Friday, September 24, 2010

An epistemic reason for religious tolerance

Yesterday evening just before I left campus I received a phone call from the local LDS representative assigned to myself by the church. My father always forwards my address when I move because he cares about my eternal salvation. It makes sense when you consider his perspective, and usually I don't really mind the occasional visit from those who love God because I find the conversations fun. However, last night was not the best night for myself. I tried to intimate that, but he offered tonight, so I was all "Yeah, sure, come over, whatever" Being somewhat on edge due to a busy schedule, and not really feeling like putting up with the fellow, I decided to pour myself a double before he came over. Unlike other times when he'd come over to share the word, where I would attempt to politely but firmly point out my objections, I was not quite so polite this time around. There's a sense in which I feel bad about this, 'cause the guy's an old retired man, and really, of all the times in a person's life this might be the worst time to start edging in on their religion, God, and all that. They lived the life, they might as well receive some sort of comfort compensation when coming near the end of it. So, hey, I can't say I'm proud of it. But I did come up with an interesting insight from the conversation none-the-less (This is probably the least inflammatory comment, which just goes to show me that polemics are better comedy than philosophy).

Of those religions that I am familiar with, and seem to be wildly popular (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), all of them claim that God is in some way infinite. There are interesting philosophical developments in the understanding and concept of God, and some theologians come-with, but when approaching the usual basics of these religions (and I fully admit here that I'm at a loss when it comes to "Eastern" traditions), and the beliefs of what seems to be canon to these religions, God possesses infinite properties (to some, within the scopes of logic, to others, not so, and so much the worse for logic).

Additionally, from what I have seen within these religions, it seems that man's finitude, at the least as a moral being, is central to their system of understanding the world. Yet, despite this finitude, these religions will often have claims wherein this religion is the true religion amongst religions. While this is a common objection amongst non-believers (adopting, at least temporarily, intersubjective agreement as truth), what I did not realize before was the contrast between the infinitude of God, the finitude of man, and how this directly contradicts any religion's claim to the one true path to God. It is not that, granting God, we can't understand a segment of God or experience the divine. It's that many people make this claim of perfect or nearer-perfect knowledge of God, and yet the doctrine of God's infinitude and man's finitude necessarily leads one to conclude that man can't understand God, as he can't understand the infinite. As such, one ought to conclude that one's religion is but a path to the divine, something that a given individual thinks is correct, but is itself not the best, or at the very least possibly not the best, description of God and his will. To think so is to adopt a religious chauvinism that abuses God for one's religion when one is supposed to instead revere him; clearly, a contradiction. It is for this reason that we should reject faiths that proclaim themselves True.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ontology and Science

Last I blogged I mentioned that building an ontology on top of scientific models currently strikes me as a bad idea. Here's why.

A rough outline of what ontology is is the study or question of that which exists. It includes exploring the meaning of "Being", "Essence", and questions such as "How can anything exist at all?", "How do you know if something exists?", the existence of God, or universal laws, or questions which reflect upon the meaning and nature of time and matter. I wrote this in order of seeming increasing relevance to scientific questions to give the impression as to why it is one might seek the answers to the questions of ontology in scientific investigations. Surely, scientific investigations use concepts of matter, time, natural law, and attempts to elucidate the mechanism and relation between all that is posited as is to give a cohesive picture of existence. There is an attendant epistemology, and supposedly, there isn't a reference to ethics outside of the confines of this epistemology (things like "Don't fake data", etc.)

What is posited as is, in science, is posited as is not on the basis of asking what is, but on the basis
of asking a general research question. This research question is formulated on the information already present from previous generations scientific careers. The information generated previously was generated not to find what is (usually), but to also answer questions that seemed relevant on the basis of what was passed onto that scientific generation. In short, science progresses towards seemingly relevant research questions generated upon data that was generated on previous research questions. This process can be directed towards other things than asking what is, especially given that one's career depends upon their publications, and the citations to these publications. This process of information generation seems to be predominantly directed towards economic benefit for those who are able to invest, military applications, and the health of those who are able to afford care. So, the process of science, current science, whilst I won't deny the position of scientific realism, isn't trying to answer questions one would prima facie think belongs to a scientific realist's set of questions -- instead, a good demarcating point for scientific knowledge is the knowledge which assists in humanities power over nature, and due to our economic situation, this power of humanity over nature becomes the power of the rich over that which isn't rich.

I will note that this isn't a necessary evil. It just makes science non-ontological, at least in the sense where one attempts to answer ontological questions primarily. Since science doesn't usually answer ontological questions, it follows from this that referencing science in answering ontological questions can be faultier than one might first assume.

Another good reason to not mix these two disciplines is that if one were to mix ontological questions with the scientific enterprise, the scientific enterprise would likely come to a halt -- if one runs a quick probability calculus on the history of ontological questions, one could easily conclude that it is highly probable that ontological questions are insoluble. Based upon this, we wouldn't even want to build an ontology on science for the fear that science wouldn't operate, at least if it is the case that we want science to operate as most people who build ontology on science do. Instead, science assumes an ontology (A formal, universal ontology based in the concept of "energy", and thereby an ill-defined sort of physicalism, upon which general principles of other disciplines that are supposedly "smaller" are loosely attached to), and then gets to work attempting to describe the universe with that ontology, as well as with a ever-morphing epistemology. I can't stress enough that these are good things for the scientific enterprise, so long as the scientific enterprise continues to value producing knowledge which generates support from governments and industry.

