Tag Archives: scientism

Phone It In

“My cellphone is my best friend.”  Carrie Underwood

When exactly the phone evolved from our tool to our master is murky.

kids on phones from httpswww.smartcitiesworld.netnewsnewssmartphones-smarter-than-humans-1468Years ago, I was on the road often in Maine and carried a pager. That was my introduction to being always on call. Prior to that, I would call my office for messages a couple times a day. I knew where the best payphones were in many towns and cities. My favorites were hanging on a wall by a table on which I could spread out necessary supporting documents and notes in a warm café with good coffee, free refills, and a tolerant owner. I kept the numbers of several of them in my planner and could schedule incoming calls.

The next connectivity upgrade was a bag phone with a separate dialer and a handset like an old home phone; the handset had an attached springy coiled cord. The whole contraption weighed about as much as a gallon of milk, took up most of the passenger seat, and plugged into my cigarette lighter in the car. Back when we called them cigarette lighters, they were in the pull-down ash tray back when cars came equipped with pull-down ash trays and cigarette lighters in the consoles. [i]

All that bulky equipment soon became obsolete with the advent of flip phones, so that we were even more immediately on call if we had service, which in rural Maine was somewhere between intermittent and completely dead. One bar was considered a strong signal. To dump an inconvenient call delivering a problem to which I yet had no answer was simple. Hang up, call back later, and blame it on a tower switch out. Excuses and dropped calls today are much harder to justify with plenty of signal strength bars almost everywhere. Crinkling aluminum foil in the microphone in a pretty good imitation of static and lamenting in a fading voice that “I’m losing you!” lacks all credibility.

Now, of course, smart phones with five bar signals provide instant access to every possible means of messaging and data inundation; they are in everybody’s pockets or mounted on our dashboards and beyond anyone’s ability to sip from the waterfall of information without nearly drowning. What once were just phones to call home now boast exponentially more computing power than Apollo 11. As I often complained when I was working for a living, “The good news is that I am always connected, and the bad news is that I am always connected.” Privacy is an anachronism. As is peace and time to contemplate beyond the next beep or ringtone.

“It is okay to own a technology, what is not okay is to be owned by technology.” Abhijit Naskar, Mucize Insan*: When The World is Family  * Human Miracle

To watch kids waiting for the school bus is to watch kids who have overdeveloped thumbs watching tiny screens.[ii] Or for that matter to watch many families in restaurants. They don’t talk, they text. And not to one another, but to some other disembodied person not present at the table about some trivial occurrence entirely irrelevant to real life in most cases – a joke, a clever quip, a meme, a whine, a perceived slight, a social media post, a satirical remark, some gossip about another disembodied mutual acquaintance who is the victim flavor of the day, or passing along a link to a video that is supposed to amuse or outrage or indoctrinate us further into a culture that has left us abandoned to alienated hollow existences in isolated bubble survival pods. Always connected. Always alone.

Recently I was discussing this curious and deadening experience, and I remembered visiting a school where the phones were collected at the door until the end of the day. They were monitored for emergency calls from parents. No phones in classes. Ever. I’ve attended business training where phones were required to be shut off and woe to the poor clown who had an amusing loud ringtone sound in his pocket during the class.

But far more common is the school today with phones in every pocket, and in classes that are not in good order with a weak teacher, students openly watch them, text their friends two rows over, or even listen to their derivative, repetitive music through earbuds that never leave their rapidly emptying heads.

Failure to learn is reflected in plummeting test scores and in graduating students with a working knowledge of imaginary gender fluidity, bogus ideologies, and deviant sexual practices, but most could not identify a poem by Keats, whether music was composed by Mozart or Aaron Copeland, if a painting was created by Caravaggio or Turner or even who Thomas Paine or John Milton or Aristotle or Emily Dickenson or Aristophanes were and why they were important. Or used to be.

Analogous to the “always connected” mode of existence being good news and bad news, the instant availability of data and information is similarly good news and bad news. No guarantees that either the data or the information is true is only part of the problem. Our attention spans are provably attenuating, and the younger we are the more they have diminished.  We want to be informed and informed now. A dismayingly high percentage of Gen Z folks get their information, including their current events and news from TikTok[iii]. The shorter and more entertaining the video, the better.

Fewer and fewer have time for deep (or any) analysis as we jump our monkey minds from one subject to another, following links as the algorithms lead us around to best monetize our incessant clicks. Our comprehension is becoming as compromised as our attention span. More information? Certainly. More understanding or dare we say wisdom? Of course not. TikTok and the like are the most addictive form of bait and designed to be such. Format and algorithms lure us to sweep from one video to the next, all increasingly customized as the servers ‘learn’ our habits to push us to the next one. And a few tenths of a cent at a time glean millions of dollars a day. The data of our preferences are collected on TikTok and accessed in China every day. For what purposes we do not know.[iv]

Another potentially ruinous effect in a democracy is the rising noise of woefully ignorant social media commentary afflicted with the Dunning-Kruger syndrome. Dunning-Kruger studied and verified the human tendency deluged with superficial entertaining “news” sources; we possess a deep self-assurance that not only are we right, but that we think we know a lot more than we actually do about extremely complex issues. Confirmation bias has been taken to a new plateau of false confidence. We are unaware and untutored in subtlety and nuance, especially if presented as counterpoint to our impregnable ignorance and expertise. Our self-confidence is without foundation and based on very little.

The various social media platforms have algorithms written by genius exploiters that store what we like and lead us click by monetized click to more of what we like, thus confirming us in ever more superficial knowledge what we believe we know. Exacerbated by an ideologically tilted SEME (Search Engine Manipulation Effect)[v], we are lured step by enticing step down the path we think we want to go.

Click. Click. Click.                                                   Click.

“The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” Sir James Jeans[vi]

As a personal sidebar, I was particularly vexed by a TikTok video shared on Facebook put out by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Heavily redacted information masquerading as enlightenment confirms us in our incandescent ignorance. His long evident animus towards religion of any kind notwithstanding, he could have least offered a fair-minded assessment of the origins of science that he believes debunks what he sees as illiteracy and superstition. In a somewhat long piece (at least long for TikTok attenuated attention spans) on a bowdlerized history of math and science, his only mention of medieval Christianity is to bemoan what he describes as the main activity of the benighted times: disemboweling heretics. He may be a lively media figure and even a credible astrophysicist, but his knowledge of history is deliberately vacuous. His knowledge of the philosophical roots and history of science nonexistent or at least unapparent, and his theology sophomoric.

No mention of the development of science in Western universities, encouraged, and supported by the Church.[vii] No mention of the scientists and mathematicians who laid the groundwork for modern science and were either ordained clergy, monks, or devout believers. Roger Bacon is credited for inventing the scientific method, which is a metaphysical and empirical construct that cannot be proven or disproven by its own tools. Isaac Newton developed the calculus that enabled current physics and cosmology. Gregor Mendel discovered genetics. Nicolaus Copernicus uncovered our heliocentric solar system. And in the last century Father Georges Lemaitre developed the math for the “Big Bang Theory.” deGrasse Tyson fails to mention the underlying metaphysical concept of the intelligibility of the universe, the assumption that undergirds all of science.[viii]

Voices like his try to persuade us that truth resides solely in the material, and what can be proven or disproven by science. Such voices might explain the tones of stringed instruments in mathematical terms of vibrations per second, the degree of tension in the strings, and the plucking or bow that sounds them. Charts and diagrams to follow. But such reductionism loses the truth and beauty of music found in Bach or Mozart or in Luciano Pavarotti’s voice or for that matter in the compelling artistry of Doc Watson or Emmy Lou Harris. Perhaps they would “explain” Michelangelo in the chemistry of pigments used to color the buon fresco technique on Sistine Chapel ceiling. Such a forlorn and pinched attenuation of our human power to soar and our capacity for joy.

“Religion — or rather theology — is, I think, the great integrating discipline. It takes the insights of science — doesn’t tell science what to think — but it takes science’s insights and understandings, it takes the insights of morality, takes the insights of aesthetics, the study of beauty. The wonderful order or pattern of the world that science discovers and rejoices in is a reflection, indeed, of the mind of the creator, whose will and purpose lie behind the world. Our moral intuitions, our intimations of God’s good and perfect will, our experiences of beauty, I believe, are sharing in the joy of the creator, the creation. You can soon see the gross inadequacy of thinking that science can tell you everything that you could possibly know.” Sir John Polkinghorne, Interview on PBS.[ix]

I enjoy and employ access to the world’s knowledge as much as most of us and would not like to forego the privilege unknown to all generations before mine. However, subtle, deliberate, and credible lies and confusion abound on the screen that sits in our pockets, luring us like Sirens to the shore. A recent article in Wired magazine suggested Silicone Valley has gained a seat at the table with Jerusalem and Athens in shaping Western culture. See the link in the footnotes below with the Wired article by Luke Burgis on “The Three City Problem of Modern Life.”[x]

How we manage that will form or deform our culture in the decades ahead. As my father who died in 1982 would not recognize the world we inhabit now. Neither, I expect, would I recognize what will befall us forty years from now.

Click. Click. Clickclickclickclickclick. Clicks at the lunch table surrounded by others doing the same. Clicks in the classroom. Clicks on the bus.  Clicks while sitting silently with those with whom in better times we would converse. Clicks. Desultory or urgent. Clicks in their never to be satisfied quest for distraction, entertainment, and their pitiful consolations.

Clicks trying to fill the void in our hearts that can only be filled as Augustine wrote 1,600 years ago: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.[xi]

Wishing a most blessed and peaceful time of Giving Thanks to all.

“I’ve been wanderin’ through this land

Doin’ the best I can

Trying’ to find what I was meant to do

And the people that I see

Look as worried as can be

And it looks like they are wonderin’, too 

And I can’t help but wonder where I’m bound, where I’m bound

Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound.”  Tom Paxton [xii]    

[i] Picture from https//www.smartcitiesworld.netnewsnewssmartphones-smarter-than-humans-1468

[ii] Future Humans May Have Abnormalities From Using Technology Too Much, “Interesting Engineering”

[iii] Over a quarter of Americans under 30 get their news from TikTok, Pew Research

[iv] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emilybakerwhite/tiktok-tapes-us-user-data-china-bytedance-access

[v] Does the Search Engine Manipulation Effect Have an Impact on Elections (PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

[vi] Sir James Jeans knighted for contributions to mathematics and astrophysics, development of quantum theory and stellar structure. Author of “Philosophy and Physics.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Jeans

[vii] https://catholicscientists.org/scientists-of-the-past/

[viii] Why The Supposed Conflict between Science and Religion is Tragic Nonsense (Robert Barron)

[ix] Sir John Polkinghorne resigned his prestigious chair at Cambridge as a mathematician and physicist to pursue additional education and credentials as an Anglican priest and theologian. Prior to that he studied and contributed to the development of the theory of quarks and elemental particles. In addition to his position as a senior fellow at Cambridge, he spent time at Stanford, Princeton, Berkley, and CERN in Geneva.

