JR'S Free Thought Pages
Science and Modern Times – A C. Grayling (The Form of Things: Essays on Life, Ideas and Liberty in the 21st Century, 2007, pp. 89-94)
A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford - and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com
Modern times and the rise of science are the same thing. For convenience the year 1600 could be nominated as their joint birthday, although the preceding gestation had been long, and it was not until late in the century that the first true classic of science - Newton's Principia - appeared.
But in the early decades of the century there were two outstanding figures who between them shed light that helped others see the scientific path ahead. They were Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes. Neither made lasting scientific discoveries as such (though Descartes left a legacy to mathematics), but each examined the crucial matter of how inquiry should proceed.
In their day thinkers did not differentiate between chemistry and alchemy, astrology and astronomy, medicine and magic. Bacon and Descartes in their respective ways showed how to winnow the grain of knowledge from the chaff of nonsense. To them, therefore, is owed the first steps in true scientific method, which now, in its ideal application, involves the scrupulous testing of hypotheses by evidence, openness to public assessment of results, and readiness to revise or abandon theories in the light of new or better data.
As one would expect from the cooperative use of disciplined, sober and educated intelligence, the resulting achievements have been breathtaking, and have transformed the world for the good in all respects other than those in which politics and business have misapplied them.
Against the background of these thoughts it is instructive to consider three news stories, printed as it happens on the same page in the same newspaper, which appeared on the day that these words were written. One was a report from a scientific conference in Seattle, where the discovery was announced of a remote galaxy. It lies at a distance of 13 billion light years, which puts it almost at the edge of the universe. Because distance is time in cosmological terms, to look at it is thus to see right back to a period only 750 million years after the Big Bang. The galaxy was detected by the Hubble space telescope, and Hubble's observations were confirmed by the Keck observatory on Hawaii.
The second news story reported the result of a poll conducted for ABC News in the United States, which showed that a majority of Americans believe that the earth was created in six days, that Moses parted the Red Sea, and that Noah and his family survived the Flood in the ark, accompanied by the world's animals in pairs.
E. M. Forster's motto was 'only connect'. After pondering the juxtaposition of these two stories for a while, one about fundamental science and the other about fundamentalist belief, one might turn, in the interests of making connections, to the third news story. This reported that despite the successes of the Western powers in Afghanistan, women there were still in thrall to the oppressions of a religious morality which condemned them to captivity, exploitation, indignity and death.
Girls were still married to adult men at ages as young as eight. A sixteen-year-old girl who fled her eighty-five-year-old husband was arrested and sent to prison for doing so. In Herat any woman found with a male companion not related to her by blood or marriage was subjected to a virginity examination. In many places in Afghanistan women were still barred from education. Every twenty minutes of every day an Afghan woman died in childbirth, and half of all women died in the course of one of their multiple (the average is eight) pregnancies.
These dismal data from a part of the world where religion was then (and alas is, largely, still) the only science remind one of an uncomfortable fact. Everywhere that religion has ever held temporal power, the result has approximated Taliban-style rule. We forget, in the West, how much it took to escape orthodoxy enforced by burnings at the stake, and how recently: indeed, at the beginnings of modern times with the rise of science.
It is said that we shall know a thing by its fruits. A striking fact about the adventure of science, whenever it escapes the attentions of those who pervert it to making war rather than progress, is how well it serves mankind. Think of X-ray machines, social science research into human welfare, the appliances of leisure that fill our homes with colorful entertainments and music: it is hard not to make comparisons between a world ameliorated by these things and any world shaped by taking as true the bleak and desperate ignorance of ancient legends.
Critics of these thoughts will say that they are severely tendentious: 'science is good except when bad,' says the above, and critics will point to Hiroshima and Zyklon B in Auschwitz as proof that this is an effort to get science off too lightly. At the same time they defend religion by pointing to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the sacred cantatas of Bach, the comfort it gives to the old and lonely, and the acts of benevolence it can inspire.
But the express implication of the points made earlier is that despite these positives, there are otherwise precious few ways in which religion does not do serious disservice to mankind, and many ways in which the benefits of science outweigh the disservice it can be misapplied to do. The defenders of religion point to the Sistine Chapel and Bach's cantatas, and the solace afforded the old and lonely, as a kind of equivalence to the payoff of science's positive fruits against nuclear weapons and Zyklon B. For even if religious art (invariably a product of devotion? or of the fact that the Church had the money to commission it?) and the deceiving solaces are counted into the equation, the massive burden of conflict, psychological no less than in the way of wars, inquisitions, crusades, burnings of heretics and the rest - egregious among them the Holocaust - for which religion is directly and indirectly responsible, makes for a massive weight of harm to humanity which dwarfs these benefits. Accordingly it would be a bold individual who sought to claim that, just as the hundreds of millions saved by (say) antibiotics can be invoked as some compensation for the (say) millions whom advanced weaponry has killed (adamantly granting that one person thus killed is too many), so the Sistine Chapel and someone's comfort at having a bible under his pillow make the historical excesses of (say) anti-Semitism acceptable, to say nothing of the wholesale enslavement of mankind to falsity, which religion by its nature seeks to impose, and too often succeeds. (And here one sees how hollowly it would ring to say 'and just one person thus victimized would be too many' - for religion does the contrary of concede that this is victimization.)
