The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Friday, November 8, 2013

Man and Machine: Part Two

Science Falsely So Called

This summer I re-read The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth century, three-part epic poem. The poem begins with the author-narrator, lost in the woods, beset upon by wild beasts, when he is rescued by Virgil, the Roman poet. Virgil tells him, that he has come back from the underworld at the request of Beatrice who, having obtained this special grace for Dante, had sent Virgil to be his guide through the lands of the dead. In the first part of the poem, the Inferno, Virgil guides Dante down through the circles of hell, from limbo at the top, where virtuous pagans who lived without the grace of baptism exist without torment or hope, to the prison of Lucifer at the heart of the earth. In the second part of the poem, the Purgatorio, Virgil guides Dante up the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory, located on an island in the Southern Hemisphere. On each terrace, the redeemed are purged of one of the seven deadly sins. Finally, at the top, they arrive at Earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden, which is as far as Virgil, who represents pagan reason and virtue can bring him. There, the mysterious Matilda meets them and brings Dante to Beatrice, the symbol of divine love and wisdom, who guides him for the rest of his journey in the Paradiso, through the abode of the blessed in the celestial spheres and into the very presence of God.

I confess that I have always found the first part of this poem to be the most interesting and have read the Inferno far more often than I have read either of the other parts or the Divine Comedy as a whole. I suspect I am not alone in this either. For some perverse reason the sufferings of the damned seem more interesting than the joys of the blessed. This time was no different and in the twenty-sixth canto of the Inferno something caught my attention.

At this point in the story, Virgil and Dante are approaching the very bottom of the pit. They are in the Malebolge, the eighth circle of hell in which fraud is punished. To get through the Malebolge to reach the ninth and final circle, the circle of traitors, they have to pass through ten ditches and in the eighth of these they encounter the false counsellors, the liars, who are encased in tongues of fire. Among these they find Ulysses, the king of Ithaca, whose wiles and tricks helped the Greeks to win the Trojan War. He was the hero of Homer’s Odyssey but not thought highly of by the Romans, who saw themselves as the heirs of Troy. He speaks to Dante and tells the story of his final voyage. After the events recounted in the Odyssey, his love for his family proved insufficient to “overcome in me the zeal I had, To' explore the world, and search the ways of life, Man's evil and his virtue” (1) and so he set sail again, this time to the west, past the pillars of Hercules, out into the ocean where he spotted a mountain, “loftiest methought Of all I e'er beheld.” (2) This was Mt. Purgatory, and when he attempted to approach it, a whirlwind from the island struck his vessel, whirled it around in the waves three times, then sank it on the fourth.

As I read this story this summer, certain lines ran through my head. “It may be that the gulfs will wash us down/It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles”. These lines occur towards the end of a poem that I committed to heart some time ago, “Ulysses” by Victorian Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson. (3) I was astonished to realize the connection between the two poems in which the same story is told from such remarkably different standpoints, but it is undeniable. Tennyson’s poem begins with a restless Ulysses, after his return to Ithica, begrudging the dreariness of his existence and “how dull it is to pause to make an end/To rust unburnished, not to shine in use” while his spirit was “yearning in desire/To follow knowledge like a sinking star/Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” He praises his son Telemachus, “to whom I leave the scepter and the isle” and then, in the final stanza of the poem Ulysses reveals that he is at the port, addressing his mariners as the “vessel puffs her sail.” He commands the crew to set out, for “my purpose holds/To sail beyond the sunset and the bath/Of all the western stars until I die”. There is only one version of the story of Ulysses prior to Tennyson’s poem that includes this voyage, a version the divergences of which from the classical myth are followed by Tennyson, and which is clearly Tennyson’s source. The voyage that Tennyson’s Ulysses is about to set out upon is the one Dante’s Ulysses recounts in hell.

This puts Tennyson’s poem into a rather interesting new light. Tennyson’s Ulysses has generally been understood as a sympathetic, admirable, noble, and heroic character. This is certainly how I had always read him. Throughout the poem, the Ithican king joins recognition of age and the inevitability of death with a determination to seek life, experience, and knowledge and set his will against fate, culminating in the famous, oft-quoted concluding lines in which he declares that though ”We are not now that strength which in old days/Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;/One equal temper of heroic hearts/Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” In popular culture, these lines are often quoted as a statement of defiance, on the part of a hero fighting against seemingly unbeatable forces. Literary critics, have often seen in the spirit of Tennyson’s Ulysses, a personification of Victorian England herself and the driving will behind both her Empire and her scientific discoveries and achievements. It would not a huge leap to extrapolate from this an interpretation of Tennyson’s Ulysses as the embodiment of what Oswald Spenger identified as the Faustian soul of modern Western civilization – the rejection of limitations and the striving for the infinite.

