Sunday, October 30, 2005

logic as distraction

I encountered these quotes in quick succession recently, coincidentally when I was plagued with a buzzing sound in the head, and given the "opportunity" to retire. They don't exactly contradict, but do glance off each other:

Bangkok 8, John Burdett. Police detective Jitpleecheep, a Buddhist:

I suppose it must be the delusion of the West, a cultural defilement caused by all those machines they keep inventing. It's like choosing the ringing tune on one's mobile: a logical labyrinth with no meaningful outcome. Logic as distraction.

A Devil's Chaplain, Richard Dawkins, on cultural relativism. Scientists may encounter a form of "philosophical heckling" that goes something like:

There is no absolute truth. You are commiting an act of personal faith when you claim that the scientific method, including mathematics and logic, is the privileged road to truth. Other cultures might believe that truth is to be found in a rabbit's entrails, or the ravings of a prophet up a pole. It is only your personal faith in science that leads you to favor your brand of truth.

How should scientists respond to the allegation that our "faith" in logic and scientific truth is just that--faith--not "privileged" over alternative truths? A minimal response is that science gets results. Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I'll show you a hypocrite... If you are flying to a conference of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there--the reason you don't plummet into a ploughed field--is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right.

How to be Idle, Tom Hodgkinson, on work:

The truth about human life is that for most of the time there is nothing to do and therefore the wise man--or woman--cultivates the art of doing nothing.

Dawkins claims the scientific method is not merely another belief to have faith in, because unlike most beliefs, it has proven practical results. The other quotes don't advocate a different method, but they do poke a bit of fun at the value of much modern "scientific" work, (programming the ring tone on your cell phone), which so often arrives wrapped in hubbub and urgency, but is in fact arbitrary and trite.

Each remark makes sense. When work matters, approach it scientifically. But try to maintain a perspective, to distinguish between work that matters, and work that is merely a buzzing sound.

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