Sugar Coated Evil

Despite having graduated several years ago, I still infest attend meetings of the Philosophy and Religion Club at my alma mater, Montclair State University.  I’m also active in the department’s Facebook page, where a link to a page titled “Science Has Been Misleading You About Some Fundamental Truths” containing this video was recently shared:

In reply to a request for thoughts on this I simply said I was “not impressed”, which led to another request to “expand”.

So, here it is.

Basically, this video commits a litany of sins.  I should point out that technically the title given to it on the aforementioned page isn’t one of them, as that was added by the individual who reposted the video.  I think the shoe fits, though, so I’m going to make the video wear it.  The video claims that science is a “story”, that it fails to address so-called “existential angst“, that quantum physics demonstrates that some form of monism is in force, and that these principles together lead to the conclusion that altruism, in the classic sense of there being a moral imperative to live for others, is necessary.  All of which is complete nonsense.

Calling science a “story” pretty much meant the video lost me at “hello”.  Science is most emphatically not a “story”.  It is a way of thought meant to acquire knowledge of the physical world that is, to the limits of our ability to test, true.  It isn’t perfect; it’s the work of mere mortals and subject to error or corruption.  But it’s done more to improve the human condition than any other endeavor in our history.  That’s actually one of its problems: it has been so much more successful than competing schools of thought that everyone from the kind of New Age huckster responsible for this video to Madison Avenue marketeers borrows the language and imagery of science to promote their position.  We see this in the video as right after telling us how inadequate science is the speaker immediately uses, or more properly misuses, the language of quantum physics to advance his point.

Which was something else that immediately got my goat.  The idea that quantum physics somehow “proves everything is interconnected” is a gross misrepresentation and oversimplification of the field.  One could the same of gravity; technically distant planets and stars have a gravitational effect on you but as Carl Sagan used to say the OB/GYN who delivered you had more of a gravitational influence on you than any celestial body.  What constitutes “you” as opposed to “everyone and everything else” can be simply demonstrated by a thought experiment I hope no one will actually try: shoot yourself in the foot.  What isn’t crying out in pain isn’t you.  “You” are defined by the set of private concepts that no other entity can access.  And as the popular web comic xkcd pointed out, any attempt to use “quantum physics” to justify an argument should immediately set off your bullshit alarms anyway.  Or, as explain xkcd put it:

Many of the phenomena studied in quantum mechanics are counter to common sense and can only be expressed in complex mathematics. Yet, since the field is fundamental to our understanding of reality, it is commonly cited to support broad sweeping philosophical generalizations. This practice can be seen in the real world by listening to a discussion between first-year philosophy students or attending the Burning Man Festival.

(For the record, the speaker in this video is a fringe-theory economist.)

The misuse of science doesn’t stop there.  The speaker goes on to indict science for failing to address issues philosophers would classify as “existential angst”; the idea that we’re all supposed to be morbidly depressed and anxious because “life is meaningless”.  This is a misuse of science because no one ever claimed that science could determine “the meaning of life” (except when it does; more on that later).  Science can only answer scientific questions.  What constitutes a scientific question is a matter of debate of course.  The department has a three-credit course on the subject, which I recommend, but the short version is that for a question to present a valid line of scientific inquiry you must have a clear idea of what you are looking for, where you will search for it and how you will recognize it when you find it.  You have to be able to form a coherent hypothesis and devise experiments to test it.  You can’t do any of that with “the meaning of life”, even if only because you’d be hard-pressed to define it in the first place so you’d know what to look for.  It does not impugn science in the least to concede that while it may be the single most powerful intellectual tool at our disposal we still need the rest of the toolbox to deal with life.

So how do we deal with the “meaninglessness of life”?  The speaker would have us believe that the only answer is service to others.  This is where we get to the part that I think of as sugar coated evil because while this may be a warm, fuzzy “feel good” message to me it’s soul-destroying propaganda.  It’s a plea for people to give up their own dreams and aspirations in favor of joining some wannabe Borg Collective.  There is no moral imperative to sacrifice your own needs, wants or prosperity for the sake of others.  You incur no debt via the mere fact of your existence.  If you want to spend your life in service to others, in whole or in part, then by all means go right ahead.  And if you don’t, you shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed of that.

I keep a stack of books I semi-humorously refer to as The Seven Books That Contain Everything You Really Need to Know.  Two of them, Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu, point out that the value of things is found in their emptiness.  Life actually is meaningless and that’s a very good thing because a life that came supplied with meaning wouldn’t be your life.  It would be someone else’s.  You can’t fill a cup that’s already full so be glad that the meaning of your life is not something you are given, but something you add.  I said above that “science doesn’t tell us the meaning of life except when it does”, meaning that while the statements about the world science gives us may not give life meaning there are those who do find that the practice of scientific inquiry is what gives their lives meaning.  If you don’t find that to be true for yourself that’s nothing to be concerned about or ashamed of, and certainly not a black mark against science itself.  It just means in all likelihood you’re not cut out to be a scientist and there’s nothing wrong with that.  There’s a path out that that does suit you: go find it.

A few weeks before this video was linked to the group I linked a comic that quoted Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes.  Skipping to the end:

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.

This video does the same thing the “corporate master” in the comic does, only with a seemingly friendlier manner: it attempts to tell you not just what to do with your life, but what you should want to do with your life.

And that’s no one’s decision but yours.

Dennis Heffernan

No one of consequence.

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