Yet that very term “Faustian” brings us back to where Tennyson borrowed the story from in the first place. Spengler’s Faust, was Goethe’s Faust. Goethe had taken the old legend and re-shaped it, turning the lecherous old scholar who sells his soul for youth and worldly gain, into a noble figure, a flawed tragic hero who makes a bad bargain to attain unlimited, knowledge. In the end, having won his bet with the devil by finding happiness in doing good, the soul of Goethe’s Faust is snatched by the angels from the clutches of Mephistopheles and brought into the presence of God. In a sense, Goethe’s reinterpretation of the Faust legend is similar to Tennyson’s reinterpretation of Dante’s Ulysses. In both reinterpretations, a character who in the original brings about his own destruction through arrogant foolishness is made into an example of a noble spirit, who defies chance and fate in pursuit of knowledge, who is to be emulated and who embodies the modern scientific spirit of nineteenth century Germany in the one instance and Victorian England in the other.

When a story is reinterpreted like this, the person doing the retelling feels that they can bring to light something in the story that had previously been neglected or overlooked. Perhaps, however, it is the older stories that can shed a light on elements of the newer. If Goethe’s Faust and Tennyson’s Ulysses represent the spirit of the scientific age, perhaps the way these characters are depicted in earlier versions of their stories, like Dante’s Inferno, and the fate that awaited them there, contains an insight into modern science that has been lost along the way.

Science is a word that comes to us from the Latin word scientia which simply meant knowledge, the very thing which Goethe’s Faust and Dante and Tennyson’s Ulysses, were seeking. Any sort of knowledge, whether it was knowledge of the natural world, practical knowledge of how to do things, or philosophical and theological knowledge, was originally considered to be a science. Today, we ordinarily limit the use of the word science to the physical or natural sciences, knowledge of the world of matter and energy. Even the so-called social sciences, like psychology and sociology, fall under this category because they treat human behaviour as a phenomenon of the physical world, produced by natural forces and processes, and to be studied according in the same way in which a chemist studies chemical processes or a physicist studies bodies and motion.

Why is it that we now reserve the word science for methodically precise, systematically organized, knowledge of the physical world?

This usage reflects a judgement that modern man has made, the judgement that this kind of knowledge is either more important than all other kinds of knowledge or the only true kind of knowledge that there is. This same judgement is also reflected in the way modern man has devoted so much of his energies to amassing this type of knowledge at the expense of all other types.

On what basis did modern man make this judgement? Was he right to do so?

The true believers and advocates of modern science would say that the judgement is true, that what we now call scientific knowledge is the only true and/or important kind of knowledge, that modern man was right therefore to judge it to be so, and that modern man arrived at this recognition of scientific knowledge as the only knowledge by dedicating himself to the pursuit of truth.

I disagree. Modern scientific knowledge’s chief appeal to man is clearly its usefulness to him. By means of modern scientific knowledge man can harness the forces and processes of the universe and make them serve his bidding. This is, in fact, how man has used this knowledge. He has put the power of wind, water, steam, fossil fuels, and even the energies that bind the atom together to work for him. Surely this, and not some high and noble search for the truth, is the real motivation behind modern science.

The idea that modern science has truth as its aim is actually quite laughable. Premodern man built his civilizations on the idea that truth, beauty, and goodness were real and absolute, that they were out there for man to seek, to strive for, and to find and that it was in the striving for these that man developed the virtue and character in which true happiness lies. Modern man rejected the absolute and transcendental in favour of substitutes for these that he chooses and creates for himself. As George Grant put it “’values’ are supposed to be the creations of human beings and have, linguistically, taken the place of the traditional ‘good,’ which was not created but recognized.” (4) That modern man has done exactly the same thing with beauty is evident in much of what has been produced under the label “art” in the last century. (5) “Truth” too, is treated by modern man, not as something that is, but as something for man to decide upon, choose, and create for himself.

Science’s esteem with modern man comes primarily from its usefulness to him not its ability to tell man the truth about himself and the world he lives in. Often modern man fails to distinguish between the two and believes that because science can do and has done so many things for him that it can therefore be relied upon as an authoritative source of true knowledge about the universe. Truth does not necessarily go together with usefulness, however, as the history of science shows.

Throughout history man has used scientific hypotheses to invent techniques and devices that have been very useful to him. That same history is the history of the constant replacement of old hypotheses with new ones. A hypothesis is devised, tested, taken to be valid, from that hypothesis a useful invention is created, and then at a later date the hypothesis is overthrown and replaced with a better one. That the hypothesis later proves to be false did not prevent it from being useful. Usefulness and truth are therefore quite separate qualities indeed.

In fact, one of the most important ideas put forward in the philosophy of science in the twentieth century, is the idea that a scientific theory is to be distinguished from non-scientific theories, by its falsifiability. For a theory to be falsifiable it must be vulnerable to evidence that will show it to be false. A theory that can accommodate or adjust itself to all possible evidence cannot be disproven. Such a theory, Sir Karl Popper argued, is not scientific because it is not falsifiable. Popper’s idea challenged the older idea that to be scientific, a theory had to be verifiable, i.e., capable of being demonstrated to be true.

