Saturday, March 19, 2011

Is the Rationalist Project Dead? (1)

This is the basic question posed by Andy Norman in his Free Inquiry piece: The Unmaking of Wisdom: How We Compromised Reason’s Capacity to Transform the Human Condition. But how could we have mucked up the progress and process of reason so badly? How so, especially as commitment to reason has inspired free and open inquiry and vast scientific progress, as well as real learning about our world and universe? But as Norman sees it, despite all that progress we still remain embarrassingly far from realizing the rationalist ideal.
Need proof?

2,400 years after Socrates, folly, stupidity and monumental unreason continue to plague humanity: zany religious beliefs in separate "supernatural" realms, literal acceptance of backward ancient texts deemed “sacred”, religious zealotry triggering violence – whether blowing up buildings or abortion clinics and doctors- and worst of all, supposedly serious scientists buying into bunkum (like creationist “young Earth”-ism and “intelligent design”) that deliberately prevents the march of rationalism from advancing.

The last of these glaringly demonstrates the extent to which Westerners have sacrificed a common purpose in pursuit of reason’s goals. While most well-educated Westerners continue to advance along proven rational paths, such as have disclosed the Big Bang and the natural selection basis of Evolution, a fraction have split off on their own or in groups to pursue facile intellectual movements (like Intelligent design) that contest reason’s status as an ideal and specifically, contest scientific objectivity and naturalism as a whole. In nearly every case this defection occurs, it is done to further a hidden faith agenda (such as the IDEA front, promoted by the Discovery Institute) that ultimately subverts the progress of science. So, in many ways the scientists that participate in such agendas and willingly defect, are traitors to reason and rationalism. They are fifth columnists who, while they publish some work on physical processes in reputable journals - work on the side to undermine the whole scientific edifice by attacking naturalism.

Yet minus naturalism, one has supernaturalism and a putatively insane, irrational universe dominated by invisible beings and little different from that which dominated life in the Dark Ages : demons running amuck, witches and cats with familiars, and dark spirits everywhere….generating diseases as well as nasty storms.

Any analysis of this pathetic situation first means, as Norman notes, that we understand the root basis of rationalism’s inability to win all hearts and minds. Why, for example, are certain physical scientists like Jason Lisle and John Baumgardner, as well as William Dembski, turned off to the point of following patently obvious irrational projects and paths?

In a 2007 address, E.L. Doctorow challenged his audience in stark terms to consider the parameters:

What have we come to when the self-evident has to be argued as if – 500 years into the Enlightenment- it is a proposition still to be proven? How does it happen that the modernist project that has endowed mankind with the scientific method, the concept of objective evidence, the culture of factuality responsible for the good and extended life we enjoy in the high tech world… have become so vulnerable to unreason?”

Norman has as good an answer to this as any (op. cit.):

Human nature pretty much guarantees that irrational impulses will sometimes win out

Thus, there is no great mystery to reason’s vulnerability to unreason. NO great mystery either as to why a certain fraction of scientists will be lured away by the siren call of irrationality or blind belief to pursue their own agendas while calling them “scientific” despite not having them published in peer-reviewed professional journals.

But what is it about them (character or genes) that causes them to be lured into supporting gibberish? Perhaps we must also invoke the historical schism that has existed from the time of the Ionians and the Greek Platonists, with the former pursuing the real scientific method founded in empiricism, and the latter more inclined to give equal sway to belief as to evidence. This plays out exactly today when we compare evolutionary naturalists (today’s Ionians) with those few renegades who embrace Intelligent design and young Earth nonsense.

Consider just the latter:

While the details of the creationists' arguments have changed, the basic argument is that if the Earth's dipole changes by 5% per century, the Earth can't be much older than 20 centuries.[1]
However, this is inconsistent with the basic physics of magnetism.[2] While short term variations have been shown to be due to a variety of factors, the long-term (million year) variation in field intensity (and even reversal in polarity) are modeled as due to changes in electric currents in the liquid outer core of the Earth.

Furthermore, we have rocks on Earth from which prehistoric bacteria have been excavated disclosing an age in excess of THREE BILLION YEARS! (See, e.g.: Holland, H.D.: Evidence for Life on Earth More Than 3850 Million Years Ago, in Science, Vol. 275, 3 January, 1997, p. 38.) Note this is data appearing in a peer-reviewed paper, in a professional academic journal, which these critics have yet to publish in, despite all their bloviating.

The problem is that the Young Earthers can’t accept the actual evidence because their Bibles ordain that the age of Earth can’t be more than 6,000 years old (according to one suspicious way of counting through “begats” made possible by one Bishop Ussher). But if they can’t accept the evidence scientifically and rationally produced, then they have abdicated the rationalist project for an irrational one. They have thereby foreclosed reason while justifying it on the basis of a specious belief that they allow to trump reason, logic and evidence. One wonders, truly, how these people even managed to garner a B.A. in science, far less a Ph.D.

In this way we have sacrificed reason in ways large and small, and not least because members of the putative academic community have allowed their brains and wills to be co-opted by popular forms of pseudo-scientific rot, which is all creationism, Young Earth baloney and Intelligent design are. In a manner of speaking, these co-opted "scientists" could as well embrace a flat Earth, for all the good they have done for rationalism and objective science. In truth, they have sacrificed their science on the altar of specious beliefs, for what? To get a few cheers from the Evangelicals' stupid peanut gallery? Or, maybe to get their papers at least published in creationist and ID journals that no sensible scientist reads.

Which itself evokes the pathos at a recent AGU (American Geophysical Union) meeting, when young Earther John Baumgardner tried to have a discussion with a few mainstream colleagues about an issue to do with varying radioactive decay rates: they all passed him by as if he had some kind of social disease. There is nothing worse in the realm of scientific conferences, than seeing a colleague being dismissed and given short shrift over his crank theories. The sad aspect to this is that not even social avoidance and exclusion is enough to convey the message to some pathetic people, so ensnared they are by their irrational beliefs.

No comments: