Friday, January 2, 2009

Derbyshire v Stein

Ben Stein has taken the 2008 Daily Dish Malkin Award (quite an honor) for this:
"When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers [i.e. biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that’s where science leads you," - Ben Stein.
Stein's comment is taken from an excerpt of an interview with Paul Crouch Jr. which John Derbyshire brought to light at NRO. For more of Derbyshire's thoughts on Stein and his Intelligent Design documentary and overall distaste for science, read this piece.

Science, Derbyshire contends, is part of the great tradition and unique vitality of Western Civilization. I very much agree. And I agree that blaming pure science, or evolution in particular (Darwinism) on the Holocaust is nonsense--though evolution plays a part in eugenics, and in Nietzsche's "Übermensch" and thereby in the mechanics and philosophy of the Nazi Party. The question is whether Hitler and co. could have drawn the same philosophical conclusions without the foundation of Darwin's work. Would they still have tried to rid the German race of "impurities" and craft the ideal Arian people?

I imagine so. After all, humans were breeding dogs and horses long before Darwin and Mendel were born.

Eugenics just gave them harder science with which to spin their hatred--and technology gave them the ability to carry it out with unprecedented swiftness and efficiency. Derbyshire, whose own views on evolutionary development are quite controversial, has plenty of ground to dismiss Stein's statement as "shameful."

But I think we shouldn't dismiss Stein's overall thesis so quickly. While I disagree with it in tone and extremity, I find some real wisdom in this train of thought. Perhaps it is my background in science fiction that gives me such a mistrust of science and technology--and scientists whose work have political and human consequences, and deep moral implications. Derbyshire rightfully claims that science is one of Western Civilization's greatest achievements. But uncoupled with our other great achievements--Western ethics and Christianity, a sense of long-term consequence--science becomes bereft of guidance, a cold intellectual apparatus. All good science fiction warns of the dangers should science fall into the wrong hands. It is a weapon, after all, not merely a tool. Good sci-fi warns of a science that disrupts and usurps our other traditions,, a subtle coup. Huxley's Brave New World is a critique of both modern medicine and eugenics. 2001: A Space Odyssey brought about themes of intelligent machines that turn against humans--a recurring theme in the genre, before and since.

Science without ethics and morality, without a larger sense of civilization and history, becomes a cold and dangerous thing. It can easily be turned to such use as eugenics or human cloning or the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. Artificial Intelligence, despite its hypothetical consequences, is an emerging reality. The difference between medicine and poison is very slight, and the miracle cure lives only a block away from the super-virus.

So I do worry that in this current culture of materialism and excess, this empty-headed generation and its frivolity, with its lack of a sense of respect for Western civilization and tradition; the death of God and the commercialism of religion; the death of History; the leveling of all things, moral or otherwise; and the glorification of consumerism above all things--this dilapidation of society could very well lead us to a cold and immoral use of our science. This is the symptom of moving forward into history without a sense of where we have set out from.

Modern conservatism glorifies the free market and rampant individualism, while modern liberalism denies the value of our history as a civilization, "ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms." Both have flaws and merits, but neither erects a blockade against the tyranny of abstract reason or cold, hard science in the hands of a dispassionate or malevolent power. Neither promises to keep the barbarians out--and as Derbyshire rightly notes, they are at the gates, or perhaps within them. Ben Stein has every right to worry.

Where he strays is to imply that the problem lies with the science, which is merely the tool--Raskolnikov's axe, as it were.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves...

10 comments:

Wellsy said...

Science is 100% a tool. Knowledge gained is entirely neutral; the application of that knowledge is what can be used for good or bad. There are scientists who dedicate their entire careers to creating bombs that kill more people more efficiently. There are scientists who have focused solely on new technologies that can render an enemy defenseless. The argument that we must remain one step ahead of our enemy is not an argument presented in any Bible I've ever read.

But anyway, many of these scientists are drawing on feelings of patriotism and Western tradition. I doubt all of them are atheists, either. It is as Martin Luther King Jr. described: "We have guided missiles and unguided men."

The dilemma, at least for me, rears its ugly head when I begin to consider if the pros outweigh the cons. Was our discovery of atomic theory and all the amazing technologies that sprung from it worth Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Even while our knowledge of embryology has grown to allow screening for more diseases with greater sensitivity, it has also allowed us to develop means of quick and safe abortions. Pros and cons, pros and cons.

The funny thing is it doesn't seem to me that any collective body is making decisions here. No one weighed in and said, let's proceed with the study of atomic theory with the utmost caution, knowing that what we find may be used to construct weapons of even greater destruction. It's just that the technology becomes available so we use it. It's as if the will of society steamrolls the will of the individual.

E.D. Kain said...

Wellsy, you're quite right. I think there is some merit to the days when humankind moved forward under the guidance of a strong power--a moral code, or some Authority larger than themselves. Nowadays all our actions and pursuits spin through time detached from one another, rag-tag, motley, with very little eye to the future. I suppose this protects us from Authority when it is on the wrong side of history, but it certainly leaves us to the whims of any number of evils and mistakes.

Competition can be a good thing, but as you noted with the Atom bomb, it can also lead to hurry and lack of consideration. Just look at how our companies are valued--not in their long-term success, or the treatment of workers, or the quality of goods--but quarterly profits. Quarterly valuations. It's sad, really.

Thanks for commenting.

JTP said...

Scientists are people, just like Ben Stein is. However, unlike Ben Stein, intellectually honesty is a requirement of their profession. A dishonest scientist will find himself or herself out of a job. Even the incorrect perception of dishonestly (ask David Baltimore) can severely compromise a scientist's career.

Ben Stein is disingenuous at best, a lunatic at worst. But for this behavior, he's rewarded: movie deals, cable news spots, guest editorials. It's not much of a leap, from where I stand, to assert that said dishonesty is required for Stein's continued success.

E.D. Kain said...

JTP, thanks for commenting. You raise a fair point about honesty, though I would argue that honesty is really not the question here. One can be "honest" and respected by their peers in the scientific community and still be developing dangerous science. If eugenics were embraced in the larger culture, for instance, honest scientists would likely participate in the genetic "shaping" of society. One can be honest and still be part of a larger foolishness...

Regarding Stein--I just don't know what to think. He's a bright guy, and has some economic sense in his head, but this whole God vs. Science thing drives me crazy. We can have both, you know...

JTP said...

I agree with your larger point, about the ethical lemmas posed by scientific discovery and technological advancement. I have no easy answer to those concerns. I guess, as the old saying goes, "We'll cross that bridge when we get there."

I suppose my quibble is claiming that what you're worried about and what Ben Stein is "worried" about are the same thing.

E.D. Kain said...

I see...well, I'm not worried about the same thing. I intended that last line or two to sum up the major rift between Stein's concern and mine:

"Where he strays is to imply that the problem lies with the science, which is merely the tool--Raskolnikov's axe, as it were.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves..."

Max said...

quibble: Nietzche himself explicitly denies that his doctrine of the over-man has anything to do with Darwinian thought. in fact he seemed to consider Darwin a bit of a blockhead. cf. Will to Power (1st section I think)

E.D. Kain said...

Max,

Indeed--but like so many philosophers it's not necessarily what they themselves think, but how their words influence others that counts most...

Thanks!

Max said...

sure, I suppose. I guess I just got over-stimulated by the topic, as I've never really understood how it *couldn't* be about Darwinism.

E.D. Kain said...

It's a stimulating topic. I can't recall the times I've debated the possibility of evolution working in congruence with God...