Friday, June 23, 2006

The Mythology of Science II

Ok, my post last post was brief, and I was very tired when writing it, so that's why it wasn't very clear. Still, your interpretations aren't that wide off the mark.

My point was there are these three areas where there actually is a kind of progress. Evolution is a kind of progress, more complex forms of life evolve from less complex. But it is a blind progress, it is no way to say that later species are "better" than more primitive one's. Or is H5N1 a really good virus?

Technology is something that progresses, we do see new forms of technology being produced all the time. But this progress is stupid, exactly because there is no way to control if new technology actually improves life for humans (let alone the world). Nuclear weapons is only the most extreme example. A much more difficult issue is modes of transportation, cars and planes. They do make our life easier, but at a price we cannot grasp. New media is another issue. The new technology based media is more efficient than older forms, but do they actually make our lives better? Different, yes, but better? Sure those people that blame the new technology for the huge problems caused by stress and burnouts aren't widely off the mark?

Economy does grow in absolute numbers. But this growth too comes at a terrible price. Now, I'm no economist but I know that there is only two ways to create economic value: exploiting resources and labor. These are the only ways real growth is built. Both of these are limited factors, there is only a limited amount of resources on earth and the human being can only put in a certain amount of working hours. When economy, then keeps growing it is destructive, because it is eating up the reserve of resources (oil will not last more than 30 years, probably much less, water is becoming really scarce in some areas already) and are pressuring humans to work over the capacity.

Since these are the only real areas (besides personal growth) where we can actually observe some kind of progress, it is all the more strange that so many still deduce from these blind, stupid and destructive forces some kind of general rule of history (and, as Byron mentioned, morals), that our society will, if we put our trust in progress, will somehow overcome its problems in time.

Now, I want to ask those of you that find my science bashing misguided, to provide one example of how technology, economy, of biology (the last one would be difficult I know, but there is a popular belief in the power of "nature" to take anything we throw at it) have recently come up with something that would make it possible for us to sustain our present way of life without heading for a total destruction very fast. No science fiction please. One example with effects that we see kicking in now.


Looney said...

What was that about "the beginning of birth pains"?

Some observations:

Evolution and change are synonyms. Given the mystical aura surrounding evolution, however, 'change' or 'progress' is better to facilitate logical discussion.

Like Byron, I don't see any reason to hope for improvements in morals.

As for what it means for something to be "better" in the economic sense, I think that could be argued for several posts.

One thing I feel fairly certain of is that keeping large portions of the population unemployed (e.g. France) is bad.

Rev Sam said...

What about the sunflower? (You read my post on it, I think, but you may not have followed up the link - see here.)

Not that I really disagree with you.

Looney said...

Rev Sam, I read the link, but where is your original post?

Weekend Fisher said...

Granted that our current economy is headed for either a major rework or a crash (which will then lead to the major rework).

I'd dispute that technological progress is stupid. I'd say that *if* technological progress is stupid, then it is only because of the number of innovators who are being stupid / choosing stupid goals. (Ok, full disclosure, I'm a programmer, I kind of bristle at this "slam technology" stuff.) I can take a mere spreadsheet and create an amortization routine to calculate mortgage balances for 30 years in the future. Don't get me started about loan periods, the point is that technology is capable of reducing work, if only we chose to apply it that way. I'd say if we do not apply it that way, it is not the fault of technology, but that we have lost our sense of direction.

From where I sit, it looks like your complainst against the destructive risks of economics are valid, but that they are not inherent risks. If the economy keeps growing, it could be destructive; or it could be that we are leveraging our innovation better and doing the same work with less effort. As fallen human beings and greed-idolaters, one guess which we choose, but the point again is that the problem is not with the economy, it is with our sinfulness.

The economy is not the problem, and technology is not the problem. We are. Both the economy and technology are human cultural products. I wouldnt' agree that any of these things are inherently "blind, stupid, destructive" -- as if God handed us a no-win scenario -- but I would say that when we use technology to pursue selfishness and economics to pursue greed (i.e. when we behave in ways that are blind, stupid, destructive) -- that the final effect is not much different than if the things were blind/stupid/destructive in themselves.

Case in point: is it really "progress" that great advances in birth control have made it so people do not form families and do not produce children as often as in the past, and spend more of their time alone and unhealthy?

