Monday, April 25, 2011

The First Thing Is to Admit What We Don't Know

I search for truth in our shared experiences, our disagreements, the good that humankind promotes and the evil that we enact. We are artists and poets, writers and musicians, but destroyers of life. The one thing we never are is boring. It matters not one whit as to whether you believe or don't believe in God, for me it's about examining all of the possibilities. Science offers many answers but not all. Science is continually changing because valid science is born of a hypothesis and proof (See the scientific method). Sometimes the hypothesis cannot be proven. Sometimes the proof reveals a totally unexpected truth.

However, science without contemplation, without moral considerations can lead us into dark places. The medical experiments of Josef Mengele and others were clearly a search for scientific proof gone wrong. The whole science of eugenics was a perversion of science, yet for a time, those who believed in eugenics boldly cited scientific proof to support their beliefs. Is science bad and responsible for the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the United States' own little foray into forced sterilization of some of its citizens, mostly poor and black? Of course not, but such events are an indication that science can be perverted just as any other belief system.

Just as many of the Christian faiths in the U.S. sought to justify slavery, so did science. Negroes were judged inferior. Skulls were measured, brains were studied and the conclusion was that black people were intellectually inferior to whites, an idea that continued to be presented as having a scientific basis in 20th century works such as The Bell Curve. From the early 1920s to the 1970s, some 65,000 men and women were sterilized in this country, many without their knowledge, as part of a government eugenics program to keep so-called undesirables from reproducing. Then there were the scientific experiments known as the Tuskegee syphilis study. The clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama, studied the natural progression of untreated syphilis in poor, rural black men who thought they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government.

The current worship of nuclear power is a perversion of science. We have the science to create nuclear power plants but it seems highly irrational to play with a substance that creates radioactive waste that is toxic to all life in some misbegotten belief that we can keep it under control. Depending on the half-life of the radiation, it could stay in a person for much longer than a lifetime. The half- life is the amount of time it takes for a radioactive material to decay to one half of its original amount. Some materials have half-lives of more than 1,000 years. I find this no more rational than the religious sects that deny medical treatment to their children because they believe that if they pray hard enough God will heal them.

What is inherent in our nature that makes us need to believe in something so strongly that we exclude reason and compassion from our thought processes? Our belief in science created the first atomic weapon, a weapon capable of wreaking havoc and devastation, a weapon capable of leaving behind lethal radioactive waste with an indefinite shelf life, when reason should have perhaps suggested that just because we could didn't mean that we should. Science has helped us create more efficient ways of killing; we can now kill humans and leave the buildings standing. What an accomplishment!

Am I opposed to science? No. Science has also been used to promote the greater good and I would not condemn all of science for its missteps. However, a belief in science is just as potentially dangerous as an unwavering belief in a man with a beard who lives in the clouds. Looking inwardly isn't about justifying our worst impulses; it's about studying what makes us who we are in order to find our way to being better than we are. Most people act without ever considering why they act. This is why mobs form so easily and get so out of control. Individually, most would not engage in the type of vicious and sadistic behaviors that they will as a group. How do we move beyond this mob instinct?

I think that it is far more complex than simply declaring that all people need to embrace science and reason. Either can be perverted as much as any religious belief because the issue lies within ourselves not the stars (Thanks Will). Certainly there have been magnificent advancements in science that have benefited us all; however, humankind has also used science to develop even more efficient ways of killing one another. Hanging the solution to today's problems solely on science or reason is no more rational than announcing that it's all in God's hands.

For me this is where psychology and philosophy must be added to the mix. Science is a type of knowing, based on proposing a hypothesis and designed experiments test and hopefully prove that theory. But that which makes us human goes beyond the concrete, factual answers that science can provide. What we do with that science is based on a complex working of human nature and science hasn't designed an experiment to take the full measure of what makes us tick.  Perhaps psychology and philosophy lack the straightforward factuality of science but it is their study that continues to reveal the human psyche, bit by bit.

I doubt that I will persuade anyone who finds all of this to be some esoteric discussion based on belief that cannot be proven to consider this seriously but at least let's respect that we have differing perspectives.


unmitigated me said...

