Science, Magic, and Technology

There is an interesting observation made, I believe, by Isaac Asimov:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This has been applied many times in science fiction to produce some form of techno-mage, but what’s more interesting is that the origins of modern science were in magic, specifically in astrology and alchemy. The goals of science were the same as that of magic: to control the natural elements. If you really study the history, it’s not even clear how to distinguish modern science from renaissance magic; in many ways the only real dividing line is success. There is some truth to the idea that alchemists whose techniques worked got called chemists to distinguish them from the alchemists whose ideas didn’t work. This is by no means a complete picture, because there was also at the same time natural philosophy, i.e. the desire to learn how the natural world worked purely for the sake of knowledge.

Natural philosophy has existed since the Greeks—Aristotle did no little amount of it—but it especially flourished in the renaissance with the development of optics which allowed for the creation of microscopes and telescopes. Probably more than anything else this marked the shift towards what we think of as modern science. As Edward Feser argues, the hallmark of modern science is viewing nature as a hostile witness. The ancients and medievals looked at the empirical evidence which nature gave, but they tended to trust it. Modern science tends to assume that nature is a liar. Probably more than any other single cause, being able to look at nature on scales we could not before and seeing that it looked different resulted in this shift towards distrusting nature. Some people feel a sense of wonder when looking through a microscope, but many people feel a sense of betrayal.

Another significant historical event was when the makers of technology started using the knowledge of natural philosophy in order to make better technology. This may sound strange to modern ears, who are used to thinking of technology as applied science, but in fact technological advancements very rarely rely on any new information about how the world works which was gained by disinterested researchers who published their results for the sake of curiosity. Technology mostly advances by trial and error modifying existing technology, and especially by trial and error on materials and techniques. In fact, no small amount of science has consisted of investigating why technology actually works.

But sometimes technology really does follow fairly directly from basic scientific research. One of the great examples is radio waves, which were discovered because the Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism predicted that they existed. Another of the great examples of technology following from basic scientific research is the atomic bomb.

I suspect that these as well as other, lesser, examples, helped to solidify the identification between science and engineering. And I don’t want to overstate the distinction. In some cases the views of the natural world brought about by science have certainly helped engineers to direct their investigations into suitable materials and designs for the technology they were creating. But counterfactuals are very difficult to consider well, and it is by no means clear that the material properties which were discovered by direct investigation but also explained by scientific theories would not have been discovered at roughly the same time, or perhaps only a little later.

However that would have gone, the association between science and technology is presently a very strong one, and I think that this is why Dawkinsian atheists so often announce an almost religious devotion to science. I’ve seen it expressed like this (not an exact quote):

Science has given us cars and smartphones, so I’m going to side with science.

Anyone who actually knows anything about orthodox Christianity knows that there is no antipathy between science and religion. Though it is important to note that I mean this in the sense of there being no antipathy between natural philosophy and religion. In this sense, Christianity has been a great friend to science, providing no small amount of the faith that he universe operates according to laws (i.e. that being a creature is has a nature) and that these laws are intelligible to human reason. Moreover, the world having been created by God, it is interesting, since to learn about creation is to learn about the creator. It is no accident that plenty of scientists have been Catholic priests. The world is a profoundly interesting place to a Christian.

But there is a sense in which the Dawkinsian atheist is right, because he doesn’t really care about natural philosophy. What he cares about is technology, and when he talks about science he really means the scheme of conquering nature and bending it to our will. And this is something towards which Christianity is sometimes antagonistic. Not really to the practice, since technology is mostly a legitimate extension of our role as stewards of nature, but to the spirit. And it is antagonistic because this spirit is an idolatrous one.

The great difference between pagan worship and Christian worship is that Christian worship is an act of love, whereas pagan worship is a trade. Pagan deities gain something by being worshiped, and are willing to give benefits in exchange for it. This relationship is utterly obvious in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, but it is actually nowhere so obvious as when the Israelites worshiped the golden calf. For whatever reason this often seems to be taken to be a reversion to polytheism, where the golden calf is an alternative god to Yahweh. That is not what it is at all. If you read the text, after the Israelites gave up their gold and it was cast into the shape of a calf, they worshiped it and said:

Here is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.

