Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Case For The Poetic Scientist

Faith in Science

While I am first to admit and agree that science continues to play an important role in our lives, notably in the field of medicine, I can also happily admit that its importance can be over-stated, allowing it to push non-scientific disciplines under the humanities umbrella outside the public eye. It can also create a faith in science, essentially describing scientism, which pushes/forces science to answer questions that it is incapable of answering.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor emerita of history at the City University of New York, raises such a point in an excellent article  (“Evolution and Ethics, Revisited”) in The New Atlantis; she writes:
They persuade the world of what is false by urging upon it what is true.” That is John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University (1852) referring to the sciences of his day, which threatened to dominate and even overwhelm theological education in the university. A science’s teaching might be true in its proper place but fallacious “if it be constituted the sole exponent of all things in heaven and earth, and that, for the simple reason that it is encroaching on territory not its own, and undertaking problems which it has no instruments to solve.”

While Newman’s notion of science was far broader than ours, including even painting and music, his description of the overreach of science is still apt. We now have a term — “scientism” — for that fallacy, exemplified, as has been demonstrated in these pages, by Richard Dawkins’s pronouncement that genes “created us, body and mind,” and Edward O. Wilson’s claim that biology is the “basis of all social behavior.” If scientism has become so prevalent, it is partly because of the emergence of new sciences, each encroaching, as Newman said, on “territory not its own” (invading, we would now say, the turf of others), and each professing to comprehend (in both senses of that word) the whole. Intended as an epithet, the term has been adopted as an honorific by some of its practitioners. A chapter in the book Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized (2007) by three philosophers is entitled “In Defense of Scientism.

Newman’s book appeared seven years before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which provoked the classic case of scientism — the mutation of Darwinism into social Darwinism. There had been earlier theories of evolution, such as Lamarck’s. And there had been earlier doctrines, most notably Malthus’s, that applied to society the concept of a “struggle for existence.” Indeed, Darwin had been inspired by Malthus, while opposing Lamarck. But it was the Origin that gave credibility to the theory of evolution and, inadvertently, encouraged others to extend it to society, making the “survival of the fittest” the natural and proper basis for human behavior and social relations.

The emergence of social Darwinism recalls the adage of another eminent Victorian. “Ideas,” wrote Lord Acton, “have a radiation and development, an ancestry and posterity of their own, in which men play the part of godfathers and godmothers more than that of legitimate parents.” Darwin, the unwitting godfather of social Darwinism, disowned even that degree of parentage. He dismissed as ludicrous the charge of one reviewer that he had endorsed “might is right” thereby justifying the idea “that Napoleon is right & every cheating Tradesman is also right.” Challenged on another occasion to declare his views on religion, he replied that while the subject of God was “beyond the scope of man’s intellect,” his moral obligation was clear: “man can do his duty.” Averse to controversy in general (even over the Origin itself), Darwin played no public part in the dispute over social Darwinism. That battle was left to Darwin’s “bulldog,” as T. H. Huxley proudly described himself — “my general agent,” Darwin called him. Huxley’s arguments against social Darwinism are all the more telling because they come not, as might have been expected, from a cleric or theologian, but from an eminent scientist and ardent Darwinist.
Perhaps Prof. Himmelfarb is herself overstating her case; yet, I do not think it is so. Social Dawinism in some new mutated form is in the air. Social Darwinism is a by-product of scientism, despite the strenuous and articulate objections of evolutionary scientists who protest that their research is serious science that can answer most, if not all, questions about humanity. A type of bravado that is telling, and says much. Digging deep into a narrow hole will only develop a longer narrow hole; it can also trap you in your own narrow thinking.

Most reasonable people accept the theory of evolution, but not everything that has the title of “evolution” attached to it, including the current work coming out of the fields of biology, psychology and neurology. People might be both fascinated and uncomfortable with some of its prime implications. When science reduces humanity to an accumulation of genes or atoms or similar ideas, it leads to the type of unconscious thinking common among to many evolutionary scientists that we are in a sense “deterministic beings. True, no serious scientist would admit to this, yet it is one of those unsaid things.

It is my view that science, and I have sufficient understanding of it, is important, but it alone cannot answer all of our questions, nor do I think it ought to; for example, there are moral questions that have developed independently of science, and require disciplines such as philosophy, religion, history, literature and other subjects of the humanities to inform us. (A close reading of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Eliot’s Daniel Deronda might help the scientist better understand the human condition.)

I agree with Prof. Himmelfarb that a little humility might be what scientists today need. And perhaps some poetry: Himmelfarb writes: “This may be too radical a leap for the scientist of our own day — to invoke not only morality but poetry as a corrective to scientism.”

For more, go to [NewAtlantis].

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Taxi Ride Home

Sharp Conversation

There was a time in my life when I was employed as a sales engineer for a medium-sized manufacturing company (high-precision aerospace & defense products); my position required that I travel often for business, and thus I used to take a lot of planes and a lot of taxis. This incident, in many respects unmemorable, took place during the late summer of 1990; I was returning from a business trip from the United States to Montreal, which is where I was then residing. It was late in the evening, and I was exhausted after a long day of meetings and travel

I  took a cab from the airport, and behind the wheel there was a middle-aged driver from the middle east. We spoke, and after some preliminaries of what I did professionally and where I was coming from, the conversation quickly turned personal and to religion, not a topic that I like speaking about with strangers; he spoke passionately about his wife's newly found beliefs in Christianity, which bothered him. “All she talks about is love and peace,” he said with disdain. “She has forgotten about Allah’s justice. In Islam, you have to be sharp like a sword,” he said, momentarily taking his right hand off the steering wheel, and chopping the air for dramatic emphasis.

Thankfully, we arrived at my destination; I quickly paid him. As I was exiting the cab, the driver helping me retrieve my suitcase from the car’s trunk, he said, “This is Islam; it's about justice.” He was not angry, but bothered, perhaps confused about Canada and its values, which in some important way conflicted with his, and his religious beliefs likely provided him some comfort in a land that he considered foreign in so many ways. Yet, he was in Canada for a reason; it provided him something tangible (freedom, opportunity, work, perhaps) not available in his home country.

I soon forgot this conversation, recalling it only recently; and yet this simple taxi driver from the middle east explained an important aspect of Islam that today escapes many sophisticated western academics, politicians and writers. People hold on to thoughts and ideas that give them comfort and meaning, only replacing these with new ones when these do the same. In the workings of the brain, changing one’s mind is never easy. Yet, it is at times necessary, and time and the fading of memory makes this easier.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Concert Pianist: Time To Refill

Youthful Ambition

“The paradox is that I love playing in concerts; the paradox is that each concert is an event for me. I can also say that each concert is a stress for me. …I give a lot; I give everything I have at that particular moment during my concert, and so I need some time to refill myself.”
—Evgeny Kissin

In this British documentary series Imagine, host Alan Yentob examines Being a Concert Pianist (2005), using British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor as the focus of what young pianists face in their desire to become internationally acclaimed musicians. Having good parents and teachers might be as important as luck, talent and a relentless drive and ambition to play music for the public to enjoy. Such are no doubt important in the early years, but later on, more mature thoughts and ideas take hold. It also takes a sense of what is important, an understanding of the limitations of human ability, and how to preserve it, says Evgeny Kissin, a child prodigy and one of the great pianists of today, who performs in less than 50 concerts a year: “The paradox is that I love playing in concerts; the paradox is that each concert is an event for me. I can also say that each concert is a stress for me. …I give a lot; I give everything I have at that particular moment during my concert, and so I need some time to refill myself.”

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nuclear Life & Death

Man-Made Disasters

A Room in Pripyat, Ukraine: Johnson writes: “And that is what drew me, along with the wonder
of seeing towns and a whole city—almost 50,000 people lived in Pripyat—that had been abandoned
in a rush, left to the devices of nature.”
Photo Credit:
Gerd Ludwig
Source: NatGeo

An article (“Nuclear Tourism”), by George Johnson, in National Geographic discusses the human fascination of Chernobyl, which 28 years ago suffered a nuclear disaster. The name of the town in Ukraine is synonymous with the threats that nuclear reactors in particular, and nuclear energy in all its forms in general,  pose to human civilization. Such threats, not surprisingly, also act as a draw to people, who are fascinated by its serious implications.

Chernobyl has become a tourist attraction, Johnson writes in this essay, with photos by Gerd Ludwig:
Then there is the specter of nuclear meltdown. In 2011, Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst catastrophe at a nuclear power plant, was officially declared a tourist attraction.
Nuclear tourism. Coming around the time of the Fukushima disaster, the idea seems absurd. And that is what drew me, along with the wonder of seeing towns and a whole city—almost 50,000 people lived in Pripyat—that had been abandoned in a rush, left to the devices of nature.

Sixty miles away in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city, weeks of bloody demonstrations had led in February to the expulsion of the president and the installation of a new government. In response to the upheaval Russia had occupied Crimea, the peninsula that juts from southern Ukraine into the Black Sea. Russian troops were massing on Ukraine’s eastern border. In a crazy way, Chernobyl felt like the safest place to be.

The other diehards in the van had come for their own reasons. John, a young man from London, was into “extreme tourism.” For his next adventure he had booked a tour of North Korea and was looking into options for bungee jumping from a helicopter. Gavin from Australia and Georg from Vienna were working together on a performance piece about the phenomenon of quarantine. We are used to thinking of sick people quarantined from the general population. Here it was the land itself that was contagious.

Of all my fellow travelers, the most striking was Anna, a quiet young woman from Moscow. She was dressed all in black with fur-lined boots, her long dark hair streaked with a flash of magenta. It reminded me of radioactivity. This was her third time at Chernobyl, and she had just signed up for another five-day tour later in the year.

“I’m drawn to abandoned places that have fallen apart and decayed,” she said. Mostly she loved the silence and the wildlife—this accidental wilderness. On her T-shirt was a picture of a wolf.

“ ‘Radioactive Wolves’?” I asked. It was the name of a documentary I’d seen on PBS’s Nature about Chernobyl. “It’s my favorite film,” she said.
The aftermath of destruction and death is often silence; perhaps visiting such places gives people an idea of what they have escaped, the silence speaking in a particular language. I would like to elucidate this point by telling a personal story. When I was an engineering student, I worked one summer (in 1980) at a nuclear research reactor in Ontario (Chalk River); we also wore dosimeters on our belts to measure our exposure, in millirems, to the background radiation (notably gamma); we all were tested as to our total exposure before we left the facility; we were all told the amount of total radiation we students were exposed to fell within normal limits. I enjoyed my summer there, and I have not thought much about my time at Chalk River until I was diagnosed with cancer almost two years ago; is there a correlation? I can't say with any certainty, but I wonder. More important, I am glad to be alive.

You can read more and see more images at [NatGeo].