Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man
Bertrand Russell concluded his 1933 book The Scientific Outlook with a chapter warning what life might be like in “the world which would result if scientific technique were to rule unchecked.” Many of Russell’s prophecies sound quaint today: He feared the establishment of a world government that forbade the public from reading Hamlet and jailed anybody who wouldn’t work. He was concerned that medical advances would make life so long and safe that thrill-seekers would commit suicide for recreation (“To fall through the air before a million spectators may come to be thought a glorious death even if it has no purpose but the amusement of the holiday crowd”). He assumed that Esperanto would have become the universal language. But Russell’s prognostications served merely to ornament his more philosophical concerns, which as one might expect have held up rather better. Science, he cautioned, was gravitating from knowledge toward power, undergoing a “passage from contemplation to manipulation”:
We may seek knowledge of an object because we love the object or because we wish to have power over it. The former impulse leads to the kind of knowledge that is contemplative, the latter to the kind that is practical. In the development of science the power impulse has increasingly prevailed over the love impulse…. Man has been disciplined hitherto by his subjection to nature. Having emancipated himself from this subjection, he is showing something of the defects of slaveturned-master.
Russell was writing before the ante had been upped by innovations like the global deployment of 50,000 nuclear weapons, the depletion of atmospheric ozone by CFCs, and the erosion of literacy by television. So it’s hardly surprising that controversy continues to flare up over the Faustian question of whether science has at last gone too far.
This year’s Faust flap centers on the publication of Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man. Its author, the English journalist Brian Appleyard, decries what he calls “the appalling spiritual damage that science has done,” declares that science “has gone too far, that it is potentially out of control, and that it now threatens to throw our civilization out of balance,” and urges that “now is the time to resist.”
When the book appeared in England last year the press was quick to take sides, with the former Times editor William Rees-Mogg in the Literary Review tilting toward Appleyard’s position while the scientific journal Nature branded the book “dangerous.” At a debate held before an audience of nine hundred at the Institute of Education in London the novelist Fay Weldon supported Appleyard. She was opposed by the biologist Lewis Wolpert, who maintained that
Appleyard and his supporters have not progressed from the position of Galileo’s opponents. They cannot bear to accept what they see down the telescope. They don’t understand it; they are envious and so they wish to suppress it.
The book’s publication in the US in March occasioned yet another debate, this between Appleyard and myself at…
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