Thursday, December 26, 2013

The New Two Cultures

The Two Cultures was originally a talk by C.P. Snow which became a book. Snow was pointing out the scientific illiteracy of those humanities-based academics who looked down their noses at scientists, those unwashed peons who couldn't recite Cicero or Virgil.

With the passage of time, Snow's point has become outdated as science and technology have increased in importance, while an education in the classics is seen as quaint and effete more often than as the essential mark of a gentleman. However, it seems to me that there is a new dichotomy to which attention needs to be drawn. I'm going to call the two sides "evidence-based" versus "agenda-based".

Science and mathematics are the primary examples of evidence-based academic disciplines. If you're going to put forward a hypothesis in these fields, you'd better have evidence to back it up. That evidence takes the form of theory and observation in science, and deductions from the axioms of formal systems in mathematics, computer science and some philosophy. Medicine is starting to embrace the evidence-based approach, and in law, there has always been an expectation that you will use "evidence" such as precedent, legislation and the constitution to make your case.

I'm sure it's possible to take an evidence-based analysis in the humanities also, for example by using textual analysis to support your interpretation of a poem, say. But the humanities seems to be the home of an alternative approach which I call agenda-driven. This is precisely the reverse approach; you start with a conclusion based on your agenda, and instead of looking for evidence to support it, you then interpret the world through the lens of your chosen agenda.

Whether it's radical feminism, critical race theory, cultural Marxism or whatever, the MO is the same. You start by assuming that the whole of society is misogynistic, racist etc., and you are required to see the world through the filter of this unquestionable assumption. Everything you see is taken as evidence to strengthen your initial assumption; nothing can possibly weaken it.

In this respect (and many others), agenda-driven studies have far more in common with religion than they do with science. What's more, there seems to be an increasing tendency to denounce the evidence-based approach as masculine, exclusive and oppressive, while agenda-driven approaches are declared to be more inclusive and social-justicey, and more aligned with the "feminine energy" - and other such gobbledygook.

If you doubt me, check out:
  •  Newton's Principia = Newton's Rape Manual
  •  "E=mc2 is a sexed equation because it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us."
  •  Scientists haven't solved the Navier-Stokes equations of fluid mechanics because fluids are icky and feminine. Nothing to do with the fact that NS is a nonlinear parabolic-hyperbolic set of equations that cannot be solved in closed form.
 As a scientifically trained person, I find it appalling that ideologues are trying to encroach on areas of study where an evidence-driven approach is essential. If they get their way, kiss goodbye to any prospect of making progress and accumulating knowledge in these fields. But hey, at least we'll be joining hands singing Kumbaya and nobody's fee-fees will be hurt except for those evil patriarchal privileged males.

In a subsequent post I plan to address the essential difference between science and religion. There is a reason why scientific knowledge has increased explosively in the last few centuries, while theologians are basically restating the assertions of Thomas Aquinas 800 years later, and still haven't decided whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and Son or the Father alone, the burning question which split Christianity into Eastern and Western factions long ago.

Feminists often bemoan the shortage of women in STEM fields, yet at the same time, the more extreme seek to emasculate science and turn it into a religion in the name of gender uniformity. How is that supposed to be empowering?

More later.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Is "agnostic" a useful concept?

I've fallen behind with my blogging, not that it matters since nobody reads this blog anyway. But here are some thoughts on a subject I've been thinking about lately.

In everyday language, an agnostic is someone who is "halfway" between being an atheist and a religious believer, or perhaps someone who sits on the fence and makes a virtue of refusing to take a stand one way or the other. Of course, popular usage is quite different from the sense originally intended by Thomas Huxley: the position that humanity can never know one way or the other whether a god or gods exist. Either way, I question the usefulness of the term.

Huxley's claim might strike one as being rather sweeping and dogmatic in itself. After all, at one stage scientists might have said with confidence that humans can never know whether there was a big bang, whether there are black holes, and so on. But since then, observational evidence has piled up steadily to the point where it is overwhelming.

On the other hand, Huxley's claim is vacuous in a sense. You can never know with 100% certainty that the chair you're sitting on right now exists, or the computer or device you're using to read these words. Your brain could be floating in a vat in an evil scientist's basement lab, connected to electrical cables which feed inputs generating the illusory universe you perceive.

Not to mention that a chair and a computer are more or less well-defined entities; most people can agree on whether something is a computer or not. God, however, has never (as far as I can see) even been defined well enough that a debate concerning his existence is worth having. God is an incoherent concept. The old-style image of a bearded man in the sky is simply wrong, but the vague, abstract god of "sophisticated theology", who vanishes behind a smoke screen of semantic masturbation, is what a scientist would call "not even wrong".

Anyway, Huxley's claim suffers from a serious problem. How would you test it, even assuming you had a satisfactory definition of the god-thingy to which it referred? How could you show it to be true or false? It seems to me you would need to know whether God's existence was the true state of affairs or not, thus violating the premise unless you are either God himself, or some sort of highly advanced alien.

A claim that can never be tested, even in principle, is not a useful claim in my opinion. Is the popular usage of the word "agnostic" any more useful? I'm not convinced it is.

In western society, when people call themselves agnostics, it's very likely that it's specifically the christian god they want to avoid taking a stand on. They feel as free as everyone else, christians and atheists alike, to dismiss out of hand the existence of Thor, Ra, Zeus, Ahura Mazda, Quetzelcoatl, and so on. So in a sense, if you call yourself an agnostic, you are giving the christian god a free pass that other, equally imaginary and discredited gods don't get.

It seems to me that many self-described agnostics are simply atheists are lack the guts to come out of the closet. Of course this could be a wise decision if they live in the bible belt (which encompasses a great deal more of the US than the Deep South). Then there are the agnostics - thankfully less common - who lack intellectual curiosity and love to intone sophomirically, "A pox on both your houses." (Vince Bugliosi's wretched book "Divinity of Doubt" is an exemplar of this attitude.)

Of course, in this as in many other areas of life (including feminism), labels don't really matter - actions do. Don't judge people by how they choose to label themselves, but how they live their lives.

I would guess that many people who call themselves agnostics, and a surprising number of self-proclaimed christians, are functional atheists - they live their lives as if there is no god.They don't act like there is some cosmic tyrant looking down on them 24-7 and preparing to toss them into the Lake of Fire to scream forever in infinite agony after they die, if they fail to cross and dot all their T's and I's while on earth.

Of course you are free to label yourself as you please, but when you use that label in public, you have a responsibility to think about whether you are accurately presenting yourself to the world, and if not, why not? Are you using the term "agnostic" simply to avoid the perceived stigma of atheism? Or are you hedging your bets, genuinely unsure whether a god or exists or not? In the latter case, how does your belief affect your behavior? What is the point of a belief if it makes no difference to your behavior?

I strongly believe that the more atheists who come out of the closet, the better. The US has a severe case of atheist phobia and needs desensitization therapy. It needs to see as many ordinary, everyday people as possible coming out as atheists.

For me, being an atheist does not mean I claim absolute knowledge that no god exists. It simply means that in the total absence of evidence for the supernatural, I am entitled to live my life on the working assumption that it does not exist. If you're a functional atheist, I would encourage you to think about what your working assumption is. Are you in fact a closet atheist? Then come out of that closet!