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Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man Paperback – 1 Feb 1994
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About the Author
Bryan Appleyard is a special-feature writer and columnist for the Sunday Times of London. He is the author of several books, including Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man and The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky.
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The role of science in society
By Howard A. Jones
Bryan Appleyard is a journalist and frequent contributor to The Times and several other newspapers. Here he mounts an attack on scientism - the idea that the only source of meaningful knowledge is science - and urges caution in the prevalent public view that science can solve all our problems. The core of his thesis is expressed in the Preface: `the benefits of science are not cost-free' and `we should not be deluded into thinking that science can provide salvation from the human predicament.'
This book is not anti-science and the author expresses great admiration and respect for its achievements, but he is clearly disturbed by the deterministic and materialistic view of contemporary science (especially biological science!) that says we are all at the mercy of dispassionate physical forces, and always have been throughout the course of evolution. He quotes Richard Dawkins as saying that the universe is `bleak, cold and empty', and indeed this is the theme of much current scientific thinking. But Appleyard comments: `The scientific understanding as a basis for human life is radically inadequate, yet it continues to triumph. As a result, human life will become inadequate.'
That great scientist, philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell saw scientific objectivity as its greatest strength: `One of the greatest benefits that science confers upon those who understand its spirit is that it enables [people] to live without the delusive support of subjective certainty'. Appleyard disagrees: `If my story has to have a villain, let it be Bertrand Russell' - for Russell epitomizes the soullessness that he deplores, for `it is inhuman not to worry about our spiritual impoverishment.' For Appleyard, science `denied man the possibility of finding an ultimate meaning and purpose for his life within the facts of the world.'
As a scientist myself, I would endorse Appleyard's criticism of scientism and I would also support a far greater emphasis on the humanities in the education of our children. But I think the author is looking in the wrong place for the `meaning and purpose for his life'. If the grandeur of `the facts of the world' does not fill him with awe, then he might find this in the outpourings of the human soul in art, literature and music, and a philosophy of spirituality that can happily co-exist with science. It is not the role of science intrinsically to provide `meaning' - science provides a coherent and rational framework of theory to unify empirically observed facts: aesthetic satisfaction we must find elsewhere.
This is a very readable and thought-provoking book that presents science in a less-than-familiar light, but its overall message is very timely.
Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books (John Hunt Publishing), Winchester, UKUnweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
Bryan Appleyard's interest in the cultural implications of science stems from interviewing Stephen Hawking for the Sunday Times Magazine in 1988. The result of his investigations is a powerful critique of modern scientific culture.
He adopts an essentially historical approach, tracing the development of scientific culture from the emergence of the modern scientific method some four centuries ago. Appleyard argues that the success of the scientific method provoked an epistemological crisis from which emerged a new worldview.
This worldview (namely, scientism) is the bedrock of modern liberal culture. However, it precludes the possibility of taking about ultimate meaning and purpose. In the face of its ability to manipulate the world around us western non-scientific culture has been gradually overwhelmed and transformed. Appleyard traces this 'long tale of decline and defeat' with particular reference to religious and moral responses. He concludes that western Christianity has been roundly defeated by the new culture of science: theological liberalism represents its capitulation.
In later chapters he examines contemporary developments. He explores the way in which doubts about the morality of hard science (fuelled by the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima) have encouraged a green reaction. Within science itself, the strangeness of twentieth century physics has given rise to suggestions that we may be able to develop a new spirituality but Appleyard remains unconvinced. The final element in his indictment of scientific culture is an examination of attempts to develop artificial intelligence and the erosive implications of this for a more humanistic view of personality and selfhood.
Appleyard's concluding chapter is both the most important and, in another respect, the weakest chapter in the book. After a lucid summary of the argument so far, he outlines the dangers of the real enemy: modern liberal culture based upon the assumptions of scientism and bolstered by the successes of science and technology. His diagnosis is superb; his proposed remedy is so feeble as to seem ridiculous. He asserts that, 'Science begins by saying it can answer only this kind of question and ends by claiming that these are the only questions that can be asked. Once the implications and shallowness of this trick are realized, fully realized, science will be humbled and we shall be free to celebrate our selves again' (p. 249). In other words, all we have to do is disentangle science from scientism. But it is not enough merely to reject the worldview of scientism. The human spirit abhors a vacuum. Unless some constructive alternative is offered, other ideologies, perhaps even more abhorrent than scientism, will rush in to replace it.
Many historians and philosophers of science will hate this book. His historical analysis is simplified to the point of distortion. For example, Galileo's telescopic observation of the moon is blown up out of all proportion. He turns it into an icon of the scientific method. More seriously, for most of the book he confuses the method and the attendant worldview: science and scientism.
Nevertheless this is a helpful book. It is a clear and resounding critique of scientism. Appleyard's journalistic abilities have resulted in a work capable of reaching a much wider audience than the more erudite tomes usually reviewed in these pages. It should be compulsory reading for all sixth-formers (and undergraduates)!