One key consideration is the massive and systematic falsity of views to the effect that supernatural agencies operate in the universe with express reference to the lives of human beings on this planet, given in addition that they are so often and widely invoked to direct, dominate and often distort those lives. Consider the contrast between this and science.
Science labors towards an understanding of things, testing itself vigorously and on the way (directly and indirectly - to reemploy this phrase - this latter via technologies) affecting the lives of billions every day. One can confidently reassert that the good versus harm balance lies hugely in its favor in this, as witness the commonplace example of its effects - say, electricity: the electricity that pumps water to your house, lights and heats it, cooks your food, puts you in touch with your family and friends, brings you news and entertainment – all and every day. When last did it guide a missile your way, or communicate itself to you via a torturer's cattle prod? These things tragically happen, and they are indeed applications - misapplications - of science; but though a defender of religion can rightly say that to play a numbers game is crude, it is relevant. For the dozens of mutually blaspheming and non-rationally-based religions, each claiming final and uncontestable truth on the basis of supposed revelations communicated two or more thousand years ago, live off their falsehood continuously, invoke it and rely upon it daily, and use it to motivate antipathies and conflicts as well as to encourage benignities; though even as regards this latter one would surely wish to see people encouraged to kindness and concern by feelings of humanity rather than by fairy stories (or rewards in heaven, whether or not in the form of the attentions of seventy-two virgins).
This acknowledges the point that religion - these false views of the universe - can give comfort and inspiration and prompt many acts of benevolence. One would surely wish comfort and inspiration to everyone, and applaud any act of benevolence: but still prefer that their motivation not be falsely based. And of course, uncountable acts of benevolence are performed by non-believers too, perhaps more admirably still, since humanity alone (if it is truly benevolence in the case) is the impulse.
It is in the light of this contrast between science and religion that the remarks in the first half of this piece were written. Hence the complete confidence that if one throws the net wide (for example, to include the Holocaust as one of the legacies of religion), what it catches in the respective cases is sharply different in overall character. The argument that officially atheistic communism 'has killed more people than all holy wars and holy tortures' (to quote a debating partner) repeats a canard. Was it communism's atheism that prompted the massacre of Kulaks or the starvation of Chinese peasants in the Great Leap Forward, or might it have been the ideology of class war and theories about collectivization? Where did communism learn its lessons about prophets and holy books, orthodoxy and conformity, and the need to put heretics to death? On what did it model its eschatological picture of human history, its call for suffering now in the interests of a Utopian future, its preparedness to kill and die for the faith?
Those less reflective about the nuances of history blame communism (and fascism) on the Enlightenment, failing to see that the secular, democratic and humanist offspring of Enlightenment refused to accept either fascism or communism, and defeated the former in seventeen years and the latter in seventy. For both are in fact counter-Enlightenment movements, sharing more in common with the forms of religion from which they borrowed their lineaments - the oppression of a monolithic world-view premised on a fairy tale about origins, destiny and the right morality required for salvation - than with the pluralist, open, educated, liberal society based on rights and opportunities envisioned by the eighteenth century's philosophes. Yes; this is yet to come, if ever it will; but look at the forces opposing it even as these words are written: Southern Baptists, radical Islamists.
A C Grayling Bio
Dr Anthony Grayling MA DPhil (Oxon) is Reader in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford. He has written and edited many books on philosophy and other subjects; among his most recent are a biography of William Hazlitt and a collection of essays. For several years he wrote the "Last Word" column for the Guardian newspaper and is a regular reviewer for the Literary Review and the Financial Times. He also often writes for the Observer, Economist, Times Literary Supplement, Independent on Sunday and New Statesman, and is a frequent broadcaster on BBC Radios 4, 3 and the World Service. He is the Editor of Online Review London, and Contributing Editor of Prospect magazine. In addition he sits on the editorial boards of several academic journals, and for nearly ten years was the Honorary Secretary of the principal British Philosophical Association, the Aristotelian Society. He is a past chairman of June Fourth, a human rights group concerned with China, and has been involved in UN human rights initiative.
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