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 the YMHA in New York, with a brief rematch staged two days later on CNN.
Appleyard’s case can be summarized in four points.
1) Science has no values, but is based, as Appleyard puts it, “on an essential amorality.” By encouraging the study of how things work rather than what they mean, “science forces us to separate our values from our knowledge of the world.”
2) Science is irresistible—or, as Appleyard puts it, “spiritually corrosive, burning away ancient authorities and traditions…unable to coexist with anything.” Religion in particular has been wrestled off the mat by science, with the result that the public is degenerating toward a fruitless worship of technological and scientific grandiosities: “Our vague awareness of and gratitude for the ease and ubiquity of technology prepares us to accept the larger claim of science that it alone can lead us to God.” As religion, philosophy, and other putatively more humane systems of thought slink from the field of combat, “progressively science is becoming the culture of the entire world.”
3) Science is thus responsible for a general moral and spiritual decline in Western culture. Since it drives out value-oriented systems but evinces no values of its own with which to replace them, science leaves us feeling bereft, robbed of our humanity. “Liberal society is unstable and in deterioration,” Appleyard writes. “The scientific understanding as a basis for human life is radically inadequate, yet it continues to triumph. As a result, human life itself will become inadequate. That is what there is to worry about.”
4) Therefore science must be “resisted.” Appleyard also speaks of “humbling” science. As to what he means by this he is vague. During our first debate I asked him what he would advise us all to do if we agreed with this position. He replied that he had no program of action, that it was “not my job” to do so. This I suppose is a defensible position for an intellectual—or a journalist, for that matter—to assume, but it does tend to leave his argument dangling.
In the absence of a clear conclusion, however, it is still possible to criticize Appleyard’s premises. The issue of whether science lacks values has been investigated by several thoughtful authors, although for some reason few of their ideas have found their way into his book, which simply treats the amorality of science as a given. A noteworthy analysis is to be found in Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends. Roszak maintains that science has values, all right, but of a disagreeably blinkered and power-hungry sort. Scientific technology, he writes, “communicates nothing so efficiently as itself: its attendant values and ideologies, its obsession with power-knowledge, above all the underdeveloped worldview from which it derives.” Others see more positive values as inherent to the scientific method: Jacob Bronowski, for one, emphasizing the role that science played in the rise of the liberal democracies:
Like the other creative activities which grew from the Renaissance, science has humanized our values. Men have asked for freedom, justice and respect precisely as the scientific spirit has spread among them. The dilemma of today is not that the human values cannot control a mechanical science. It is the other way about: the scientific spirit is more human than the machinery of governments. We have not let either the tolerance or the empiricism of science enter the parochial rules by which we still try to prescribe the behavior of nations. Our conduct as states clings to a code of self-interest which science, like humanity, has long left behind.
My own impression is that a number of admirable values are manifest in science. Science is for instance committed to learning the truth—seriously committed to the ascertainment of verifiable truth—and this is not, as yet, a universal or even a particularly popular human attitude. Moreover, science from its inception has been a friend of free speech, the enemy of what the amateur scientist Thomas Jefferson called “every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” The scientific community today, for all its faults, remains generally open and unsecretive, international and egalitarian: It is no accident that scientists are to be found at the forefront among those who call for global ecological responsibility, racial and sexual equality, better education, an end to hunger, a fair break for indigenous peoples, and other enlightened values. The opinion that science is amoral is not, as Appleyard assumes, fundamental to the world view of every scientist and philosopher of science. More reasonably it is to be attributed, as Stephen Toulmin attributes it, to “the factual, unemotional, antiphilosophical, class-structured, and role-oriented attitudes of the English professional classes between the two world wars.” But I concede that many scholars, including many scientists, agree with Appleyard on this point, and in any event an opinion about it one way or the other is not essential to the case against antiscience.
When it comes to the allegedly pervasive and irresistible influence of science in society, Appleyard ventures onto sandier ground. Is it really plausible to assert that science permeates an American society in which only one in five high-school graduates has taken a physics course, only one in four citizens has heard that the universe is expanding, 21 percent think the sun orbits the earth, and nearly half the public (and a quarter of all college graduates) believes that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years”? If pressed on this point Appleyard cites the ubiquitous influence of technology: When he writes, for instance, that “in the developed world, we cannot dress, feed, travel, procreate or be entertained without the intervention of science,” he means not science but technology.
Yet science is, after all, distinct from technology. Science in principle has to do with knowledge, technology with power. To confound the two, as Appleyard does, is to equate all scientific research with that darker side of the empirical model which Russell called “power science.” The conclusion thereby is mandated by the flawed premise. By insisting that science is primarily an engine for turning out gadgets, Appleyard is led to the odd implication that to be surrounded by machines is to be immersed in science. If so, every viewer of a soap opera is a student of electrodynamics (since that is how television works) and the slack-jawed youth playing Gameboy in the next airline seat, though he neither knows nor cares about the chip inside the toy or the engines on the plane or the air through which it swims, is properly to be viewed as a student of computer science, aerodynamics, and geophysics. Had Understanding the Present been written as a critique of technology rather than of science it might have called less attention to itself, but it would also have been a more consistent book.
