Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Mythology of Science III

Ok, so the title is completely misguiding by now, but I stick to it to show the continuity with the preceeding posts and the discussions caused by them.

What do I mean when I say that evolution, technology and (capitalistic) economy is, respectively, blind, stupid and destructive? Well, I do not mean that they are all utterly useless. Let me clarify.

My point is that society today models a significant part of its selfunderstanding on these three phenomena. We are basing the way we live on an assumption that the progress we see in these areas is somehow representations of a general feature of life, history and culture. In this way we base our morals on these three areas of life. When I say that evolution is blind, technology is stupid and economy is destructive, it is a way of saying that this is not a very wise thing to do.

Someone may say that it is absurd to even attribute some moral value to evolution , technology and economy. Except for in the case of the last (what other purpose could economy possibly have than to serve the quality of life in the most general way of humans?), this is true in one way, but what I'm talking about is how we interpret these pheonomena, and that is a reflection of our morals. The thing is, although evolution does not have morals, it does have an analogy to morals. The same is true for technology and economics.

The "moral good" of evolution is survival and ability to reproduce. An organism that is able to adapt to different environments is supirior to one that can't, and will therefore be mor advanced. Now, there are very different strategies to survival, and it seems that the most sucessful organisms is the most complex (humans) and the most simple (single cell organisms). Insects too, seem to do really well, at least in our garden. Well, anyway, my point is that evoloution is blind, because, it is not moving towards a goal, a perfect organism. It is just changing to adapt to environment. It is not going anywhere.

Technolgy also has its "moral good". It can usually be described with the word efficiency. Most technological advances are made to make some task more efficient. There are some other "values" that guide technology, the most important being the possibility of economic profit, which then makes technology not only stupid but destructive as well. There is also a drive in technology to make the (previously) impossible possible, that is, real innovation. This is a tiny part of all tecnological development, of course, but the most visible, because it is what we see as the "bleeding edge" of the technological development. And here's why it is stupid: There is no inherent mechanism in technology that decides what kinds of innovations are being made. If it is within the grasp of technology it will be invented, regardless of the effects it will have on human life and the environment. Technology cannot see beyond the current stage, and based on a prediction of what its current action will lead to, make decisions of how to act. This is the technological stupidity.

To show that (capitalistic) economics is destructive is very easy, we just have to look at the world. Most of the destruction we see, be it in the form of cut down rain forests, blown up mountains, spreading deserts, climate change and so on, all of it is done in the name of economical growth. And we don't have to look only at the environment, we can look at our selves too: people doing things they do not want to do (work) instead of what they want to do (spend time with family and friends, live in contact with nature, develop their creativity), all because of the demands of economy. Not to mention people pushed beyond what they can take: burn-out, depression, violence. But isn't economy neutral, something that just has been bent ot destructiveness by selfish people? Maybe, but the way capitalistic economy works is so that the selfish people will always make the decissions. (and dont get started about how a communist economy is no better. We all now that. This is not a right vs. left issue.)

There is one more "progress myth" that affects how we look at the world: the fact that individuals grow up. But to base a worldview of this and the three myths described above, to me seems difficult. To base a theory of how life works on three such immoral phenomena can only lead to trouble - in our case in all probability the destruction of our culture, and maybe the world with it.

What theology should do in this situation is what I am trying to work out in this blog.


byron said...

Thanks Patrik, this really helps to illustrate and fill out what you mean by a 'declining world' and to set the scene for Christian response.

Looney said...

"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."

Technology allows several billion more people to be alive on this planet at the same time - and it also allows for abortion of a significant percentage of the population too. Technology empowers its user, so that the impact of their good and bad natures are amplified.

Looney said...

"To show that (capitalistic) economics is destructive is very easy, we just have to look at the world."

Patrik, The Economist magazine notes that most of the major environmental ills are due to poor public policy. For example, when a fishing stock decreases, economics dictates that the fishing fleet should cut back, but governments invariably subsidize the fishing fleets to avoid unemployment. The result is an environmental catastrophe. Is this the fault of capitalism? Or something else?

Farming and logging similarly have massive government involvement which invariably makes things worse environmentally. Global warming can always be reversed by nuking a mountain or two, but that probably wouldn't be very popular.

Patrik said...

Looney, I find that hard to believe, but I'm not surprised a magazine such as the Economist would claims something like that.

