Friday, October 14, 2011

What's this NOMA for anyway?

There is nothing that can be obtained through deity worship which cannot be accumulated faster and more efficiently without it.
One of the major problems with the practice of deity worship is that it halts, or at least seriously impededs, many types of forward progress. Technological progress has been, at least for the last couple of centuries, one of the least impeded; progress in the disciplines often lumped together as “the Humanities” are the most. With recent trends in anti-intellectual, and especially anti-science, rhetoric in the USA it might appear that I’ve gotten it backwards. Let me take a couple of minutes from you to explain.

Many of the attacks on science are attacks on “basic science”. Although all technological progress can be attributed to basic science we are still making significant technological advances based on very old basic science. In order for basic science to become a rate-limiting step in technological advancement it would be necessary to first establish a several-millennium Nuevo-dark age. Applied scientists and engineers are the true drivers of technological progress. Applied science is far enough removed from the philosophical musings of basic science to protect it from most attacks. Attacks on engineers and applied scientists are usually personal, or based on the basic science they support.

The fact that we are still making major technological advances using the basic science of Isaac Newton (1643-1727) is strong testament to the fact that the basic science we already know still has a lot of useful advancement left in it.

It may appear that some embattled basic science is needed to form a comprehensive picture without which applied science is incoherent and impotent. The concepts collectively known as evolution (1865) immediately come to mind. There are two reasons, besides the fact that I can accurately describe myself as an evolutionary biologist, that evolution so quickly comes to mind. The fist is that the attacks on evolution have generated a false controversy surrounding it. Since it is so often being spoken of it is on the tip of the pointy mind of mine that it comes to. The other is that modern medicine operates using well-worn comparative understandings of structure and function; the relationship of the structures is organized through our understanding of their development through the evolution of species. Modern Medicine is a major grouping of positive technological advancements.

How would we maintain our comprehensive picture of life that facilitates modern medicine without the basic science of evolution? We would use magic of course! Things just are the way they are as the result of the unknowable and apparently capricious motivations of a creator. Similarities are just part of the divine mystery.

It is interesting to note that “Intelligent Design (ID)” creationists have recently created a dogma-approved subclassification of evolution called “Micro-Evolution”. Micro-Evolution (MiE) describes the adaptation of strains of fast reproducing organisms, like bacteria, to selective pressures. Since the adaptation of bacterial strains (like enterococci) to selective pressures (like antibiotics) result in many thousands of deaths worldwide it is significantly disadvantageous to force ignorance of the phenomenon. When the applied technological importance of even the most embattled of basic sciences becomes undeniable the useful bits can be extracted for assimilated.

I’ve often thought that a well-educated ID’er could devise an effective alternative hypothesis to MiE. Mixing uncomfortable definitions of bacterial species with elements of synergy and horizontal gene transfer one could develop a Gaia-like localized response hypothesis. If talk of evolution becomes illegal I will author such a hypothesis using a rude-sounding pseudonym.

Technology can progress with torturously mutilated basic science, but the humanities cannot.

I have been quoted (even in this very blog) as admiring the artistic and moral accomplishments of religious society. Even basic science has experienced tremendous advances within rigorously religious structure. Isaac Newton, for instance, was a fringe-idealed religious nutter, yet he created concepts in mathematics and physics of unparalleled importance. These great accomplishments are independent of religiosity.

For centuries accomplishments by the non-religious were severely restricted as non-religiosity was illegal. If something was to be accomplished it would be by a religious person; if it was to be a highly regarded accomplishment it would most likely have to come from a highly religious person. Only after the rise of secular movements did the religiosity of the accomplisher have any possible affect on the genesis of the accomplishment.

Science appears to many to involve only non-religious things:

"A legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist. Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

- Albert Einstein
"Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but both look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect."

- Freeman Dyson
"Science makes major contributions to minor needs. Religion, however small its successes, is at least at work on the things that matter most."

- Oliver Wendell Holmes

The humanities, however, have long been the undisputed domain of religion. But what progress has been made in creating a more humane society except where religious views have been re-forged, or at least tempered, by secularism? It is a compelling observation that: as religions abandon religiosity they accomplish more of that which they supposedly do best.

I might strongly disagree with the assertion that compulsion by a powerful deity is an effective tool for achieving social morality, but even if it is effective; is it the only tool? If we appreciate the sentiment in the biblical commandment 8 (“thou Shall Not Steal” Ex 20:2-17, Deu 5:6-21) haven’t we accomplished most of what we have accomplished for personal property rights by devising ways of protecting them, and prosecuting civil laws curtailing theft?

The essence of religion has been compared to poetry and art:

“Religion is poetry plus, not science minus." -- Krister Stendahl
"Religion is the art of the poetic. Science is the art of the provable. Politics is the art of the possible." -- Paul H. Carr
Compare the languid verses of the twelfth century with Ginsberg or Corso. Compare the cartoonish medieval iconography with even such mundane works as the mass-pulp Japanese mangas. You will not see an essence in the earlier works that services any purpose greater than being a seed that the later works developed from.

Great works may be possible based simply on creative answers to the question: “What does the deity think about this?”. A still greater body of work is possible from answers to the question “what does the human mind think of this?”. The human mind is shaped by the inputs it perceives, and especially those inputs in which it perceives artistic design. By making art for people we change them, and change the type of art that has the most impact on them. Culture can therefore “progress” faster.

Even if we have not exhaustively realized the potential of religiously-motivated humanities we have certainly demonstrated that it will take increasingly unacceptable amounts of time to get the last good bits out.

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