[x] Link to Luke Burgis Wired article  The problem is that unlike Athens and Jerusalem which focus on rationality and religion (analyzing the relationship between science, philosophy, and a moral code), Silicone Valley’s ethic is utilitarianism. Does it work? Does it make money?   Quotes from the article:   “The question of whether Athens is incompatible with Jerusalem—the relationship between these two cities, which symbolize two different ways of approaching reality—is a question that humanity has wrestled with for millennia. The Catholic Church arrived at a synthesis between the two, with the late Pope John Paul II writing that faith and reason are like “two wings on which the human soul rises to the contemplation of the truth… But today there is a third city affecting the other two. Silicon Valley, this third city, is not governed primarily by reason (it is practically the mark of a great entrepreneur to not be “reasonable”), nor by the things of the soul (the dominant belief seems to be a form of materialism). It is a place, rather, governed by the creation of value. And a large component of value is utility—whether something is useful, or is at least perceived as good or beneficial.”

[xi] From Augustine’s “Confessions.”

[xii] I like the Nanci Griffith interpretation of Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound

As with the last post, below are multiple links to varied articles detailing some of the issues called into question.

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Some related links of interest (at least to me).

The Chicago School of Media article on Smartphones

Balsamo argues for a connection between the user and the smartphone that is even more fundamental than McLuhan’s extension of the senses. In contrast to McLuhan’s definition of media, she states that she pulls the smartphone into her very essence, stating “I incorporate it as a prosthetic extension of my corporeal being. Not merely an extension of my ear, as McLuhan would have argued, it is me. My body/myself—my iPhone/myself. I become the cyborg I always wanted to be.”

TikTok’s Greatest Asset is not its Algorithm, It’s Your Phone (Wired)

Rather than see specificity and device limitations as an inconvenient hurdle to omnipresence, TikTok embeds itself within them—taking advantage of the fact that mobile technology limits how people engage with content and leaning into these constraints (e.g. the user only sees one video at a time and can only proceed linearly to the next video by swiping). This narrow focus enables a “flow state” to open up between the platform and spectator, as attention is entirely channeled to the content at hand. The immediacy created by this user-platform flow allows TikTok to forgo the reflective processing associated with active viewership. The distance necessary for critical intervention and interpretation is trampled under the continual stream of curated short-form video and the addictively mindless infinite scroll. When presented in this nonstop succession, the video (a high-bandwidth medium that combines text, visuals, music, and movement) is amplified, saturating the viewer with a deluge of information. There is no time to think about what you just saw because as soon as the clip ends, you’re on to the next one. The spectator is rendered a consummate consumer, rather than a viewer tasked with engaging and unpacking the content they’re seeing—on TikTok, Chayka writes, “you don’t have to think, only react,” as the platform has already done the hard work of analysis and selection. As critics writing on algorithmic identity first noted, when everything is running smoothly, the user feels completely synchronous with the platform..

Terms of misuse: What data does TikTok collect on its U.S users? Dot.LA

 Like other social media giants, TikTok gobbles up a lot of user information. To start, TikTok receives names, ages, phone numbers and emails when people sign up for the service. The app also knows users’ approximate locations and mobile device identifiers, such as IP addresses.

Germain told dot.LA the most valuable info may come from the way users interact with the video sharing app. TikTok is quite good at figuring out peoples’ interests based on the videos or accounts they’ve previously liked or followed. Those insights are useful for advertisers and—potentially—for spreading political messages, Germain noted.

“This vast trove of data that every social media company has—on what people are interested in, what makes them upset, what makes them happy—is incredibly valuable,” he said.

How TikTok reads your mind NY Times  (may be a paywall)

There are four main goals for TikTok’s algorithm: 户价值, 户价值 (长期), 作者价值, and 平台价值, which the company translates as “user value,” “long-term user value,” “creator value,” and “platform value.”

That set of goals is drawn from a frank and revealing document for company employees that offers new details of how the most successful video app in the world has built such an entertaining — some would say addictive — product.

The document, headed “TikTok Algo 101,” was produced by TikTok’s engineering team in Beijing. A company spokeswoman, Hilary McQuaide, confirmed its authenticity, and said it was written to explain to nontechnical employees how the algorithm works. The document offers a new level of detail about the dominant video app, providing a revealing glimpse both of the app’s mathematical core and insight into the company’s understanding of human nature — our tendencies toward boredom, our sensitivity to cultural cues — that help explain why it’s so hard to put down. The document also lifts the curtain on the company’s seamless connection to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, at a time when the U.S. Department of Commerce is preparing a report on whether TikTok poses a security risk to the United States.

FCC Commissioner says US should ban TikTok  Axios

What he’s saying: “I don’t believe there is a path forward for anything other than a ban,” Carr said, citing recent revelations about how TikTok and ByteDance handle U.S. user data.

Carr highlighted concerns about U.S. data flowing back to China and the risk of a state actor using TikTok to covertly influence political processes in the United States.

There simply isn’t “a world in which you could come up with sufficient protection on the data that you could have sufficient confidence that it’s not finding its way back into the hands of the [Chinese Communist Party],” Carr said.

Carr sent letters to Apple and Google in June asking the companies to remove the apps from their stores due to concerns about data flowing back to China.

