JR'S Free Thought Pages
Science, Anti-Science and the Future of Humanity
by A C Grayling
I Science and Anti-Science
Science often comes under attack. There is nothing new in this; it has always had its critics. Not even the virulence of the present attack is new. But it is being mounted in the midst of an epoch of extraordinary scientific achievement, in the very teeth of discoveries that have transformed the human condition. Why?
In the seventeenth century science’s chief opponent was the Inquisition, which succeeded in making Galileo repudiate a truth - namely, that the earth orbits the sun - in a manner entirely characteristic of non-scientific styles of thought: deny that the earth moves, the Inquisition told Galileo, or be burned at the stake.
In the nineteenth century the anti-science lobby’s attack was directed at evolutionary theory. In the course of a public debate Bishop Wilberforce asked whether Darwin’s defender T. H. Huxley was descended from monkeys on his mother’s or his father’s side. The bishop’s aim was to defend the Book of Genesis not by careful assessment of evidence but by appeal to ridicule, human amour propre and superstition.
Half the population of the United States today still shares Wilberforce’s creationist view. This shows that the terms of the debate have not changed. In one corner stands science; in the other a various coalition of opponents who complain that science is dehumanizing, destructive, soulless, and hostile to religion. The contest has many spectators, as evidenced by the huge sales enjoyed by popularizing works on science, notably Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and attacks such as Brian Appleyard’s Understanding the Present. What are the arguments on each side, and what is at stake?
The case for science is straightforward. Scientific understanding has grown exponentially since the work of Galileo and Newton in the seventeenth century. Its power, both as a method and as a framework of ideas, is evidenced by its applications through technology. It is hard to think of a single aspect of life, in the West at least, that is untouched by science, mostly to the benefit of mankind: as witness electric light, antibiotics, air transport, telecommunications, central heating, the computer, and much besides.
Science is an intellectual triumph of staggering proportions. It says much about human intelligence and ingenuity that we have learned so much about the world, and have been so successful in adapting aspects of it to our use. Science is the great achievement of modern times, on a parallel with the artistic and humanistic achievements of the Renaissance.
It is true that parts of science have been malevolently used, not least in the creation of weapons of mass destruction. It is also true that many technological applications of science are dangerous to the environment. But such abuses are not the result of scientific inquiry itself, but of political and economic decision. One has to distinguish sharply between knowledge and its uses, as between those who discover knowledge and those who dispose of its fruits. It is the latter who are blameable for the misuse of knowledge when it occurs.
The anti-science case is variously motivated. Some critics are alarmed by science’s picture of the universe as a neutral, contingent realm, purely material in composition and subject to dispassionate laws. They would prefer the universe to have a purpose, to be the outcome of design, and to be governed by benevolent forces. Other critics are alarmed by the thought that our cherished view of ourselves as creative, ethical beings, sensitive to beauty and capable of love, will be explained by science in terms merely of activated synapses or endocrine secretions.
These supposed threats have led to violent responses. Brian Appleyard’s emotive attack on science is premised on the fear that comes from ignorance. The ‘bitter message’ of science, Appleyard says, is that the universe offers no consolations; it does not exist for a reason, it just brutely exists, ‘like some thick-witted skinhead - mute, gormless and callous’. Science has emptied the universe of ‘goodness, purpose and meaning’, and threatens a ‘terrible inversion’ of human values. It is frightening, spiritually corrosive, and belittling. Science’s worst crime, says Appleyard, is that it ventures no answer to the question: why is there a universe at all?
Behind such hostility lies the chief reason for fear of science: its threat to religion. Some argue that there is no such threat, as suggested by the fact that many distinguished scientists have been religious: for example Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and - in the present - John Polkinghorne, who chose a vicarage over a Chair of Physics at Cambridge. But the fact is that if the propositions of science and those of religion are taken on an equal footing, as each offering the factual truth about the universe, they are squarely inconsistent. Most religious scientists have chosen to regard the propositions of religion as figurative or symbolic, thus having ‘a different kind of truth’. On such a basis one can, of course, believe what one likes; and many accept the invitation.
Science does not permit this laissez-faire approach. Its central methodological principle is that every step in inquiry and experiment has to be public, repeatable, checkable, and challengeable. It is this that gives authority to scientific theories. Critics of science offer alternative authorities for our beliefs: ancient writings, intuition, mystical insight, ethnic traditions, biology, the teachings of sages, or the example of heroes. What currently gives support to the claim that these are genuine sources of knowledge is the new intellectual fashion called ‘Postmodernism’. This says that there is no single set of truths about the world, but that there are as many different ways of seeing the world as there are cultures or even individuals, each way equally valid and ‘true’ on its own terms. There is no legitimate way of judging between viewpoints, the Postmodernists argue, and it is merely intellectual imperialism to claim that, for example, Western medicine is better than traditional African witch-doctoring. This view is known as ‘relativism’.
Thus critics charge science with ‘imperialism’ and ‘reductive undermining’ of meaning, value, beauty, and spirituality. But in doing so they reveal an ignorance. It is true that some admirers of science, and even some scientists, believe that science will one day provide the answer to everything. Such a view is called ‘scientism’ and it is a hopeless caricature of the true nature of science, which is much more skeptical and tentative in its objectives than either its extreme admirers or its critics realize.
When people talk of ‘science’ they forget that there are many sciences. Particle physics and cosmology (the study of the origins and nature of the universe) are the two most-quoted fields of inquiry, not least because great efforts are now being made to bring together the theories - quantum theory and relativity - that are respectively central to each, and which to date appear inconsistent. But from geology to ethology there is a wide spectrum of inquiries, many - like medical science - of such immediate and obvious general benefit that it is hard to see how critics can maintain their unselective hostility.
Science proceeds by subjecting hypotheses to rigorous examination, wherever possible experimentally. Failure to falsify a theory does not mean that the theory is true, only that it can be used until something better appears. Accordingly all science is defeasible and open-ended; further evidence can refute or change it, and in the end the only justification a theory can have is a pragmatic one. Science lives by inquiry, of which the essence is healthy skepticism and open-mindedness.
Each branch of science is concerned with a defined range of phenomena. Botanists, geologists and meteorologists respectively study plants, rocks and the weather, none of them venturing thereby to explain the achievement of Michelangelo or the ethical dimensions of market economics. These matters -aesthetics and politics - are subjects for debate in their own right, and no one supposes that answers to the problems they pose could pop out of a test-tube. Critics of science have a vague notion that this latter is what, in the end, scientists aspire to, which shows that they are hopelessly ignorant of what they attack.
The open-mindedness of science, and its need to thrive in the fresh air of challenge and debate, contrasts sharply with religion. Religions are governed by inflexibilities of dogma and tradition, in defense of which - incredibly - many people are prepared to kill. Throughout history, religions have been the most destructive and threatening of social phenomena, often irrational and frequently oppressive and violent. Despite the personal solace that religion offers (a psychological function performed by other things also, like art and love), and the artistic inspiration that it has prompted (but such inspiration comes from many other sources besides), on the organized scale it is a frightful disease, the cancer of history.
Among the vast differences between science and religion is the fact that the former is progressive and cumulative, the latter static and backward-looking. Perhaps mankind’s hope lies in this fact, for it suggests that open-minded curiosity might eventually defeat the superstitions that still oppress many. Voltaire once remarked that he loved the man who seeks truth, but hated the man who claims to have found it. There are no prizes for guessing which was the scientist, which the priest.
II The Future of Humanity
Does humanity have a future? Two very different sets of reasons, one good and one bad, have been advanced to suggest a pessimistic answer to this question. The bad reasons are offered by John Gray in a book called Straw Dogs, the good ones by Martin Rees in a book called Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century?
Gray’s thesis is that since human beings are animals, they are no more capable of directing their collective future or improving their collective lot than are monkeys or marmosets. The belief that humans are special and can make progress in a variety of ways is, he says, an illusion, and so therefore are all the systems of thought which have promoted or premised this idea. Weirdly, Gray says this notion originates with Christianity and has been inherited by ‘humanism’, a word to which he attaches at least four separate senses, all of them confused, a fact which explains much of the general muddle he gets into.
The observation that humans are animals is taken by Gray to entail that they are subject to exactly the same determinism as all other animals in respect of population growth and decline, eventual extinction, and impotence in the face of what their ‘assemblage of genes’ dictates. So, beliefs to the effect that humanity can change itself and its environment, improve its lot, learn from its mistakes, manage its technologies, and strike a balance with the rest of nature, are in his view all nonsense. Human fate is dinosaur fate: to exist, and then to vanish, willy nilly, with humanity having only deluded itself that it understood anything, got anywhere, or achieved anything - least of all in the moral sphere.
In short, the quest for knowledge and the exercise of reason are, says Gray, masks for a false belief in the special status of humankind in the world. As a particular example of this thesis Gray attacks philosophy - the reflective enterprise par excellence - as misguided in the past and vacuous now, since in the past it advocated the considered life (‘the unconsidered life is not worth living’ said Socrates), while now it has neither religion nor political ends to subserve, and therefore is empty.