Corrupt public officials are obviously a huge problem, but at least in the world's democracies, the job of the officials is to look to the common good. However, business leader have as their job to look out for the good, not of the public, but of the shareholders, and nowadays rarely even in a longer term than six months. Most high leaders in the world of commerce now the PR-value of not stating this openly, but every now and then one of them confesses that they understand that they would not do their job right if they took things such ans the environment and the wellbeing of employers into account. The market as it functions today is not affected, except in rare cases, by things such as the long term consequences of industry and resource expolitation.

You example of fishing is apt: when fishing stock is rising, there is no way that the fishing industry would cut back, even if there was a risk of extinguishing spicies of fish - in fact, such a scenario would increase prices and further raise the stock and therfore increse the fishing.

Looney said...

"when fishing stock is rising, there is no way that the fishing industry would cut back, even if there was a risk of extinguishing spicies of fish"

Patrik, Can you explain some more about how rising stocks and extinction can be simultaneously part of the same scenario?

Steve Blakemore said...


As always you are provocative.


I think your insights are important in with regard to the "capitalist" enterprise.

If one thinks -- capitalism = free market, then it seems that there is little by way of economic theory to recommend any other type of economy. The standard of living (even if it comes at a cost) of free market societies compared to other economic theories is really quite a evidence, it would seem to me.

If one thinks -- captitalism = the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, then one might have a different take on the virtues of capitalism. But,the question then must be asked, what would be an optional economic method? I would hope that a state-controlled economy would not be, since the troubles asssociated with an omni-competent state are legion and the standard of living results of the same are horrific.

On the matter of technology: I would recommend to all Jacques Ellul's two works: Technological Society and Presence of the Kingdom. His strikes me as a pretty good critique of the matter. (His little book Money and Power offers some good insights about captitalism and its limits.

Patrik said...

I wrote a long response to Looney that somehow disappeared. Hmm.

Anyway. Of course if it was known that fish was running out, the stocks would fall, but a scenario where fish becomes less abundant could well lead to rising stuck, since the value of what fish could be caught would rise, and the need for employees would fall as a result of the smaller volumes handled.

But a much bigger problem is that capitalism tends towards reducing the number of different trades in an area, particularly in the third world. This means that when jobs disappear in a certain industry, society suffers because there is no other industry that can employ the laid of workers.

Shane Clifton said...

Not sure whether you have moved on from this post - but if not...

I really dont think you have answered my previous critique, but anyway, in this instance, let me just deal with technology. You seem to assume it is "stupid" because there is no overriding logic to its development - but this is to conflate technology into a single category. There are, in fact, a myriad of important reasons for the multifarious reality that constitutes technological development - communication technologies facilitate global conversation, travel technologies enable wider relationships. To limit these to efficiency and profit is ... well simplistic. Again (and i feel like i am repeating myself), that is not to say that many technologies are not stupid, and have negative side effects.

It seems to me that your criticism is not really of science or technology - but of humanity. Science is merely an expression of the human desire to know, and technology expresses the creative dimension of that knowledge. Indeed, i think the case could be made that humans have always been knowledge seekers and tool builders - and science and technology essentially developments of these very human themes. The biblical story would also suggest that humans have too often misused that knowledge and created destructive tools - but that is an anthropological issue.

Patrik said...

Shane, my point is only to critisize one thing: the idea that humanity is progressing, and that our culture is improving. This is collective blindness we have to free ourselves from or we will all perish. All the rest is merely an attempt to sketch a backround to this idea. If I would find technology itself to be the problem, what on earth would I be doing expressing this criticism on a blog? I should be carving it into a rock.

But when we take technology as a model for understanding ourselves, as a culture or civilization, then I am in opposition.

A part of this blindness is the tendency today to equate tecnologial advancement with cultural progress, which makes people blind to, among other things, the bad sides of technology.

Shane Clifton said...

Fair enough. I would agree that, even though society is becoming more complex, culture is not necessarily progressing. Of course, culture is also a complex and multifarious thing - and i am sure that instances of progress could be found, some of which might be stimulated by technological change. Consider globalisation, for example. This process results from technological change - but stimulates cultural change - both development (we begin to have a global consciousness, a global awareness of our environment etcc) as well as failure (our differences are highlighted and entrenched and become divisions). But all in all, i would agree cultural progress is a myth - as is the use of technology as a symbol of that myth.

To conclude, i dont think you and i disagree much. What i think i am reacting to is your underlying pessimism. I understand it (indeed, you may well be correct). But i am reluctant to concede to it.

Thanks for the stimulating discussion, whatever our differences (real or perceived)