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Scientist #1: Blah, Blah, Blah. Scientist #2: Nuh-uh!

Topics: Lifestyle & Culture | Add A CommentBy admin | August 18, 2010

It’s interesting how two scientists with the same information available can arrive at diametrically opposed positions. Is science just another religion? Ray Kurzweil says we’ll reverse engineer the brain in 20 years. PZ Myers says “nuh-unh”. Oh yeah, and the web is dead. Or it isn’t. Or it is.

No it isn’t.

I would like to clarify that I am not an expert in any of the areas I’m about to discuss. This is obvious to most intelligent people whenever I start to speak, but I just want to make sure that you know that I know. In spite of my lack of expertise (some may call it actual ignorance) in the fields of science, technology, religion, and philosophy, I have a great deal of enthusiasm for learning about and discussing them, which is why I love it when a real scientist or expert makes a broad, bold assertion, and another immediately refutes it. This happened twice today in the tech press, and in one instance, the contested “science” veered dangerously close to the metaphysical. The more mundane example was when Wired Magazine’s Chris Anderson (who most recently got a lot of attention for his book Free) expressed his agreement with pop star Prince’s assessment that “the web is dead”. Other experts immediately turned his own pretty graphics against him, or did more in-depth treatises that were more about how you should never say something is “dead”, being careful not to actually say “you should never say…”. The debate that I found much more interesting though, was the one that started when Ray Kurzweil (author of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology) suggested that the human brain will be reverse-engineered by 2030. It wasn’t long before developmental neuroscientist PZ Myers intellectually carpet bombed Kurzweil’s prediction back to the stone age. Which I took special delight in, because Myers himself is a self-proclaimed “godless liberal”, and here he was deconstructing the arguments of a guy that has so much faith in his science that he’s willing to believe we’ll become god-like and fully understand the universe and the brain using science as a tool within just a few decades. It’s only at times like this that I’ll resort to quoting Donald Rumsfeld poetry, but these guys seem to have a hard time understanding The Rumsfeldian maxim..there are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know..” Which I reluctantly suggest actually applies to certain scientific pursuits, when a scientist refuses to acknowledge the possibility that something in the universe may remain unknowable. And particularly those pursuits that are aimed at trying to emulate the human being by understanding it as a set of processes observable by humans themselves, and then replicating those processes. In the case of both these great minds, I find their atheism especially intriguing, because they in fact strike me as having fallen prey to a kind of scientism, which is a religion all its own. Although Myers falls just short of saying that Kurzweil is an idiot, he also seems to believe that with enough research and computational power, we will truly understand on the deepest level how the human brain functions. It’s my opinion – which carries about as much weight as the conjecture of two such well-informed scientists that so utterly disagree with each other – that this is unlikely on a human time scale. Which is less important to me than the fact that I consider it to be an ultimately fruitless endeavor. I mean, we already KNOW how to make humans; you just have sex. And although looking at both Myers and Kurzweil, one can see how that may not happen very often, it seems clear to me that the ramifications of the things they believe can be accomplished have been thoroughly explored in dozens of dystopian stories all the way from Frankenstein to Blade Runner. In their scientific arrogance, they ironically seek to be exactly that which they reject, i.e.: God. Which wouldn’t be nearly as funny without the facts that, for instance, artificial intelligence remains stalled at a level not much above that of the impressive but ultimately silly tool below (try it, you may be surprised) and speech recognition – which was sort of Kurzweil’s oeuvre – stopped advancing around 2001 at a level of accuracy now fairly familiar to most of us in the form of software like Dragon Naturally Speaking. I personally envision a future that features a radical paradigm shift way from this linear “science-as-progress” worldview toward a more enlightened view that pauses all the “progress” and applies the amazing science at our disposal to the goal of actually living well as the humans that we already are, which is something I don’t think we do very well. Of course, I’m no expert though.

Talk to our artificial intelligence. It’s lonely. And more of a smartass than you’d expect.

This is how I sort out my understanding of the universe: