Sharp Blue: Understanding and complexity


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It’s somewhat puzzling that substantial numbers of people are rejecting science and reason when our lives are full of their fruits. Indeed, almost every aspect of our material culture has been dramatically transformed for the better by technology, one of the foremost benefits of science. I think that the reason for the turning away from science is principally the immense progress of science and technology themselves. The frontiers of science are now very far from the concerns of everyday life and our technology is now so advanced that its operating principles are generally mysterious. Technological artifacts are becoming increasing opaque to “folk understanding”. How many people, for example, have more than a cursory understanding of how their computer operates? Or how medicines work?

Our technological civilisation has formed an abstraction layer that largely hides the immensely complex economic and technological machinery that provides these marvels. I often hear people denigrate the study of mathematics or science at school with the claim that “it’s no use in everyday life.” Although this may be true for some people, many more are simply failing to see the causal chains that link the study of mathematics at school to the existence of DVD players or Xboxes. Scientists and engineers are in danger of becoming a mysterious priesthood who provide these marvels through what might as well be magic. Indeed, perhaps we have already reached this dismal state.

It’s against this background that we ought to try to understand things like Creationism or Intelligent Design. I think there’s a danger of underestimating how much people need emotionally satisfying and superficially coherent explanations of the functioning of the world, and Intelligent Design provides such an explanation (especially when presented with the sort of intellectually dishonest and manipulative tactics with which it is often associated). How we counter this trend, I do not know.

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