Let us leave aside the peculiarity of why anyone who seriously believed all this would write a book about it (what would be the point? for by its own argument it would change, or at very least improve, nothing), and look at details. First, consider Gray’s woeful confusions over the word ‘humanism’. Originally, in the Renaissance, this word denoted an interest in history and classical philology. Because of the content of those studies the term soon acquired its chief meaning, to denote the belief that moral, political and intellectual matters are to be understood and debated in human as opposed to transcendent (that is, religious) terms. Gray seems to be ignorant of this sense, because he persistently claims that humanism results from the belief, which he assigns to Christianity, in the distinctiveness of humanity as against the rest of nature; which puts the cart before the horse, given that Christianity acquired the best (but of course not all) of its otherwise jejune ethics from classical antiquity, the true source of humanism.
Recently an ignorant use of ‘humanism’ has made it an alternative to ‘speciesism’, that is, a belief that the interests of human beings are superior to and always trump those of other animals. Gray frequently confuses this latter use for the second equally ignorant sense already mentioned, in which ‘humanism’ means that human beings are different from other animals, in the sense of not being part of the animal kingdom. And then he gives it a fourth definition, as ‘belief in progress’ (this was once more accurately called ‘perfectibilism’ and was wittily exploded by Thomas Love Peacock two hundred years ago). Gray’s misapprehension about the chief meaning of the word allows him to confuse and conflate the three other senses as need arises.
It takes little logic to see that recognizing that humans are animals does not by itself establish any of the theses Gray says follow from it. Some animals are intelligent, like dogs, and can learn and understand, while others, like worms, seem to be purely biological automata. Humans are somewhere on the scale beyond dogs; Gray’s simplistic metaphysical determinism applies focally to the worm end of things.
Nor does it take any great conceptual acuity to see that the three non-standard meanings of ‘humanism’ Gray plays with do not entail one another either. One can hold any one or more of those theses independently of any of the others; they are logically independent. It might seem natural to infer ‘humans are more important’ from ‘humans are different’, but consider: we think hamsters are different from humans, without that entailing that they are ipso facto more important. Still: if I had to choose between saving a human or a hamster, I would plump for the former, since a human is far more likely than a hamster to have plans, projects, ambitions, relationships of importance to himself and others, responsibilities, things to offer his children and friends, his community, and even perhaps the world at large (suppose he is a Beethoven or Pasteur, which no hamster is likely ever to be). But this in turn does not one whit entail that I can treat the hamster unkindly. Gray, for some unfathomable reason, seems to imply otherwise.
Indeed it takes no great biological, psychological, historical or scientific knowledge to see that although humans are indeed animals, they are remarkably intelligent ones, with language and symbolism, who alone in the animal kingdom have invented electric light, television, spectacles, bicycles, cricket, prosthetic limbs, and a million other improvements to life and extensions to human capacities - along with far too many detrimental and dangerous things too, but which are just as much evidence of humans’ unique place in nature as the possessors of levels of intelligence and self-awareness hugely in excess of almost all other animals. It is silly to think that telephones, dentistry, and CD players are not marks of progress in the relevant respects over how things stood in (say) 1000 BC or even 1900 AD, even if one does not think the guided missile much of an advance on the spear.
The different and far more intelligent reasons for pessimism about humanity’s future given by Martin Rees are chiefly premised on the very intelligence and creativity which Gray, extraordinarily, denies.
Rees’s argument is not merely another futurological diatribe saying that the end is nigh, but a lucid, calm, profoundly well-informed work by a distinguished scientist. His subject is the multitude of threats from error and terror in the nuclear, biological and environmental spheres which face humanity in the twenty-first century. He reaches a deeply disquieting conclusion: humankind has, in his considered view, only about a fifty per cent chance of surviving the 21st century - at least without one or more major catastrophes that might destroy or degrade civilization, and perhaps threaten life itself.
Some of the dangers are familiar. For half a century we have been living with nuclear weapons; there are many thousands of them in the world, distributed among at least ten countries, the majority of which are not especially notable for international restraint and reliability. At least once in this short period we have been a whisker away from frightful nuclear disaster. Even if all the warheads now in existence were destroyed, what cannot be uninvented is the know-how and the appropriate technology for building new ones. And there can never be a guarantee that some country, clique or individual might not do just that.
The risk is indeed greater than it has ever been, because it is inflated by the fact that any person or group prepared to commit mass murder - a mad loner, a fanatical sect, a suicidal terrorist organization - can now use even primitive versions of nuclear weapons technology to cause mayhem, for example by means of a ‘dirty bomb’ packed into a car, whose detonation would contaminate a city with radioactivity.
The same applies even more alarmingly to the hostile use of chemical agents such as Ricin and Sarin and biological agents such as anthrax and smallpox. Determined terrorists would find these tools of destruction easier to make and deploy than nuclear weapons. Just how easily is demonstrated by a laboratory in New England, which recently synthesized the polio virus by taking its genetic blueprint from the internet, and using it to refashion a virus easily available in the laboratory. Recent history shows that the mere threat of chemical or viral attack is enough to disrupt whole societies - panic alone can do that job.
