Saturday, April 17, 2004

Our Science-Distorted Culture

Kelly Hollowell has an article in which she puts forth her theory of how Darwinism and Einsteinian physics have been misinterpreted by the public and turned into moral relativism. While I think she's exaggerating the importance of these particular theories a bit for the sake of argument, she makes a good point about the influence of science on our culture.

[Aside: I was in 11th grade when I started to notice the heavy influence of science on our culture. Others didn't seem to notice it at all. My parents didn't understand why I knew it would be bad for my soul for me to go to Caltech; that while learning the best science was a good thing, I needed to focus on other, better things for my spiritual health. Later, I took a Sociology of Science course at college. To my great surprise, it basically confirmed what I had concluded about the role of science in our culture, and it also gave me more insights along the same lines.]

I think Hollowell's main point, which is that scientific theories have a tendency to infiltrate their way into our philosophy and culture in ways that have little to do with their actual scientific significance, is valid. However, I would submit that there are some theories that have not done so, but were and are just as earth-shattering as evolution or relativity. In particular I'm thinking of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, which rocked the mathematical world back in the 1930's.

Godel's incompleteness theorem is, when stated in its original form, quite inscrutable to the lay person; but to sum up the idea in plain English, it proves that in a system where you accept certain axioms, there will be statements which can be neither proven to be true nor disproven. This flew in the face of previous mathematical thought, which was that everything true will eventually be proven to be so, and that if we do not yet have a proof of it, it is through our own incompetence and not due to the fact that a proof cannot exist based on what we know and assume to be true. The very idea that there were unprovable statements in a discipline as well-defined as number theory was quite mind-blowing to people who had been trained to believe that Progress Marches On And Never Hits A Brick Wall It Won't Eventually Blast Through.

Personally, I'd like to see this theorem's philosophy brought into our culture. It would bring a dose of much-needed humility to the hubris of believing that science (or its derivative, sufficient thought) will eventually solve all our problems. It is this belief, that scientific progress marches us on toward eliminating all "bad" things, that brings out the worst in our culture; more so than the ideas of social darwinism or moral relativism. For if we believe that science marches us on toward all goals, we also believe that our major problems can all be solved; that we can have war without any civilian casualties; and that the 9-11 Commission can find out the Truth with a capital T. These idealistic beliefs in themselves are harmless and make decent goals to work toward, but when applied too strictly, they can become lethal, both to life and to culture.