Saturday, August 8, 2015

His Object All Sublime

In a previous post I wrote:
The idea that it's important to know that the human race will survive somewhere among the stars seems very adolescently romantic to me. Steel-eyed rationalists such as [Stephen] Hawking evidently fancies himself to be still fear their own deaths, which isn't unreasonable, but also the death of the species, which is. I suppose that if cockroaches could think, they'd feel the same way, but that doesn't mean I'd agree that it's important to send a bunch of cockroaches to another solar system either.
On reflection, I am considering changing my position.  We should send a bunch of cockroaches to another solar system, if we can find one with a planet that can support life.  It is important that terrestrial life should survive somewhere in the universe if we destroy it here.  Cockroaches have been quite successful in the only terms that matter (objectively!) for Darwinian evolution, so why not let them carry on for us?  We, who have been so destructive of ourselves and the biosphere, have had our chance and should not be given a second one.  I trust no one will protest that cockroaches are pests, and might overrun a new planet as Japanese beetles and other invasive species have done when transported to new habitats.  If that is a consideration, it applies in spades to Homo sapiens.

But I digress.  Neil DeGrasse Tyson put his foot in it recently in an interview with the Daily Beast.  Not in his remarks about Scientology and freedom of religion, which were quite reasonable, but which were taken by the headline writer at DB and a couple of other sites to be 'defending' Scientology.  I just reread the interview and I don't see any defense of Scientology there, even "sort of" or "kind of." He said that if you're going to have freedom of religion, the government can not have the power to decide which religion is a real religion and which is not; he also said that Scientology is not obviously more absurd than older and more respectable religions.  Which is one of the recurring obstacles to freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression: if you defend the right to hold absurd religious beliefs or express false or hateful opinions, plenty of commissar-clowns will accuse you of defending, supporting, or embracing those beliefs and opinions yourself.  (Noam Chomsky should send Tyson flowers or something in sympathy.)

No, where Tyson went wrong in the interview was in the statements quoted in the meme I found and posted above in this post.  (It was by tracking down the quotation in the meme that I found the interview.)  Frankly, though, I must admit I'm not sure what Tyson was talking about here; even in context he seems to be rambling on autopilot.  There are no "objective truths" for governing a country.  You might be able to claim that the First Amendment is "objective" in the sense that you can find the text in places outside your own head, and there's agreement on the words that make it up, and since it's part of the Constitution, it has authority because it's the supreme law of the land, to which almost all Americans pay lip service.  So we have official freedom of religion in the US not because religious freedom is an "objective truth," but because most of us agree that it's something we should have.  There's a lot of disagreement as to why it's a good idea, and I don't think most people, including Tyson, have thought about that much.  (It's in the Bill of Rights!  It's common sense!  It's freedom, and freedom is a good thing, like equality!)   I also think it's fairly obvious that by "freedom of religion" most people mean freedom for themselves but not for others. (I'll give Tyson credit for knowing better than that in this case.)  Even going beyond that primitive level of understanding, rational people can and do disagree on specific cases.

If that's what Tyson meant by "objective truths," then I don't disagree, but I don't believe that's what he meant.  I think he means that society can best be governed through the application of some "truths," presumably determined by scientists like him, which can't be questioned by the canaille, and that's dubious, to put it gently.  It's how the US got its eugenics laws in the twentieth century: scientists determined that some people should not be allowed to reproduce, American society listened to those wise purveyors of rationality, and voilá: thousands of people were sterilized.  Even if Nazi Germany hadn't given eugenics such a bad name, this would not have been a good thing.  More important, it would not have been dictated by logic, or justified by objective truths.

It's also not an objective truth that scientists should be given vast amounts of money to explore whatever line of research happens to obsess them.   Elsewhere in the Daily Beast interview Tyson says:
So the issue comes about not that there are religious people in the world that have one view over another, it’s if you have one view or another based on faith and you want to legislate that in a way that affects everyone. That’s no longer a free democracy. That’s a country where the few who have a belief system that’s not based in objective reality want to control the behavior of everyone else.
Now, people with religious beliefs are not "a few" in the United States, though they're not as large a majority as they used to be.  Ironically, perhaps, what Tyson wants is for scientists, a few who have a belief system that he claims is based in objective reality, to be able to legislate in a way that affects everyone.  Personally I'm in favor of subsidizing scientific research, though not indiscriminately, and I like the space program and want it to continue, but it's only one concern out of many, and not obviously or objectively more important than taking care of people here on earth with the knowledge and methods we already have.  As with any other faith-based enterprise, taxpayers' money should come with strings attached -- regulation, oversight, accountability -- which many scientists resent fiercely: they want blank checks for whatever they want to do, even if it's misconceived and badly designed.  Tough luck, guys.  Nor is it an objective truth that "we" must travel to the stars and colonize other planets to continue the human race after we've wiped ourselves out on earth.  (With, probably, the wondrous weapons and other means that Science has given us.)  The universe doesn't care whether one more species goes extinct, so it's not an "objective truth" that human survival is any kind of necessity.  I too hope that human life will continue for some time to come, but that's not a rational or "objective" hope, especially since all human individuals die, and all life on earth will end when the sun burns out, if it hasn't gone extinct from other causes before then.  If we're going to argue rationally, I can't see any objective reason for humanity to go on ruining other planets when we've demonstrated that we can't take care of the one we currently inhabit.

