Monday, September 20, 2010

When does Science become a Religion?

Over the years, I've thought quite a bit about the place of science in modern life. I think that science was once what it claimed to be, and now has become both quite a lot more and quite a lot less. Let me explain.

In the 19th century, and for a fair bit of the 20th, it was possible for any reasonably resourceful and intelligent human to get the equipment together for an attempt at empirical verification of any scientific principle, theory or statement. You could make your own telescope. You could build your own car or telephone. I have old children's books in which these projects are found.

I think the point at which it all collapsed was when the idea of atomism and the atom was examined further and the true natures (as far as we know) of the nucleus and electron were revealed. You see, not everyone has access to radioactive material or reliable sources of subatomic particles and the means of manipulating, tracking, and identifying them. Not everyone has an x-ray crystallography set-up or a nuclear magnetic resonance machine at home.

What this means is that a lot of modern science is now taken on faith. In principle, you can still go and see for yourself what seems to be happening. In practice, what you see is a digital readout which tells you what is happening. When an apple falls from a tree, you see it, you can catch it, taste it; the fall of an apple is empirical experience. When a radioisotope decays, you have a theory that is consistent with the facts of indirect detection; if you are lucky (or unlucky), you may have visible photon emission or some compound that will fluoresce when struck with the otherwise unseen emission.

In the old science magazines I read when I was a child, you could make your own batteries, taste the increasing tingle as you stacked the cells, correlate that with the increasing glow of an incandescent bulb. But electromagnetism was already something you had to take somewhat on faith, the invisible fields that prickled your hair and moved iron filings were things with no obvious material correlation. The only thing was that you could replicate the experiment at will, and thus persuade yourself that it was true — it was a bit like being able to read the Bible in a vernacular tongue.

Modern technology, the stuff that drives computers and cars, catalytic convertors and chemiluminescence, is something very distant from that practical level. It is disconnected from its scientific principles as far as human society is concerned. As my father-in-law said the other day, "You cannot fix your own car anymore, you can't even find out what is wrong until they plug it into the computer at the workshop."

Science is indeed becoming a new religion, one in which its acolytes and priests rule over a large laity of supposedly science-literate people and, by fiat, an even larger flock of agnostic semi-believers who have no choice but to go along. It is a lot of 'hand-waving' and quoting from researchers.

These researchers have published their findings and the findings can be replicated given enough time and money; this is why we believe in those findings. But increasingly, it is practically impossible to verify those findings, let alone the interpretations grounded in those findings. It is like having to read through a religious text and its commentaries in order to join in a debate, and the reading period gets longer and longer each day.

Right now, training a cutting-edge organometallic chemist probably takes about as long as it used to — six years after O-levels, for a bright young person. However, that person is basing a lot of practice (or praxis) on the shoulders of giants, so to speak; that person has conducted very few of the classic experiments of the past with the detachment that comes from genuinely not knowing the outcome. In many cases, the cutting-edge researcher is taking the entire argument as it is currently established without question simply because everyone agrees it is so and tells the student that it is beyond reasonable doubt.

Thus, science moves forward, like the reclamation of land from the sea, with layers of sand, stone and concrete covering up the foundations of the past that everyone takes for granted. Here is the first question I learnt from four decades of reading science fiction: "If some terrible disaster destroyed all technologies based on electricity and electronics right now, how long would it take for the human race to recover?"

In the past, this would not have included transport technologies — there was a point when land, sea and air transport used no electrical or electronic technologies. This would not have included food-processing technologies to the extent it does now. It would not have led to near-universal starvation, as it might now.

The second question is like unto it: "Would human progress slow noticeably if we waved a magic wand or alien abduction device or other McGuffin and removed the world's top 1000 scientists?"

The answer is probably, "No." But this would not have been true in any age up to about 1914 or somewhere thereafter. We have had an explosion of priests, so to speak, and there is now a large scientific 'middle class'. However, the gap between artisan and technocrat is huge and getting wider. You could make a crystal radio set at home; try making an MP3 player at home and you will see the futility of closing that gap.

Will the means of production catch up in some future nanotech age? Unlikely, unless we can craft intelligent agents to act for us. It would be too complicated, otherwise, for most humans to understand. We are looking into a future where men would be as gods. But the paradox is that none of our descendant futures seems to have transcended time and come back to visit us. Unless... that is what our gods are all about.

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Blogger joshua said...

Enjoyed this post!

Question: any solutions? Or is it inevitable.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 1:40:00 am  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

Joshua: The kinds of arguments about human transcendence that I've read seem to indicate that people think intelligence will some day make gods out of mortals — this is the premise implicit in modern space opera (Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton et al). However, if one day we will become gods, it is likely that the sorts of things a god must do are either constrained by informational or energetic entropy (they might be the same thing). We are unwise to put our faith in science, but what else is there? :)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 7:04:00 am  
Blogger Sze Zeng said...


I see a two issues being highlighted here:

1) Scientific knowledge and technology are becoming more and more specialized,

2) Hence lay people have to have faith on authorities for justification for their knowledge, and corporation for technological development.

These draw on a commonality that the religious and the non-religious share: the prevalent of faith and dependence on others. This in turn help us to see the difference between the two groups better.

Everyone practices faith, while not everyone practices faith in God. Militant atheists charge Christians for being guilty of both. But the matter of debate is really on the latter practice. Christians have long acknowledged the former practice, while the militant atheists are still very antagonistic about it to the extend of denying it.

The debate on practicing faith in God is still not settled. But the Christians at least got the former practice right.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 6:13:00 pm  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

SZ: yes, we certainly agree on that! :)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 6:13:00 am  

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