Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Superstition in Science


Two erudite correspondents have been engaged in a thought provoking e-mail debate over the merits of science. They both have taught science subjects at university level. One thinks science the most elegant approach to universal wisdom. The other regards it yet another grand human illusion.

I actually agree with both and, paradoxically, don’t think they have much disagreement in their passionately divergent viewpoints. Perhaps they’ve set aside a huge swathe of worldly commonality to expostulate over a philosophical posture? Academics and intellectuals love to do that you know.

There are ample examples how applied science and technology have improved the lives of many over the past century. Science could have been indisputably beneficial, had we not overused and misused it (once again!), rendering it destructive — self-destructive — to humans.

On an earthly level, over-application of technology has caused resource depletion and environmental degradation at suicidal rates. As if that would still take too long to kill ourselves, we’ve invented droves of weapons of mass destruction, ludicrously in the name of “security”. Even modern communication systems, a potentially wonderful thing in many respects, have turned out toxic to millions of gadget addicts, and given evil idiots outrageous capabilities in state surveillance and malicious disinformation. 

The high-speed society in which we live is not necessarily delivering quality of life. We live longer, not better. We travel faster, but often without a meaningful purpose or destination. Modern medicine had for decades reduced sufferings and saved lives, but eventually turned Triad-like, pushing drugs unscrupulously for profit. Many of my old human friends no longer dare to notice or take charge of their own body. They take measurements compulsively instead, and compare readings at social dinners. They have been reduced to mere molecules, relying on a plethora of pills and supplements to “keep going”. According to New Scientist (Leaders, Issue 2953, 25 Jan 2014), medicine is now the number three cause of death in the developed world.

We have become a self-endangered species; science has been a catalyst. But rather than pausing to rethink the role of technology, we let scientific “superstitions” herd us further towards the point of no-return.

Many credulous souls, mostly science illiterates, dismiss the urgent need to correct humanity’s suicidal course with blind faith: “Science will find a solution to right itself,” they declare arrogantly with unfounded confidence. Many of them are important folks you know, like Presidents of Big Powerful Countries who never passed Grade 10 Physics. They think science can achieve anything when ordered to. Everything’s a matter of money and political will right? Ironically, despite what astronomy has incontrovertibly shown, they can’t comprehend our insignificance in the big picture. Let’s say we can reach Mars. Wow! In universal scale, that’d be infinitely less impressive than an ant having covered the distance of one brick along the Great Wall. These people might as well pray to a god, which, of course, many of them do. 

At a highly esoteric level, science seems to be in crisis. It’s starting to realise that reality might not be what it seems, or what science had once described, therefore invalidating itself in a strange philosophical sense. I watch with fascination scientists’ frantic efforts to understand (or justify, or rationalise) the elusive truth — assuming it exists. Isn’t that something humans have been doing for millennia though, mostly to kill time and feel good? One unexpected result of scientific research at this level is that ancient atheistic teachings such as Buddhism and Daoism seem to have gained popularity among mystified scientists. Weird huh? 

James Tam 16.9.2014

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