Is science to be held responsible for a decline in Western morals? That there has been such a decline I would tend to agree. I think, for instance, that it was a mistake to have excised the study of ethics and values from much of our public school curriculum, as if in the name of cultural relativism we ought not to condemn lying, theft, or rape, for fear that these practices may be cherished in Paris or Pakistan. But surely science is not to blame for this lamentable state of affairs. Were that the case, we should expect to find scientists themselves, immersed as they are every working day in what Appleyard portrays as the undiluted amorality of science, behaving less ethically than do lawyers or bankers or politicians. And that is not the case. Nor, if we look to the darker sinks of moral degradation, do we find an abundance of science there. The schools with metal detectors guarding the doors tend not to be the ones offering courses in biophysics, and neither crack houses nor prisons are crowded with organic chemists. Like the sentimental notion that art promotes morality, the image of science as a moral corrosive is at best a funhouse-mirror reflection of reality.
As to what is to be done, one can sympathize with Appleyard’s reluctance to state a program, for this would amount to envisioning a system of moral certitude that could govern our lives without also indulging in the abuses propagated by the religious and philosophical systems that have played this very role in the past. Appleyard writes nostalgically of the more value-oriented societies of earlier times, with their relative freedom from doubt and uncertainty, but pays little attention to the nasty tendency of such societies to be frighteningly intolerant of those who don’t share their values. In 1609, the year at which his book begins its tale of the rise of science, there was not a single public library on the face of the earth, torture formed an integral part of many European legal systems, and witchcraft was a capital offense. (Johannes Kepler, the astronomer who discovered the phenomenology of solar system dynamics, was obliged to defend his mother in a witchcraft trial during which she was shown instruments of torture and threatened with their use.) The rise of free secular societies attests to the generality of the belief that abuses of this sort represent too high a price to pay for the emoluments of spiritual certitude.
If Appleyard is reticent about such matters, he is scathing on the subject of the liberal democratic tradition, the rise of which he rightly associates with the rise of science, and therefore deplores. “We are clearly in a decadent phase and, I think, a terminal one,” he writes. “The decadence arises from the obvious failure of liberalism to transmit any value other than bland tolerance.” Thus he dismisses every contribution of liberal democracy from the Bill of Rights to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Appleyard even has a few sympathetic words to say about the death sentence handed down against Salman Rushdie by the fundamentalist government of Iran, an action that, he asserts, “bewildered liberal Westerners,” ill-nourished as they are on a thin gruel of feeble tolerance. “What is the virtue in tolerance if we have found the truth?” he asks, stating what he supposes to be the official Iranian line. “And surely to be religious at all means that you have found the truth. Liberals can only pretend to have private truths because they are not prepared to back them with their lives.” So much, then, for all the poor liberals who died fighting, say, in World War II. Without benefit of fanatical convictions, they knew not what they did.
Appleyard’s conviction that science is really all about power shines forth from the first paragraph of the introduction to his book, in which he recalls
when I was perhaps seven or eight asking my father, an engineer, how much water could be held by a water tower close to our home. He worked it out on the spot. I was dumbstruck and made uneasy by this power. It inspired me to imitate him by developing a facility for mental arithmetic which I would use to impress other children.
Viewed by these lights science is less a way of learning things than a means of intimidating and impressing others. “I began to acquire a facility with the concepts of science and to use them to humble my artistic coevals,” Appleyard adds. “…I sensed something dangerous and ominous in this strange wisdom.”
Jacob Bronowski had a lot to say about the power-science paradigm. He regarded it as a throwback to the traditions of black magic. “The central opposition between magic and science is the opposition between power and knowledge,” Bronowski wrote, in Magic, Science, and Civilization. The practitioners of black magic mistakenly believed that one could exert power over nature without understanding it: The sorcerer’s spell is said to work provided that he draws the chalk circles just right and recites the magic words exactly, even though he knows not why it works. The founders of the Royal Society in London cast just such spells, to demonstrate that they don’t work. The reason they don’t work, Bronowski argued, is that “you cannot make a distinction between power and knowledge.” The magician seeks power without knowledge, and fails. The scientist, seeking knowledge, gains both.
Appleyard says he is happy that we have scientific knowledge. But he is made uneasy by scientific power, because he thinks scientists have begun to misuse it, that they are out to claim hegemony over the high ground of beauty and truth. Science, he asserted in our CNN debate, has “started to turn itself into a religion.” But since science has no values—or few values, compared to religion—it is unsuited to this role, and to embrace science as one’s religion is to become spiritually bereft. I agree that science has no business acting as a religion. To do so would be to blunder far beyond its proper province, as the Roman Catholic Church did when it set itself up as an authority on the structure of the physical universe, an error that led to its literally disastrous condemnation of Galileo.