The Israelites were not worshipping some new god, or some old god, but the same god who brought them out of Egypt. The problem was that they were worshiping him not as God, but as a god. That is, they were not entering into a covenant with him, but were trying to control him in order to get as much as they could out of him. Granted, as in all of paganism it was control through flattery, but at its root flattery has no regard for its object.

And this is the spirit which I think we can see in the people who say, “Science has given me the car and the iPhone, I will stick with Science.” They are pledging their allegiance to their god, because they hope it will continue to give them favors. And it is their intention to make sacrifices at its altars. This is where scientists become the (mostly unwitting) high priests of this religion; the masses do not ordinarily make sacrifices themselves, but give the sacrifices to the priests of the god to make sacrifice on their behalf. And so scientists are given money (i.e funded) as an offering.

To be clear, this is not the primary reason science gets funded. Dawkinsian atheists (and other worshipers of science) tend to be less powerful (and less numerous) than they imagine themselves. Still, this is, I think, how they view the world, except without the appropriate terminology because they look down on all other pagans.

And I think that it is largely this, and not the silly battles with fundamentalists and other young-earth creationists that result in their perception of a war between science and religion. There were other historical reasons for the belief in a war between science and religion, but I am coming to suspect that they had their historical time and then waned, and Dawkinsian atheism is resurrecting the battle for other reasons. They are idolaters, and they know Christianity is not friendly to idolatry. And idolaters always fear what will happen if their god does not get what it wants.

Authoritative Authorities

In my previous post I mentioned that people will use science’s scheme of self-correction as a support of its authority, and that this is utterly confused. In fact, here’s what I said (yes, I’m quoting myself. Think of it as saving you the trouble of clicking on the link):

(It is a matter for another day that people take being wrong as one of the strengths of science, ignoring that a thing which may be wrong cannot be a logical authority, by definition.)

Today is that day.

Before getting into it, I need to qualify what I mean by an authority. There are multiple meanings to the phrase authority, and the most common one—someone such as a king, judge, etc. who should be obeyed and who enforces their will through force—isn’t relevant. I’m using the term “authority” as in the material logical fallacy, “appeal to authority”. Unfortunately, appeal to authority is often misunderstood because it would be much better named “appeal to a false authority”. A true authority, in the logical sense, is  anyone or anything which can be relied upon to only say things which are true. If you actually have one of those, it is not a fallacy to appeal to their statements.

A logical authority may of course remain silent; its defining characteristic is that if it says something, you may rely on the truth of what it says. These are of course hard to come by in this world of sin and woe, and you will find absolutely none which are universally agreed upon. That doesn’t mean anything, since you will find absolutely nothing which is universally agreed upon.

To give some examples of real authorities, Catholics hold that the bible, sacred tradition, the magisterium, and the pope when speaking ex cathedra are all authorities. God has guaranteed us that they will not lead us astray. Muslims hold that the Quran is an authority.

Not everyone believes there exists any authorities at all, of course. Buddhists don’t and neither (ostensibly) do Modern philosophers. If you insist on distinguishing Modern philosophers from Postmodernists, then Postmodernists don’t believe there exist any authorities either. In general, anyone who holds that truth is completely inaccessible will not believe in any authorities.

So we come to Science, and the curious thing is that science explicitly disqualifies itself as an authority. Everything in science is officially a guess which has so far not been disproved by all attempts which have so far been made to disprove it. And yet many people want to treat science as an authority. In some cases this is sheer cognitive dissonance, where people pick what they say on the basis of which argument they’re having at the moment, but in other cases there is an interesting sort of reasoning which is employed.

Both forms tend to piggy-back the bottom 99% of science on the success of (parts of) physics, chemistry, and to a lesser extent some parts of biology. This especially goes together with conflating science and engineering.

The first and stronger sort of argument used is that science may always be subject to disproof, but that after a sufficient amount of testing, any such disproof will be at the margins and not in the main part. The primary example of this is the move from Newtonian mechanics to Relativity, where the two differ by less than our ability to measure at most energies and speeds we normally interact with.

