Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Desolation of Science

One of my comments was an intelligent question from Nuallan, concerning the sketchy line I drew between Ockham & probabilism & modern day relativism. In order to better answer his question (which may confuse the issue more so), I'll draw another connection that is better delineated (ie., I have connected the dots). That doesn't mean I won't connect the dots for this, as well, just that I'll illustrate how things morph in Unity when people think they are segregated (notice how I use the vaguely disreputable connotation here for emphasis).

Feynman the physicist was fond of saying that "Philosophy of science is to Science as ornithology is to birds". You can immediately appreciate the emotional import of this statement. I had gotten into a prolonged, ugly, & hard-hitting argument with a modern "physicist", who wanted to maintain that modern Science has nothing to do with relativism, but was fond of quoting Feynman. I happened, HAPPENED, to stumble across this fact when reading Tom Wolfe's book on modern art (I forget the title right now, The Painted Word, I think).

Aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds. Barnett

Now, tell me that culture & Science & philosophy don't share deeper connections than we realize. There are "elective affinities" (Goethe) at work here, which operate subconsciously (at the least) and I would argue transcendentally as well. Feynman pulled this quote out of the intellectual air which he breathed. He may have heard it directly, certainly it is dominant in his thought & praxis. He is an icon for many atheistic modern scientists (this interloquoter, for instance, denigrated Sir John Polkinghorne, Michael Polyani, and others, when pushed, which didn't take much). Feynman was his hero.

This is just one more example of the supposed "neutrality" in modern culture & Science. Now, here's the catch. I am NOT claiming neutrality can't exist. What I am claiming is that atheists/agnostics are RARELY capable of it. Additionally (and consequentially) they go to great lengths to hide the fact. The Weber separation of fact/value in sociology (here's another example) has had immense impact on the humanities in America.

It is pointless to object that most people don't read Weber, or know of him, therefore, no direct connection exists. It is also rather foolish. It is in the air. It is all around us. Weber dominates the university landscape in modern day America like oxygen & nitrogen dominate our atmosphere. For all practical purposes, it is heresy to suggest anything contra-Weber, and also heresy to point out this fact. Weber rules.

I am not saying that I am infallibly correct about these "elective affinities", in all cases, but they do exist. Ockham's work made possible the generally diffused idea that simplicity was always a virtue. Therefore, if one was pondering a complex moral issues (and they are all complex at some level), it was oftentimes simpler to say "I have a doubt" and dispense with obligation. To disagree is not inherently foolish, but I've yet to come across a better explanation for how General Ideas filter down in seemingly chaotic systems. I find it hard to believe that Ockham's theories (which included epistemological and linguistic ones, as well as philosophical) did not impact the West at a gut level which made it easier to account for moral obligation by using negative reasons. John Stuart Mill's libertarianism may have some relevance here.

I issue a standing challenge to any & all comers to explain the origin of the Feynman quote without necessitating a discussion of Barnett Newman's views, which preceded Feynman's in historical time, and obviously have a connection.

Of course, if you like modern art, then I can only hope you read T. Wolfe's book. Which reminds me, Jacques Barzun has a very interesting book in which he passingly argues that Science has indirectly contributed to this popularization of "General Ideas Which Are In The Air". As a last side note, consider this ~ in an age of consumer democratization, Ideas which triumph are often not brilliant, but simply acceptable. Or should I say, compatible? Max Weber, Feynman, Barnett and that ilk come to the fore (or hide in the shadows) not because of their originality or brilliance, but because they are "system friendly". That is, there is something about the way Americans live on the North American continent that is compatible with fact vs. value.

1 comment:

  1. That modern science has influenced modern popular culture is inescapably true... though often the scientific truth has been lost by the time it is filtered down to cultural influence (e.g. the complete irrelevance of the scientific theory of relativity to the cultural idea of relativism).

    On the lack of neutrality to the atheist/agnostic position (and their PR campaign to obfuscate this fact) this observation ( might interest you.

    (btw: ingarandur [at] gmail [dot] com)