But what makes Appleyard think that scientists want to establish a Church of Science? The answer, prosaically enough, turns out to be that he is exercised about a few extravagant statements made recently by leading scientists in their popular books. Most of all, he is angry with Stephen Hawking, who in the final paragraph of his best seller, A Brief History of Time, flirts with the idea that to arrive at an ultimate theory of physics might in some sense mean that “we would know the mind of God.”* Appleyard is similarly offended that the Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman titled his recent book The God Particle, and that the physicist Paul Davies called his book The Mind of God, and that the astrophysicist George Smoot, announcing at a press conference the detection by the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite of what is known technically as the microwave quadrapole moment, volunteered that “If you’re religious, it’s like looking at God.”
Much of this God talk by scientists strikes me, too, as prideful and overweening. I suspect that the scientific community has to some extent been corrupted by the blandishments of television producers, book publishers, literary editors, and magazine editors, who appreciate that religion sells. Politicians as well have played a role in this process. The physicist Steven Weinberg, testifying at a congressional hearing about the Superconducting Super Collider, a costly new particle accelerator, was asked by Representative Harris Fawell of Illinois, “Will this make us find God?” prompting a foe of SSC funding to remark, “If this machine does that I am going to come around to support it.”
Were God-mongering a mainstream activity among scientists, they would richly deserve the thrashing dealt them in Appleyard’s book. But it is not. Few invocations of the Lord’s name are to be found in the pages of the Astrophysical Journal, Cell, or such works as Weinberg’s Gravitation and Cosmology or Hawking and G.F.R. Ellis’s The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time. Even among those popular science books that dare grapple with the concept of the Deity, one finds, if one opens the book and actually reads what is written there, that the sentiments expressed are almost without exception much more modest and unprepossessing that Appleyard would have us believe. Typical of Paul Davies’s The Mind of God is this considered passage:
If the universe really has an explanation and it can’t explain itself, then it must be explained by something outside itself—e.g., God. But what, then, explains God? This age-old “who made God” conundrum is in danger of pitching us into an infinite regress. The only escape, it would seem, is to assume that God can somehow “explain himself,” which is to say that God is a necessary being.
George Smoot, asked later about his “looking at God” remark, cautioned that “people talk to me because of what I have to say about cosmology, not God,” and added, modestly enough: “I do think that cosmology is about philosophy and religion as well as science. Our work changes culture, like the first Moon landing did—people see themselves in a different perspective. But they still have to work out how they fit into it.” This sort of measured reflection may qualify as the “bland tolerance” Appleyard condemns, but it hardly poses an emergency so grave as to justify society’s disqualifying a group of intellectuals from speculating about theological issues simply because they happen also to be scientists.
The real target of Appleyard’s book would appear to be not science but scientism, the belief that science provides not a path to truth, but the only path. Scientism flourished briefly in the nineteenth century, when a few thinkers, impressed by such triumphs as Newtonian dynamics and the second law of thermodynamics, permitted themselves to imagine that science might soon be able to predict everything from next month’s weather to next year’s stock market crash. Today we expect that that will never happen, and we ought to be able to muster the sophistication to recognize such claims as hyperbolic. Lederman’s “God particle” is but the Higgs boson, carrier of a field thought to apportion mass to protons and neutrons, and the so-called “theory of everything,” if it can be written, will provide a unified account of elementary interactions involving the four fundamental forces of nature, not love or war or the mind of God. Information theory tells us that if the entire universe were melted down into silicon chips, this ultimate computer could not even predict its own future. And so scientism today is advocated by only a tiny minority of scientists, few among whom have paid much serious attention to epistemological issues of any sort.
For Appleyard to admit this would have meant his writing a narrower book, one that might have been titled Understanding Scientism: How a Few Scientists Sometimes Get Too Big for Their Britches. But this would have been intolerable for an ambitious journalist: Appleyard like the rest of us is caught up in a pop culture of literary Napoleonism, in which the only books that count are those that ring up big sales. And that is why Understanding the Present winds up being as extravagant and empty as the cosmos itself.
As so often happens, what Hawking actually wrote is more circumspect than what he is widely thought to have written. He suggests that revelation would come not so much from the theory itself as from widespread discussion about the theory. The relevant passage reads: " [I]f we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God." Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam, 1988), p. 175. But Hawking often goes out of his way to write and say things he thinks will be controversial, and he succeeded here.↩
As so often happens, what Hawking actually wrote is more circumspect than what he is widely thought to have written. He suggests that revelation would come not so much from the theory itself as from widespread discussion about the theory. The relevant passage reads: “ [I]f we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.” Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam, 1988), p. 175. But Hawking often goes out of his way to write and say things he thinks will be controversial, and he succeeded here.↩