Sunday, September 17, 2006

Can't Believe It? -- the unnecessary doctrines of science

Wasn’t the European Enlightenment supposed to eradicate superstition? Wasn’t it supposed to cement rationalism as the Western mindset? Rationalism, empiricism, technology, and precise mathematical descriptions would handily sweep aside doctrines of the supernatural, right?

Looks like somebody goofed. Science has yet to annex the Holy Land. Religions, partricularly the most demon-infested varieties, reign.

Rationalism and empiricism posed threats to the soul, or at least contrarians, such as Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, perceived such threats and responded with metaphysical romance, leading eventually to Freud, who, with his concept of the unconscious preserved into scentific modernity the intuition of a nonrational soul.

But I digress . . . .

The urgent issue is overtly religious superstition—supernaturalism and scriptural literalism. Doctrines of the supernatural are tenacious—when it comes to usurping real estate in the psyche. The fundamentalist resurgence in the United States proves that.

That tenacity can be puzzling. Anybody who clung to religious superstition was supposed to get left behind by the advance of civilization. But it didn’t turn out that way. The promise of a secular hegemony must have rested on a faulty premise. The most primitive religious sensibilities are here for the long haul—right here in the middle of all this high-tech wonderment. Wha’ happen’?

Maybe the fundamentalists figured something out. They noticed that they didn't have to internalize the new scientific thinking and that the advance of civilization would just carry them along. The truth is that the technological fruits of science will work equally well no matter what one believes. The fundamentalists observed that they don’t need to believe in electrons, and TV sets will work just as well for them as for the physicist working to determine the mass of the electron to the next decimal point. They don’t need to believe in germ theory for their flu shots to work. They don’t need to believe that the Earth is round for their flights to land on time. They can believe with all their hearts that the Earth rests on a stack of turtles, and their GPS systems will still tell them precisely where they are.

And they don’t need to believe in evolution to become president of the United States of America.

To be fair, fundamentalists are not the only people disaffected by the doctrines of science to figure out that the doctrines can be decoupled from the methods and data of science. The academic left developed its own antiEnlightenmentism. Leftists can deny that mathematics is objectively true. They can argue that it is only culturally relative. They can declare that science is the creation of an ideology. And all the products of technology continue to function as well for them as for anyone else.

No matter what you believe, the wheels of progress will continue to turn for you, and industry will continue to deliver its wares. Certain repeatable procedures involving matter and energy will produce predictable results. If you carry out those procedures in a lab or factory, you might produce something of value. You might make money selling it. But what you or your customers regard as true, or objective, or ideologically pure, or religiously righteous will have no effect on the predictable outcomes of the procedures that you manage in your lab or factory. Doctrines are superfluous.

Anyone comforted by any notion whatsoever can rest assured that his or her beliefs are safe. There's no need to internalize any particular doctrines about the truth or falsity of science, or mathematics, or religion. We can all kick back with our pet superstitions, and Capitalism will continue to maximize the production and consumption of goods and services.

No matter what we believe.