Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Curious Case of a Linguistic Degeneracy: An Accidental Manifesto

I am an odd fellow-- you may have noticed. To start with, I am a physicist, and thus count myself amongst a group not widely known for excessive bouts of conformity. Add to this that I am a gamer, an occasional programmer, a sci-fi fan, a mild movie buff, etc., and you get a recipe for an overall odd fellow, about on par for the course of one that is in the process of spending upwards of a decade in college to get a PhD.

As a part of being an odd fellow, I have a few linguistic quirks. Some, such as my overreliance on words like "orthogonal," "asymptotic," "potential," or those starting with "eigen," can be well-characterized by my being a physicist. Others, such as my apparent inability to differentiate between the words "rationalist," "skeptic" and "scientist" seem significantly harder to explain. Thus, I would like to take a moment to explain why it is that I often conflate these three words, especially where religion and politics are concerned.

To do so, it's instructive to take a step back and note that I am a hopeless idealist. I have a (perhaps overdeveloped) sense of how the World Should Be. Of course, I am not so naive as to think that my ideals reflect how the world currently is, or that my ideals are anywhere near universally agreed upon. Rather, my idealism often takes the form of considering issues in the context of an asymptotic approach to my ideals. Thus, my apparent degeneracy in vocabulary, in which I may appear to be unable to distinguish between rationalists, skeptics and scientists stems from the fact that in my ideal world, these concepts are degenerate.

In the real world, of course there are profound differences between these three groups-- important differences. As an idealist, though, I am often much less interested in discussing these differences than I am in discussing a world in which the primacy of evidence is universally accepted, and in which all actions and conclusions are susceptible to analysis. Humans are, by nature, flawed and error-prone-- therein lies our creative power, as suggested by a viewpoint informed by formal logic. As such, in order to minimize the frequency and damage done by our errors, we need to recognize the efficacy of rational thinking in arriving at conclusions, of skepticism with respect to our conclusions and of the scientific method in establishing conclusions.

I will often refer to one or the other of these three facets of evidenced-based thinking when discussion politics or religion, as issues that arise there can provide useful examples for the importance of evidence-based thinking. Really, though, I have very little interest in atheism itself (for example). To me, it is an inevitable consequence of what I am: a scientist that attempts, however successfully or unsuccessfully, to apply the standards of criticality and evidence to all aspects of my life-- especially those that have impacts on the lives of others, such as my political decisions.

On the other hand, I recognize that we do not live in my ideal world. I recognize that there are, for instance, religious scientists that are damn good at what they do. It is perhaps inescapable, then, that I sound somewhat judgmental in declaring religiosity as a deviation from my notion of the ideal scientist, but this is not my intention at all. I do not expect others to share my ideals, though I do try to perpetuate and propagate them. Nor do I expect that there is any person-- scientist or not-- that lives up to the relevant ideals in all ways. For me, ideals are not quite a goal, so much as the asymptotic limit that our goals reach as we push forward, so that there is always more room for improvement.

That I can find ways in which I think that society can be improved is not unique; ask anyone on the street and they'll give you a litany of ways to improve society, most of which will be contradictory with what you would hear from any other such random interview. What makes my situation unique, then, is that I am saying that a deviation from the ideal is something that many people treasure and defend vigorously.

But I digress. To get back to my central point, my ideal of a scientist is one that recognizes that all of human experience is, in principle if not in practicality, amenable to the methods of science. As the methods of science are rationality, skepticism and the primacy of evidence, I feel justified in my curious degeneracy, insofar as I am justified in considering the asymptotic approach to idealism.

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