The Case Against Science (2)

Live to fight another Day

Atomic weapon dropped over Hiroshima,1944.

In the first part of this series we took apart the ‘Case against science’ chapter of Vox Day’s book, ‘The Irrational Atheist’. As announced this was the easiest part. Something he wrote though triggered a battle inside me against a very stubborn enemy, myself. The reason for this is that I wanted to have my cake and eat it too as I felt entitled to it. It is up to you to see if I succeeded.

The strongest part of Day’s arguments, according to me, is when he discusses the respective responsibilities that science and religions have for the consequences of their actions. It is a challenge that took me several attempts over multiple years to settle, even though his argument felt wrong the very minute I first read it. If my reasoning seems to address it like a mere speed bump, be assured it did not come as easily to me. A testament to this may be still extensive separation in time between the two parts of this series. I do hope my rebuttal follows logically for you, the reader.

To set this up let me state what I believe:

Religion makes good people do evil stuff.

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.Steven Weinberg

If Isis soldiers behead a Christian child because warring on unbelievers, regardless of the age, is in the authoritative scripture of Islam I firmly believe that Islam is [partly] responsible for that. Even with thousands of moderate Muslims (two of whom I consider personal friends) saying “That is not Islam” it is trivial to find counter-examples “And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief] is worse than killing…but if they desist, then lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful.   And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah] and worship is for Allah alone. 

Similarly, when strongly willed women of a society are slain by a person or persons whom justify their actions by (Leviticus 20:27 )"A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads. " this is because they took this part from the ‘inerrant truth’ and understood it the only way I think it could be understood: literally!

Apart from the fact that I think you must be evil to do these things I, like Sam Harris, very much do blame moderate theists, who still may be essentially good people, for not annotating their scriptures with corrections. There has been enough time, even just since the change of the century, for both critical lectures as well as a majority ruling on the parts of scripture that should be ignored, on those that were obviously added in error and on those that are simply not right. Instead what we received up to today are stacked assurances that these scriptures are the summit of morality, the embodiment of perfection and literally the “words of God”. It goes as far as to sanctify the mere paper Qur’an is printed on and to condemn you, even in the eyes of the most moderate, for any corruption of that paper you may commit, be it accidental or not. So yes most definitely I think religion must succumb in a survival of the fittest between memes. It allows evil persons to do the most horrible of things while condoned and even admired (to a point) by those that are “less” devout (or so they think). It is a position I firmly believe in and, while some atheists would differ, a position in which I do not stand alone (though I firmly realize company doesn’t make your point more valid).

Day’s arguments, with this in mind, did make my life a little harder because he attempted to reflect these points back to science, suggesting that the implications should also be maintained for science.

Atheists, he says, often level the accusation that religion is evil because it makes its representatives do evil stuff. With this we can refer to the suicide-bombings, the 9/11 attack, the attacks in London and in Madrid. I’m quite sure there are atheists that don’t follow the ‘religion makes people do evil-shit’ reasoning. There is no central atheist “Junta” that decides what you should think. I for one do think this is a valid accusation. It is therefore no surprise that Day’s argument hit me especially hard as he says we do not use the same logic when it comes to science and scientists doing or enabling evil stuff.

It is claimed that although science made the atomic bomb possible and scientists designed, tested, and built the bombs, it does not follow that science is responsible for the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A variant on this is to argue that because the evils are not performed specifically ‘in the name of science’ or in the interest of a scientific agenda, they cannot be blamed on science.

It could be said that this was exceptionally good thinking from Day. At least I think it was one of his more rational arguments. It is especially important though that we think about why he is saying them, and what the things are that he implies with it.

The fourth response is to claim that it is unfair to blame science for the actions of some scientists. Of course, it must then be equally unfair to blame religion for the action of some religious individuals. And it is spectacularly unfair to blame the adherents of one religion for the actions of a completely different religion, especially when those adherents are being actively persecuted by the members of that other religion. It is wildly irrational to argue that a religious moderate is somehow responsible for the actions of religious extremists he does not know and has never met, but that one scientist cannot be blamed for the actions of another scientist, not even one who belongs to the same professional organization or university and with whom he presumably has some influence.