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These are all true problems. They are serious problems. Modern man thinks that change is inevitably good- after all, science progresses upward, if not in its theory, then at least in its collection of data. Similarly, our cultural values inevitably progress upwards as well. This has led to the rise of modern liberalism, where any social change is automatically considered good, and where "It's the current year" is considered a decisive argument against anyone who questions the zeitgeist. The failure of science to provide any meaning produces a culture where personal autonomy is elevated to the place of God. If there is no way to derive ethics, then ethics is just a personal preference. One person likes pizza, another likes hamburgers. There's no qualitative difference between the two. Just a preference. Of course, this results in the exaltation of a single supposed virtue: tolerance. In the past, man did not tolerate other belief systems. That was bad. Now we should tolerate all other belief systems. The consequence of this is "PC Culture", where believing that one's own views (including the superiority of Western culture) are correct and absolutely so is considered a mortal sin. Thus, the West is deprived of any justification for its own existence.
But the trouble with Appleyard's book is that he provides no real cure. The last ten pages or so offer almost nothing, though Appleyard thinks it is everything. He draws on Wittgenstein's insight that one's own consciousness cannot be considered in a vaccuum, as Descartes' thought. The very terms in which one understands consciousness are derived from one's language and culture, and thus is inevitably interwoven with everybody else. Hence, Appleyard declares that we simply ought to accept our irreducible consciousness as fact, and acknowledge that this is utterly outside of science. While he denies that this results in postmodernism, I do not see how one avoids it. It's unquestionably true that different people perceive different things to be "obviously" true. How could we sort one "obvious truth" from another, if we are to follow Appleyard? He points out that philosophers cannot craft new theologies, since man is not principally driven by reason. But this conflates two issues: whether reason leads us to truth and whether reason is persuasive to most people.
The root of Appleyard's failure to provide a solution lies in his uncritical acceptance of what conventional academia has declared concerning the progress of science. The story begins with Newton's proof against the geocentric system and his description of gravitation. Scientific progress develops further and further, and it provides naturalistic explanations for everything: quantifying the laws of nature in equations, thereby replacing God's role in upholding the universe. The climax of this narrative lies in the birth of Darwin's theory of evolution, which overthrew God's last stronghold: the design of life. The problem with this narrative is that it is false. The geocentric system was held tenaciously not primarily because of Scripture, but because of Aristotelian philosophy. The true offense was not that it displaced man from the center of the cosmos, but that it eradicated the supposedly unbridgeable difference between earthly matter (which, being corrupt, tends towards the center) and heavenly matter (which does not.)
To suggest that "laws of nature" somehow take a role God once had is simply a category error. Whereas laws in the real world are prescriptive, laws of nature are descriptive. The entire notion of "laws of physics" is a mistake. Instead, there are consistent regular patterns which we observe in nature. Scientific theories of physics quantify these patterns in terms of beautiful and rational mathematical equations. But they do not actually explain what causes the patterns. I submit that these equations simply quantify God's direct and regular activity in the world. They are beautiful and logical because God is the source of all beauty and logic. The mistake of the Newtonian revolution was not its physics, but its metaphysics. There was no reason to infer a mechanistic universe- a musical universe worked just as well. But the mechanistic understanding of the cosmos took over, and this mistake led to the impression that God was forced out of his traditional territory.
What about Darwin's theory? Appleyard wrote soon after the collapse of "creation science" in terms of its teaching in public schools, in 1987. And indeed, creation science was appallingly bad at that point in time. But has there been improvement? Very much so. Kurt Wise, a Harvard trained paleontologist has sparked a renaissance in creationism, encouraging both the acquisition of scientific expertise and the use of that expertise to build coherent models rather than simply critiquing the alternative view. While creationist scientific models are young, and therefore have problems, they are highly promising: Russell Humphreys' novel theory of the magnetic field based on a young cosmos is far and away more predictively successful than the conventional dynamo model. Catastrophic plate tectonics predicted that the ocean floor would be magnetically mottled and that cold remnants of an original crust would be found deep in the mantle. Both have been confirmed.
Three years after Appleyard wrote, the "intelligent design" movement was born at the Mere Creation conference in 1996. This movement has sparked a wave of books, some of them extremely rigorous. William Dembski, the most profound design theorist, had his book "The Design Inference" published by Cambridge University Press after extensive peer-review. In addition to providing an empirical critique of naturalistic evolutionary theories (not necessarily common descent), design theorists seek to provide a quantitative basis for inferring design in living organisms. Arguing that the possibility of design detection is the necessary precondition of projects like archaeology or the search for extraterrestrial radio signals (SETI), design theorists suggest that these very same signals can be found in the living world. While intelligent design itself has not won wide acceptance, the ocean of data derived from genomic sequencing has raised serious problems with the conventional Darwinian model, leading to a proliferation of non-Darwinian evolutionary theories: natural genetic engineering, evolutionary developmental biology, inheritance of acquired characteristics, or even immanent teleology. Phylogenetic data has raised a host of problems for the theory of universal common ancestry, and the discovery of increasing function endogenous retroviruses and what were thought to be pseudogenes suggests an explanation of these features in terms other than descent from a common ancestor.
