Category: Technology and Regulation

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, November 18, 2005

To expand the “scientist” as “priest” metaphor a bit, you may find it interesting to read what Herman Bavinck has to say on the fundamental place of “faith” with respect to all kinds of knowledge, including not only religious but also scientific:

Believing in general is a very common way in which people gain knowledge and certainty. In all areas of life we start by believing. Our natural inclination is to believe. It is only acquired knowledge and experience that teach us skepticism. Faith is the foundation of society and the basis of science. Ultimately all certainty is rooted in faith.

A little later he writes:

Clement of Alexandria in many places uses πιστις to denote all immediate knowledge and certainty and then says that there is no science without belief, that the first principles, including, for example, the existence of God, are believed, not proven. Especially Augustine highlighted the significance of belief for society and science. Those who do not believe, he says, never arrive at knowledge: “Unless you have believed you will not understand.” Belief is the foundation and bond uniting the whole of human society.

The point essentially is that all of us, scientist, pastor, gardener, or surfer, have presuppositions, first principles or principia that are by definition that “on which all proofs ultimately rest, [and] are not themselves susceptible of being proven: they are certain only by and to faith. Proofs, therefore, are compelling only to those who agree with us in accepting those principles. ‘There is no point in arguing against a person who rejects the first principles’ (Contra principia negantem non est disputandum).”

This final Latin phrase that Bavinck quotes, incidentally, is often traced back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, but also appears in a form in the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas: quod inferiores scientiae nec probant sua principia, nec contra negantem principia disputant, or “the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them” (ST 1.1.8).

As a brief aside, there is no relationship between the Greek word for faith (πιστις, or pistis) and epistemology as a “theory of knowledge,” which instead comes from Greek words meaning “to stand over.”

Blog author: abradley
posted by on Thursday, November 17, 2005

At the the UN net summit in Tunis, MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte has showcased his hundred dollar computer. The small, durable, lime colored, rubber-encased laptop is powered by a handcrank, and is designed to make technology more accessible to poor children in countries around the world.

If I may speak of ‘trickle-down’ technology, this is the perfect example. This announcement–an announcement of a tool to help poor countries–may not be the best time to note the virtues of richer ones; and I am not trying to steal the UN’s thunder. But there will be those who, like the BBC, will hail this as a great opportunity to narrow “the technology gap between rich and poor.” Indeed it will. But I would like to note that without this gap–one created by the entrepreneurial minds that invented laptop technology to begin with–there would be no laptops for impoverished children. A necessary precurser to this act of charity (in the traditional sense of self-giving love) is the development of the product. And this development takes place best in the free society.

Here at Acton, it is commonly noted that “you have to create wealth before you can distribute it.” The same goes with the creation of our technology, a particular type of wealth. In order to develop those tools which help us all better combat poverty, disease, and other physical ills, we must have the freedom to enact our creative initiative to create those tools. This means entrepreneurship. Which often means capital. Which commonly means people in suits with briefcases that sometimes vote Republican. But by the time we get to this point, many people are crying “oppression!” as if businessman and tyrant meant the same thing.

The point it this: narrowing the technology gap does not mean bringing society back to some default position. We don’t all go back to the equality of zero. Some have the good fortune or the grace to find themselves with particular tools or means. In freedom, some of these people cultivate these gifts, creating something to make other people’s lives better. The space of time where some have this product and other do not–this is not ipso facto a time of injustice (although injustice can come about in these circumstances). It is as often a time where the good work of entrepreneurs is trickling down to touch everyone. And do not be put off by the phrase “trickle down” as if it implies the inherent superiority of the entrepreneurs; it doesn’t. What trickles down is often that which raises men up. Perhaps we can call it grace.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, November 17, 2005

Thomas Lessl, Associate Professor in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Georgia, talks about the “priestly voice” of science. He argues that “scientific culture has responded to the pressures of patronage by trying to construct a priestly ethos — by suggesting that it is the singular mediator of knowledge, or at least of whatever knowledge has real value, and should therefore enjoy a commensurate authority. If it could get the public to believe this, its power would vastly increase.”

Lessl makes an important point about the effect of this on popular perceptions of science: “The priestly character of scientific rhetoric has to do with the need to identify science with the most essential human values by making it a world view — by creating a public culture based in scientism. The best known example of this approach to scientific communication in recent memory would be that taken by Carl Sagan. Perhaps more successfully than any other popular writer of the last century, except perhaps H. G. Wells, Sagan was able create the sense that history has a scientific destiny.”

