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Jormundgard replied to my (rather long) post about Conformity and Social Decision Making with a good point: I was a bit vague in my usage of certain terms, and that led to a lack of clarity as to what I was getting at with this whole “Church of Reason” bit.  I’d like to repost his comment and my response here, in full, because I think interesting points are made.  And I can do this sort of thing.

First, though, a bit more on this whole “Church of Reason” thing.  As I said in my post, I didn’t invent this phrase, nor did I come up with the idea.  I’ve developed it along my own lines, incorporating some of my own thoughts and ideas, but it is still essentially Robert Pirsig‘s creation.  Here’s Pirsig’s original description:

The real University, he said, has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It’s a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.

In addition to this state of mind, “reason,” there’s a legal entity which is unfortunately called by the same name but which is quite another thing. This is a nonprofit corporation, a branch of the state with a specific address. It owns property, is capable of paying salaries, of receiving money and of responding to legislative pressures in the process.

But this second university, the legal corporation, cannot teach, does not generate new knowledge or evaluate ideas. It is not the real University at all. It is just a church building, the setting, the location at which conditions have been made favorable for the real church to exist.

Confusion continually occurs in people who fail to see this difference, he said, and think that control of the church buildings implies control of the church. They see professors as employees of the second university who should abandon reason when told to and take orders with no backtalk, the same way employees do in other corporations.

They see the second university, but fail to see the first. – Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Part II, ch. 13 (found here).

Pirsig develops this metaphor from a preceding anecdote, which involves a priest explaining that the Church is not the building.  At least initially, then, Pirsig’s use of the phrase “Church of Reason” is intended to signify that: the immaterial institution of the University.  Yet, as he goes on, you do realize that he means feels the adherents have a particular way of examining the world and dealing with it, one which need not be the best way.  Indeed, much of the end f the book is dedicated to fleshing out something of a competing metaphysical idea.

Anyway, on to the exchange.  From Jormundgard:

There is a ton of content in here, and I’m sure I’m not absorbing it correctly, but I can’t figure out your characterization of Science. I don’t know if you’re saying that Society-At-Large has replaced the attitude of “Because God Said So” with “Because Science Said So”, or if it is the Scientists that have done so, i.e. are the followers the Scientists (“priests”, maybe)? Or just the world in general, as a means by which we communicate? The analogy to religious leadership also seems very forced.

Most of the leaked CRU emails have generated a bit of gossip for anyone not directly involved, but it hasn’t strongly altered anyone’s practices in my own field. “Science”, if it can be defined, is not much more than intense, iterative investigations that minimize the uncontrolled degrees of freedom, combined with massive cross-referencing to previous literature and a touch of ambition. A few fuckups using suspicious tree ring proxy data doesn’t really change that methodology, even if they happened to be celebrated a bit too exuberantly by governments and the media. Most of the furor behind the CRU emails seems to be about public perception by non-practicing scientists, so I can only assume that’s what you meant.

(PS: I work in oceanography, and interface with climate scientists occasionally).

And my response:

Heh, you’ve actually run into one of the rhetorical issues I wrestled with while writing this. I used Reason and Science interchangeably in many cases, because I honestly got bored and felt the writing sounded too repetitive simply re-using the term “Reason”. They don’t mean precisely the same thing, even in the context I mean, though I would argue that the social definitions have converged somewhat.

Keep in mind that I’m speaking of the Church of Reason as a metaphor. Effectively, the Church of Reason is the sort of global University – the institution embodied in all the various universities and places which espouse the worship of reason. It should also be kept in mind that I think we’ve built some really strong negative connotations into religious diction. Take the word worship, for instance. When I re-read my usage above, I noted that the word, which trivially means admiring greatly, includes a sense of “blindness” or “unwarranted-ness”. That implies that a worshiper is granting admiration to something that really isn’t as deserving as the worship indicates.

But would you deny that you admire Reason, or the products of its application? I suspect that, as a scientist yourself, you feel that the application of Reason is probably the single most important act a person can engage in, and the originator of much of the greatest works in recent history. The accomplishments of Reason are manifold and astonishing…surely that’s worthy of the utmost admiration? And, admiring something so greatly that you attempt to practice the methods it produces, wouldn’t that essentially be worship? Is that really any different from what priests or shamans have done throughout history?

The essence of my philosophical argument on that front consists in two parts: that the University is a religious institution, and that academics are its priests.

I defined a religion as being a collection of answers to basic philosophical questions. While most religions prior to the University relied on what we call supernatural explanations to answer these questions, that doesn’t seem necessary to religion. As near as I can tell, a religion merely need profer some sort of set of answers. The success of the religion probably has a lot to do with its internal consistency and how well it works for the people who adhere to it. Regardless, while this is my own definition, it conforms well to dictionary.com (a solid source for the social definition of a word): “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”

While it does note “esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies”, it does not require it. So I feel my definition stands. If that’s the case, then I think the University, or the institution of academia, or the Church of Reason, profer such a set of beliefs. As I indicated above, these are a substance based universe which is measurable, that inductive and deductive reasoning may be applied successfully to move from measurements to statements about this universe, and a utilitarian moral system. I think the first two bits aren’t terribly controversial, though the utilitarianism claim is, and I attempt to defend it above.