This is the problem that Day is posing. If you maintain that religion must ‘go’ because it makes people do bad things, how can you not do away with science as it clearly has the same flaws? Inverted this means that if you let science exist, because we -rather- need it despite its alleged potential to do harm, does this not mean you must show the same grace for religion as well?

Those that read the first part of this series may remember that Day’s overall tactic was to level as much threat and blame towards science in order to ‘trade’ on it for mercy for [his] religion. This is exactly what he does here and why he makes the argument to begin with. It isn’t even subtle. But from this we get the first inkling of what is wrong with Day’s argument. It is important to realize Day throws blame towards science in order to take pressure off from the critique leveled at religion. If we therefore assume for 5 seconds that his arguments do not flow from themselves but are instead manufactured for a purpose we may come to see what is really wrong here. It isn’t always easy to spot a false dichotomy in an argument when it is brought. It may be even harder to spot a false analogy especially when two things are as subtly different as religion and science are.

But we mustn’t be coy or pedantic about it. Though for the wrong reasons bound to the wrong conclusions, Day does raise a valid question considering the Manhattan project and the potential of science to do harm. We will address this from the general to the specific, from the past to the present in order to reach a conclusion that is hopefully humble, realistic and perhaps not quite as pessimistic as it could be given the seriousness of the matter.

The self-sustaining power of scientific research

We give noble-prizes to scientists that get remarkable results. As Laurence Kraus suggests in some of his youtubed lectures this does not require that those scientists actually understood what they were doing what was going to happen before they got the results. It suffices that they recognize the importance of it and that they or others can explain the functionality as well as the impact of the finding for humanity.

The individualism of noble-prizes suggests that indeed ‘the many’ owe a great deal of gratitude to ‘the few great minds’ that shaped our world. And for a large part this is very right. But it also is not. Those great minds would be the first to admit they stood on the shoulders of giants. Not only that. A statistically abnormal quantity of discoveries has been independently and simultaneously made by multiple scientists around the same time. We could also ask ourselves, if all that was required was a great mind, then why didn’t some of those scientists make the discovery 10 years earlier in their career? From this reasoning flowed the ontological concept of Multiple discovery. An idea that basically sees science as a global puzzle we are working on together. Those great minds could only lay that important part of the puzzle as others put that small piece before them which they could connect to. This not only explains how discoveries are so often simultaneously made but also why we can hardly ever ‘un-discover’ something we find. It is the way that little pieces of the puzzle can’t tell us the discoveries they will lead to while we are working on them; discoveries which become almost obvious once those preceding pieces of the puzzle are laid. The pieces on the board lead to some scientists realizing that what they see as a potential innovation is at the same time equally obvious to other scientists. It in a roundabout way becomes impossible for any one scientist to stop the discovery of anything, he only has the option to discover it first and in that way to try to control how the invention will be deployed, even though the latter is often more illusion than reality. It is the intellectual equivalent of the “Helium Stick”. Nowhere is all this better illustrated then in the history of the Manhattan project.

 

Gravity

When Newton described in a remarkably accurate way the laws of motion and gravity he deferred much of the details on how this worked to latter generations. These were as stumped as he was for a long time on how gravity works (and we still kind of are), but with the formula he composed working as well as they did there was little room for any scientist to jab his crowbar in and improve on it. It was only when very distant observations on planetary motions differed from Newton’s predictions that the physics community realized that gravity was still largely up for grabs.

