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Saturday
May232009

Science as the Enemy of Truth

Readers of the pages will understand that I have few qualms about the development of modern technology: there are so many wonderful aspects to our existence, devices that ease our every movement and task that I would be rather grim to rail against the riches that science has brought to man's thatched hut.  Yet what science is and is not remains a pervasive misconception.  Among many of my fellow earthlings the misconception can be summarized very pithily in the axiom: what science promises, faith removes.  Faith, as the persons who promote such an axiom will tell you, is nothing more than a panoply of superstitions to while away our ignorance, children's tales to explain to unripe minds what will become readily evident at a later age.  From this reasoning, anyone who subscribes to the tenets of faith believes in fairy tales because his mind cannot or will not accept the logical precision and explanation of the world in which he exists.   It might have been profitable at one time, indeed almost necessary, to flood the masses' consciousness with dreams of an afterlife and a grandfatherly caretaker who will reward the good and consign the bad to some fiery demise, and this charade was sufficient to lend hope to the farmer's russet brow and keep them in thralldom to the moneyed.  But since the middle of the nineteenth century we have lifted the veil of our foolishness and begun the steady march towards total and complete knowledge.  Gone are the mysteries of the Trinity, the whimsical writings we call the Scriptures, the agonistic effort to do good amidst the scoriae of a fallen world.  Every last corollary of Christian teaching, every last rose window within every last nave in every last chapel in the universe is a two millennia-old lie.  We have all been duped by our own fears, and should now break free and celebrate the liberty that science has bestowed upon us in the form of atheism, selfishness, greed, and living for the here and now at the expense of the there and then.  If all this sounds a bit too easy and congratulatory, that's because it is.  And what science is, is not, should and should not be are all addressed in this essay from this superb collection.

Belloc will be the first to admit that the essay's title is in fact a contradiction in terms.  Science, in its former identity, used to mean exactly what any Latinist will tell you it means: knowledge and the glorious and relentless pursuit thereof.  There is no shame in saying that knowledge has overcome many of our quainter understandings of the world; yet it has also reinforced the impression held by those of faith that although we cannot hope to comprehend even a fraction of the awesome realm that we call reality, something inside of us suggests that we may be privy to much more than we suspect.  And so, while the pundits of evolutionary clarity continue stumbling through their caverns and fossilized fictions, we are left with science as a form of petty oneupmanship that really defeats its inherent purpose:

Many men of today would by implication at least show their agreement with that phrase, "Science is the enemy of Truth"; and the number of those who feel this more or less consciously is increasing.  On seeing a passage beginning, "Science has proved ..." or "There is no scientific evidence for ..."  or "Examined in a strictly scientific spirit ...." and so forth, men are becoming more and more predisposed to quarrel with what follows.  They are filled with an "I know all about that!" feeling.  On hearing of some method that it is "scientific" they are at once prepared to find it leading to ridiculous conclusions.  They do not feel instructed; they feel warned.  Habits of eating, clothing and everything else suggested in the name of "Science" they constantly discover to be inhuman, degrading or simply silly.  The term "Scientific" applied to some recommended habit is beginning to have something grotesque about it, as likely to be in opposition to the general conclusions of mankind and our human common sense.  As for the name "Scientist," it has fallen on the worst fate of all.  It is becoming something of an Aunt Sally, and to call a man a Scientist is perilously near making a laughing-stock of him; unless you add the word "distinguished," which turns him into a statue.

No clearer proof of such a morass of competitive minds who seek victory instead of truth can be found than the continuous (and almost daily) "scientific studies" that contradict other scientific studies and, eventually, themselves.  They will tell you that drinking alcohol is both good and bad, depending on the quantity, quality, and whether you eat, sleep and exercise regularly – as if this needed millions of research funds to determine.  They will tell you that love doesn't exist in its Romantic form and is nothing more than a series of chemical reactions, and then later backtrack and espouse love as a psychosomatic healer of physical pain – which again evinces nothing new under all the suns of the universe.  