Why Are Our Attention Spans Shortening? https://www.wsj.com/articles/attention-spans-shortening-tiktok-social-media-gen-z-millenials-reading-education-focus-11667336185

TikTok is the most detrimental thing to happen to our attention spans. It’s an endless cycle of bright colors and catchy sounds meant to be consumed faster than our brains can process the content. Why are we always on our phones? Because tech moguls and social-media developers designed a piece of technology so addicting and damaging that we can’t handle concentrating on real life.

We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for being easily distracted; developers created this technology to be addictive. But we can resist by making real efforts to slow down our consumption. Reading a book is an easy and simple solution because it forces us to concentrate on the words on the page. There’s nowhere to scroll.

—Maddie Heinz, Macalester College, English and political science

Modern liberalism’s advancement of efficiency and corporate interests, under the intellectual guise of human flourishing, have contributed to this problem. Replacing God, community and family with individualism has left people looking within themselves to find meaning that is not there.

How will we pursue what is honorable, chivalrous and beautiful if we cannot maintain an attention span longer than eight seconds? Romantic virtues aside, millennials and Gen Z are experiencing astronomical levels of anxiety and depression. Could a lack of self-agency and control contribute to these heightened feelings of anxiety and vanity? An inability to put aside pleasure is apparent in our declining marriage rate: If individuals struggle to devote seconds of attention to a task, how will they devote the rest of their lives to a partner?

We are responsible for addressing this attention span crisis, lest the corporations drugging our society continue confining us to Brave New World-style slavery.

—Chanidu Gamage, The University of British Columbia, political science

Teen girls developing movement tics. Doctors say TikTok may be a factor  WSJ (may be a paywall)

Teenage girls across the globe have been showing up at doctors’ offices with tics—physical jerking movements and verbal outbursts—since the start of the pandemic.

Movement-disorder doctors were stumped at first. Girls with tics are rare, and these teens had an unusually high number of them, which had developed suddenly. After months of studying the patients and consulting with one another, experts at top pediatric hospitals in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. discovered that most of the girls had something in common: TikTok.

Technology and the Soul: The Spiritual Lessons of Digital Distraction  Public Discourse, Joshua Hochschild

The age of digital media has unleashed a profoundly threatening human experiment. By drawing us to waste not only our time, but our attention, social media seduces us to waste our souls. Our brightest engineers have trained our most powerful technology to act with the psychological craftiness of demons. Neuroscience helps us understand how digital media is changing us, but we need a more classical language about the soul to understand, and protect ourselves from, the most ominous of these changes.

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Filed under Culture views, Faith and Reason

Science and Scientism, Part Two

“The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself. Only we imperfect human beings can start such battles. And only we can end them.” Dr. Francis Collins, who led the team that mapped the entire human genome. “The Language of God”

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks as host of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration held at the National Air and Space Museum, Monday, July 20, 2009 in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks as host of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration held at the National Air and Space Museum, Monday, July 20, 2009 in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

After the strident coverage of the scandals of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts, televangelists fell on hard times to the point where Billy Graham, who led more people to an altar call than any of the others, made the definitive point that he was not one. To many, televangelism became a punchline. A notable exception is the enthusiasm attained with his followers by one of the most successful of the current televangelists, although he is not a Christian one. His television series was a resounding success, produced by a fellow true believer, Seth MacFarlane, the animator who also produced a widely watched hit commercial series, “Family  Guy.”

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson came to broad public acclaim through the remake of the old Carl Sagan series from the eighties, “Cosmos.” Dr. deGrasse Tyson has it all: engaging personality, telegenic good looks, a pleasing, convincing voice, brilliant teaching skills, along with a great passion for and the certainty of his faith. He fills large public venues on his tours with high production value, entertaining presentations that sell out routinely. Dr. deGrasse Tyson is now a millionaire (and counting).

I have no objection to the science that he so ably teaches (in truth I love and read books on science regularly), but take issue with his other agenda: the aggressive deconstruction of other people’s faith. Joining Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Bill Nye and other apostles of the cult of scientism, he is not subtle, lobbing gratuitous enades right from the start of the Cosmos series using a shop worn atheist meme about Giordano Bruno[i].  He likes to fire up his flock with Tweets mocking anyone naïve enough to fall for the God myth.

Here’s a couple from December 25th, 2014 from a man clearly enamored of his own cleverness.

  1. ‏ On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642
  2. Merry Christmas to all. A Pagan holiday (BC) becomes a Religious holiday (AD). Which then becomes a Shopping holiday (USA).

The irony in #1 is apparent: Newton and many others who were seminal in Western science were deeply religious. #2 is factually wrong on sequence, dates and history (explanation in the article referenced in the footnote).[ii] The point of these was obviously not accuracy, it was self-satisfied mockery of other’s cherished beliefs. They reflect the central narrative of the scientism creed: the long struggle to climb out of the ignorance and mire of religion has finally triumphed, pulling mankind up from autocratic, stubborn ignorance and into pure, breathing-free reason; and, we, the deGrasse Tysons of the world, the enlightened, are its wizards.

