Friday, May 21, 2010

Irony meltdown…


First watch this:

** Lyrics shown at the bottom of this post.

And then watch this:

A little context, especially if you're not of the gaming type (not that I am, but…). The first song, "Still Alive," is sung by GLaDOS, the AI master computer in the game Portal. Throughout the game GLaDOS now guides you through the levels, now mocks and threatens you. And she tempts you with cake (the cake is a lie!). Aside from the mind-bending graphics and intriguing gameplay in Portal, the reason I liked it so much is because it's a quasi-Luddite video game, an irony surely as sweet as cake. "Still Alive" captures the game's morbidly ambivalent portrayal of the scientific-transhumanist complex in our day, since, when the credits roll, the melodious, malevolent CPU is singing of an anthem of technology's defeat and mankind's demise at her hands.

Now, contrast that with the "Symphony of Science." Notice any similarities in the voices? I honestly kept waiting for GLaDOS to cut in for a duet refrain with Dawkins.

I feel bad about my response, actually, since a friend requested I watch "Symphony" on his Facebook, presumably to "share the experience." Unfortunately, however, almost as soon as "Symphony" rolled, an incredulous grin set on my face and didn't melt away till minutes after the last note. I expressed my stunned delight, assuring my friend I wasn't being snide––it was just too rich! (He piously replied that "it's unspeakable beauty.") I admit it's got a catchy beat and is inspiring, but good grief––it's so saccharine it should have a disclaimer for possible diabetic viewers. The Onion also quickly sprang mind, with a headline like, "Local Carpenters Guild Sings Anthem of Praise to Hammers... and Then Selves."

Frankly, I don't even know where to begin with "Symphony". It merits a proper fisking but the hour is late and, hopefully, some of the archest ironies speak for themselves: the communion of saints and the faithful departed, apophatic humility before ultimate mystery, hope for future salvation, "doing" science (vs. seeking wisdom), ultimate meaning in each person's life, and, of course––the cherry on top––, the question-begging refrain: "There's real poetry in the real world; Science is the poetry of reality." To wit, when did you last see poetry without a poet or a poem that wrote itself?

So I may earn my "cadgitating" stripes, however, let me point out one acute and 'serious' irony running through not only "Symphony" but all of scientism, namely, the place of truth in science. Consider first Dr. Bronowski's claim that "science is a very human form of knowledge [in that] we are always at the brink of the known," which is to say, always at the frontiers of ignorance. Just before that, Michael Shermer lauded science as the best tool ever devised for understanding how the world works. Not much later, Jill Tarter describes human history as the history of ideas "that shine light into dark corners," light, of course, being a metaphor for truth. But then moments later Dr. Kraus assures us that scientists "love not knowing," which is followed by Dr. Feynman's assurance he is "not afraid of not knowing things ... [since that's] more interesting." A few sequences later, Carolyn Porco speaks endearingly of science as "the quest for truth, in and of itself." Well, which is it: Does science "deliver the goods" of light and truth, in and of itself, or does it simply deliver us from the fear of ignorance and the illusion of truth, since, after all, that's more interesting?

These blatant contradictions in the span of just a couple minutes are all of a piece with the central conflict in scientistic thought. On the one hand, scientismatics laud the unceasing ability of the scientific method to overcome errors and arrive at new, higher levels of knowledge. On the other hand, scientism forbids holding anything dogmatically, since that is the grave sin of religion. The upshot is that scientism must defend every "latest truth" as falsity waiting to be unmasked and must define the entire tradition of science as cumulative falsity waiting for new errors in the future.

As an outro, I hope you'll enjoy this Nietzschean fable about always benevolent humanity, made supreme by science. If you're like me, you can breathe a lot easier knowing scientists aren't just increasingly elite humans with exponentially greater power over society at large.

** "Still Alive"

This was a triumph.
I'm making a note here: HUGE SUCCESS.
It's hard to overstate my satisfaction.
Aperture Science
We do what we must
because we can.
For the good of all of us.
Except the ones who are dead.
But there's no sense crying over every mistake.
You just keep on trying till you run out of cake.
And the Science gets done.
And you make a neat gun.
For the people who are still alive.
I'm not even angry.
I'm being so sincere right now.
Even though you broke my heart.
And killed me.
And tore me to pieces.
And threw every piece into a fire.
As they burned it hurt because I was so happy for you!
Now these points of data make a beautiful line.
And we're out of beta.
We're releasing on time.
So I'm GLaD. I got burned.
Think of all the things we learned
for the people who are still alive.
Go ahead and leave me.
I think I prefer to stay inside.
Maybe you'll find someone else to help you.
Maybe Black Mesa
Anyway, this cake is great.
It's so delicious and moist.
Look at me still talking
when there's Science to do.
When I look out there, it makes me GLaD I'm not you.
I've experiments to run.
There is research to be done.
On the people who are still alive.
And believe me I am still alive.
I'm doing Science and I'm still alive.
I feel FANTASTIC and I'm still alive.
While you're dying I'll be still alive.
And when you're dead I will be still alive.


Crude said...

A favorite song of mine, from a great game. I still like it even now that the initial craze for it has died down somewhat.

Also, I've for a long time thought of Half-Life 2 as being a cryptic criticism of certain types of evolutionary thinking. Breen was one of the most interesting villains I've seen - soft-spoken, acting as if he's trying to explain his clearly superior plan to child-minded adults, justifying both what he does and his special position as necessary on evolutionary grounds, etc. He's the academic/intellectual rolled out to justify whatever horror a powerful state has decided to engage in.

As for the Symphony of Science, I suppose it makes me grin too - and for similar reasons. As you say, the ironies speak for themselves. The people who heap the most praise on science also seem to be the people who really do not know where science ends and something else (philosophy, personal view, value, etc) begins.

When someone heaps praise on science, but seems unaware science's limitations (or even hostile to the idea that science has any), I question whether it's really science they're praising after all. It's like admiring Abraham Lincoln, while thinking or insisting he has all the powers of Reed Richards.

Agellius said...

Someone in the video said something like, being scientifically literate makes you see the world differently and is empowering. I think that is much more aptly said of being philosophically literate. The lack of such literacy is truly enfeebling our culture.

I thought the robot video was cool. I enjoyed the tune.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...


You are right about the sad proliferation of philosophical literacy, much less sensibility. Read Allan Bloom's _The Closing of the American Mind_, if you haven't already.

I don't mean to be too much of a curmudgeon all the time. The video was cool... but still a Nietzschean fable. ;)