Yet the main fault with all the science-seekers that continue to do some good work in terms of technological advancement and some very atrocious work in terms of philosophy is the smugness that accompanies these additions.  As much as people may complain of proselytizing on the part of certain church advocates, there is no louder howl to be heard than from the militant atheists who have concluded before ever reading Augustine or Swedenborg, or even more recent thinkers such as Tillich, the younger Niebuhr or Belloc himself, that nothing can happen that they could not know about or understand.  They will attempt to defend themselves by stating that we know very little about the universe – a wholly true statement – and yet they know quite enough to aver that God cannot possibly exist.  Is not the question of God the most important and elusive piece of knowledge that mankind could ever have?  When confronted with this ridiculous contradiction, they swat away any doubters by employing the very same tactics of which they accuse the clergy.  Namely, that only the enlightened can possibly understand the shape and shifts of the universe, and that any suffering they might incur owing to their work (both terms used rather loosely) earns them the moniker of "martyr":

There is ... no more absurd example of "Scientific" mumbo-jumbo than this ... A "martyr to science" should properly mean one who bears witness to scientific truth by submitting to suffering rather than recant his conviction.  In this sense men are indeed martyrs to scientific truth who sufficiently anger the Scientists by pointing out their mistakes .... But our new priesthood does not use the word "martyr" in this sense at all.  They apply it to a man who is blown up in the course of a chemical experiment, or who dies of a disease caught in a medical one.  And as for "the gulf between the clergy and the laity," which was made such a grievance of against real priests, it is nothing to the gulf between the ignorant herd and Scientific Persons.  They show a corporate and almost universal contempt for the man who has not had the leisure to go through all their studies, but who can bring valid criticism to bear on their own laughable conclusions; they do not meet his criticism in its own field, they appeal to Status, to their own necessary and unapproachable superiority.

Now one would not hesitate to trust a chemist rather than a coffeehouse barista as to an evaluation of rat poison or a metallic alloy.  But I would rather have the barista make my cappuccino for the simple reason that he will know more about the chemical processes and foibles involved therewith than any chemist.  And herein lies the problem with materialistic science: there will always be someone who knows better.  The problem is not unlike the quandary of the rich man who wakes up one day and realizes that he will never become the richest man in the world: the only way he can ever be considered rich is to hobnob with those who have less than him and thus, quite logically, he spends a disproportionate amount of his time making sure that everyone knows quite how wealthy he is.  The same pockmark identifies the man of science who will devote all too many hours to highlighting the ignorance of others on, ironically, either petty things that do not matter one way or another (the chemical composition of an obscure plant, for example) or things he hasn't the foggiest notion about (the nature of God, the number of stars in a galaxy invisible to the human eye, what was taking place on earth five billion years ago).  Purely empirical knowledge like money can only be relative, because regardless of what noble intentions may have existed at the onset the quest for purely empirical knowledge will always devolve into a competition.  And apart from a few "elections" in some recent totalitarian states, no one to date has yet to win a competition in which there were no other participants.

Science in itself is a marvel, but science in itself is not the subject of Belloc's title.  What he refers to and states explicitly is the modern scientific spirit of snobbery, oneupmanship, ego maintenance and glory.  Not one of those characteristics should distinguish a true scholar.  And while Belloc exaggerates mildly when he claims that "anyone can, with patience, do scientific work," he is at the same time generally correct: we all do scientific work to form conclusions about what is hot and cold, safe or dangerous, painful or pleasant.  The person who sees a gang of toughs in an evening alleyway does not need to stroll in their direction to understand he is risking his well-being; nor does a child who has only beheld from afar a fireplace's crack and spittle need to immerse his hand in flame to see what might come of it.  Our method of reasoning perception, what science often claims belongs to it and it alone, is how we deal with the majority of our reality's moments, but this is coupled with a large amount of faith.  We believe that certain things will and will not occur that have nothing to do with empirical observation.  We believe that our spouses, who are apparently only attracted to us by chemicals, will not find the chemicals of others more attractive even during long periods of separation from our chemicals.  We believe that our government will do everything in its power to avoid a nuclear war, or war in general, although we have little material evidence that would persuade us of its unswerving commitment to that end.  But with the scientists who have come to outyell all other voices of reason, we encounter a particularly virulent form of egoism that has spelled the downfall of many of their predecessors:

[The] Scientist has acquired a habit of achievement in knowledge: in knowledge not possessed by the mass of other men.  This breeds in him a natural pride, and from that root, I think, spreads that extraordinary presupposition I have noted, unconscious, but very much alive, that the scientist is possessed of universal knowledge .... [and so] a cause of the Modern Scientific Spirit's disease would seem to be the exclusion from consciousness of all that is not measurable by known and divisible units, because the scientific method can only deal with results recorded in known and divisible units.  Thus, the physical scientist tends through habit to a state of mind in which qualities not so measurable seem negligible or imaginary; hence the loss of the sense of beauty -- the loss of all that is qualitative; the loss of distinction and of hierarchy in sensation.