Regardless, this fits the bill for a religion. It even satisfies a requirement of faith, because I have seen no proper argument given that these principles are absolutely correct in all possible worlds (thus satisfying analytical requirements for absolute truth), and I have looked. They seem to be accepted purely as a matter of course. In fact, philosophically much effort has gone into attempting to refute the skeptical claim that inductive reasoning fails to offer any real insight into the world. Bertrand Russell essentially blew off the contention that you can’t really know anything derived from empirical evidence with “well, it works out alright and I’ve got nothing better”. This is roughly akin to “can you imagine the world being around without God?” At one point in time, no one in the West could, so they all accepted His existence as a matter of course.

From the assertion that the University is the institution of a religion, like the Church is to Christianity (a claim I did not make originally. I adopted this particular perspective from Robert Pirsig, which he wrote about in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), I pointed out that academics serve effectively as its priests. The comparison is only forced when you don’t see the Reason as religion. At the point you see Reason as religion, it becomes obvious that academics are the priests. They lecture on it to their flocks, they examine it and attempt to divine more of its mystery.

Science is an interesting part of this. Science is mostly engineering: here is a problem in our modeling of the world. Come up with a mental construct that extends or replaces the existing model so that this problem no longer exists. That’s engineering, really. However, that method receives a certain special boost because of its relation to the epistemic method of the Church of Reason. Since Science very specifically deals with induction on the basis of measurements, then it is very much the working out of the epistemic structures of the Church of Reason. That, in turn, makes doings of Science central to the institution of Reason, the University.

It bears pointing out that our particular forms of logical deduction and induction are not the sole methods of modeling the world. Every religion has had its own system of methods for refining and extending the basic principles of their core assertions, and they’ve differed pretty radically from what we’re used to nowadays, so there have been the equivalent of Sciences for every religion.

I go into all this in order to show that the CRU emails really aren’t the issue here. They were a convenient example and provided a certain spark of motivation, though really they motivated other people to write which prompted me to write on the topics they got in to. The CRU emails allowed me to talk about two related things, first, that the University is a group of people and that social dynamics plays an enormously pivotal role in their beliefs and perspectives – more so that is often assumed – and second, that the University operates as a religion, which is a particular social grouping who’ve agreed upon a specific set of core assumptions about the world. It is the backbone of a culture, which means it’s an institution which has arisen (organically, I might add) in order to affirm and develop the core tenets of the culture.

You’re right about the CRU emails developing a furor among non-scientists. Being divorced from the process, they have a certain idealized notion of how things work: it’s supposed to be a very inhuman process, where scientists are merely the cogs in the machine by which Reason delivers the Truth…and tells them what the hell they’re supposed to do. To discover that there may be a rather large human factor involved in that process, a human factor that seems to potentially act counter-productively to the working of that grand edifice, is a bit unnerving.

I wouldn’t expect that to have much impact on scientists: they know how things work, and generally can buffer themselves from this. They know this is a few bad apples who have gone overboard, there are basic hurdles to be overcome, etc. They do not think they are generally amenable to any form of social conformity. In fact, it should be noted that Solomon Asch was entirely surprised by the results of his conformity experiment. Most people were. We don’t think we do that.

But we do. One of the things scientists attempt to do, via the methodology of science, is to weed out any variables which might be influenced by such things…to get away from observer bias. I’m quite certain scientists are content that their methodological practices are relatively secure by this point, having endured for some centuries. They’re probably right, for the most part.

I’m not sure, though, that the bit of climate science which predicts significant global warming in the medium term fits that. Specifically, I’m relatively certain that the climate, both globally and locally, exhibits to factors which make prediction extraordinarily difficult: sensitive dependence on initial conditions and the spontaneous development of previously unseen internal feedback loops.

The state of the system on the basis of its initial ruleset at any given time is extremely dependent upon prior states and resilient to externalities. This implies that any model which manages to accurately capture the way the system works still needs to be fed precisely the right starting data before it can be determined an accurate predictor. Depending on the magnifying effect of the dependencies, even a small error can lead to a dramatically incorrect result. The problem with systems like this is it’s indeterminate how wrong at any given time it will be, particularly if the amount of error at any given point in the model may change dramatically.

The second problem, that of the sudden development of new feedback loops, is inherent to inductive reasoning about a complex system. For any model the more inputs and the greater their range, the more observations which need to be made. This holds not just for the determination of the model’s success for some equilibrium, but also for its success outside the base equilibrium range. Specifically, since we haven’t seen what the world does at a given temperature range, we can’t be sure it’ll do what it does now. While we have some limited evidence that hints in various directions, it’s frankly sparse. 100 years of solid data is a drop in the ocean of data you’d need to accurately test a model which meant to capture a system as complex as our climate.

I admit, this effort reminds me greatly of the work of freshwater macroeconomists in trying to develop DSGE models. They work…for a very limited set of data, and with a very large set of assumptions and parameters which made the model fit existing data. Problematically, the more assumptions and parameters, the more room for significant failure…and the more difficult it becomes to test the validity of the model itself. This comes because, for a sufficiently complex model, we could spend eternity tweaking parameters and assumptions in such a way as to make them fit any finite dataset. We’d still never know its accuracy, because we hadn’t tested every possible dataset.

Does this mean I deny the possibility of anthropogenic global warming? No. In fact, I’m willing to give the mass of scientists looking into this credit, and say they’ve likely hit on something. I am, however, not convinced they know how it’ll play out. I’m not sold that the universe won’t throw them a curve ball. It’s ironic (sadistic) like that.

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Demonstration

1. time = money :Axiom
2. money = root(evil) : Axiom
3. time^2 = evil :Follows from 1,2
4. acceleration = distance/time^2 :Axiom
5. acceleration = distance/evil : follows from 3,4

For consideration: does physics provide us answers for ethical dilemmas, or merely indicate that evil is an inescapable facet of existence?

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