Thursday, October 26, 2006

Benedict Rides Again

It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics and chemistry. ~H.L. Mencken

Pope Benedict XVI is turning them out faster than most of us can cope with. First, he decided that he needed to convene a “seminar” to review the Church's position on evolution. Then he announced his support for returning to the Latin mass. The latter is a purely liturgical decision, but it seems to indicate a highly conservative tendency from the Vatican. It appears that it's more than a tendency.

The latest papal wisdom was delivered as a warning to scientists. He said, according to the article, that “by believing in 'artificial intelligence' and technology, they risked the fate of the mythical Icarus, whose home-made wings melted when he flew too close to the sun.”

Oh, enough already. What next, bring back the Inquisition?

Everyone is aware of the Church's behavior of years gone by, possibly the best known example of which is the Galileo Caper. For the most part, though, once we reached the 20th century, the Church let science go its own way, although it expressed some reservations about relativity. In recent times, it's the fundamentalist (non-Catholic) Christians who have decided to stand in the way of progress by trying to stop Darwinian evolution being taught in schools or, failing that, having Creationism taught as an alternative theory. We haven't yet heard the result of Benedict's secret seminar, so we can't tell if the Vatican is going to join them in their pursuit of ignorance.

The pope's most recent statement sounds like something out of a B horror movie. You know, the part where everyone is looking around at the wreckage caused by Professor Dingbat's foray into forbidden realms; suddenly someone solemnly intones, “There are things with which men were not meant to tamper.” Apparently, Benedict is concerned that some latter-day Frankenstein is cooking up a monster in his basement dungeon.

What is the pope afraid of? Cloning? Lifespans being extended? Finding life on another planet? A new superweapon? Maybe that's it; he's concerned about some new terror to spring out of the laboratory to blow us all to kingdom come.

Except that it's not some mad scientist in a dimly-lit lab with Jacob's ladders fizzing all around him that we need to fear. Science as a weapon has never been the realm of evil geniuses. It's the politicians who have weaponized discoveries like the splitting of the atom.

But corrupting discoveries is not the worst of it. The time when the solitary scientist holed up in a garret somewhere worked long hours in obscurity trying to determine why some bit of nature behaved the way it does is long gone. Scientific communities are now just that: Communities. Everyone has an idea of what everyone else is working on. Further, scientists in academia are under constant pressure to publish results as soon as possible. Sometimes, this just leads to some of the unusual, and often rather undeveloped, theories that get tossed out into the journals.

But, often, research is directed by government funding, particularly from the military side. In general, there's nothing wrong with this, except that anything that might remotely have defensive or offensive capabilities is promptly closed off from independent development. For example, if you're wondering whatever happened to government spaceplane research, you'll find Boeing is doing it for the Defense Department, not sharing it with Burt Rutan.

Then, of course, there's the separate issue that research goes where the money is. If the government is giving grants to study A, then few scientists are going to have the resources to study B.

If the Vatican wants to worry about our wings getting melted off, it would be better served to be talking to political leaders, not scientists. Laser technology is all around us in ways that are useful to consumers, but it's the military that sees a laser pointer and thinks “Death ray!” By Benedict's reasoning, laser research should never have taken place.

Of course, I'm assuming that Benedict is concerned about the misuse of science. It is just as likely that he is more afraid of science learning some of the ultimate secrets of the creation of the universe and the start of life. It's the old religious saw about Man's place in the great scheme of things somehow being demeaned if humanity is shown to not be some special creation of God. In fact, the fear of the Church and various Christians who are similarly against scientific progress and teaching is that somehow religion itself will be devalued if humans are revealed to be what they probably are: Small cogs in the machine we call the universe.

This is, of course, absurd. The teachings of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad are no less valid if people are descended from a 3.8 billion-year-old flake of blue-green pond scum. It is, in fact, vanity on a monstrous scale that causes us to think we are somehow the pinnacle of creation.

Benedict and his co-religionists need to be more concerned with educating our leaders on moral behavior than on cautioning scientists against discovery.

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