“(Moderns) do not know that there are other methods (besides science) of finding the truth, such as honest, straightforward logical reasoning. They are less aware than previous generations of what good reasons are, for the very word ‘reason’ has drastically shrunk in meaning in modern philosophy.” Peter Kreeft,” Fundamentals of the Faith”

Their dogma ignores that modern science grew out of the soil of religion; there is no opposition, only complimentary and necessary perspectives. The founders of modern Western science were educated in church sponsored universities and faith filled, seeing no conflict between faith and reason: Newton, Descartes, Galileo, Pascal and many others. Many scientific advances have been made by priests and religious.  Here’s a few:

  • Father Jean Picard developed the first modern reasonably accurate estimate of the size of the earth. He was a contemporary of and collaborator with Isaac Newton, inventor of calculus and founder of modern physics.
  • Nicholas Copernicus, astronomer and mathematician, who formulated the math and calculations proving a heliocentric solar system, was a third order Dominican.
  • Gregor Mendel, father of gene theory and the science of modern genetics, was an Augustinian friar and abbot of the St. Thomas Abbey.
  • Father Georges Lemaitre
  • More recently, Father George Lemaitre, Belgian priest and teacher of astronomy and mathematics at the Catholic University of Leuven, first formulated the theory of an expanding universe in 1927, usually misattributed to Hubble, who published two years later. Father Lemaitre developed what became known as Hubble’s Constant, as necessary to those calculations, and first proposed the Big Bang Theory. After first challenging the theory, Albert Einstein met with Lemaitre, and after extensive review of the math, became a supporter.

Scientism is not science, but self-defines a schism between science and reason vs. religious faith and superstition.  This impoverished belief system violates a fundamental tenet of true science; by presupposing that no Creator exists, it distorts wide open inquiry to preclude any possibility of the divine. Rather than going wherever the evidence leads, scientism shuts down paths of examination.  If you want to maintain an open mind on the subject, I recommend some reading on this vast subject; it has far too long a history for a blog post. I briefly reviewed the slow devolution of philosophy to the current “enlightened” position of a false dichotomy between faith in a Creator and science in a couple of previous posts: Singularity and Beyond Singularity, but for a deeper look, I’ve included a short suggested reading list in a footnote[iii].

Science offers a valid, but limited understanding of our existence. Science is the specific study and understanding of physical phenomenon, mostly, but not entirely, based in the “scientific method” of observation of empirical and measurable data, then formulating hypotheses regarding those observations. Next it tests and hones hypotheses with experimentation, further observation and mathematics. Science is rooted, however, in broader metaphysical concepts: that we can trust our observations and reasoning, i.e. that our brains and observational equipment (biological and instruments) can be relied upon for accurate observation, and that the scientific method is valid. The foundation of science itself is a metaphysical concept that the universe is intelligible, and that human beings can come to understand that intelligibility. An intelligible universe would seem to indicate an intelligible origin. Great benefits have accrued to humankind through science and its practical cousin, technology, but also concomitant risk and always emerging ethical questions.

“Can,” “how,” “how much and how many,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “who,” “why and why not,” and their relationships are the domain of science, however “ought” and “should.” are the province of ethics, informed by millennia of philosophy and religion. On this ground, scientism has staked its claim as well. Science is, well, a science, but scientism is a faith, a type of religion, albeit a secular and relatively new one. Scientism holds that science is the only reliable guide to truth, and that metaphysics, philosophy, religion, poetry, art and other forms of human understanding are speculative, subjective, relative and not up to the exacting standards of hypothesis, experiment and empirical observation. From this perspective, objective truth is solely contained in the scientific method.

As with all stories, this has no certain beginning; and shrouded in the mists of antiquity, the story begins when we start watching and paying attention. When and where you start watching, dear reader, is what you must determine with some study and thought, and dare I say, some prayer.

“Positivism and existentialism are no longer as popular as they were earlier in this century, but their essential mind-set has taken root securely in our culture, especially the false premise common to both philosophies, namely that reason equals science.” Peter Kreeft, “Fundamentals of the Faith.”

 

[i] Father Robert Barron comments on “Cosmos: A Space Odyssey.”

[ii] Word on Fire Blog, “What Neil deGrasse Tyson Misses About Science and Faith,” Joe Heschmeyer

[iii] This list is far from comprehensive, and many other references are omitted, but they will provide a starting place from a variety of perspectives. I have read them and know them to be clear and well written. There are many others. I apologize for the incomplete references, but Amazon links to all are included. Most are available in inexpensive paperback or Kindle editions:

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Filed under Background Perspective, Culture views

Science and the Religion of Scientism, Part One

RFIDs, Human Trafficking and The Limits of Technology

“Berlin! The very name like two sharp bells of glory. Capital of science, seat of the Führer, nursery to Einstein, Staudinger, Bayer. Somewhere in these streets, plastic was invented, X-rays were discovered, continental drift was identified. What marvels does science cultivate here now? Superman soldiers, Dr. Hauptmann says, and weather-making machines and missiles that can be steered by men a thousand miles away.” All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

A tiny Radio Frequency Identification tag pairs with a Global Positioning System tracker all in a package about the size of a grain of rice. Inject it just below the skin of your expensive Black Lab, a three-thousand-dollar investment with vet fees. If your dog runs off and gets lost or is dognapped for sale in another state, with your cellphone application or the police, you can find her and bring her home safely. Not cheap, but worth it. You love that mutt.

Much has been learned through RFID GPS tracking to manage wildlife populations, even endangered wildlife, to help them thrive or to survive with little damage done during the insertion of the miniature device. Migration habits, size of territories and travel within territories, familial and group/herd relationships, feeding patterns, mating and other behaviors can be tracked, analyzed in computers and used to plan to help or hinder a species depending upon the habitat management objectives.

