Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Pride and Fall

I was discussing interplanetary colonization with an acquaintance recently. I don’t foresee that in any likely near future, while my interlocutor is convinced it’s a near certainty. Opinions do differ! The discussion did degenerate, sadly, into ad hominem characterizations. I was put into the “genteel-poverty crowd”; I called my acquaintance a “technocrat”. He accepted the label gracefully enough.

Predicting the future involves some kind of model. The simplest common model is an exponential function. For example, the world population might be increasing at 2% per year. With that simple model we can forecast the population at any time in the future. Science is largely a matter of developing, testing, and refining models for various facets of the natural world, by comparing the various models’ predictions against real world experience.

How this whole dialectic interplay between theory and experiment actually proceeds, or should proceed, is a topic of endless discussion among philosophers of science. Scientists have got the orbit of the moon around the earth figured out with remarkable precision. Philosophers of science continue to struggle to come to any basic understanding of how that precise figuring has come about.

Immanuel Kant’s philosophy is a major waypoint in understanding how science progresses. His notion of synthetic a priori judgements accounts for the fact that models cannot be inferred directly from the data of experience. It seems clear by now that our thinking is more adaptable than Kant gave us credit for. But still, it often takes a succession of generations of scientists for a new conception to take root. Our ways of seeing the world are quite deeply rooted.

In my recent discussion on interplanetary colonization, my acquaintance made a remarkable declaration: “Technocrats don’t have preconceptions.” I don’t think this is any kind of unique or even unusual attitude. Most scientists dismiss philosophy of science as being irrelevant. Generally they take for granted a kind of direct insight into the nature of phenomena. The task of science looks, from this perspective, a bit like that of a surveyor mapping out a new territory. Probably even real surveying is a bit trickier than this kind of na├»ve notion would portray it!

Our modern civilization is built on science. Practically every facet of our lives has been explored scientifically. Our lives are, in turn, structured by these scientific models, be they mechanical, chemical, biological, geological, or whatever. It is quite easy to slip into thinking that we have pretty much figured it all out. The stable structures of our lives mesh neatly with the stable structures of our ideas.

It may be just my own preconception, but things do change. The notion of environmental constraints has been talked about at least since Malthus, a couple hundred years ago, but clearly we humans have been very successful in circumventing whatever limits have appeared. How long this run of success will continue… that’s one of the core controversies of our time. What interests me here is not this or that model on which to build a forecast. What interests me is how the shape of the future can appear unquestionable to the cultish wing of the technocratic faith. More precisely, how might this kind of blind faith affect our ability to navigate any turbulence in the coming decades.

There is a curious paradox here. The notions of Malthusian limits, of climate change, of turbulence on the horizon: these are all scientific ideas. Science forecasts change, but science is not really ready for change.

Supposing that we actually do run out of miracles and Malthusian limits do finally get their teeth into us. What’s the impact going to be? Will it just be a matter of maybe replacing our air conditioners with more efficient units? Or are we facing famine and plague and the decimation of the population? These questions have been discussed extensively. A question that gets much less attention, though: what will happen to science? Certainly there are deep visionaries in the scientific community who can foresee the coming turbulence and begin to sketch what a post-collapse laboratory might look like. But a large fraction of the members of the greater scientific-technocratic subculture share my acquaintance’s blind faith, I fear, in the eternal stability of the present system: a steady growth in watts per capita and the rest of it. This kind of blind faith will not help us navigate any sort of coming collapse!