A post on Language Log about how does science become part of peoples lives, and following that, this curious strip from XKCD made me wonder about this long-time idea i’ve had for so long, that science is the religion of the modern man.
The connection (and also the fat chance that the idea is not really mine at all) should be very obvious in that the Language Log post speaks of Bible Stories, ergo religion, but what i used to think was not exactly on those lines. The post argues that scientific articles (or pseudo-facts) do not serve as attempts at comprehending the world, but instead as norm-reinforcing mythology. In Mark Liberman’s own words:
“scientific studies” like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It’s only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they’re true. For most people, it’s only important that they’re morally instructive.
There is a subtle distinction between morally instructive and ontologically validating. Certainly, religion has always been a major force in the definition of morality, but it also has an even deeper impact on societies, that is, defining the way that the world is understood and dealt with. The social construction of reality.
In other words, the limits of the world, of life, of habits and actions, of professions, of the very reality to which every individual on the society chooses to abide are elements of culture, and religion is generally thought to be one of the cornerstones of such structures. Eastern religions tend to isolate attachment as the source of suffering, Christian religions seem to abide to a charity mindset, and so on.
Today, in western cultures, it is science, not as a methodological framework but as a hierarchical institution, that provide the common ground of what is considered reality, that anyone can take for granted, and that also cannot be questioned or revised.
Example: you cannot propose that the Earth doesn’t rotate around the Sun! To say it is anathema, you will be immediately taken for moron or fastidious. Exactly as in the Inquisition days you could not say the other way around.
In a way very similar to the way medieval Church could prescribe the ways of life through the dissemination of an specific ideas (the Devil, Sin, Transubstantiation, Remission, Temptation) that incorporated in themselves a series of moral judgments and taxonomies of behaviour, the institution of science can today force upon society a way to comprehend our own experiences that incorporates specific ways to live life.
For example, the idea that work enables the man to survive, or that money moves the world and markets have their own volition, or that all humans are equal despite skin color, or that democracy is egalitarian, and many other. But the issue is that none of those are really scientific issues, for science tries to avoid this kind of issue. Therefore, a strange hybrid is formed between science, beliefs, religion and politics.
What fuels this extreme strength of science over culture is that science is believed to be true. In other words, scientific “fact” is believed to be utterly and completely free of whim — for example, 2+2 is supposed to be 4 even if the president of the U.S.A. decides otherwise and is willing to use all his bombs to prove.
That is beautifully depicted in the XKCD comic.
But still, the truth of science is just as social as the truth of Catholic Dogma. It could not be otherwise. 2+2 is always 4 not because Bog said so, not because it is the essence of reality, but because we are conditioned through violence to always associate /2/ with a specific instruction, a recipe, one that has the rule of being forced to comply with itself. It is a dogma, as much as Religion.
Obviously, i am not eager to abandon the scientific literacy of western culture, it has enormous benefits. But this strange mix of dogma, academic hierarchies and social notions of reality does indeed make a strange recipe which i think is not guaranteed to make happiness or peace or goodness or any other form of ethical quality to the world at large, even if (or mainly because) we are taking it for granted.