The theories which ostensibly provide the basis for metaphysical naturalism are in serious trouble. Perhaps the sky was not wiped away after all. Perhaps we are to wake up from our dream and see that the sun was there all along. This, and only this, will free us from slavery to a cosmos without meaning or purpose and from a civilization without any reason to exist.
I recommend the book for a diagnosis. But, left as it is, Appleyard's diagnosis is that the disease is terminal. The cure is out there- but not in Appleyard's book.
Not only has it provided the tools to have a life that would have been unimaginable when I was born, but also the fruits of science helped save me when I had a surprising medical challenge. And it became a building block of a successful career.
But I have also been beset by nagging worries about the direction of the scientific enterprise and by the disinterest of most scientists in the implications of what we are doing.
In discussions with many prominent scientists, most go blank or shrug when asked about the philosophical underpinnings of science, or the practical implications of unfettered and unaccountable scientific experimentation.
Enter Bryan Appleyard's excellent book. Bryan is a journalist who writes mainly for the Sunday Times in London, though he has some other outlets: if you are interested, I subscribe to his wonderfully iconoclastic weblog - Thought Experiments - through mine: RichardGPettyMD.blogs. You will have to work out the final part of the address: this review will not allow me to post the whole link!
This is a book about the "appalling spiritual damage that science and how much more it can still do." Not the physical damage of rampant technology, but from an inner desolation.
Attacks on science are two-a-penny, but rarely do they come from someone birthed into a family of engineers, who taught him to respect science and its handmaiden: technology. He does not want some return to nature of like Rousseau or the Luddites: he wants to restore balance into human affairs.
As he says, despite the admirable intentions of most scientists, "science, quietly and inexplicitly is talking us into abandoning ourselves."
He goes on to say that,
"Science is not a neutral or innocent commodity which can be employed as a convenience by people wishing to partake only of the West's material power. It is spiritually corrosive, burning away ancient authorities and traditions. It cannot really co-exist with anything... As it burns away all competition, the question becomes: what kind of life is it that science offers to its people?.... What does it tell us about ourselves and how we must live?"
Though most scientists tend to disclaim responsibility for social and spiritual matters, they cannot continue to do so.
The trouble he says, is not with science, which is simply a method and a tool, but scientism: the belief that science is, or can be the complete and only explanation for life, the universe and everything. But explaining everything means understanding everything that exists, and that is a tall order.
So "scientists inevitably take on the mantle of the wizards, sorcerers and with doctors," and they have become the preferred authority on matters of morality and spirituality. Bryan cites a troubling quotation form the former Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru: "
"It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening of custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, or a rich country inhabited by starving poor... Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid... The future belongs to science and those who make friends with science."
The trouble is that science by its very nature is designed to be objective, and when scientism rules supreme, Nature and the universe are no longer seen as a living whole with purpose and meaning, but is instead dead material for study. Science provides us with descriptions of the universe that contain everything except us.
Subjectivity is not an illusion, even though we constantly see people who claim that all of our thoughts and emotions are simply reflexes.
So what are the solutions?
Bryan believes that understanding the limitations of science and of what it can explain is all to the good. After pointing out the limitations of a purely objective science, he believes that our thoughts and feelings, our relationships with others and the meanings that they create are the bedrock of existence. He also alludes to the idea of a new science that will se beyond the objective and may contribute to the development of a new spirituality.
In this he presages the fascinating work by Alan Wallace who is creating a "contemplative science" that incorporates contemplative practices and contemporary neuroscience to arrive at an extraordinary synthesis.
The myth of an all-seeing all-knowing science that insists that we are simply bio-molecular machines is dangerous in that, if taken too far, it strips us of some of the key components of our humanity.
Although this book was originally written several years ago, its arguments are even more important today, and I recommend it to anyone with any interest in the philosophical foundations of the modern world.
Richard G. Petty, MD, author of Healing, Meaning and Purpose: The Magical Power of the Emerging Laws of Life
Certainly, by driving god out of the physical world, we have greatly disrupted societies. But the garden of Eden ain't there anymore to return to. appleyard writes well at times of the history of ideas in science, but stumbles when he gets to about 1900. He identifies some serious problems with modernity, but settles to easily in casting blame. Why is there no blame for the cruel abusers of power in ancient times using claimed knowledge about the physical world and god to keep the masses oppressed? Didn't their sociopathology pave the way for societal disruption by new knowledge.