This is where science ends: at the doorstep of a lab of no color, shape or distinction.  Science travels a long path and completes tasks to make our lives easier, safer and healthier, but it must know its limits.  It cannot explain the sensations we feel when we look upon the starry sky, the curdling ambition that restrains us in our speech and manners for fear of offending some greater party, our sympathy for those who will never love or even know us, those whose predicaments we will never personally confront,  those who exist as blurry forms on the periphery of our privileged paths.  There can be no scientific explanation for the feelings that rise in our throats when we see what we have and what they do not, when we contemplate the suffering that has ravaged the world in every century to the detriment of the majority but not of us.  There is no logical explanation for us, nor can science ever hope to develop one.  Except, of course, if what we understand as science is extended back to its original sense to what we might learn from the realms of the unseen and unprovable.  And we see and what we can prove are often two wholly different things.

Reader Comments (4)

Quite a narrow view of "modern scientific spirit". Replace every instance of "science" and "scientific" with "religion" and "religious" and you will still have quite a narrow view of something, although less so.

May 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNiko

A narrow view of the "modern scientific spirit" that, alas, is wholly self-inflicted. You will find scientists who entertain notions of Christianity or other faiths and realize in appropriate humility that their advances are fantastic but still dwarfed by what they cannot know; such admirable souls are few and far between. Most scientists seem to dismiss every shred of religious insight, casting it into a pile of rags for which they have no use. True religious insight is, however, hardly narrow: it is all-encompassing, its breadth made more exciting by the potential it establishes for the human soul. But modern scientists only see the restrictions and responsibilities it entails, and that is a narrow view indeed.

May 25, 2009 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

"One man's magic is another man's light switch."

I was raised by a scientist. Our family did not attend church and my father does indeed feel that the church is and has been an enemy of truth. But he will tell you that scientific 'truth' is, and should be, cast always in a questioning light. Science has never proven anything. That is why the word theory is the bedrock upon which all scientific knowledge is built. Real science requires an open mind and an ability to allow for long held beliefs to be malleable with regard to ongoing scientific inquiry. This hard for human beings to do in any field. Take the field of art. When the impressionists began to make headway with the public in the 19th century many art 'experts' were horrified that such a style of painting might be regarded as truly artistic. Breaking ground, stretching limits or challenging a seemingly settled way of doing things always faces difficulty. But to those who are actually doing the limit stretching, the challengers of the status quo, the difficulties faced fill them with exhilaration and purpose. The kind of person who can be filled with such purpose is often arrogant and self-righteous. In this way artists and scientists are alike. It often takes arrogance and self-righteousness to simply get new things done. These qualities can make such people somewhat insufferable.

I lived around scientists throughout my childhood. I've listened to them argue with one another. I know how they can pontificate from their lofty podiums and look down upon the unenlightened. And I know just how human they really are. Again, they are very like artists. They hide their insecurities behind bluster and incredulity. They are filled with vision and people like you and I just don't get it. Quite insufferable. Yet, scientists put men on the moon, discover galaxies and probe atoms. And you ask, "What about the soul?"

For the seeker of spiritual fulfillment science would seem to offer very little. There is a void within that numbers and words can't fill and science is mostly numbers and words. But for me science does fill that void. I look at photos from the Hubble telescope and see wondrous vistas beyond wild imagining and it fills me with awe. An awe akin to religious bliss. At least I think it to be so. I need no promises of life after death or a personal relationship with God. A clear picture of a storm on the surface of Jupiter is enough. To look at the moon and think that we've put footprints upon it thrills me to the bone. But this is my fulfillment, I don't feel that yours must be similar to be real.

September 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Durham

David, thank you very much for your eloquent comments. I actually greatly enjoy science and its discoveries (I was a math prodigy in a previous life), but it is not quite enough for me. Perhaps because we are young and life's end seems unlikely, many of us do not grasp the basic fact: if there is nothing beyond this life, then living it is utterly worthless. Many of the modern scientific spirit will howl at such a statement, but again, I wonder how they will really feel at death's door, when darkness is about to envelop them.

There are two main differences between the scientist and the artist. The first is that while most if not all artists allow for science, scientists have little use for the spiritual and think it the relic of primitive societies. They actually say, and say arrogantly, that "an old man with a beard who hears and knows everything could not possibly be" -- as if that is what most believers advocate. And therein lies the second difference: the scientist will dismiss miracles because he cannot imagine there could be something he or his colleagues could not learn; the artist begins with the assumption that beyond this existence lies another, and that makes him appropriately humble. Thanks again for your comments.

September 13, 2009 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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