Understanding the Present: An altnernative History of Science

A science and philosophy columnist for the Sunday Times of London, Bryan Appleyard is looked upon by many as one of today's most outspoken and articulate critics of science. When Understanding the Present appeared in 1992, it topped the bestseller lists in England amid a storm of controversy. The scientific journal Nature called it "dangerous" and an "assault on reason" and Time magazine noted that the book was partly to blame for a rising tide of antiscience in the West.

The book explores the history of science, from the dawn of the Enlightenment up to the present day, arguing that its triumph in almost every sphere of human activity, spectacular though it is, has come at a high price. In spite of its effectiveness -- or, indeed, because of it -- science has cut the individual adrift from his moorings, depriving him not only of a sense of ultimate meaning and purpose but also from the possibility of ever finding them. For science denies the conviction that value and meaning can be found in the facts of the world and, worse still, defines all truths as provisional, as hypotheses yet to be verified or refuted. As such, science is unable to coexist with alternative explanations and systems of belief. It renders all non-objective truths invalid.
If science were merely a methodology, this would not be a serious problem. But today science has become the dominant way of understanding the world and our place in it. It shapes our political lives, our economics, our health, and, thanks to Sigmund Freud and his intellectual heirs, even our understanding of ourselves.

The burgeoning power of science also spells trouble for liberal democracy, he insists, for it advances the idea that for every problem there is a technical solution. It waves aside questions of ultimate value and purpose as mere opinions, and since opinions are subjective they carry no weight in the public square. And yet, he says, "people live unliberal lives. They have values, convictions, preferences and loyalties by which they order the world and make it work."
Science, writes Appleyard, "makes it progressively more difficult to sustain either a morality or a spiritual conviction. Daily, liberal-scientific man is made aware of the arbitrariness of the exercise. He finds he cannot even defend his position because all arguments end in the blank inconclusiveness of the total mutual tolerance that is the one thing required of the combatants. 'We agree to differ' is the standard form toward which all conflicts in liberal society end."
One of science's most stunning achievements, in Appleyard's view, is the defeat of religion. The sheer energy, power, and effectiveness of science has today weakened the spiritual beliefs to the point where they are regarded as viewpoints among many others -- merely opinions. While religion may answer questions that science does not, the source of its answers are no longer believed, and therefore neither are its answers. Attempts have been made to reconcile religion and science. But according to Appleyard, it is "idle to pretend, as many do, that there is no contradiction between [them]. Science contradicts religion as surely as Judaism contradicts Islam -- they are absolutely and irresolvably conflicting views."

Appleyard devotes a chapter each to the emergence of environmentalism as a new kind of religion and to the metaphysical speculations accompanying advances in relativity, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory -- the three major scientific achievements of the twentieth century. In both cases, he is sympathetic but ultimately skeptical that these developments can relieve the existential crisis brought on by the rise of the scientific worldview. He is especially wary of scientists like Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan who believe in the possibility of a grand, unifying "Theory of Everything," or those champions of artificial intelligence who are working on the construction of "conscious" machines.

As Appleyard sees it, the "humbling" of science is essential if we are to regain confidence in the truth of our inner experience and in the enduring truths of traditional belief systems. By this, he means that science must be recognized for what it is: "a form of mysticism that proves peculiarly fertile in setting itself problems which only it can solve." The effectiveness of science is deceptive, he says. It begins by saying that it can only answer certain types of questions and ends by saying that only those types of questions can legitimately 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.”

This is a beautifully written and carefully argued book, one that stands head and shoulders above all the recent works examining the tense relationship between science and religion, and one that points the way toward a more humane, post-scientific culture for the 21st century.
Bryan Appleyard is a science and philosophy columnist for the Sunday Times of London

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