Sunday, April 7, 2013

Jesus Saves! Science And Growth Ain't Jesus

(It's Sunday, so I can use that for a headline.)

I'm not going to dispute Bob Mercer's implication that Dr. Ken Blanchard is a deep thinker. Blanchard's posts on virtue ethics at Natural Right and Biology are indeed thoughtful and serious. The climate change post that earns Mercer's commendation is found on both sites.

I haven't checked to record to confirm or refute Blanchard's claims about his skills as a prognosticator. I share his skepticism that governments are unable or unwilling to undertake the necessary changes to limit climate change.

Like Cory at Madville, I take issue with Blanchard's conclusion:
If we really want to solve the problems that our environment poses, the only hope lies in new technologies.  The only way to get those is to promote economic growth.  This is a lesson that the environmental left desperately wants not to learn [emphasis mine].
I feel a bit inadequate to engage the bolded assertion on my own, so, to paraphrase a Capulet servant from Romeo and Juliet, I must go to the eloquent, in this case Marilynne Robinson. "In Freedom of Thought," the first essay in her collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, Robinson notes human nature has not been conquered:
Of course science must not be judged by the claims certain of its proponents have made for it. It is not in fact a standard of reasonableness or truth or objectivity. It is human, and has always been one strategy among others in the more general project of human self-awareness and self-assertion. Our problem with ourselves, which is much larger and vastly older than science, has by no means gone into abeyance since we learned to make penicillin or to split the atom. If antibiotics have been used without sufficient care and have pushed the evolution of bacteria beyond the reach of their own effectiveness, if nuclear fission has become a threat to us all in the insidious form of a disgruntled stranger with a suitcase, a rebuke to every illusion of safety we entertained under fine names like Strategic Defense Initiative, old Homer might say, "the will of Zeus was moving toward its end." Shakespeare might say, "There is a destiny that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will."
Robinson realizes what Blanchard seems to ignore: each scientific advance carries unintended consequences, few of which can be considered wholly benign. As Robinson rightly concludes, "Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom."

The second bolded sentence implies that Adam Smith's invisible hand is as true as any gospel. I suspect Smith would neither recognize nor applaud what is currently being done his name to produce "economic growth" in the United States. Once again I return to the more eloquent Robinson:
On both [political] sides the sole motive force in our past is now said to have been capitalism. On both sides capitalism is understood as grasping materialism that has somehow or other yielded the comforts and liberties of modern life. Capitalism thus understood is seen on one side as providential, so good in its effect that it reduces Scripture with its do-unto-other to shibboleth. The other side sees it as more or less corrupting and contemptible but beyond human powers to resist.
And no one offers a definition of it. But in these days when its imperium is granted by virtually anyone who attends to such things, our grand public education system is being starved and abandoned, and our prisons have declined to levels that disgrace us. The economics of the moment, and of the last several decades, is a corrosive influence, undermining everything it touches from our industrial strength to our research capacity to the well being of our children. [When I Was a Child I Read Books, xiv-xv]
In short capitalism seems to be directing American's away from developing the research capacity and industrial infrastructure necessary to develop the answers Blanchard suggests economic growth will provide. Like science, capitalism is limited; in this case, it may produce growth but not the wisdom to lessen greed nor the wisdom to use gains well.

Like Macbeth, all humans are guilty of every sin that has a name: hubris and greed, however, may be the source of our ultimate undoing. As Robinson notes, faith in science and the market makes us prone to those tragic flaws.

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