I don't think science is ever inherently evil. The humans who pervert its uses bring the evil with them.

Sheria said...

unmitigated, that is exactly my point.

Sybil said...

what an interesting entry Sheria. It is ties liek this that I miss Sarah even more than I try to..we woudl be discussing your outlook and mostly agreeing with everything you write. Sarah thought you were a remarkable woman and who am I to disagree. Thankyou for giving us so much food for thought. (Also things and events that I never even knew about )
Love Sybil xx

Capt. Fogg said...

"Hanging the solution to today's problems solely on science or reason is no more rational than announcing that it's all in God's hands."

Likewise blaming those is pointless as well. It's one of our human failings that we look for blame, but that we do anything beyond vegetating, seems to be the product of reason and to me, the question isn't whether to depend on this or that for answers, the question is about the quality of reason and the reasonablility of our beliefs. Much of our reasoning isn't reasonable, but rather rationalization and many of our beliefs are a form of escapism.

But that still leaves us with the problem of of how to control our impulses or even to understand them. There's no easy answer and the nature of the question makes all the difference.

The world is hungry, frustrated, ignorant and poor. How do we solve that. Certainly compassion argues that we do solve it as does the inherent danger, but Compassion doesn't come from science or pure reason. It isn't inherent in the concept of faith either, although for many, it's a huge part of it.

There's something other than these two straw men demanding attention to the human condition. We both feel it, but what do we call it? Buddhism teaches it, some other religions do, but are often hypocritical about it. That's what Jesus was talking about in the Samaritan parable.

I wish we could develop an argument for compassion, but it's beyond me, but we feel it, don't we? We know it's right and all the more so if it's not for fear of God, in my opinion or even the logical thing to do.

Why then do we argue as though life had one dimension with two poles?

Sarcastic Bastard said...

This is an interesting post, Sheria.

"What is inherent in our nature that makes us need to believe in something so strongly that we exclude reason and compassion from our thought processes?"

I ponder this question myself.



Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

The key is responsible science, and for nuclear power, most of us do that. Every decade or so, there is an incident, but in the bigger picture, we are safer now than ever before.

Mark said...

I agree that unless we examine how our fears pose as rational factors in the decision-making process, out decisions will be hopeless skewed. Science just IS - we make it good or bad.
What I do think is that we have to stop being dismayed that human beings act like the sophisticated animals that we are. We were not noble savages without technology, we were very often savage savages. Man in not inherently good, he does what he has to in order to survive first, and usually only when he feel secure in the world will be show kindness and social cooperation and rationality.

Beth said...

You know that I'm firmly rooted in the science camp; science in its purest form cannot go wrong.

As you and others have pointed out, though, it's when us pesky humans bring our own biases and foibles into the mix that things can go awry. This is inescapable. If the science is going to get done, we've got to be the ones doing it. That's why peer review is so important. There will always be unethical people out there, and some of them are bound to be scientists.

I try to temper my scientific bent with the more philosophical things in life. You can reduce music down to tonalities and pitch and rhythm...but it takes a little something extra to put it all together in such a way that a song can bring me to tears. I love those moments as much as I love arguing with an anti-vaxxer. ;)

Nance said...

I've sometimes feared that philosophy is dead. I believe we need it now more than we ever have--contemplation and discussion of what our sciences have revealed, how they have shaped us, and how to live in those new shapes.

I'm not a theist, but I have dubbed myself a failed philosopher who has a lot of remedial work to do. Psychology, I'm less sure about. Does that sound funny coming from me? The workings of the brain are being better explained by neuro-biology--now, there's fun! It was always the philosophy end of psychology that appealed to me, so I wonder if we don't need more philosophy and more neurobiology and fewer of those goofy studies of whether the brains of men and women are or are not innately different or whether pheromones work on people.

Good post and my gratitude for reminding us what science did and still can do to create misery, as well as to generate "progress" and information. Judgement, Ethics, Morality that speaks to today's conditions--these are the proper focus of man, I believe.