It is with this in mind that Einstein set out to find the fundamental relation between mass (as in ‘weight’) and acceleration (as what he realized gravity was indistinguishable from). As there is no difference between accelerating a mass and adding kinetic energy to is (kinetic energy is speed and therefore increased by acceleration), and as the first law of thermodynamics states that energy is always conserved (and thus that each energy is actually equivalent to another kind of energy) Einstein had actually set out to describe the fundamental relation between mass and energy. In 1905 he published a paper in which he, for the first time, questioned whether the mass of an object was influenced by adding energy to it. He still imagined this energy at that time as heat added to an object, perhaps as an acceleration of that object. It took some very sensitive experiments to verify that indeed the mass of an object could ever so slightly be altered by adding energy to it. By 1907 Einstein began to realize that not only could increase-in-mass be represented as energy, but also the basic mass ‘at rest’ (though nothing is ever at rest, it is only ever at rest relative to another mass). And from the fact that ever-so-slightly increasing the mass of something required enormous quantities of energy it followed that a fraction of its rest-mass represented an enormous amount of energy. The energy of a mass was proportionate to the multiplication of that (tiny) mass with the speed of light to the power of 2. E = MC2

Totally independent from Einstein and somewhat earlier the Curries, with Marie on point, had described the basics of nuclear physics and unstable radiating masses. Radiation meant something lost mass. The sum, they found, of the left-over mass and the radiated mass was less than the original mass; which meant it was converting mass to energy. With the density of atoms (the sheer amount of atoms packed in) in those very heavy molecules it was clear that the energy potential was humongous if one considered Einstein’s findings simultaneously. To anyone superficially skimming the handful of papers involved it would have been instantly obvious that the two discoveries together suggested a potential for a very, VERY! Big! Bomb!

The Manhattan project is such an ideal example of how unexpected and simultaneously inescapable some of the big discoveries of our time were. It was also one where scientists seemingly have a bigger responsibility as it was Einstein himself, having fled Nazi-infested Germany some decade earlier, who alerted President Roosevelt that the Germans would most definitely be working on such a bomb. The reason is that apart from it being an obvious discovery, atomic bombs are also very easy to make, contrary to everything you may have heard about it. The reason that an atomic bomb is so much easier to make than conventional explosives is because it is not actually an explosive. Explosives usually depend on a rapid oxidization processes that spew out massive quantities of hot gas at hundreds of miles per second. Their action radius is limited since the density of the gas diminishes by the 3rd power of the distance to the source, since space is a volume in 3-D. In contrast nuclear fission material can’t burn; it cannot be lighted and will not explode when set-off with another primer-charge. During an atomic ‘explosion’ there is no expulsion of gas and no complex oxidization process you need to enhance and master in a chemistry-lab. A nuclear explosion is simply a rapid cascade of nuclear fission by which a sick quantity of energy (in the form of radiating heat) is expulsed. The air in the mile surrounding the device is so rapidly heated that a huge pressure wave is formed combined with massive amounts of left-over heat. Setting it of is easy: the only thing that needs to be done to make it happen is to get a ‘critical mass’ of fission material together at the same point. It is so easy that the ‘problem’ was solved not in 1 way but in 3 distinct ways by three different nations; the approach of the Manhattan project being the most complex of the three! It was therefore once famously described to be ‘a five minute exercise in nuclear physics and entirely about turbulence and fluid dynamics after that’ which is why John von Neumann was brought in.

After the victory in Europe it was found that the Nazi’s had not really advanced very much with their own atomic bomb. The demolition of their deuterium-production-plant was certainly a contributing factor to that. To think that the Nazi didn’t have the knowhow or the stamina for such a project would be foolish however, they just didn’t prioritize it since they lacked a good steady supply of fission material anyway. Instead in just four years they managed to get decades ahead of the rest of the world in rocket-technology. Indeed, the first real ‘rocket-scientists’ where Nazi’s. They could have very easily decided to go full speed ahead with a couple of nukes anyway.

After VE –day Einstein tried to have the Manhattan project cancelled since it wasn’t necessary to face a parallel threat anymore, we all know what followed.. and why.

There is a reason why there is no-one who is individually ‘credited’ with inventing the atomic bomb. For a part that is because a single person could not have made a working prototype. Like fusion energy today, the scale of such a project is just too large. For the other part I hope I made clear that the atomic bomb was just a self-evident combination of science discoveries that were made with very different objectives then building weapons.

