woensdag 10 september 2008

The Glory of the Useless

So the Large Hadron Collider has been turned on, slowly powering itself up and zapping its particles through kilometres of gigantic tubes. A scare video can be found here.

What really gets my goat is the whining at the end of the experiments not offering any "concrete practical benefit".

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, some pointy-headed scientists began to ponder on some problems concerning energy and radiation of very tiny particles. Bit by bit, they came up with Quantum theory - something so outlandish that physicists themselves (who are quite a speculative bunch, I think) still don't quite know what to make of it. But the important thing is, it works.

It works so well, in fact, that Quantum theory has led to the development of stuff like lasers. And lasers have, aside from cool science-fiction weaponry, led to nifty things like the DVD. Which has led to wonderful new things such as the enormous variety of, er... nature documentaries you can find on DVD.

I still have a hard time figuring out how a television actually works. Something in me still believes that tiny little guys and letters wring themselves through the cable to put on a show behind the screen. Which is why I can't really fathom wireless internet. Where do the pictures come from? But it works. And it's quite amazing. A whole film on this tiny, shiny circular piece of metal.

Of course, had anyone asked Max Planck or Niels Bohr about the practical benefits of whatever they were thought to be working at at the time, they'd probably just have scowled - but they wouldn't have come up with something like the DVD player. Back then, people still believed that by this time, we would be moving between skyscrapers in flying horse-carts, or conquer the galaxy with gigantic zeppelins. What they wouldn't expect is that we would lock ourselves up in our apartments eating take-away pizza and watching films on personalized cinema's in a box.

And even if they had known, it still wouldn't have mattered. Quantum theory would be worth is just for the sake of the theory itself. For the sake of knowing. For the heck of it.

There are so many ways we can approach the mysteries of the universe. We can look upon it as a puzzle, to be uncovered, as the scientists do. Or as a story spoken to us in an unknown language, as the philosophers and the poets do. And all of these speak to a vital need of humanity. People who would disparage the uselessness of scientific experiments would perhaps be more hesitant to speak of the uselessness of a Shakespeare, or a Rembrandt - but what concrete use has art ever brought the world? And it comes down to the same thing. Without an insatiable curiosity for the world without us, or the world within us, we would be less than human.

Sometimes this deadening utilitarianism comes from unexpected corners. Take one Richard Dawkins who for reasons increasingly unclear to me holds something called the Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science:

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false. If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work! The achievements of theologians don't do anything, don't affect anything, don't mean anything. What makes anyone think that "theology" is a subject at all?

When I was studying in Finland many years back, a friend of mine would often raise a self-coined derogative, ääliöpragmatismi, or "idiot pragmatism". I don't know if something like Dawkins' statement above was what he meant, but I think it well might, and "idiot utilitarianism" (in order to not associate the great Charles Peirce with this line of thinking, see below) would do quite well.

Of course, it is obviously false. Regardless of one's attitude towards religion, it does affect individuals and communities in an efficacious manner - it "works", for good or bad. And a very big part of theology is precisely concerned with how and why it "works". Aside from this, I am not sure how my own field of study - philology - would be doing without the methods of textual criticism developed in theology (especially protestant theology). Hermeneutics, the art of interpreting text (and by extension culture) which forms the central methodological foundation in the humanities, was developed largely through the theological preoccupation with Scripture. And this doesn't even begin to touch the points of contact between theology and philosophy in a more general sense such as existed in the Middle Ages and the Rennaissance, and continues to exist (Ernst Bloch's work on eschatology from a Marxist perspective, for example. Or Alasdair MacIntyre's work on Thomistic perspectives on ethics).

The thing is, I would have no doubt that the Oxford Professor of the Public Understanding of Science would not hesitate to proclaim such disciplines as philology, linguistics, and philosophy equally useless. Or at least his more enthusiastic disciples. Human progress reduced to scientific progress, reduced to technical progress, reduced to a greater abundance of... stuff. A sad comment on the spirit of our age.

And likewise, even to ask the question of utility is to fall into philistinism. Because regardless of the benefits that science and art can bring, may bring, the question of utility should never guide scientific research itself. It is never about those benefits. It's always about the puzzle, or riddle, or the story, or however one puts the big question that the universe and our own place within it seems to pose. It's always about Truth, with a capital T.

I often find myself returning to Peirce. A singularly useless individual, never held down a steady job for very long or cared very much for the conventions of his time, who through his stubborn dedication to studying useless things for the heck of it, to thinking for the heck of it, broke new ground in metaphysics, semiotics, epistemology, and incidentally theology as well. And as the vast majority of his papers, as I understand, have not been even published, I suspect the true import of Peirce's works in semiotics and linguistics has yet to materialize.

Peirce had no time for "idiot utilitarianism" in the sciences:

The old-fashioned political economist adored, as alone capable of redeeming the human race, the glorious principle of individual greed, although, as this principle requires for its action hypocrisy and fraud, he generally threw in some dash of inconsistent concessions to virtue, as a sop to the vulgar Cerberus. But it is easy to see that the only kind of science this principle would favor would be such as is immediately remunerative with a great preference for such as can be kept secret, like the modern sciences of dyeing and perfumery. Kepler's discovery rendered Newton possible, and Newton rendered modern physics possible, with the steam engine, electricity, and all the other sources of the stupendous fortunes of our age. But Kepler's discovery would not have been possible without the doctrine of conics. Now contemporaries of Kepler — such penetrating minds as Descartes and Pascal — were abandoning the study of geometry (in which they included what we now call the differential calculus, so far as that had at that time any existence) because they said it was so UTTERLY USELESS. There was the future of the human race almost trembling in the balance; for had not the geometry of conic sections already been worked out in large measure, and had their opinion that only sciences apparently useful ought to be pursued, [prevailed] the nineteenth century would have had none of those characters which distinguish it from the ancien régime.

True science is distinctively the study of useless things. For the useful things will get studied without the aid of scientific men. To employ these rare minds on such work is like running a steam engine by burning diamonds.

(Collected Papers 1: 75-76)

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