Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Case For The Poetic Scientist

Faith in Science

While I am first to admit and agree that science continues to play an important role in our lives, notably in the field of medicine, I can also happily admit that its importance can be over-stated, allowing it to push non-scientific disciplines under the humanities umbrella outside the public eye. It can also create a faith in science, essentially describing scientism, which pushes/forces science to answer questions that it is incapable of answering.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor emerita of history at the City University of New York, raises such a point in an excellent article  (“Evolution and Ethics, Revisited”) in The New Atlantis; she writes:
They persuade the world of what is false by urging upon it what is true.” That is John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University (1852) referring to the sciences of his day, which threatened to dominate and even overwhelm theological education in the university. A science’s teaching might be true in its proper place but fallacious “if it be constituted the sole exponent of all things in heaven and earth, and that, for the simple reason that it is encroaching on territory not its own, and undertaking problems which it has no instruments to solve.”

While Newman’s notion of science was far broader than ours, including even painting and music, his description of the overreach of science is still apt. We now have a term — “scientism” — for that fallacy, exemplified, as has been demonstrated in these pages, by Richard Dawkins’s pronouncement that genes “created us, body and mind,” and Edward O. Wilson’s claim that biology is the “basis of all social behavior.” If scientism has become so prevalent, it is partly because of the emergence of new sciences, each encroaching, as Newman said, on “territory not its own” (invading, we would now say, the turf of others), and each professing to comprehend (in both senses of that word) the whole. Intended as an epithet, the term has been adopted as an honorific by some of its practitioners. A chapter in the book Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized (2007) by three philosophers is entitled “In Defense of Scientism.

Newman’s book appeared seven years before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which provoked the classic case of scientism — the mutation of Darwinism into social Darwinism. There had been earlier theories of evolution, such as Lamarck’s. And there had been earlier doctrines, most notably Malthus’s, that applied to society the concept of a “struggle for existence.” Indeed, Darwin had been inspired by Malthus, while opposing Lamarck. But it was the Origin that gave credibility to the theory of evolution and, inadvertently, encouraged others to extend it to society, making the “survival of the fittest” the natural and proper basis for human behavior and social relations.

The emergence of social Darwinism recalls the adage of another eminent Victorian. “Ideas,” wrote Lord Acton, “have a radiation and development, an ancestry and posterity of their own, in which men play the part of godfathers and godmothers more than that of legitimate parents.” Darwin, the unwitting godfather of social Darwinism, disowned even that degree of parentage. He dismissed as ludicrous the charge of one reviewer that he had endorsed “might is right” thereby justifying the idea “that Napoleon is right & every cheating Tradesman is also right.” Challenged on another occasion to declare his views on religion, he replied that while the subject of God was “beyond the scope of man’s intellect,” his moral obligation was clear: “man can do his duty.” Averse to controversy in general (even over the Origin itself), Darwin played no public part in the dispute over social Darwinism. That battle was left to Darwin’s “bulldog,” as T. H. Huxley proudly described himself — “my general agent,” Darwin called him. Huxley’s arguments against social Darwinism are all the more telling because they come not, as might have been expected, from a cleric or theologian, but from an eminent scientist and ardent Darwinist.
Perhaps Prof. Himmelfarb is herself overstating her case; yet, I do not think it is so. Social Dawinism in some new mutated form is in the air. Social Darwinism is a by-product of scientism, despite the strenuous and articulate objections of evolutionary scientists who protest that their research is serious science that can answer most, if not all, questions about humanity. A type of bravado that is telling, and says much. Digging deep into a narrow hole will only develop a longer narrow hole; it can also trap you in your own narrow thinking.

Most reasonable people accept the theory of evolution, but not everything that has the title of “evolution” attached to it, including the current work coming out of the fields of biology, psychology and neurology. People might be both fascinated and uncomfortable with some of its prime implications. When science reduces humanity to an accumulation of genes or atoms or similar ideas, it leads to the type of unconscious thinking common among to many evolutionary scientists that we are in a sense “deterministic beings. True, no serious scientist would admit to this, yet it is one of those unsaid things.

It is my view that science, and I have sufficient understanding of it, is important, but it alone cannot answer all of our questions, nor do I think it ought to; for example, there are moral questions that have developed independently of science, and require disciplines such as philosophy, religion, history, literature and other subjects of the humanities to inform us. (A close reading of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Eliot’s Daniel Deronda might help the scientist better understand the human condition.)

I agree with Prof. Himmelfarb that a little humility might be what scientists today need. And perhaps some poetry: Himmelfarb writes: “This may be too radical a leap for the scientist of our own day — to invoke not only morality but poetry as a corrective to scientism.”

For more, go to [NewAtlantis].

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