Shameless Exhibitionism

I know I promised to never post anything like academic work here, and perhaps this is crossing the line, but I had an interesting exchange with this guy about the naturalness of science and thought that maybe someone would have something else to contribute to it. In the interest of intellectual discussion, I'll reprint the whole thing.

The original post:

...Science has been an actitivity as far back as man as been man. This does not mean that science is inherent within man (that is, genetically in our code). And I would not argue such a thing. Rather, I would say that this can imply that science is an emergent behavior (property?) of man. The individual is as an ant involved in the building of an ant hill, with the important difference that the ant is not aware of his behavior whereas the scientist is.

The basic view of cognitive science is that the fundamental cognitive processes that shape human thoughts are unchanged since man has become man (well, at least since the beginning of the historical record). I neither reject this nor embrace it. Instead, I find it more interesting to decide that the basic emergences (that is, those things that are allowed to emerge from man in society) have significantly changed.

I responded:

Hmm, so what exactly is the difference between arguing that science is ingrained genetically and arguing that a behavior's emergence is natural or inevitable (you may not be arguing this)? Wouldn't a strict cultural evolutionary theorist argue that major cultural or intellectual phenomena are, by virtue of their, existence genetically predisposed?

I'm not sure if by "emergent property" you mean to suggest that given human cognitive structure, the practice of science is an inevitable result of the formation of human society, such as, some might argue the appearance of an economy or the concept of law is.

Let me make an analogy to make a point. One might argue that art is an emergent property of human society, and I would agree with them on that. However, this doesn't mean that any given stylistic orthodoxy you might note today is inevitable. The appearance and popularization of any particular style of art is determined by the influence of a particular artist(s) and the historical factors that determine how the new style will be received.

Likewise, humans have assumedly always had the same cognitive apparatus and intellectual abilities which predisposes them to seek and acquire knowledge of the world around them. Science is one way of acquiring and organizing knowledge, but it isn't the only way. Long before the advent of strict empirical science, people had accumulated a base of crude how-to empirical knowledge related to the chemical products of certain substances, or series of engineering rules of thumb. In the last half of last millenium, it became fashionable to follow a "scientific method" and emphasize empirical knowledge. However, there is nothing emergent (in the way I understand the use of the word) in the naturalistic sense about this particular method of knowledge-production. It is a very useful intellectual method and a universal standard of examination, much like the metric system is a convenient and univeralized metric for measuring quantities.

The poster responds:

Adam - you make some good points (indeed, many cognitive scientists make these exact same points). It's hard to say that we've evolved much in the past couple thousand years and so our cognitive processes shouldn't have changed that much. Therefore, our very basic natural cognitive actions shouldn't have changed that much. But science, I think, is more than just acquiring and organizing the world. As you say, there are many ways to do that.

The main reason I get upset with people treating science and technology as if it started at the Renaissance is that I am a fan of medieval technology and there was a lot of what we would call science that was practiced then. Ancient Greece also seems to have practiced "science" in a sophisticated manner. However, it's hard for me to go back and look at the neanderthals or early hunting Homo sapiens and say that what they did (by watching the moon and discovering a pattern or by watching animal herd movements) is actually "science." It seems to me that some sophisticated level of culture and society (perhaps language) is needed in order for "science" to emerge. I also don't think that science is an entirely "natural" activity for humans quite the way that, say, religion is. Let me give a brief reason why (that I hope to return to). Almost all societies on Earth have developed some sort of religion (that is, something that we would recognize as religion). It isn't true that all cultures on Earth have developed something that we would call science. And it certainly isn't true that all cultures developed themselves something akin to western science. This to me suggests (albeit just suggests, not proves) that society and culture have a way of guiding the emergence of science from whatever basic cognitive processes bring it about. Even in the west, "science" has meant different things at different times. I understand the analogy you made to art, but I think that in what we call science, stylistic orthodoxy is very important.

Another reader:

I would argue that the distinction between science as we know it today and knowledge acquisition seen commonly in animals and most certainly practiced by early hominids lies in our ability and desire to construct new information based on previous knowledge. I agree that it is an emergent property to the degree that it became inevitable only once humans mastered basic language, just as law, religion (more on religion later) and other conventions became necessary to maintain larger and larger groups of humans. Why were there larger and larger groups of humans? Because science allowed us to mediate our environment such that survival of larger populations became possible.

Many mother animals teach their young individualistic survival techniques, not based on genetics or instinct. (Ask me about the Hilton Head dolphins.) In this way animals are acquiring knowledge and skills, and even teaching these to others, although like Daniel, I’d hardly call these behaviors science. Science most certainly evolved from the benefits of such survival strategies, however. Hominids who most accurately studied herd behaviors certainly benefited in survival. Later, as “men” and animals became more sophisticated, we used our knowledge of the world around us to alter it for our benefit. The cultivation of fire most certainly played a large part in the cognitive growth of our earliest ancestors as “men” had more time to pursueactivities other than say, fending off animal attacks, or skinning meat for more clothing. Creation of weapons, pots, and other tools would also qualify as purposeful alteration of the environment, although again I don’t believe one would argue that these constitute science.

The turning point, as in most cases of human sophistication, occurred at the time of language development. Now, not only were “men” able to teach their offspring a collection of survival techniques, but now their children could ask questions, think things out, and test possible solutions. (Written language certainly had an immense impact.) In fact, in the last few months Nature has been filled with papers indicating that it is language that makes complex thought possible even in present day humans. As one example, without the words to represent numbers, studies have found that humans have difficulty counting higher than about 7. (Although they still can acknowledge greater or less than in large groupings.) A vast majority of the human brain is dedicated to language, before which I believe, the emergence of science was no more inevitable to humans than it is to ants. (Ants by the way are probably a bad example since theirs is a very complex system of chemical communication, not to be scoffed at, and their survival record towers above humans’ measly few years on earth. )

Although by this definition, Western methods are not exclusive to science, the “scientific method” is very efficient in the manner in which knowledge bases are constructed, and uses several methods to help ensure that this structure is not poisoned by false information. Let us remember that it was the Greeks who first began using such constructive logic systems. Certainly then, the advent of science occurred well before the Renaissance. The middle ages I would argue, however, were years of scientific backsliding. Thousands of books were lost or ignored. Rather than testing theory and constructing devices to improve comfort and society, most people were concerned with day-to-day survival. Little addition to our knowledge base occurred during this time, and in fact much was lost. (As I understand it anyway, I’m sure I’ll hear a differing viewpoint) It was the Renaissance that re-instated the science and progress of the Greeks and Romans. Without some period like the Renaissance, I doubt that we would have a science that resembled anything like what we have today.

Now on religion. I don’t agree that one can entirely separate the evolution of science from religion. Take for example the early Norse, Greek, and Roman myths in which religion and science are indistinguishable. Even Christian doctrine is heavily doped with attempts to explain basic scientific questions such as how did we get here, why is the universe like it is, etc. Science stems from our need/desire to understand our external landscape and the world we presently live it. Religion stems from our need to understand and mediate ourselves, and from our realization of our own mortality. Often, the two get intertwined. Medicine and sociology are the study of ourselves. The pope supports the Big Bang Theory. If science and religion were two distinct entities, why would there be so many disputes between the two? They are trying to do the same thing, just going about it differently. One might argue that one of the faults of religion is the lack of a parallel to the scientific method of testing, improving, and protecting knowledge. Of course how do you test the theories of Religion? And if you could, would you want to?

I responded:

What I was asserting before (speculatively) was that when you analyze these "emergent" properties of human behavior in the context of evolutionary arguments, I think you have to think in terms of the function of what you're observing, and categorize it accordingly. Because when it comes down to it, evolutionary arguments all depend on function. Science has the function of expanding knowledge, although it is clearly not the only way to organize and derive knowledge (this is why I cited engineering and alchemist rules of thumb earlier - or more ethereally, myths are another way to derive knowledge). Religion fulfills the function of being an outlet for spirituality (I don't buy that its purpose is to inform us about the world. You may be thinking of Greek and Roman religions where myths were prevelant, but all of judeochristian religion aims at determining normative ethical matters like what should be, rather than explicitly what is true). But religion, by virtue of the way it is defined, is the all-inclusive entity that encompasses the complete spiritual behavior of man. Science, being only one way of managing knowledge, is not all-encompassing in respect to its function. Therefore, when looked at in terms of function, it becomes clear why religion is universal and science is not. So I agree with Dan that the fact that religion is universal and science is not is signifigant in terms of naturality. I will say as a side note that it's true, religion wasn't always about ethics. Ancient religion as I understand it was primarily an attempt to explain unknown things. However that's not the point. The point is that science itself is not evolutionarily or biologically natural in the way that other human constructs like law, religion and perhaps even community are.

About the difference between science and more primitive forms of knowledge acquisition...science is a method, it is not a "desire to construct new knowledge." It's also not synonymous with manipulating the environment to your benefit. Lists detailing the chemical result of mixing various substances does not constitue science, and indeed these sorts of lists did exist as sorts of how-to guides before the scientific method did. The whole point of science is that it takes knowledge beyond the "this is true" level and posits an explanation for why it's true, which is then subsequently tested for validity by other knowledge. To the extent that the level of abstract thought required to even conceive of the idea of an abstract or secondary explanation for things is dependent on the development of higher mental functions like language, then perhaps the emergence of science is dependent on the development of language. But that's a correlational relationship, not an essential one, as you imply.

You say the advent of science occured in the Greek ages, because that's when logic was born. That's like me saying the birth of Christianity was when man first started praying to his coterie of idols...true in a sense, but not very meaningful. Then you say that religion tries to answer the same questions as science. Religion attempts to answer only those questions in common with science that have some direct human interest, such as why are we here, and what is the world made of. Except science and religion are always going to be at odds because religion just asserts stuff and science calls for flexibility and constant adjustments to fact. Therefore, although they may have historically co-evolved, there is no fundamental harmony or cooperation between science and religion.

Any thoughts?

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