Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Scientific and Technological Literacy and Western Buddhists

I make no secret of the fact that I've got a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering.    I am grateful to the teachers I've had who've been able to impart a way of thinking about the physical world in such a way that I am able to produce technology that can be used.

Because of my background and experience, and because of the state of others' background and experience, I'm more than a bit shocked at the level of scientific and technological ignorance that I find in the on-line writings of quite a few Western Buddhists.1

If politics is the art of the possible, as Bismarck said, engineering might be said to be the study and practice of the technology of the possible. In order to be a competent engineer, it's useful at some point, in some area at least to be a competent scientist.

I really don't feel like naming names here, because it's just not too fruitful to do so, but, instead, let me present a series of bullet points.:

  • The fact that many people are asserting that climate change is not anthropgenic is an indication of political factors in play in the discussion of technological issues.
  • These political aspects of climate change are similar to political aspects that have driven the development (or exploitation) of the commons for centuries.  For example,  read this book on the Great Flood of 1927.  It is no more a "denial of an equivalent truth" of the physics of climate change than it is to deny an "equivalent truth" contrary to the fact that water in rivers flow because of gravity.
  • Technological utopia or technological Armageddon are two sides of the same coin.  One of the "folk theorems" in engineering communities might be expressed compactly as "The Law of the Conservation of Badness."  Everything has a cost.  The trick is to understand what the cost is, and to use that cost to actually help things along, as far as our survival and alleviation of misery is concerned.
  • The idea that "If we only understand X, then everything will be better..." is a form of grasping.  Sometimes a grasping for knowledge and understanding must be done to achieve a certain benefit - as in the understanding of some aspect of mathematics necessary for the design of a radio receiver, for example.  But that understanding simply is limited, and doesn't involve the understanding or considerations of the inevitable side-effects that the actual building and use of that radio receive might have, which have the capability to be both benevolent and malicious. 
  • Having said all of the above, despite our ignorance of many fields of physics, biology, etc. the Scientific Method is still the best tool we have for understanding and predicting phenomena having to do with the physical world.  About other aspects beyond the measurable, science is silent.  If you acquire a knowledge of quantum physics,  it might help you to design semiconductor-based devices, but studying how to cook with garlic might give you more insight into the nature of your consciousness.

Chances are that with only greed, hatred and ignorance driving things, we'll be driven to extinction.  I hope not. As an engineer,  I have no interest therefore in how technology can help propagate Buddhism (per se).  I'm more interested in how the Way can find its way into the technology of the possible.








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1. Then again, I'm also appalled at the state of some so-called writers of science who don't have much idea about what engineering is all about. But I'm used to that. Many scientists are not very good engineers, just as many engineers might be good at one area of science, but tend to miss the big picture when it comes to applying science (or not being able to) in other areas.

3 comments:

Petteri Sulonen said...

I wish you did name some names, or give some hint about what kinds of misconceptions you had in mind, specifically. "Quantum consciousness," perhaps?

I had a bit of extra time a week or two ago, and took this quiz. I found it pretty easy, although I didn't (quite) get a perfect score.

Whoever designed that quiz may have been scientifically literate, but they were not particularly good at user interface design, by the way.

Mumon said...

Petteri -

If somebody's so uninformed that they buy into this "quantum consciousness," they're also somewhat likely to get rather peeved that their Grand Theory might be gibberish.

I started taking that quiz by the way; it's reminiscent to me of many things like that on the internet. I ran out of time, but I didn't find a question to demonstrate knowledge of the scientific method itself.

And while I'm on the subject - that quiz reminds me - I would love a moratorium on the X "slideshows" of web pages designed only to pack more ad pages in for the viewer to see.

Petteri Sulonen said...

Yup, it's a trivia quiz. I was rather surprised that I knew almost all of that trivia. I only missed two questions, and one was a careless mistake (read too quickly and got my joules and watts mixed up).

And I learned what a nimbus cloud is, so it didn't all go to waste.