I get your point about "progress" and the self-destructive bent we're on, and the blinders we're wearing if we believe in progress. The only reason I hammer home contrary points is not just exercise my contrary nature, but because the real problems are sin and self-deception, as usual.

Rev Sam said...

Looney - post is here.

Looney said...

Rev. Sam,

I worked some in the power industry before, and recently priced a solar system for my house, so I will give you a few thoughts:

1. Regarding solar, a huge factor is the return on investment. Most of my electricity usage is heavily subsidized by the government. Only when I go over a certain rate is the full cost charged. Thus, although government will happily subsidize my solar system, they are providing me even more subsidy on the low end to not conserve or switch to solar! This kills most of the incentive to switch.

i.e. conservation and concern for the poor seem mutually exclusive.

2. The first laboratory I joined many years ago was building a $1 billion fusion energy system. Just as it was completed, the lab management informed the congressional sponsors that they had new computer simulations which should that the system wouldn't work. The system was immediately mothballed - after all of the money was spent to build it. As a young engineer, what impressed me was that the old timers all seemed to believe that the management of the lab had known all along that the system wouldn't work, but submitted bogus computer simulations to support the original funding. I don't know if that is true or not, but it is certainly a different mindset. As I look at the Sunflower project, these memories all come back.

3. One of the projects I was involved with sent me visiting some nuclear power plants and working with various management personnel. The claims were that the costs of the plants were greatly increased due to negotiations with politicians for permits. Of course, the politicians also provided subsidies! Even though I am politically more of an ultra-con, I really don't like big power. This seems to me to guarantee interaction with government and encourages corruption.

Perhaps this is too cynical. I don't feel I have any good suggestions for approaches to power and have learned to be very distrustful of government.

Shane Clifton said...

I do find it ironic that you are making a case about the stupidity of technology via the medium of the internet. I realise of course that the net has many "stupid" side-effects - pornography, or the replacing actual community with merely pereceived community (why is it people dont use their real names!). Still, this merely points out that human kind is a product of the good and bad, and that we thereby abuse our tools.

I believe there are limitless examples of science and technology being much more than simply stupid. The Australian of the year (this year), Ian Frazer, has discovered a vaccine for cervical cancer. This vaccine will save hundreds of thousands of lives annually. I imagine that you are going to respond that this is merely going to lead to population explosion that destroys the world (is this why the blog is called god in a shinking universe), but that argument is capitulating to the view that the world would be better without humans. As much as I am attempting to be a pro-environmental theologian (see my pentecostal discussions on that point), i also think humankind has inherent value (even in the midst of sin).

I think similar examples can be cited in respect to the economy - although i should confess that i have an economics degree, and i dont share most theologians simple writing off of capitalism - even though i do share the view that too often western economics has privelaged the rich and resulted in the pillage of the poor. Any example i cite (given the social complexities of economic structures) is inevitably going to have dark side (again - the good and the bad of human sin). So, knowing i am going to get critiqued, let me nevertheless suggest you compare north and south korea - and tell me economically which country you would prefer to live in.

Shane Clifton said...

P.S. while evolutionary science cannot speak in terms of "better", it is possible for it to recognise the development of the "more complex" - and this is the point that evolutionary biologists are trying to make (lets not critique a straw man).

Christians can take this a step further. If we believe that God is behind this process - then the term "evolution" can be linked to the belief that the amazing complexity of life is something that leads us to praise God - particularly that degree of complexity that led to the wonderful "creation" of humanity in God's image.

Patrik said...

Shane, I think you misunderstand what I mean by "stupid" here. It is not a synonym for "bad" or "evil". It is exactly what it is: stupid, in the sense that it cannot distinguish good from bad. Obviously there are numerous cases that can be cited of really helpful technological advances (though it is indeed ironic that you choose one from the medical industry, arguably the most corrupt and moralless industry of them all, second only to the energy industry).

We can of course say that techonolgy is neutral, and it is humans that are good and evil, a rather banal truth, since technology is something that humans do. But here is my point: the institutions that develop technology work by de-humanizing humans, so that humans set apart their normal moral standards to "do their job". This is why it makes sense to talk of technoloy as a kind of super-human force. It is just a symbol, obviously, but one that makes the world easier to grasp.

Anyway, my original point was not so much to bash technology, but to point out the folly in believeing that it will solve our problems for us.