Among the familiar threats is the rapidly increasing environmental damage inflicted on the natural environment by human rapacity. Even conservative estimates of global warming predict catastrophes to seaboard cities and major, perhaps life-threatening changes to weather systems, to say nothing of the vastly increased rate of species extinctions even now happening because of human commercial activity. A certain disaster-weariness has numbed people as regards discussion of these facts and possibilities, much to our joint peril. But there are other wake-up calls in the offing, and Rees outlines these with the same measured clarity as the familiar threats.
First Rees reminds us of the poor record of past futurological predictions. Again a single example suffices. In the early years of aeronautics it was thought that because biplanes and tri-planes are better than monoplanes, future aircraft would have as many as a dozen wings stacked one above the other. Nothing better illustrates the risk of such fundamentally misleading extrapolation. Still, there are some developments on the horizon which to Rees suggest the possibility of trouble. One is nanotechnology. Consider the idea of tiny machines, smaller than molecules, devised for medical or other scientific purposes, which consume organic matter as fuel, and can replicate by making copies of themselves. Imagine them getting out of hand and replicating unstoppably, until billions of them consume the entire biosphere, extinguishing all life. The idea seems fanciful, but it is well within the limits of possibility. Robotics and computing between them are bringing ‘nanorobots’ ever closer. Computing power by itself might be enough of a threat; there might soon be computers more intelligent than humans, whose superiority could quickly lead them to dominate. Rees says, ‘A super intelligent machine might be the last invention that humans need ever make.’ He might easily, and more chillingly, have said, ‘A super intelligent machine might be the last invention humans ever make.’
Another area of unpredictability is fundamental scientific research itself. Physicists eager to understand the basic structure of matter, and relatedly the origins and earliest history of the universe, are keen to build ever more powerful super colliders for smashing atoms together, hoping to see the miniscule and fleeting elements which compose matter at its deepest level. There is a theoretical possibility that something catastrophic might happen when such entities are produced at those huge energy levels - even the destruction of the universe itself. Rees surveys the debate among physicists about ‘strangelets’, hypothetical entities which might be created in such experiments and which could trigger the collapse of earth into a small hyperdense sphere, and the even greater risk of a collider experiment generating a phase transition that would tear the fabric of space and time and collapse the entire universe into a vacuum. The risk of such things happening is very small, but the harm that might ensue is so great - indeed in the latter case infinite - that, says Rees, it is not worth taking.
This leads to the question of what ought to be done in the face of the many and accumulating risks facing humankind now. Rees is, frankly, pessimistic about whether we can do much. He says he has laid a thousand-dollar bet that he fervently hopes not to win, but honestly expects to, to the effect that by the year 2020 a million people will have perished in some catastrophe caused by error or terror. Still: something has to be tried. Rees accordingly canvasses the question of giving up much of our civil liberties to protect against terrorism, and of scientific restraint - even outright bans on certain lines of research - to prevent potential harms. He favours this last idea, even while recognizing the tension between it and the ideal of free open-ended enquiry which might lead to discoveries of immense benefit to humankind. An interesting theme runs through Rees’s thoughts on these grim topics. He believes that there might be life, and perhaps intelligent life, elsewhere in the universe. He is troubled by the thought that human life and the best of its achievements should vanish as a result of self-destructive activity. The idea appeals to him of our descendants - either human beings who have pioneered colonization of other regions of space, or post-human descendants in the form (say) of intelligent machines - preserving and carrying a record of those achievements forward. Both versions of the thought are premised on the idea that, as Rees puts it, we are in the most critical phase of human history - the knife-edge between survival and annihilation - and that the auguries are not good. We might hope that something will happen - perhaps, that science will be able to clean up any messes caused by misuses of it, or that the hideous threat of fanaticism and religious hatreds will abate - to make it possible for us to survive this perilous passage. It is more likely that some partial catastrophe will cripple us enough to delay really big catastrophes by several centuries, by throwing us back into a medieval phase (of the kind some religions overtly yearn for). But the thrust of Rees’s argument is that it seems already too late even for this. It is dispiriting that Rees’s pessimistic suggestions about how mankind can save itself are so infused with realism - in the sense, that is, that they do not include the possibility of humanity’s maturation, of growth in moral sensibility of the kind that would bring humankind together into a fraternity intent on saving itself and improving its mutual lot. For this to happen, reason and kindness would have to flourish greatly at the expense of superstition, tribalism, enmities, greed and fear - a hopeless-seeming prospect, and one therefore that Rees does not consider. And yet it remains the sole true hope for the future, which is why some of us - like the pianist still playing as the ship sinks - will not give up the theme. And we know one thing: that even if in the end the argument for reason and kindness fails, it will in the meantime have made a little bit of difference in the direction of the good.
From The Mystery of Things (2005)
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
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