The problem with this argument is that there is relatively little of science to which it actually applies. Physics is rare in that most physicists study a relatively small of phenomena. There are less than two hundred types of atoms, and less than two dozen elementary particles, and apparently no more than three forces. So thousands of physicists all work on basically the same stuff. (It’s not literally the same stuff, of course; physicists carve out niches, but these are small niches, and often rely on the more common things in a way where they would be likely to detect errors.) This is simply not true of other fields in science. You can study polar bears all your life and never do anything which tells you about the mating habits of zebra fish. You can study glucose metabolism for five decades straight without even incidentally learning anything about how DNA replication is error-checked. You can spend ten lifetimes in psychology doing studies where you ask people to rate perceptions on a scale of 1 to 10 and never learn anything about anything at all.

The result is that in most fields outside of physics and (to a lesser extent) chemistry, theories are not being constantly tested and re-tested by most people’s work. In some of the fluffier fields like human nutrition and psychology—where controlled experiments are basically unethical and in some cases may not even be theoretically possible—they may not even be tested the first time.

The second and weaker argument is that science is the best that we have, and so we must treat it as an authority. This is very frequently simply outright wrong. In fields where performing controlled experiments is unethical, science consists of untested guesses where the people making the guesses had a strong financial and reputational incentive to make interesting guesses, as well as often a strong financial incentive to make guesses which justify government policies that the government would like to do anyway. But that only counts if the financial incentive is provided by tobacco companies or weightloss companies. Other financial incentives leave people morally pure because most scientists have them.

Actually, there is a third argument too, though it’s almost never stated explicitly. A lot of people work hard in science and believe that they’re doing good work, so it would be rude to doubt them. This is, basically, a form of weaponized politeness. The sad truth is that lots of scientists aren’t more honest than other people, lots of scientists aren’t smart, and lots of scientists are wasting their time. It’s mean to say that. Sometimes the truth hurts. It always sucks when honesty and politeness are enemies, but if a person prefers politeness to honesty, he’s a liar, and there’s nothing to be said to him except that he’s working to make the world a worse place and should stop.

Ultimately, of course, the real reason science is held to be an authority—as opposed to a potential source of truth which must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis because a scientific theory is only as good as the evidence behind it—is because this is a cultural thing. People need authorities in order to feel secure, and if they won’t believe in the right authorities they will believe in the wrong authorities.

The Fundamental Principle of Science

In the philosophy of science, there have been many attempts to define what it is that distinguishes science from other attempts to know the world. There’s an interesting section of The Trouble With Physics where Lee Smolin discusses Paul Feyerabend’s work, and summarizes it something like this (I don’t have time to find the exact quote):

It can’t be that science has a method, because witch doctors have a method. It can’t be that science uses math, because astrologists use math. So what is it that distinguishes science?

Neither, so far as I know, came up with an answer. There is a hint in Smolin’s book that there is no answer; that each advance in science comes about because there is a weirdo whose approach to science works to make the discovery of the moment, but doesn’t work generally. This would explain why so few scientists tend to be really productive over their entire lives; usually they have a few productive years—maybe a productive decade or so—and then tend to fade: they spend a few years discovering everything that their personal quirks are suited to, then when it is exhausted, return to the normal state of discovering nothing.

There is something common, however, that one will find in all of these quirks, if one looks back over history. This is especially true if you go back far enough to notice how much of science turned out to be wrong. (It is a matter for another day that people take being wrong as one of the strengths of science, ignoring that a thing which may be wrong cannot be a logical authority, by definition.) There is one principle that you will find consistent between everything which has ever been science, right or wrong. That principle is: assume anything necessary in order to publish.

To see why, we must consider the evolutionary pressure that applies to science. For whatever reason, people rarely take the theory of evolution seriously. They consider it as a scientific doctrine, or an organizing principle for archaeology, or a creation myth or any number of other things, but very rarely as an operating force in the world. Yet selective pressures abound and have their effects.

