Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Basic Assumption

Last year I got drawn into a debate on a forum, though not here on Intrepid, concerning the power of science as an explanation for everything. Some people considered science to be little more than a “guess” and naturally my opposing position was that the scientific method leads to a pretty good understanding of the world. As an explanations go, nothing can surpass it. Also, it works. My example was James Clerk Maxwell, a shy, awkward Scotsman who in 1865 formulated some equations with which he'd intended to demonstrate the link between electricity and magnetism. Having successfully done this, a closer look at the same equations also seemed to be saying something new: not only were they linked, the combination of the electrical and magnetic force ought to travel through space.

And that was how radio waves were discovered.

The forum debate concerned, inevitably, religion and the bible and why those provided a better explanation of the world than science. I made the challenge of explaining how it was possible to deduce the existence of radio waves from a reading of the bible. God, as a reason for the world, doesn't have any explanatory depth. “Why?” leads to “Just because.” now and forever. One of the responses was quite sizeable, and this is what leads me to the point I really wish to make.

So large was it that I saved it to disk in order to create a riposte at leisure, but as it happened I slowly realised that I had little idea where to start with it and put it off for a day or so. Eventually I never subsequently found the time to create a coherent answer, and so I fell away from the debate entirely. But now I know what it was that threw me so badly. By co-incidence (and I use that word without any of the irony that it seems to have acquired in modern times) I bought a book within a few weeks of that debate which threw some light on that response, though it took me months to come to really appreciate it.

Called How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, it described at length some economic, political and social fads over the last thirty years or so, some of which were very surprising. Mostly, if I read a book like this – such as The New Apocrypha – I imagine that it will cover some of the more traditional targets such as ghosts, UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster. Here was something quite different. Although the subject matter was not directly supernatural, it did demonstrate how little critical thinking there is in all areas of life. I was surprised to find self-help and business books in general described as a con. Just dress up completely obvious banalities in the language of he mystic – even pretending to be channelling wisdom from dead gurus - and rake in the cash.

So far, all very refreshing to read, but nothing that shed any light on my debate. Until the chapters about post-moderists, I had always used the term post-modern in a loosely colloquial sense of meaning the kind of movie that references itself and was quite aware that it was a movie. A harmless stylistic indulgence in fact. And now here was something which finally threw some light on that response to my message, which I had been unable to make headway with.

An example from How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World:
“Luce Irigaray, a high priestess of the movement, denounced Einstein's E=mc2 as a 'sexed equation', since it 'privileges the speed of light over other [less masculine] speeds that are 'vitally necessary to us'”

Post Moderism, in its full uncut flavour, treats science, society, history, indeed everything as a “text” whose interpretation is no more or less valid than any other interpretation. In essence, meaning and experience are no longer objective. Of course there is much subtly and shifting of definitions between observers, but the implications slowly sunk in as I read and re-read the rest of the book, then confirmed it with a little more research. When I'm in a debate with someone who provides me with a response of the kind I got, it means my basic assumption is wrong.

My basic assumption is that reasoning is a valid tool with which to think about the world. Astonishingly, incredibly, there are people who reject the idea of logical reasoning, indeed reasoning altogether, as being a proper thing to use when describing reality. The responders message now makes more sense to me, even if only on its own terms, and that is why I doubt I could ever rejoin that particular debate. Because all I was doing was bringing some logic to the party.

And who on Earth was going to fall for that one

1 comment:

kirkjerk said...

Heh, saw your link on slashdot, checked out some of the older stuff thanks to your sidebar keywords thing.

Anyway...Postmodernism, yeah. And rationality. I think a really good rationality has to be aware of its own limitations in understanding the world, both in its objective, more-or-less-measurable form, and the subjective human experience. Otherwise you can get locked in this 1950s sci-fi vibe that thinks everything worth knowing is knowable, if we just had a better slide rule...