August 31, 2011

Agnotology and future developments

Not to belabor these religious matters, but the inability of anyone from a skeptical viewpoint ever to close the difference between hermself and the community of believers is instructive in other areas as well. I was thinking, in particular, about the reflexive habit of Christians to refer to the Bible as proof of the Bible, and, in general, to the primacy of strong feeling over a more austere, scientific approach.

My thoughts led me to a slightly ghoulish train of thought which I'll reproduce here, the ghoulishness at least having the advantage of being memorable. It starts with this observation: if I trust the formulas in a physics textbook, for example, it is because I sense pretty strongly that the formulas have been experimentally validated in the real world. Most rational people would not argue that the formula for a falling body above Earth (d=1/2gt^2, where g is the terrestrial constant for gravity, d is distance, and t is time) is true because this formula is written down in a physics book; it's the other way around. It's in the book because it was experimentally validated first.

I performed one such validation a few years ago when I was writing a novel which had a scene set on the Golden Gate Bridge. Given my penchant for gathering essentially useless facts, I researched and found that the bridge at the center is about 225 feet above the water. This gave me, roughly, d. The question germane to my book was: if a person stepped off into space from the center of the bridge, how long till splashdown? I had a lousy high school physics teacher (discussed at length recently with faithful reader W, who suffered the same fate), a teacher who thought physics, in some sense, could be taught non-quantitatively, so I'm always at pains to fill in this gap with some real number crunching. Rearranging the formula above, I came to a result of around 3 seconds, with maximum speed at about 80 miles per hour.

Around this time, the haunting documentary "The Bridge" was released, and I watched it on dvd. This movie actually films a number of bridge suicides over the course of one year by means of a camera constantly trained on the span. Ergo, of course, I used the stopwatch function on my phone to time one particularly well-filmed jumper (who cooperated by falling backwards off the bridge rather than jumping, which confounds the calculation). It was shown, naturally, several times, both in slow-mo and in real time. My stopwatch reading was consistently 4 seconds for the real time sequences. Well, of course: air resistance, wind, et cetera. Close enough, however, for some sort of Newtonian validation.

Biblical proof is circular because it has no real-world cognates or referents. It's a completely sterile exercise in reading something and declaring it's true because you just read it. We're asked to believe what's in the Book because it's in the Book. I've often thought this circularity does not need to be so. An actual god could show up at Times Square at noon on Sunday and put on a magic show which would eliminate all doubt. Believers have various answers for this curious resistance of the deity to clearing up the mystery, none of them particularly convincing to me. Most of the excuses, in fact, sound a little smug, as if believers actually prefer the mystery as a way of enhancing the In-Crowd nature of being among the saved.

Anyway, this word "agnotology" has arisen recently as a word applicable to what is becoming known, in America, as the "Alternative Reality Right (ARR)." Essentially, agnotology is the study of culturally-induced ignorance. To run for President as a Republican these days, it is almost mandatory (why do I say "almost?") that a person voice certain culturally-required professions of profound ignorance, such as Rick Perry's idea that evolution "is a theory with some holes in it." Why stop there? Maybe that gravitational theory up above has some holes in it too. (I've never understood how Strict Creationists deal with the ability of bacteria to develop immunity to antibiotics. Is it the Creationist position that bacteria just "figure it out?") And although 97% of the scientists seriously involved in climate research confirm that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is occurring, and that, if anything, the official pronouncements of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are perhaps dangerously optimistic in their time lines, the ARR will point out a few dissenters (usually referred to as "thousands of scientists") and claim that these lone voices (some with demonstrable links to oil and coal companies) are right, although, to tell the truth, the ARR cannot explain even the fundamentals of AGW and are basing their preference for the (extreme) minority position for the same reason as their preference for Creationism, I guess, which is also an extreme minority position among biologically-educated scientists, including all of those in the National Academy of Sciences. In point of fact, it's a mystery to me why three disparate fields of human inquiry (the origin of the Universe, evolutionary adaptation and AGW) should all inspire the same response from the same theocratic impulse. Is it just a maniacal desire to be wrong all the time, no matter what the human cost?

Since the United States is the world's primary energy hog (on a per capita basis - well, hell, you name the basis), there are real world consequences of such idiocy. Reading this book by Richard Heinberg (and the Peak Oil theorists in general, including Our Man Dmitry), I'm beginning to see that peak oil, and the concomitant requirement that life again be re-localized on a massive scale, may operate as a kind of deus ex machina (and that's the one sense in which "god" might have some currency). To wit, American progressives (the educated members living in Consensus Reality) are never, ever going to convince the ARR of...well, anything. That's what agnotology is concluding. The ARR is so stuck in a kind of mindless denial and delusion, so haunted by ghosts, souls, goblins, gods, demons and the rest of their dramatis personae of insanity, that there is absolutely no hope whatsoever that this thing can be turned around through rational procedures. Thus, to counter the impediment which the United States is, an outside force, called Mother Nature, must intervene and compel all the changes that America, acting monolithically, is incapable of making on a volitional basis.

There might be time for that to happen before the window of opportunity slams shut and runaway greenhouse becomes inevitable, and Mankind's arrogant experiment with accelerating the entropic conversion of potential energy to waste heat beyond natural rhythms will come to a screaming stop. It's almost enough to make me believe in Divine Providence.


  1. Hammerud3:35 PM

    As usual a great read. Fulfilled prophecy validates the Bible, and there is a whole lot of particularly interesting prophecy in these days (the re-emergence of Israel as a nation among nations for one thing) that are eye opening. Anyway, in my case at least, I didn't just all of a sudden decide to believe the Bible. It was the most boring book I had ever read until I began reading it after asking Jesus into my heart in 1967. Then it opened up to me in a startling way -- Proverbs 1 explains it, "Behold I will pour out my Spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you." I was reading in Isaiah (chapter 6) this morning and came across the phrase 'understand with their heart." This is a consistent message of Scripture -- the access door to understanding spiritual matters, which BTW impact the physical (real) world, is the heart. Once the heart engages, the intellect has no problem following. This is evident in the multitude of brilliant human beings who are devout Christians. Anyway, if the reality were that God did not exist, the fact that a whole lot of people believe in Him really doesn't matter. In fact, apart from God all ultimately is empty, without permanent value, and ending in frustration. God has put something in man that hungers for an answer to a meaningless and vain existence. One philosopher said something along the lines that the tragedy is not that we should convince ourselves that there is no bread, but that we should convince ourselves that we are not hungry. Well, there is bread and I found the Bread a little over 40 years ago. Proverbs has an interesting verse, "my son eat thou honey because it is good, and the honeycomb, which is sweet to thy taste. So shall the knowledge of wisdom be unto your soul when thou hast found it. Then there shall be a reward and your expectation will not be cut off." There is a God and He has made a way to know Him, and all of that is foolishness to the natural man, regardless of how intelligent he is. The door to the knowledge of God, again, is the heart. God made it that way, which is why some of us have such a hard time going through it. We need to realize that "the things that are seen were not made of things which do appear," and the "things that are seen" are analyzed in physics books (I wonder where the laws of physics came from?) Anyway, friends, do not discount God. He offers the only hope, but it is real. All we are is not limited to our bodies. We each have an eternal soul and spirit.

  2. Was so bold as to borrow the picture ( here )

    Hope you don't mind, if you do please let me know ;-)

    You may be interested in this related concept "crank magnetism:"