Occasionally people will ask the question about what influence on science the academic doctrine of publish-or-perish has, and they are right to ask this, but it is really just a subset of a larger selective pressure: science consists exclusively of what is published. If someone were to do extensive research in his basement and discover all the secrets of the cosmos, but never tell anyone, none of his knowledge would be a part of Science. In the same sense that Chesterton said that government is force, Science is publication.

The big problem with trying to uncover the secrets of the cosmos is that they are well covered. Coming to know how the universe works is very difficult. It’s often much easier if one makes simplifying assumptions which get rid of variables or eliminate the need for expensive experiments because cheap ones will suffice. The problem is that an assumption being convenient is not a justification for making that assumption. But since science consists of what is published, there is a huge selective pressure on people to make these convenient assumptions. This may or may not influence any particular scientist, but the scientists who are willing to make these sorts of unjustified simplifying assumptions will certainly be included in Science, while the scientists who take the principled position and refuse to make unjustified assumptions may well not be, because they didn’t have results to publish. In fields where real results are difficult to come by, it’s entirely possible that this could come to dominate what is published. And as the pitchmen say, but wait, there’s more!

People who are willing to make unjustified assumptions tend to have some personality traits more than others. Arrogance and a certain sort of defensiveness tends to work well with making assumptions one can’t justify, since those discourage requests for justifications. It also works synergistically with making quick judgments based on superficial criteria (like holding unrelated unpopular opinions), since that tends to insulate the unjustified assumer from having to confront contrary arguments and evidence. And here we come to the question of evolution, because new scientists will have to get along with these people, since the scientists who have published largely serve as the gate-keepers of who gets to join science. What sort of candidates will these people accept? Who will find scientists like this tolerable?

In subsequent generations, there will be the further question of who will find tolerable the people who found the makers of unjustified assumptions tolerable? And so it will go through subsequent generations, each new generation being a mix of all sorts, but the presence of the makers of unjustified assumptions and those who they trained will act as as selective pressure even on those who don’t work with them directly, since they still must be able to work with these people as colleagues and in many cases submit journal articles to them for peer review, etc.

For any institution, if you want to know how it tends to go wrong, a good place to start is asking what are the selective pressures affecting it?

Patience is the Most Practical of the Virtues

Most of the moral virtues have a reputation for being impractical. Honesty may be the best policy, but it often makes for a great deal more work for the person telling the truth, at least in the short term. Courage is necessary to practice any other virtue, but courage also means having the courage to do things that will cause oneself a great deal of trouble. Diligence is almost the definition of impracticality; it is at least literally the opposite of laziness. And so it goes with most of the others. But patience stands apart from the others in being not only virtuous, but highly practical.

It has been said that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, but the truth is that one never does precisely the same thing twice. The first time always does something, so the second time takes place in a different world. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with people, who usually remember the past. And this is where patience shows how practical it can be.

Anyone with any experience of the world knows that talk is cheap and when it comes to actions, a great many people will try anything once. Accordingly, when people state an intention, or even when they try to do something, the most likely outcome is that this is the last you have heard of them. It does not take a great deal of experience with the world to become accustomed to delaying responses. It is true that if you leave the dishes in the sink, they will be harder to clean the next day. It is also true that if you leave them on the table, the dog will probably clean them off within a few minutes so that you can stick them straight into the dish washer without having to scrape them first. The reason that procrastination is so common in this world is because it is very effective. Many, if not most, problems simply go away if you ignore them long enough.

This is why there was the story of the importunate widow in the bible. (Importunate comes from the same root as importune.) There was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man, and a widow who never ceased to demand justice from him against her enemy. For a long time he ignored her, but eventually he said to himself, “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, I must give this widow her rights or she will come slap me in the face.”

There is another practical aspect to patience, because patience must come from a source, and that source will carry a person through the execution of what they undertake. This is especially important in organizations with limited resources; to give someone what he asks is to commit resources which could be used elsewhere, even if just time. When people are willing to wait, it shows that their zeal has a reasonable chance of surviving the execution of their undertaking. Especially since all human undertakings in this fallen world will meet with adversity.