All good, right? What could go wrong? There are RFID/GPS trackers inserted into razor sharp arrows, so bow hunters can more easily track deer shot through only one lung from a tree stand; deer pierced like that can run a long way in terror and pain before lying down to bleed out. And worse. A lot worse.

“Human progress, though it is a great blessing for man, brings with it a great temptation. When the scale of values is disturbed and evil becomes mixed with good, individuals and groups consider only their own interests, not those of others. “Gaudium et spes,” (“Joy and Hope”), Vatican II documents.

implantA young emergency room resident in Boston heard a twenty-year-old patient tell him confidentially that she had a RFID/ [i] GPS tag inserted in her thigh against her will. At first the ER staff was incredulous and were making eye contact as though they had someone on their hands akin to a crazy claiming they had been injected with mutant genes during an alien abduction, but within a few minutes they realized that a prosaic local source of evil was at work. Like the branding of indentured Irish servant/slaves and the hobbling of runaway African slaves, more advanced technology had been introduced into the human trafficking industry.

The sex trade bosses have enhanced their surveillance and control capability; these devices have been used in the United States, injected into workers in industry and domestic service as well.[ii] The majority of the prey so subjected are native born Americans; it is not the exclusive province of exploited undocumented immigrants. Subdued in the domain of enslavement, the subjects are those with the fewest options. After they are tagged, their options further diminish.

“The process of going mad is dull, for the simple reason that it is going on. Routine and literalism and a certain dry-throated earnestness and mental thirst, these are the very atmosphere of morbidity… This slow and awful self-hypnotism of error is a process that can occur not only with individuals, but also with whole societies. It is hard to pick out and prove; that is why it is hard to cure.” From A Miscellany of Men, G.K. Chesterton, 1912

This is hardly a new phenomenon – evil uses of science and technology. Zyklon nerve gas to lower the cost per person of killing “undesirable” human beings in the showers of Auschwitz comes to mind. Or perhaps Margaret Sanger’s Planned Parenthood and eugenics nexus, where she advocated deceitful or even forced sterilization of “undesirable” breeders to bring about a more perfect human race.[iii] I could tell you of a co-worker, who suffered such a fate, but that is a tale for another time.

More recently, we see the alarming hastening of the demise of organ donors, especially for those “undesirables” with mental illness or long term illnesses who have expressed an interest in such a hastening. Already happening in the euthanasia friendly climes of Belgium and the Netherlands. Why wait for lethal injection to take effect? Anesthetize the patient, wheel them into the operating room and yank out the most desirable or profitable parts.[iv]

If we don’t understand how we arrived at this ethics of utility, where things are loved and people are used, there are some gaps to fill in. For a couple of thousand years of what is loosely described as Western Civilization we held that ‘reason’ or ‘wisdom’ encompassed science. Science was part of, but far from all of what was considered to be true. Truth and reason were humankind’s efforts to understand the reality of things, and that search involved other and greater aspects of truth than merely empirical observation, hypothesis and experiment. Like a sort of collective macular degeneration, our vision first occluded at the center then faded into an increasing myopia. Metaphysics, art, poetry, religion and philosophy were slowly blinkered as sources of truth.

This will require a part two – how we devolved from a more human wisdom to a new ethos, and how we grotesquely distorted science into a new faith, ‘Scientism.”

“Parts are not to be examined until the whole has been surveyed.” Samuel Johnson

 

[i] http://www.marketplace.org/2016/03/02/health-care/health-care-takes-fight-against-trafficking

[ii] https://polarisproject.org/sites/default/files/2015-Statistics.pdf

 

[iii] Maggie, Part Two. Quo Vadis Blog, June 2, 2013

[iv] Euthanasia by Organ Harvesting, Dr. Wesley Smith, First Things, March 31,2016

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Beyond Singularity

“Jake Spoon is a mighty leaky vessel to put all your hopes in.” – Gus McCrae, “Lonesome Dove”, Larry McMurtry

In the most recent quovadisblog.net post, we explored however briefly the future according to futurist Ray Kurzweil: the era when man and machine will be inextricably fused into one creature, eternal, omniscient and beyond time and space. A blog post can cover barely a brush by analysis of the roots of this prophesy of the goal of human existence. “Singularity,” a beatific vision of the faith of scientism, is a mighty leaky vessel to put all your hopes in.

How we got here is complicated, but some understanding of the journey which discarded nearly two millennia of human wisdom is worth a word or two.

“This (the abandonment of much of Socratic/Aristotelian thought), though silent and almost unnoticed, was the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated through the world.” W.T. Stace “Man against Darkness,” The Atlantic (Sept, 1948) as quoted in Leo Sweeney, S.J., “Authentic Metaphysics in an Age of Unreality,” as quoted in “The Last Superstition, A Refutation of the New Atheism,” Edward Feser, 2008

AristotleFor roughly eighteen centuries, the lodestone of Western thought was Aristotle. Before Christianity, before Mohammed, before the Roman Empire, Greek philosophy was true north for all else that was to follow. Until the “Enlightenment,” which wasn’t all light, metaphysics and the search for human wisdom and truth in Western culture relied on principles of natural law and some would say common sense well thought out. What we now deem “science,” and for many the only valid arbiter of truth, was an important, but contracted, aspect of man’s search for truth. All science is based on metaphysical assumptions and precepts. The metaphysical enclosed the hard sciences as a portion, but not the whole.

