Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Faces of Hubris

Our delight in reason degenerates into idolatry of the herald. Especially when a mind of powerful method has instructed men, we find the examples of oppression. The dominion of Aristotle, the Ptolemaic astronomy, the credit of Luther, of Bacon, of Locke;- in religion the history of hierarchies, of saints, and the sects which have taken the name of each founder, are in point. Alas! every man is such a victim. The imbecility of men is always inviting the impudence of power. It is the delight of vulgar talent to dazzle and to blind the beholder. But true genius seeks to defend us from itself. True genius will not impoverish, but will liberate, and add new senses. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Uses of Great Men"

As long as a man knows very well the strength and weaknesses of his teaching, his art, his religion, its power is still slight. The pupil and apostle who, blinded by the authority of the master and by the piety he feels toward him, pays no attention to the weaknesses of a teaching, a religion, and soon usually has for that reason more power than the master. The influence of a man has never yet grown great without his blind pupils. To help a perception to achieve victory often means merely to unite it with stupidity so intimately that the weight of the latter also enforces the victory of the former. Friedrich Nietzsche Human, all too human

The other day I came across an article in the Washington Post, World Helpless Against Assaults of Nature, which suggested a cause behind the fascination in a number of quarters with "natural disasters." The article begins:

In a more hopeful time, buoyed by the promise of science, it was thought hurricanes could be tricked into dispersing, earthquakes could be disarmed by nuclear explosions and floodwaters held at bay by great mounds of dirt.

Such conceits are another victim of a year of destruction.

"It was thought" seems such a wonderfully impersonal phrase, begging the question, by whom was it thought? Going by the media's fascination with these events, and the tone of their coverage, it would appear that many people share some sense of this view. The great Gods of the modern world, Science, Government, and Technology would combine to make your life better, cure all ills, bring prosperity to all, and apparently disperse hurricanes and disarm earthquakes.

The recent exhibitions of force from mother earth suggest, to me at least, just how small man still is. This link takes you to a page quantifying the force released by nuclear bombs. In brief, the Hiroshima explosion was estimated to release some 63TJoules or the equivalent of 15K tons of TNT (.015MegaTons). The biggest Soviet Hydrogen bomb released an estimated 240KTJoules or the equivalent of 58 Megatons. The earthquake that caused the recent Tsunami was variously estimed to release between the energy equivalent of 5000 to 32000 Megatons, millions of times the force of the Hiroshima bomb and thousands of times more than the biggest bomb man has reportedly exploded. As an aside, the earth is estimated to receive 160Trillion Tons of energy in the form of sunlight each day, far more than the entire world's nuclear arsenal. I'm not suggesting that a nuclear bomb wouldn't cause damage, but rather that man has already survived far larger explosions than anything we could currently produce.

As the opening quote from Nietzsche suggests, it may be that the prophets of the Gods of the modern world might have, in their combined ignorance and zeal, overstated the promises of the disciplines. How many quasi-scientific articles find their way into mass market venues claiming that man has unlocked the secrets of the atom, deceiphered the human genome, peered into the beginnings of time and discovered the building blocks of the universe. I think the average reader should be forgiven for assuming, after reading these articles, or perhaps more accurately scanning the headlines, that the natural world is quite malleable to modern man's touch. It is as if the world were a toy in the hand of man, which is pretty near to the manner in which elementary science is taught, as if man were a disembodied observer and not at all times a part of nature. Thoughts such as these led philosopher-physicist David Bohm to argue against the view of a universe of things and for a view of a universe that is an undivided whole, itself a thought at least as old as the Greeks.

In a sense, unlocking the secrets of the atom is quite similar to unlocking the secrets of your VCR or Microwave. It, the atom, VCR, or microwave, respectively, does certain things in certain conditions. If you create the proper conditions and press the right buttons you get the desired result. However, your VCR won't transport you out of danger in the event of an earthquake. Science, in essence, is the study of reptititive behavior with the hope of deriving some general principle. The presupposition of Science is that there are laws or rules of behavior in the material plane. To expect that Science will in some way change the natural order of things seems to me contradictory. Science depends on the extension of that natural order through time.

Of course, many people have heard or read of "miracles of science" which recalls to my mind the views of David Hume; A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. I agree, when you define miracle as a violation of the laws of nature, miracles can't happen. Of course, something might happen which is contrary to man's current understanding of the laws of nature, a la A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

Given the faith in the great God Science, I am aware that some (many) readers might perceive a Luddite tendency in my view. I'm all for Science, by which I mean finding out how the world works, a process which is much nearer the beginning than the end, in my view. I just think that faith in the Great God Science who bends the universe to his will feeds a view which runs counter to Science the discipline. More to the point, at least equally important as finding out how the world works is coming to peace with that reality. Faith in the Great God Science makes that "coming to peace" much more difficult.

On the topic of Great Gods, I see the grand vizier of finance has been offerring more sacrifices to the the demi-God Market Flexibility, son of the Great God Technology (if we don't watch out we'll have the whole Greek Pantheon back soon); The impressive performance of the U.S. economy over the past couple of decades, despite shocks that in the past would have produced marked economic contractions, offers the clearest evidence of the benefits of increased market flexibility. Methinks Greenspan is soon to discover that the ability to ward off financial disasters is no more advanced than our ability to ward off natural ones, indeed, the sense that we could avoid natural disasters almost ensures the manifestation of a financial one.

I have a bit more to write on Greenspan tomorrow, actually more than a bit more, a little study of the man from his curious first loves; first wife, Joan Mitchell a renowned abstract artist and Ayn Rand, we needs no introduction, to his seeming changed view on Gold.