Patience is also involved in every attempt at learning. Whether it is practicing as skill or reading entire books to find out which are the good parts (if one isn’t reading Chesterton), learning will never be acquired without patience. This is perhaps especially evident at dance classes; a great many people quit because they don’t have the patience to look like a fool for a short time. It is true everywhere, though. Many people give up ice skating because they do not have the patience to fall a few hundred times. People give up learning to knit because they cannot stand to make a single misshapen scarf whose stitches are far too tight. Many a potential juggler has juggled nothing because they got tired of chasing after balls thrown wildly.

It has, for these reasons, always struck me as odd that patience is not a more commonly practiced virtue. It comes up almost any time one wants to accomplish anything, even vice. Pickpockets must wait until the right target comes along. How much more, then, will patience be required to practice virtue?


The classic Bogeyman is a tale told by parents to frighten children into good behavior. There is another type of Bogeyman, however. It is a tale told by adults to themselves to explain why they’re already frightened.

We live in a fallen world, which means that we are separated from God. This is a terrible state for us to be in and more to the point we instinctively know that it is a terrible state for us to be in. In this state we are not happy and since we want to be happy we seek to know why we are not happy. Of course, if we came to the right answer we would go to church, receive the sacraments, and make progress on being happy. But not everyone does this, and the people who don’t still have a deep-seated emotional need to have an explanation for why they are unhappy. So they come up with one that isn’t true.

This explanation for why they are unhappy is what I call a Bogeyman. Bogeymen invariable have a few key traits. In particular they always:

  1. Are something which is reasonably powerful.
  2. Are something that is in theory beatable.
  3. Are something that is not in practice beatable.

If something is not powerful, it has no explanatory value for unhappiness. If it is not in theory something the unhappy person can overcome, then misery is assured and the Bogeyman leads to despair, which (most) people know to be wrong. If it is something that is beatable in practice, it will be beaten, the unhappiness will not go away, and so another Bogeyman will need to be found. Vaguely analogous to the Peter Principle, Bogeymen will be defeated until an undefeatable one that satisfies conditions 1 and 2 is found.

Bogeymen can be nearly anything that satisfies these three criteria. Groups of people are very popular, such as Republicans, Democrats, the Rich, drug users, popular entertainers, foreigners, racists, men, women, etc. Social conditions such as poverty, inequality, factory farming, industrial pollution, etc. have been not uncommonly used. Widely held social theories like capitalism, Marxism, nationalism, internationalism, Catholicism, etc. work well as bogeymen too.

This is not to say that a person will have no legitimate complaints about the real thing they are using as a Bogeyman. They almost certainly will, since real complaints work much better than imaginary complaints to create the skeleton of a scary figure. Rare is the imagination so powerful it can keep a menacing figure in view without any recourse to reality. But though the complaints are real, they will never be considered in any sort of balance. A person who focuses their fears onto a Bogeyman is inherently a utopian—someone who believes that perfection can be achieved in this life—and utopians can never consider imperfections in the world as permanent compromises. Utopians don’t mind temporary compromises, of course—hence the guillotine and the gulag—but a permanent compromise because the world will never be perfect? That is unthinkable. If that were the case, happiness would be impossible.

It’s a problem of looking for happiness in the wrong place, of course. This transitory world is not the sort of place in which you can find happiness. But if a man gives up looking for God, the wrong places to find happiness are all that are left.

Theoretical Empiricists

If you go to the right places on the Internet it is fairly easy to come across Dawkinsian atheists who claim to be empiricists. They are not empiricists, of course—most haven’t done a single basic experiment themselves, let alone all of the basic experiments—but they will certainly claim to be, if not by name. When this is pointed out to them, they will take refuge in what might be called a collective empiricism: as long as someone has empirically verified it, and it is theoretically possible to empirically verify it again, that’s OK.

Being a retreat this isn’t well thought out, of course. Why should the bare theoretical possibility of an experiment being run again make human testimony about a previous experiment more believable? Still, that’s really a minor point; this new version doesn’t do what they want it to, anyway. They are hoping to divide knowledge up into reliable knowledge and everything else. It doesn’t do anything like that; their “knowledge” is just as unreliable as every other form of knowledge they denigrate, except for the kinds it’s less reliable than. What it does do is codify the reductionism which they practice. They want life to be simple, and so they rule out, as a simple matter of choice, types of knowledge which they don’t want to deal with. In practice, those are most types of knowledge. Ironically, given the high respect in which most such people hold mathematical physics, this includes mathematics.