Aristotle posited that all things have four causes. The first is its material cause: the stuff out of which anything is made (be it wood, iron, chlorophyll, cells, etc.). The formal cause adds the form, structure or pattern which the material assumes and is of a kind that distinguishes it from other things made of the same stuff – be they humans and poodles or countertops and the Pieta. The formal cause exists outside of the thing, separate from it and is congruent with the same form that exists in our minds so that we recognize it. The third attribute is the efficient cause or that which brings a thing into being from exploding stars creating elements to a whittler’s knife carving images – it is what causes a thing to move from potentiality to actuality. Things must have the innate potential to become; and something must act upon them to realize that potential. Finally there is the final cause – that for which something exists, its purpose, its why.

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas. “Lucky is he who has been able to understand the causes of things,” Virgil, Georgics, Book 2

For Thomas Aquinas, the human person’s formal cause is the soul, which exists beyond space and time; for Aristotle, mankind’s final cause as a “rational animal” is to know the truth, a truth both objective and within our mortal limits, attainable. Beginning slowly with Hume, Locke, Hobbes and the like, modern philosophy disavowed both formal and final causes. We find ourselves on the other side of Neitzsche, Sartre, and now Dawkins and Hitchens and are entangled in webs of relativism, skepticism and purposelessness. [i] Scientism offers us a “leaky vessel” way out, a “hope” rooted in hubris. A mutually exclusive dichotomy now assumed between science and religion was not always so, is erroneous and is not necessary.

Just as the eye was made to see colors, and the ear to hear sounds, so the human mind was made to understand. From “Astronomi Opera Omnia” Johannes Kepler

Science is not scientism; science is an objective search for a limited truth attainable by experimentation and careful observation. Science is agnostic to ultimate purpose or final causes. There is no inherent conflict with faith, but science cannot sound the depths of before time and space. First, science and modern philosophy do not recognize the existence of final causes; secondly they do not possess the means to evaluate them. It is not “faith or reason” that brings us to the fullness of understanding, but “faith and reason” – Fides et Ratio. Scientism is not science; scientism is a faith – a faith not in God, but in “not God.” As in all faiths, there are underlying tenets of that faith that can neither be proven absolutely or refuted absolutely. One can only judge the fruits of it.

Yet the positive results achieved (from pure reason and its handmaid, science) must not obscure the fact that reason, in its one-sided concern to investigate human subjectivity, seems to have forgotten that men and women are always called to direct their steps towards a truth which transcends them. Sundered from that truth, individuals are at the mercy of caprice, and their state as person ends up being judged by pragmatic criteria based essentially upon experimental data, in the mistaken belief that technology must dominate all. It has happened therefore that reason, rather than voicing the human orientation towards truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being. Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead upon human knowing. Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned. Fides et Ratio, 1998 encyclical, Saint John Paul.

Here is an example that may help clarify how it works. Many years ago the Jesuits at Boston College tried to teach me logic, epistemology and other arcane subjects that at the time seemed completely irrelevant to the real world. Pearls cast to swine (or sophomores), I suppose. Of course what they were trying to do was teach me to think; they tried with limited success to inculcate into me a disciplined mind. Perhaps these many decades later to their credit, a few lessons stuck. Among the many examples of logical fallacy we learned was circular reasoning, wherein the preordained conclusion of an argument is baked into the premises to deliver stillborn real debate and analysis.

One such banal argument from the atheist goes like this: Since you benighted theists insist that your God is all good and all powerful and all loving, why is there still evil in the world? Hah! Take that! There is no God! Christian theology replies with an eternal Love, a Person, whose “ways are not our ways”, and of the free will inherent to the human person, free even to choose evil, but free will necessary to the nature of the dignity and worth of a free person. It also teaches of the mystery of suffering and redemptive suffering revealed by God as also necessary to the human person in some way not fully fathomable within our mortal coil, but exemplified and made of inestimable value by Jesus. These and other aspects of this most difficult subject require not only a lifetime of study and understanding, but more importantly prayer, reflection and relationship with God through Jesus. [ii]

But if the discussion is shut down with a trite aphorism with the unstated premise that there is not really any God that can shed light on darkness, but if there was, He could not be all powerful and all good and all knowing and permit evil, therefore He doesn’t exist, the argument reveals itself to be, “there is no God, therefore, there is no God.”

When the true believers of scientism draw their conclusions, they mask as scientific, rational and objective that which was preordained in its premises.

Perhaps there is no God; perhaps God is a Divine Watchmaker who set in motion the laws of the universe and left the premises; perhaps the “Irreducible complexity” debate of the Intelligent Design advocates is really another “god of the gaps” syllogism in a new guise. But perhaps, just perhaps, that as the Jesuits taught me our souls are eternal, as is God, and that we exist on this beleaguered planet, which rides within our solar system, our galaxy and our universe with all of them constantly and intimately enfolded within the Mind of God, utterly dependent for each moment on that Loving Mind.

“I assure you, my brothers, that even to this day it is clear to some that the words which Jesus speaks are spirit and life, and for this reason they follow Him. To others these words seem hard, and so they look elsewhere for some pathetic consolation.” St. Bernard, abbot

[i] For a good analysis of the etiology of the current brand of popular atheism and its convoluted path from the Enlightenment to modernity, try “The Last Superstition, A Refutation of the New Atheism,” Edward Feser, 2008 St. Augustine’s Press.