Approaching science from the questions of ontology, one realizes that science isn't the "objective" viewpoint that ontology looks for, as is often thought. It's an approach to ontological questions that tends to beg the ontological questions with a rough rational-empirical epistemology of some kind (and even this varies with the discipline, the scientist, and with history). If one is not a scientist but wishes to build a scientific ontology, then one will often employ a half-hearted Popper reference. Science seems to operate underneath a value-set, in the same way that Popper's Scientific Logic operates underneath a value-set, and proclaims this value-set as a methodology to mask the fact that it is, indeed, a value-set. Now, I have no problem with mixing my epistemology with my values -- but I'll mention that my value-set doesn't include falsifiability, numerical accuracy, and prediction-of-outcomes as prime. There likely somewhere down the line, but my prime values include compassion and equality far before what experimental parameters supposedly require, and it would do so whether or not the current psychological theory proclaimed that this should be so.

This leads into my final point on why I, on a personal level, have stopped attempting to build an ontology on top of science: politics. While this process is more self-correcting in my view, the scientific enterprise would mirror some religious power structures in an uncomfortable way the moment that science starts proclaiming ontological truth to individuals not trained in the abstract difficulties of scientific knowledge. It seems to me that a better approach is to relegate science as an epistemic approach to solving abstract puzzles related to power-over-nature, an end that is valuable unto itself, but not valuable as ontological constructs -- at least, not as ontological constructs to anyone outside of the scientific community. If one is able to retort to a scientific argument, then I don't have a political problem with a scientific approach to ontological questions. However (and note that this is with good reason -- the problem isn't with the scientific enterprise, only with mixing science and ontology) the majority of the population can't reject scientific claims because they lack the background. Any structure that can proclaim uncriticized truth (to those who aren't in the community) is just asking to become a political structure. This would likely destroy the scientific enterprise.

Seeing as I don't want science to become a political entity, and seeing that both ontology and science seem to mutually destruct one another, it seems wise to me to perhaps allow each to inform the other, but to keep them separate in some sense... I'm not sure exactly how to succeed in doing that, however. Science jumps out as a source of answers to some pretty basic ontological questions, and it answers these in a pretty successful manner. I just don't think importing this ontology to ontology, or other areas of life, academic and otherwise, seems to be pertinent at all -- science doesn't have a general epistemic approach (unless one wishes to interpret it teleologically), and it really only deals with pre-defined description problems that themselves are highly oriented towards control over nature. Honestly, this has about zilch to do with what's important in life, excepting the fact that scientific exploration is interesting unto itself for some people and therefore important to some lives.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

After summer thoughts on Science

*cough, cough, bleh, blewy* I have been resurrected! Indeed, the summer was full of research fun and things very un-blog-related. But now, a few weeks into the semester, I return to my little patch of the internet to update.

And, with that in mind, I've recently come to the realization that I've forgotten a lot of science. Over the summer I focused in on a single research project, and became very good at the processes' that guided that project. I'm still a little fuzzy on the details (i.e., I need to run a few more experiments to get some results), but overall I'm confident I understand this little piece of science that I can call my own. However, as I return for my senior year as a chemistry major, I'm sort of blown away by what, of the general theoretical chemical understanding, I have to remind myself of. There is a sense in which I've integrated a large number of facts into a process, but it still kind of freaks me out. I'm certain that, were I more dedicated to the sciences, and cared less for things like literature, philosophy, theatre, and all the varied "unrelated" disciplines which constitute my hobbies, that I wouldn't need reminding. I would have reminded myself through biographies, pop-sci publications, and so on. In short, if I cared more about science I'd be a better scientist. But I don't care so much about science that I want to dedicate my whole being to it. It's an interest amongst interests, and it happens to be better funded both academically and industrially, so I pursue it.

After this summer I've begun to think that science (at least of the physical variety) is just fun- there are more important things in the world than it. And I'm more hesitant of basing an ontology on scientific pronouncements. Lastly, I've come to think that the theory of evolution is probably the strongest scientific theory, which is counter-intuitive to the usual "Heirarchy of the Sciences!" I may just write an essay on it, if I get around to it.

I think all these altered thoughts on science came from actually doing the research itself. Somehow, in the process of learning the models of physical science, the education itself seems to lull one -- sure the models are good, and the training rigorous, but the models are set. There isn't as much "critique" as one might think, at least at the undergraduate level. Having some experience in this, now, it's hit me how much of science is. . . made up? At least in praxis. Not that this is a bad thing. I've always defended art. It's just struck me how much science, while awesome, beautiful, and fun, really isn't the holy grail of epistemology like I thought. It's an approach amongst approaches, and a rather nice one at that. But I'm hesitant, now, to place it even at the top of the epistemological food chain. It's robust, but not superior. It's good, but not the best. It's worthwhile, but not to a singular point. I think that expresses what I mean fairly well, without getting into the nitty-gritty of an argument (something which, at the moment, I'm still formulating to be honest. But I know I've hit upon something here. It's just. . . wider and more disjointed than what this blog post can express)