Tyson is apparently a good astrophysicist, but that doesn't qualify him to set the conditions by which human beings should govern ourselves.   He clearly hasn't given it much thought in the first place, and so relies on "common sense" clichés of the American scientific subculture -- reason, objective truths, etc.  To cite an example close to me as a queer: those totems were invoked to justify the program of trying to "cure" homosexuality.  And from the point of view of a technocrat-wannabe like Tyson, why shouldn't scientists continue to try to find a way to stop the suffering of homosexuals, even though they've failed consistently for more than a century?  We haven't cured cancer yet either, but we still keep trying, and that's the scientific enterprise -- to keep on trying despite consistent, ongoing failure.  That homosexuality is a disease in need of cure is not an objective truth; but neither is the claim that's it's "normal" and "natural."

Now, understand that I'm not saying that Tyson would agree that homosexuals should be cured, though I doubt he could give any good reasons on the matter.  From the Daily Beast interview again:
As a scientist, does homophobia strike you as particularly odd? There are many species within the animal kingdom that are attracted to the same sex, and perhaps if people were more educated in the sciences instead of religious dogma, then there would be less homophobia.

Well, it almost always entirely stems from religion. But the point here is that if you’re religious, and your religion tells you that being gay is bad, then don’t be gay. But you have to remind yourself that that’s your belief system, and there are other belief systems that don’t agree with that, so you should not be in the position to make legislation that affects other people. 
It's false that "many species in the animal kingdom ... are attracted to the same sex."  Species aren't attracted to anything; what the interviewer presumably meant was that homosexual copulation and pair-bonding occur between individuals of many species.  But what happens in many species doesn't tell us what is good or bad for human beings.  Should human males kill and eat the offspring sired by other males in order to ensure their reproductive advantage, as happens in "many species in the animal kingdom"?  Should human females bite off the heads of their sexual partners after copulation?  Religion is extremely widespread, virtually universal among human beings: would Tyson or the interviewer want to argue that it's therefore good and true?

Tyson blames homophobia -- a bogus clinical entity, by the way -- on religion, relying on the genetic fallacy that you can explain and evaluate anything by looking at its history or genealogy.  Science also "stems from religion" and from magic, for example; I doubt he'd think science is discredited by its origins.  But the claim that homosexual copulation is widespread in non-human species was resisted fiercely by many students of animal behavior, and it's still somewhat controversial.  And scientists took for granted that human homosexuality was a disorder well into the twentieth century; its removal from the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual was opposed by "many" professionals, on "objective" grounds.

If Tyson isn't religious himself, then he presumably believes that religion was invented by human beings for their own ends; if so, then he can't claim that religion is the source of anything.  He would have to ask why human beings put homophobia into their religions.  (When he says that "other belief systems" don't object to homosexuality -- another overgeneralization -- what he means is "other religions."  Or does he mean to include science in the class of "belief systems"?)  If "religion" causes human beings to do certain things, why don't all religions have identical values?  For that matter, why do values within any one religion often contradict each other?  I suppose Tyson, like many self-styled rationalists, would like to believe that a rational belief and value system wouldn't have those contradictions.  There's no reason to believe that either, of course, it's just another part of self-interested scientistic common sense: Put us in charge, instead of priests or politicians or lawyers, and we'll solve all your problems by logic and science.

If Tyson "defended" any dubious suspects, it would be George W. Bush, who appointed Tyson to an aerospace commission or two.  Tyson goes quite easy on Bush, yet those who claim falsely that he defended Scientology seem to have missed that.  And purely on factual grounds, Tyson has a point:
People can say and think what they want, but what matters is whether or not it becomes policy or legislation, and I don’t remember any legislation that restricted science. In fact, the budget for the National Science Foundation went up. What matters is money in Congress. What does Congress do? Allocate money. That’s really what they do. So the science budget of the country went up during the Bush administration, and the budget for NASA went up 3 percent—and it had actually dropped 25 percent in real spending dollars under the eight years of President Clinton. I don’t care what you say or think. I care about legislation, and policy.

Also, he appointed me! There may have been some science that he hadn’t learned yet or didn’t know fully, but he’s not creating legislation based on it. Speeches are politics, so you can’t fault a politician for saying something political.
Tyson's clearly a politician himself.  That explains a lot.