Now this may excuse the individual scientists of the Manhattan project, though not entirely, it does not excuse science as a whole. Furthermore I think that the history of the ‘invention’ of sarin-gas and other weaponised neuro-toxins would not show the same level of self-evidence. In other words there are certainly weapons out there that are made through science that did not HAVE TO BE invented, but were construed by scientists anyway. Perhaps the individuals working on them did consider them inevitable. But in any case, it seems that Day has somewhat of a point. And even worse: for the part that we can excuse the individual scientists for the creation of dangerous things, we have to blame science itself for [without warning] making them so obvious at times. Who would have thought that research into the terrain of gravity would make the invention of H-bombs inevitable?

Is that it then? Are we to live with the malice of religion if we want to keep all the good science gives us? Or should we get rid of both? Because if science is AS guilty of evil as religion is then one of these must be the right course of action. Of course  there is little doubt that mankind will succumb to Ebola, asteroids, hunger, over-population and the poisoning by our own waste if it stops exploiting its one truly divine attribute: curiosity in the face of danger, a.k.a “science”.

Still, I would think we can have it both ways. I think because religion and science have been at opposite ends of discussions for so long that we have become accustomed to them being two sides of the same coin. But this is a false analogy. Science and religion are not comparable concepts and it is not justified to judge them as if both are.

For starters religion consists of a body of content that has the express intention to steer your actions. Science by contrast only requires you to adhere to certain standards of reproducibility, documentation and objectivity. Science is not a collection of prescripts that ensure a future reward or future peril if you [don’t] act a certain way. I would even add that, though the scientific method does formulate a standard that must be followed in order to produce viable results, that the foundation of science is not an invention itself, but a crystallization of brains, curiosity and survival-drive that has been a part of humanity way up the line of her ancestors. While religion is a value-system that dictates you to do good and/or evil, science is NOT that.

In this science is value-neutral and it would be as incorrect to call it ‘good’ as to call it ‘bad’. Science is a tool to do what you want doing just as the ‘multiplication’ is a tool that supersedes ‘addition’ in power without being ‘good’ versus ‘bad’. Science is a knife, you can kill with it, or it can peel your onion. Only religion claims for itself the right to dictate you how to use those knifes and atomic weapons.

The point is that, without religion good people (the majority, we hope) will endeavor for good rather than bad (though not entirely unselfishly) and science will multiply their ability to do so. Religion by contrast is a value system that doesn’t leave the choice of good or evil to the individual. All the individual can do is deciding the level of commitment to the religion. It will decide what is right for him. This means that at many instances in the past [a] religion may have been a tremendous force for good in the world…about as many times as it has been a force for absolute wickedness. My point is that while religion is a value-system, it is a fixed value-system in a moving world. The problem with that is that morality has to change with the circumstances. This may not feel very pleasant, but it is very much the case. What was understandable in antiquity is no longer defendable today. We mustn’t judge the past [entirely] through the values we hold today, nor however should we live with the morality of bronze-age people. While religion can be a force for good its very nature, it’s rigidity will make it tend towards evil as the times and society move on past it. THAT is why religion should go and why you should not compare apples and lettuce with each other.

 But still sarin-gas and the Manhattan project taught us something. Science enormous force-multiplier can make a little personal culpability into something very frightening. Though A-bombs and H-bombs may play an important role in planetary defenses (think asteroids, not aliens) later on, and are thus NOT the epitome of evil, to say they can be pretty bad is an understatement. Historians are usually careful when attributing blame as they are very aware of the hindsight effect. In this respect the ‘now’ moment is the ultimate and eternal Schrödinger’s-Cat dilemma. Once the moment has past all the super-positions of past ‘futures’ collapse into what has actually occurred and the effect of doubt and uncertainty on personal motivation and drive is lost for all eternity. Therefore to say that the Manhattan project was an individual’s mistake is not easy at all. By consequence we must all share a part of the blame for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for those gassed by authoritarian governments. They died, in part, as a by-product of our collective efforts to stay alive.