Read the rest of the interview with Dr. Lessl here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The AP reports that a deal has been struck to continue primary management of the Internet by the United States, following weeks and months of controversy. The EU had been pushing for control of the web to be turned over to a supra-national body, such as the UN.

The accord was accomplished at The World Summit on the Information Society, an international gathering to examine the “digital divide” between developed and developing nations. While “the summit was originally conceived to address the digital divide–the gap between information haves and have-nots–by raising both consciousness and funds for projects,” the meeting provided a forum to discuss and come to a resolution: “Instead, it has centered largely around Internet governance: oversight of the main computers that control traffic on the Internet by acting as its master directories so Web browsers and e-mail programs can find other computers.”

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Michael D. Gallagher said that the new agreement means that the onus now lies with the developing world to bring in not just opinions, but investment to expand the Internet to their benefit.

The fundamental basis for the agreement is the establishment of the Internet Governance Forum, a non-binding advisory body that would bring “its stakeholders to the table to discuss the issues affecting the Internet, and its use.” The formation of the forum essentially follows the recommendations of the UN’s Working Group on Internet Governance made in this past June.

For more on the issue of Internet governance, check out the Internet Governance Project, “an interdisciplinary consortium of academics with scholarly and practical expertise in international governance, Internet policy, and information and communication technology.”

A paper issued earlier this year by the project focuses on “the six factors that need to be taken into account in working out the details of a forum mechanism” (Download PDF here).

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, October 18, 2005

We’ve discussed textual interpretation a bit on this blog here before (here, here, and here). Paul Ricœur, who is famous for his “attempt to combine phenomenological description with hermeneutic interpretation,” passed away earlier this year.

One of Ricœur’s important contributions involved an observation about the nature of textual interpretation in distinction to personal dialogue. He writes, for example in his book Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences,

Dialogue is an exchange of questions and answers; there is no exchange of this sort between the writer and the reader. The writer does not respond to the reader. Rather, the book divides the act of writing and the act of reading into two sides, between which there is no communication. The reader is absent from the act of writing; the writer is absent from the act of reading. The text thus produces a double eclipse of the reader and writer. It thereby replaces the relation of dialogue, which directly connects the voice of one to the hearing of the other.

Ricœur notes some effects of this “double eclipse” and formulates a theory of the “sense of the text” to norm textual interpretation. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates makes a somewhat similar observation about the nature of writing:

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

Of course, general agreement with Socrates and Ricœur does not entail a necessary acceptance of a kind of “sense of the text” radically disconnected from any authorial intent.

Even so, the inherent limits to written communication form an essential point of reference for articulating any coherent interpretive scheme. Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his 1993 Wilde lectures, published under the title Divine Discourse, makes a key point in his critique of Ricœur on the pervasiveness of the “double eclipse” problem:

It is not only the temporal endurance of texts but also the spatial transportability of texts which grounds the difficulties of interpretation to which Ricoeur calls attention. But our technological ability to broadcast utterance, as well as record it, has the consequence that we are forced to interpret even “live,” non-recorded, utterance in situations spatially distanced from the originating situation. Thus what Ricoeur attributes to writing is in fact equally true of recorded and broadcast utterance. Ricoeur conducts his discussion as if we were living in a pre-Edisonian age!

Blog author: abradley
posted by on Thursday, September 22, 2005

George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949, long before the PC came along. Tiny cameras were not available and Big Brother typically had to be physically watching you (either in person or from a stationary camera) to catch you at a crime (the book was political of course, and not technological). Either way, Big Brother always was watching you. Now we have PCs, the Internet, tiny cameras everywhere and available to all. And of course, Big Brother wants to see everything.

Although I hate writing about how the modern world reflects more and more what we see described in Orwell’s novel (Wikipedia suggests that “Orwell is reported to have said that the book described what he saw as the actual situation in the United Kingdom in 1948″), it seems fitting to remind people of the dangers of allowing too much access to information. PC PRO published a news item today talking about some ideas the European Commission has:

The European Commission has accepted proposals to log details of all telephone, email and Internet traffic in an attempt to combat terrorism and serious crime.

The proposals, which are designed to harmonise data retention practices across the EU, will need the backing of all 25 member states. However some states believe they have been watered down in response to pressure from telecommunications firms and civil rights groups.