What they are really trying to limit knowledge is the substitute for knowledge proposed by Kant. Basically, come up with a theory and then test it against experience. According to this concept of knowledge, nothing is actually known. Things are guessed at, and the best you can do is feel reasonably confident in your guesses when applying them to the parts of life in which you have tested them before.

The curious thing about this is that not even Kant tried to limit knowledge to this; he only limited knowledge of real things to this. That is, of things which exist. He fully recognized the universal validity of logic and reason; all he doubted was noesis, that is, perception of reality. Being the end of Modern Philosophy, he doubted that the senses could be trusted at all, and so the mind could not know anything which existed outside of it. But things which do not exist, such as hypothetical statements like the theorems of mathematics, he still thought fully knowable.

The Dawkinsian reductionists have eliminated this as well. They take somewhat seriously C.S. Lewis’s argument that if reason is the product of blind material processes, there can be no reason to trust it. (They probably didn’t actually hear his version of it; the problem is fairly obvious with only a moment’s thought. Unfortunately Lewis’s conclusion was that Dawkinsian evolution is self-refuting, which is not true. Dawkinsian evolution may be true, and if it is, it is intellectual suicide, but it is not self-contradictory.)

Given this semi-radical skepticism, the modern materialist is actually abjuring all knowledge. He doesn’t deny it, he merely disavows it. He’s uninterested. He will proceed with what amounts to a betting scheme, taking the Kantian approach as simply his preferred method for dealing with what may well be an irrational universe. Trouble emerges because—having no use for it—he redefines the word “reason” to mean this sort of bet, and “reasonable” to mean betting in the same manner as him. Thus anyone who makes any sort of real knowledge claim is “irrational”. The most common knowledge claim to excite this sort of opprobrium is to claim to know that God exists, probably mainly for practical reasons—Dawkinsian Atheists tend to strongly dislike traditional morality, which they associate with Christianity for mostly historical reasons—but also because God is known entirely through means which the Dawkinsian Atheist rejects (reason and testimony).

This phenomenon also gives rise to some very strange results when applied to mathematics, which the Dawkinsian Atheist must accept, despite his obvious rejection of it, because Physics (the field of study) is dependent upon mathematics. The compromise which this sort of extreme skeptic tends to employ is absurd in the abstract, but fits with his adopted approach to life: he tests mathematical theorems experimentally. I recently saw a rather striking example of this when just such an atheist offered to experimentally prove that 2 + 2 = 4 using apples. It’s really beside the point that such a demonstration would fail using sub-atomic particles if two are electrons and two positrons; it’s actually most interesting that he doesn’t understand that 2 + 2 = 4 by definition. There are actually several definitions of the Natural Numbers, but the most common is using the piano axioms. Briefly: suppose there’s something, call it one. Suppose there’s a next number after it, call that two. Suppose there’s a next number after that, call it three. And so on. Addition is defined by succession, so 2 + 2 is 4 because the number after the number after two is called four. No other possibility is conceivable, because this is simply the definition of the successor of the successor of 2. But this is not really a thinkable thought for the Dawkinsian atheist, so he’s stuck offering to do demonstrations with apples.

Actually, he’s not quite stuck doing that; he can also ridicule people for doubting. “If you don’t think that 2 + 2 = 4, the IRS would like to talk with you,” he says, and smirks in derision. He’s not interested in the definitions of the numbers, or of what additional actually is; all he cares about is practical results, because he has disavowed knowledge in favor of a betting scheme. And he can’t know that he’s betting his soul, because he doesn’t believe he has one. Pray for them.

Incidentally, these people correspond fairly well with the men Aristotle described as wanting to be horses. Each man, as a rational creature, has a duty to the truth: to seek it out and to know it as far as it has been given to him to do. These men find that unpleasant; they wish to do only the simpler tasks of caring for the body. They want the wail of Ecclesiastes to be true: they want man to be only the cleverest of the beasts that crawls the earth. Pray for them.