To consider science as a tool that multiplies our intentions to do ‘good’ mustn’t make us naïve as to think it IS good. It mustn’t make us blind for the fact that when a lot of individuals (ants, bees, human beings) are involved in a certain activity that this activity can and will demonstrate emergent behavior which may not be as one-sidedly positive or even as visible from close up. In that respect I think it helps to think of science not as something we invented just prior to the industrial revolution, but as the crystallization of ‘applied curiosity’ we have demonstrated since our ancestor Homo Habilis. Of course it is essentially when our communication (through printing) improved that we could develop scientific methods and science-collaboration and start exploiting them; Hence the relatively recent improvements to the human condition, the few but important ones you may identify.

In conclusion we must concede that Day, by indicating all aspects where science has not unilaterally benefited us, did make a good case. Not a case against science, which would indeed be a case against the very nature of our species, but a case for prudence and humility. He does not succeed in his goal, which is the absolution of the dogmatic religion(s?) he was brought up in. Nor does he succeed in convincing that his critique of science is more than a righteous means to a perverted end.

So…Science! Bitch! It still works. We life to fight another Day.

 

Epilogue:

 

Not too long ago a scientist, whose name I didn’t register, witnessed in a lab an exotermic chemical reaction involving primarily carbon and oxygen atoms. Until that time other scientists had discovered how to temporarily maintain this highly unstable reaction, however up until that time the world-community had been completely mystified by both the exact nature of the reaction as well as how to reproduce it artificially. Our scientist gathered as much data as he could through careful laboratory-observation. He was able to detect large quantities of infrared radiation being ejected by the reaction as well as massif amounts of photons. In fact it was to have a maintainable source for infrared radiation and photons that the global-community so much required to control this reaction. Without telling anyone our scientists began to formulate a theory in which concentrating both carbon, oxygen and infrared radiation in a very small space, in sufficient concentrations, might just very well spontaneously induce the reaction. This was partly supported by indirect observations from nature were the reaction had allegedly occurred spontaneously several times before, according to preserved records. It was in fact ‘sampled’ there once, a sample that was now carefully maintained under laboratory conditions.

The main problem with testing his theory was that a major source for infrared radiation was hard to find, after all, that was part of the problem our scientist wanted to solve. Eventually another theory formed in his mind that perhaps there was some correlation between the appearance of photons and infrared radiation. Later, when talking to other scientists, he learned the seemingly unrelated information of how they, in turn, had found that when concentrating large quantities of kinetic force onto a specific mineral-rich rock that photonic events were observed. Though no-one was able to detect any infrared radiation during these experiments our scientist was convinced that this was more due to technological limitations to their detection-apparatus then to the radiation being absent. To test both his theory concerning the co-occurrence of infrared radiation with photons and the initiation of the reaction by concentrating carbon-rich material, oxygen and infrared radiation our scientist developed an experimental set-up. The set-up included choosing a non-humid environment as our scientist put forward that any infrared radiation generated, if any, would otherwise likely be absorbed by the moisture. The direction of the photons, and according to the theory therefore also the direction of the radiation, was not controllable. The experiment was therefore so formulated as to need several attempts as to allow random chance to concentrate the radiation emission together with the carbon and oxygen. The carbon-rich material was pre-treated and miniaturized as to maximize surface contact with the surrounding oxygen, avoiding for instance the need for canisters of liquefied oxygen. When our scientist finally was convinced of the adequacy of the set-up he slammed the two flint-rocks together, making sure to keep one close to the dry wood-shavings. After several attempts he saw a trickle of smoke rising from them. He quickly neared to blow softly until a visible light glowed and the wood started to burn. The scientist then added small sticks, then larger ones and soon lighted the entire cave with the fire he just created.

All during the following night our scientist explained to the amazed tribe-members exactly how he had done it. Our scientist was a Homo Heidelbergensis, perhaps even a Homo Erectus and he lived more than half a million years ago. That said, there’s a good chance that ‘he’ was a ‘she’, her name forever unknown to us.

 

…and the rest is history.

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