Saturday, December 21, 2013

A conversation with The Archdruid for the Solstice

Over at his blog, Greer the Archdruid has been writing a series about the end of progress, or at least the civil religion of progress, for most of the year.  I posted an excerpt from one of the early entries in the series as The Archdruid on Objectivism as civil antireligion, but haven’t had much to say about it here since.*  This week, he finally winds down the series with An Old Kind of Science, in which he points out that science, as it has been thought of for the past four centuries, has been entirely wrapped up in the pursuit of progress, which he posits as “The attempt to conquer nature—in less metaphorical terms, to render the nonhuman world completely transparent to the human intellect and just as completely subject to the human will—was industrial civilization’s defining project.”  He then goes on for several paragraphs about how science went from describing any organized body of knowledge to the way of finding out information using “Quantitative measurement, experimental testing, and public circulation of the results of research” that we know today.  He then tied the history of science back to his thesis about progress and conquering Nature by pointing out that “The dream of conquering nature, though, was what made modern science the focus of so large a fraction of the Western world’s energies and ambitions over the last three hundred years.”

This is very deep stuff, and deserves a lot more thought and text than I am willing to put together right now.  That written, it did inspire me to respond to him.  In turn, he replied back.  To mark the Winter Solstice, I’m reposting our exchange here.  Follow over the jump, please.
When I read Peter Watson's "The Modern Mind: An intellectual history of the 20th Century," one of the things that struck me was that not only was science involved in the project of conquering nature, but that science was in the project of conquering other fields of knowledge, something that scientists themselves would acknowledge wryly in passing.  For example, my undergraduate adviser in Geology once remarked, somewhat derisively, that "psychology is trying very hard to be a science, and one of these days, it will get there."  I later dated one psychologist and married another, and decided that "one of these days" had arrived; research psychology is indeed a science as other scientists understand it.

The same thing has happened to anthropology, although the cultural anthropologists are resisting, much to the dismay of the archeologists and physical anthropologists, who whole-heartedly embrace being scientists, and is moving through sociology.  Economics would be next, except, as you noted, there is too much wishful thinking going on in that field to make it a science as the scientists themselves understand it.
I condensed the above from the stories I tell my students about the nature of science and how “scientists are people, too.”  The tales are much longer than the paragraphs above, and deserve their own entries, but it’s time to get back to my comment.
Of course, any conquest would be resisted.  Watson described one such effort by the French philosophers, who decided to combat the materialism of the German and Anglophone scientists by turning to their own materialism.  Instead of following Darwin, they turned to two of the other great minds of the 19th Century, Marx and Freud, to combat Scientism.  Too bad, as Watson remarked, that Marx and Freud were wrong.

You probably wouldn't be surprised by this development.  As you've noted, anti-religions accept the premises of their intellectual adversaries, but inverted their values.  The French were no different in developing their own materialism instead of trying to build a spiritual alternative.  Then again, I don't find Anouilh's ennui expressed as Existentialism very comforting, so maybe it's for the best they didn't try.
Just as I had picked on one small point to build my remarks, Greer the Archdruid did as well.
Pinku, oh, granted. Thing is, it's simplistic to claim that Marx and Freud were wrong -- or, for that matter, that Darwin is right. All three offer models of the universe of human experience, which are applicable to certain phenomena and inapplicable to others. The triumphalism that insists that a theory is true because it happened to win out over the others is a real barrier to understanding.
Greer is right about both Marx and Freud, in a certain way.  After the fall of the Soviet Union and the other Communist governments of the Warsaw Pact, the people of those countries found out that Marx was wrong about Communism but right about Capitalism, something the rest of us are discovering for ourselves.  As for Freud, his model of the mind has very little connection to how the brain actually functions and his ideas are not considered scientific, but his archetypes work very well for analyzing literature.  Still, they’re both losers in their intended field of political economy and psychology.

*After reading the series, my overall opinion of the man is that he’s a worthy adversary, but an adversary nonetheless.  He and I both look at the end of spaceflight as a sign of the end of progress.  However, he seems to regard it as good thing that we’re giving it up, while I see it as a tragedy.  I’m beginning to appreciate Nebris’s view of him, which is dim to the point of dark.  I’ll have more to say on that later, but I’ll close by saying that I shouldn’t be surprised.  I’m a Crazy Eddie, who thinks that there is a good solution.  He’s one of the more convential Moties, who is resigned to the fate of the species to endlessly repeat the cycles of the rise and fall of civilizations.  He may be right, but I’m not going down without a fight.

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