Monday, August 25, 2008

The Purpose of the Singularity part 3: Scientific Revolutions

As I suggested in my last post, it has been wondered before why the scientific revolution did not happen in other times and places. Lovers of multiculturalism have, for instance, condemned Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions for being Eurocentric, or focused on Western Civilization. The fact is most of what we use in science is Western, with the primary exception being Arabic Sciences, as noted in words like 'algebra' or 'algorithm' or 'azimuth'. And while other civilizations have had tremendous accomplishments, very little of their efforts were a part of the scientific revolution. That is not to suggest they were unintelligent or unaccomplished. Rather we should take it as a warning just how easily we can lose what they lost as well.

Vernor Vinge has an excellent article discussing What If the Singularity Never Happens? He gives us 3 scenarios.

First Scenario - we destroy ourselves - Mutual Assured Destruction - the Suicide of Civilization.

That is why I have stated in posts long gone by that the next necessary step in progress towards the Singularity (or as I love to refer to it, "the Rapture of the Nerds") is moral and spiritual. We are at a point where we are technologically capable of destroying, if not the human race, then most certainly human civilization. Einstein is quoted as having said, "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

As our weapons become more and more powerful, this is a greater and greater worry.

Second Possibility, (Golden Age) we actually make it. We clean up our act, repent of our sins, and are ready for the glories the Lord has in mind.

But this picture is a little too simplistic and naively evolutionary. It is a nice idea, but it misses a lot of important complexity.

The third scenario (Wheel of Time) is the the one that best reflects history, though I have great faith and hopes that at least part of the human race will enter the Golden Age scenario this time around. In actual fact, we see that different civilizations have gained and lost scientific understanding through out history.

For instance, for 1400 year, China was more technologically advanced than Europe (Jospeh Needham wrote Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China--Or Did It? - here is a revised version)

Likewise, India was far ahead of the West for a long time. Some thoughts on the Indian half of Needham question by Narasimha explores this puzzle. Here, other scholars address this question, but they don't really come to an answer. Some of their solutions are cultural, but Europe had cultural problems too, like how it dealt with Galileo. Some of the blame is due to invasions and war. But Europe had plenty of that too.

The Arabs had a tremendous opportunity too and flourished for a time, but then lost it all. They are mainly remembered for the few things they introduced into Europe, such as Hindu (so called Arabic) numbers. Here is one slightly bitter record of Islamic scientific history. The main conclusion reached was that there was too little interest and too much insistence on orthodoxy.

Those were similar to the charges against the Indians, and could just as easily be used to accuse us.

Without bringing in theology, I can not answer why this is. But I can say that we can lose what we have just as easily as the Arabs, the Indians, the Chinese, or any other great civilization. It has come and it has gone. We should not take the Scientific Revolution for granted.

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