From physicist Rob Sheldon:
I think if you read the popular press, it would seem that we are making progress–we have to, because that’s what justifies all the spending, all the suppression, all the politics. But if you speak to the leading scientists of any field, if you read the peer-reviewed literature, if you attend the seminars, there is a deep depression falling over science.
For progress is the goddess of materialism, the resplendent queen that shares the dais with the stern king, the one described by the end of Jacques Monod’s book “Chance and Necessity”: “Man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.”
But what is this duty that makes his destiny liveable? What is this kingdom that dwells above the darkness? It is his queen, Progress. Earlier in the same book Monod writes:
“Indeed, it is legitimate to view the irreversibility of evolution [progress] as an expression of the second law in the biosphere.”
The physicist in me wants to jump up and down and scream that this is blatant equivocation on the word irreversibility, and that entropy cannot be so easily turned on its head to mean information! But Monod does it, and gets a Nobel prize in the process. Why? Because progress is a very beautiful queen.
I wrote this in the comments on the UD blog, to Seversky who wants to contrast the progress of materialist science against the stagnation of teleology:
As you saw in Barry’s reply, even a pragmatic approach that eschews metaphysics can be waylaid by definitions, by the words meaning different things to different people. There’s no avoiding metaphysics. Like the old joke summarizing the 3 laws of thermodynamics–“There is a game. You can’t win. You must lose. And you can’t quit.”–so also with metaphysics.
So what is this metaphysical thing called progress, and why is it good? You could talk about it for a very long time, but I think in the end it is a religion. And if it obeys some external calling, if it recognizes some external good (think Plato), if it aspires to some divine perfection, then it is good.
But if it obeys only an internal ethic, if it satisfies only a mob rule, if it justifies a personal benefit, then it is evil. Or more precisely, it becomes evil. For whenever something we define, something we invent, something we desire is called a “divine right”, we have made a god in our own image, we have created an idol.
When we seek for an external good, we have a “negative feedback” search, because if we are heading the wrong direction, we see less of the good. But when we seek for an internal desire, we have a “positive feedback” search, because we keep moving the goalposts to match our location, we keep changing the rules to let us win.
How else do you explain that in the name of progress, Americans eat tasteless “wonder” bread with 35 unpronounceable ingredients that can sit in a plastic bag on the fridge for 2 weeks without either going stale or going moldy, and when they make a sandwich they treat the bread as an untasted wrapper. Progress has turned a major food group, “man cannot live by bread alone” into a disposable glove with no caloric benefit. This is not an anomaly, but our society is full of such ironies, because irony is the name for a positive-feedback element in our language, in our culture, in our life.
Science has lost its way, when in the name of progress, it kept moving the goalposts to what everyone was getting paid to do anyway. Cure for poverty? Cure for work? Cure for cancer? Cure for depression? Cure for teen-age rebellion? At one time these were all goals of progressives, of science, of society. Watch an old Jetson’s rerun. Where did all those goalposts go?
And the biggest driver for turning inward instead of outward? The biggest driver for defining progress as societal rather than as divine? The biggest driver for assuming random motion of uncorrelated particles instead of collective behavior of purposeful design? Materialism.
Lucretius told us this in 50BC. He said it delivered us from fear of external goals, of failing to measure up. I’m sure he would have rejoiced to see this day–like a walk in the park–at night, in Central Park, wearing a T-shirt saying “I carry cash.”
Note from O’Leary for News: Agree re awful bread! Never buy bread that comes prepackaged in a plastic bag.
I keep coming back to Stephen Hawking’s comparatively recent, vulgar attack on philosophy and Richard Dawkins’s unseemly attacks on religion (why?). I am not saying that seminal scientists of the early twentieth century were more virtuous; rather, they were preoccupied with questions in science. Most progress today is actually based on foundational work done some while back.
Today, so many of the science boffins we hear from sound like Bimbette Fluffarelli’s talk show guests on Airhead TV. And who watches Airhead TV anymore?
At some point, the science capital that is not being replaced will run out, especially if unfalsifiable beliefs (the multiverse, for example) catch on.
That’s what got me interested in issues around the multiverse. Wait till that approach starts to work its way through the system down to medicine and bridge engineering.
See also: The bill arrives for cosmology’s free lunch
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