If these proposals are the watered down version, I shudder to think what the original proposals might have been! Just wait for the proposals to flow when we all have RFID tags “to make purchasing goods at the grocercy store easier” surgically inserted at birth.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, August 11, 2005

Reading this story about a man who played video games to death, I find it likely that an already existing addiction will be newly documented: Vidiocy.

My mom used to call me a “little vidiot” when I was a kid because I liked watching TV so much, but I submit this as a possible term for video game “addictions.” According to other reports, the man named Lee really was dedicated to the god of technology, as he “recently quit his job to spend more time playing games.”

Of course, maybe he didn’t really die, he just left “The Matrix.”

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Now that the crew of Space Shuttle Discovery is safely back on terra firma (along with the entire shuttle fleet, which has once again been grounded over safety concerns), arguments over the future viability of the Shuttle program have resumed in earnest. By far, my favorite swipe at NASA to date has to be today’s Wall Street Journal opinion column (subscription required) by Homer Hickam, a former NASA engineer. Mr Hickam argues that many NASA engineers would like to see the shuttle program shelved in favor of a newer and better vehicle, but they are blocked in their efforts by a “failed culture” within the agency that demands support for the Shuttle.

I love the astronauts, too. They’re brave and they’re smart and some of them are even my friends. Some are even engineers. But there are too many of them (around 100, an awful lot for a program that has flown but once in the past two years) and they are mostly acolytes of the space shuttle. If the shuttles were retired, most astronauts would be very much out on a bureaucratic limb, their training obsolete, their chances of getting into space again, or for the first time, much reduced. Bear that in mind the next time you hear an astronaut support the shuttle even though the U.S. is presently fourth in the ability to put humans reliably into space, behind Russia, China, and Burt Rutan.

touché.

So let’s put the shuttles on the shelf right away and give engineers the gift of designing and building new ships to carry humans into space. These are already on the drawing boards and I believe NASA Administrator Mike Griffin (an engineer) is itching to make them a reality.

I tend to agree that NASA needs to rethink the shuttle program, but the good news is that we don’t have to wait for NASA’s engineers to begin designing vehicles that will launch the next stage of manned spaceflight.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, August 10, 2005

In this week’s Acton Commentary, Dave Phelps looks at the case of Susan Torres, a woman who gave birth while reported to be brain dead. The case was considered by some to be a miracle. Others with a more material bent looked at her as merely a corpse, kept alive by advanced medical technology to incubate the child.

Phelps’ commentary points out that a great many physicians, schooled in the sciences, retain a belief in God. A “surprising” poll indicates that doctors attend church more regularly than most Americans and a majority believe in some sort of afterlife.

Should we really be surprised? Religious faith is capable of making room for God-given talent such as medical healing, as St. Basil the Great pointed out in the fourth century in his Long Rules:

Each of the arts is God’s gift to us, remedying the deficiencies of nature, as, for example, agriculture, since the produce which the earth bears of itself would not suffice to provide for our needs … The same is true, also, of the medical art. In as much as our body is susceptible to various hurts, some attacking from without and some from within by reason of the food we eat, and since the body suffers affliction from both excess and deficiency, the medical art has been vouchsafed us by God, who directs our whole life, as a model for the cure of the soul, to guide us in the removal of what is superfluous and in the addition of what is lacking …

So then, we should neither repudiate this art [medicine] altogether nor does it behoove us to repose all our confidence in it; but, just as in practicing the art of agriculture we pray God for fruits, and as we entrust the helm to the pilot in the art of navigation, but implore God that we may end our voyage unharmed by the perils of the sea, so also, when reason allows, we call in the doctor, but we do not leave off hoping in God.

Read the full text of “Miracles of God and Miracles of Science.”

Blog author: rsirico
posted by on Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Hopeful signs are emerging for the future of economic prosperity in Europe despite some serious opposition. The European Parliament recently moved to scrap the ratification of an informal agreement reached last year by EU member states and supported by the European Commission, that would have made important strides forward in the legal recognition of intellectual property rights.

The Computer Implemented Inventions Directive (CIID), which would protect intellectual property and standardize EU software patent law, now appears dead. This leaves in place a patchwork of national patent laws that effectively stifles a common set of laws and regulations in Europe.

These sorts of delays and backsliding by the Parliament represent serious threats to European economies and could add to a dangerous precedent in light of the EU’s ruling against software company Microsoft. The 21st Century has ushered in the Information Age; computers and software represent the field with perhaps the greatest potential for innovation and wealth-creation in developed nations.
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