[ii] See C.S. Lewis “The Problem of Pain”

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Singularity

“Ray Kurzweil is the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence. His intriguing new book envisions a future in which information technologies have advanced so far and fast that they enable humanity to transcend its biological limitations – transforming our lives in ways we can’t imagine yet.” Bill Gates

Every week it seems business and culture news emerges about the “internet of things.” Our daily lives produce data, and these metadata are tracked, compiled and used to predict, make more comfortable, market to us and filter what we see, hear and experience on the web. Not just tailoring our internet searches to what the search engine “thinks” we want to know, but analyzing key words in our emails and where we linger on the web to “ascertain” through artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms what interests us. Then putting us in touch with our patterns, selling us stuff and fashioning the right box into which we fit – a Procrustean bed. Software is being generated to enhance the sluggish “key words” analysis and advance to concepts and thoughts, something in which computers have not yet surpassed us in ability. They have long since passed us in sheer computing power, speed and memory. Next generation AI software brings intuition and those types of “thinking without thinking” formerly uniquely human judgments written about in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink.” Computers are learning to learn and replicate on their own. We are evermore typecast and channeled, aided and abetted into what is profitable financially or politically for someone.

Our smart phones, tablets, computers are joined by our medical records, cars, alarm systems, baby monitors, refrigerators, dish washers, furniture and soon our carpets, toothbrushes, and for all we know toilet seats will feed the maw of data about us. The cloud will know all.

Our rugs will inform us (and the cloud) how often we walk across them, whether we have fallen down and can’t get up, if an unknown walker treads softly upon them or perhaps if we get romantic in front of our fireplace and how long we persist at it. We will go from our smart home to our driverless car, and it will take us door to door.

If we thought the NSA was intrusive, we are desperately naïve. And this is just getting started.

“I would say humans are not purely biological. We’ve already expanded humanity with our technology, and the technology is part of humanity; we are the technology.” Ray Kurzweil

Dr. Kurzweil reflects the hopes of many of those whose belief system is exclusively “scientism,” which holds that science, the scientific method and mathematical reasoning is the only true arbiter of truth and in which we will find humankind’s salvation. The irony of this worldview is while such true scientism believers deride metaphysics, the concepts upon which all of science rests are metaphysical in nature. [i] Scientism is an alternate religion.

He envisions nanobots in our brain, hooked up directly into the cloud. No more fingers on keyboards and mouse to search the internet for knowledge. Our thoughts and memories will access the cloud immediately; we will be one with the cloud, and the cloud will be one with us. He coined the term “Singularity” for this, and his eponymous book ten years ago predicted this state of oneness with computers is not three, two or even one hundred years ahead in science fiction. 2045 is his date for “achieving” singularity. [ii]

Our children and grandchildren will see this, according to the futurist, perhaps even ourselves if we stay healthy and achieve the second aspect of his prediction. All human body parts will be repairable or replaceable with genetic manipulation and perfectly cloned parts from our own DNA, so our brains will become part of the cloud, and our bodies will take on immortality. Millions of car recalls, the roll out of the Affordable Care Act, just my recent experience in figuring out how our new dishwasher worked come to mind. Singularity? What could go wrong?

“And what would they be scared of? There’s nothing to fear in a perfect world, is there?” Catherine Fisher (Welsh author and poet)

Much dystopian science fiction has described computers and robots gradually assuming more and more of our daily lives, then assuming everything. From 2001’s nemesis computer HAL killing the astronauts to Isaac Asimov’s super central computer controlling all in “I Robot” it gets worse. The three rules proscribing that a robot may not harm and must protect any human being broke down. In the Terminator movies, Skybot makes the decision that human kind is a virus on the planet and unleashes genocidal warfare upon us.

I have no mouth and I must screamPerhaps the most awful end for us “hairless apes” is found in Harlan Ellison’s short story from the sixties, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” The world’s computers hook up into one all encompassing web, wipe out all humans, but keep four around to torture. “AM” reads their thoughts and intention, controls not only their environment, but their biology – AM can keep them alive for its amusement with freshly minted organs virtually forever. After the protagonist, Ted, carefully avoids actively thinking of his “solution,” in a lightning strike frees his companions by killing them. AM transforms him into a limbless blob with no mouth and no ability for even suicide. The final line of the story is its title.

“Why do you ask how you were created and do not seek to know why you were made?” St. Peter Chrysologus

The modest objective of the self congratulatory and elated “Singularity” variety of science and technology is to supplant completely what was formerly reserved to religion and understood through the study of metaphysics. The technocrats will define and implement our happiness, immortality, omnipotence and fulfillment through becoming one with our machines.

How we got here is a topic which will require more than a few blog posts to begin to explore, and perhaps we shall root around a bit. The history extends back not just into the technology of the late nineteenth century through today, but to late medieval philosophers like William of Ockham, then on through Descartes, Hobbes, Locke and all the rest. To understand even peripherally what ideas have these consequences is not a trivial pursuit.

John Hammond, “All major theme parks have delays. When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked.”

Ian Malcolm, Yeah, but, John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”  Jurrasic Park

[i] The concepts undergirding science are the stuff of philosophy.  A physical world exists outside our mind; that there are patterns which can be recognized by our senses reliably as sources of information; that we can form concepts and reason from premises to conclusion.  That causation and result are valid methods of understanding.  All of these and more are metaphysical concepts and provable through metaphysics and logic, not the scientific method.

[ii] Curiously, “singularity” is the scientific term for a single point in space-time of no dimensions, but infinite mass, which current hypothesis holds was blown up by a “quantum fluctuation” to trigger the Big Bang resulting in a inflating universe bubble in an infinite cosmos of other universe bubbles that has no beginning and no end.

 

 

 

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