

How successfully he has achieved this is hard for me to say at this point. But I feel his efforts to publicize unquestioned, dogmatic attitudes within science, as in the talk below and his book Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery (The Science Delusion in the UK) are crucially important, and may well help spark a way forward out of materialism one day…

An interview with him about this controversy appears here. And for reference, I’ve transcribed from the talk above his ten dogmas of materialistic science, each of which he feels are highly questionable. Note: he is not simply claiming that the reverse of every one of these is true. Rather, his book turns these certainties into questions, and reflects on what new possibilities for inquiry might then be freed up as a result.

1) Nature is mechanical or machine-like. The universe is like a machine. Animals and plants are like machines. We’re like machines, in fact we are machines. We’re “lumbering robots,” in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are genetically programmed computers.

2) Matter is unconscious. The whole universe is made up of unconscious matter. There’s no consciousness in stars, in galaxies, in planets, in animals, in plants. And there ought not to be any in us either, if this theory is true. So a lot of the philosophy of mind over the last hundred years has been trying to prove that we’re not really conscious at all [laughter]. So matter’s unconscious.

3) The laws of nature are fixed. The laws of nature are the same now as they were at the time of the Big Bang, and they’ll be the same forever. Not just the laws but the constants of nature are fixed, which is why they are called constants.

4) The total amount of matter and energy is always the same. It never changes in total quantity except at the moment of the Big Bang, when it all sprang into existence from nowhere in a single instant.

5) Nature’s purposeless. There are no purposes in all nature, and the evolutionary process has no purpose or direction.

6) Biological heredity is material. Everything you inherit is in your genes or in epigenetic modifications of the genes or in cytoplasmic inheritance. It’s material.

7) Memories are stored inside your brain as material traces. Somehow everything you remember is in your brain in modified nerve endings, phosphorylated proteins. No one knows how it works, but nevertheless almost everyone in the scientific world believes it must be in the brain.

8) Your mind is inside your head. All your consciousness is the activity of your brain and nothing more.

9) Psychic phenomena like telepathy are impossible. Your thoughts and intentions cannot have any effect at a distance because your mind’s inside your head. Therefore, all the apparent evidence for telepathy and other psychic phenomena is illusory. People believe these things happen but it’s just because they don’t know enough about statistics, or they’re deceived by coincidences, or it’s wishful thinking.

10) Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works. That’s why governments only fund research into mechanistic medicine, and ignore complementary and alternative therapies. Those can’t possibly really work because they’re not mechanistic. They may appear to work because people would have got better anyway or because of the placebo effect, but the only kind that really works is mechanistic medicine.

scientific certainty

(from an interview in the current issue of Buddhadharma with biologist Rupert Sheldrake):

In 1894, Albert Michelson, later to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, declared, “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”

Whoops. Within a generation quantum theory and general relativity would bring about such an “exceedingly remote” possibility.

Today the same kinds of claims are made for a great many theories that not only haven’t been established by centuries of rigorous work – as Michelson’s physics was. They haven’t even been properly understood, delineated, and “proven” the first time around. I’m talking about the infiltration of scientific certainties into various social “scientific” domains. Wild claims about genes for such notions as “gregariousness,” “altruism,” and “criminal personality” appear every week. But it is hard to see how these kinds of concepts are anything but trans-scientific in their profoundly imprecise and contingent natures.

(Even a one-dimensionally, completely measurable trait like height has about fifty genes connected to it, together only accounting for roughly 5 percent of a given person’s actual height, according to Sheldrake.)

That is to say, to quote from the interview again: “…human meanings, values, and purposes can only be understood in the context of human societies, traditions, philosophies, religions, and experiences.”

scientism: 3) the syndrome

In a previous post I tried to delineate the nature of a particular syndrome, one which is rarely aired outside of Science Studies, STS (Science, Technology, and Society) and other academic departments. In beginning to write about this I’m reminded of a quotation I just came across from Bill McKibben, in an interview publicizing the Burlington Book Festival:

Books remain the single most important way for societies to think seriously about themselves. There are arguments that can only be made at length, and with grace, which is to say only with books.

This certainly holds true with regard to the subject at hand. It’s exceptionally hard, in a short statement, to say anything about it that is perhaps worth saying. Nevertheless, I would like to throw out a provisional set of arguments over a series of posts. As we find ourselves moving further and further down a path whose deeper premises remain effectively unquestioned, I believe this topic can only acquire ever more importance.

I will be suggesting ten or so reasons why such questioning needs to be taken more seriously. Most of these points are not particularly controversial. Nevertheless, their direct implications rarely are addressed in the media, in policy decisions, in the broader cultural discourse more generally.

Before moving on to these, however, one larger point, touched on in a previous post. There is a straw man constantly resorted to here which has to do with the crisis of polarization we’ve reached, whereby virtually any criticism directed towards Science is assumed to have “religious” motivation and a fundamentally “irrational” basis. In fact, this assumption in itself is part of the syndrome – despite the truth that indeed, religious fundamentalism’s antagonism towards rational critical thought remains one of the greatest of dangers in the world.

In any event, this is most definitely not my own point of departure, quite the contrary. What I will be focusing on most here has to do with fields relatively newly “scientized,” which in all kinds of ways touch upon important and vastly complex human questions. And because human, also especially emotive and self-interested. Prior to the past 150 years or so, “science” used to point to a fairly small and circumscribed set of disciplines. Today, as linguist Roy Harris well puts it (in The Semantics of Science):

For many years now linguistics has not been the only subject scrambling to climb aboard the bandwagon of science. Students of virtually every form of human behaviour – including psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and educationists – have tried to do likewise, and in some cases have simply appropriated the title science as an official designation for their own discipline or subdiscipline. If people were shocked in 1914 when Clive Bell spoke of a ‘science of aesthetics,’ they have nowadays become accustomed to universities whose football coaches are “sports scientists” and whose army instructors introduce their trainees to the study of ‘military science.’ (pp. 104-105)

To which one can add, of course, the notion of “political science.”

In my most recent post on this subject I quoted the following from Jerry Coyne (my emphasis):

I prefer to think of science as an attitude rather than a method: a respect for the truth about nature and a determination to wrest that truth from obscurity by using methods that, according to most rational people, reveal what’s out there.

I find the formulation I’ve highlighted both honest and largely accurate as a description of how science operates. The trouble, to my mind, comes in with what follows the colon, with phrases such as “the truth about nature,” “most rational people,” and “what’s out there.” These beg a number of questions that need to be explored in greater depth, which I hope to be able to do in future posts.