Popper did not mean by this, of course, that to be scientific, a theory had to be false. One could perhaps reason to that conclusion by arguing that for a theory to be falsifiable, it must be false, because a theory that is true cannot be genuinely proven to be false, but it is potential falsifiability as opposed to invulnerability to falsification even before the evidence is assessed that Popper had in mind. Nevertheless, by insisting that a scientific theory be falsifiable, i.e., vulnerable to evidence that can overthrow it, Popper drove a further wedge between the ideas of scientific usefulness and scientific truth.

It would seem, however, that a far better criterion of demarcation for what is meant by science in the modern sense of the word, is neither verifiability nor falsifiability, but usefulness. All the information science gathers, the hypotheses it develops, and the experiments it runs, have as their end the bending of nature to man’s use.

Man observes that some substances in nature have the property of being fire-resistant. He studies these substances, gathering information, in an attempt to figure out what makes them fire-resistant. Is this to satisfy his curiosity? No, at least not primarily. It is because he wishes to transfer the property of fire-resistance to other substances, to protect objects he considers to be valuable from the threat of fire.

Man observes that the water running down a river and over a waterfall is moving with a tremendous force. He figures out that force can be made to turn a turbine in a generator that can provide electricity for an entire region. He observes the forces that hold subatomic particles together and realizes that by splitting the atom he can release that power, either to destroy his enemies in an explosion, or to provide yet another source of electric power. He observes that birds and insects fly through the air, studies the processes by which they do so, and devises an artificial means of transporting himself through the air.

That is the nature of modern science – to observe nature, and the forces and processes at work within it – so as to use those forces and processes for his own ends, to control them, to replicate the effects he wishes to replicate, to prevent the things he wishes to prevent, all with the purpose of improving his own existence.

The ends to which man puts the control over nature he obtains through science may be good or bad in themselves, and they are often good – alleviating suffering, lightening the burden of work, etc. In the entire enterprise of modern science viewed as a whole, however, there is more than a hint of that arrogance and presumption that brought Dante’s Ulysses to his destruction. In their Journal, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt told of a prediction made in 1869 by chemist Pierre Marcellin Berthelot that within a century through chemistry and physics, man would have unlocked the secrets of the atom and harnessed its power. Also present was physiologist Claude Bernard who predicted that man would be able to manufacture human life. The Goncourts, wrily added their own prediction, that when all of this had been accomplished, God, with white beard flowing, would come down from heaven, swinging a set of keys like an innkeeper, and say “Closing time, gentlemen”. (6) Today, the first two predictions have come true, and while God has not yet shut us down, the Goncourts’ prediction that He would was surely a response to the human arrogance contained in the other predictions. Today, man in his arrogance has, through his mastery of the atom, given himself the power to destroy both himself and the world in which he lives. Perhaps we have not avoided the shutdown the Goncourts predicted, but are merely living in a moment of temporary reprieve of sentence.

Modern man, in his arrogance, accounts this science which gives him control over the elements and to a degree control over fate and chance, the only true knowledge. Yet, as we have seen, science’s usefulness to man in securing his control over nature has no necessary connection with truth. At one time, knowledge and truth were inseparable concepts, and if a person “knew” something that later proved to be untrue we would say “he thought he knew…..” because the knowledge he thought he had was not true knowledge, not being in line with what was actually true. Science gathers facts about the world, to be sure, but these are to science, what trees are to a papermill, its raw materials. The mere accumulation of these facts is not science and would not produce the results that impress and dazzle modern man. It is through the processing of these raw materials, the developing and testing of hypotheses, that science produces the results that man desires, and these hypotheses need not themselves be true to provide the results. Although this methodology has usurped the name of knowledge for itself, it is questionable whether it deserves to bear it at all.

Usefulness, is science’s primary selling point, yet even if we were to draw up a category of “useful knowledge”, science would not comprise the whole of it. This point was made by British philosopher Michael Oakeshott in his 1947 essay “Rationalism in Politics”. (7) Although the main argument of that essay was that the rationalism that has permeated all of Western thought since the Renaissance has converted political thinking into ideology, a streamlined and inflexible modern substitute for tradition, in making this argument he had to explain his terminology and in explaining rationalism, he described it as a system of thought that reduced all knowledge to what he called “technical knowledge”. “Technical knowledge”, he said, was the kind of knowledge that can be written down and learned from a book, the kind of knowledge that can be systematically ordered into a series of steps. This is not the whole of knowledge, Oakeshott argued, and explained that even in something as simple as baking a cake, there is what he called “practical knowledge”, which cannot be written down and learned through a book, but which has to be learned through experience and can only be passed on from one person to another through a kind of apprenticeship, where the learner works alongside the teacher. While “technical knowledge” and “science” are not interchangeable terms the concepts do overlap and much that Oakeshott said about “technical knowledge” can be said about modern science, especially when we consider the co-penetration of knowing and making that George Grant argued was so aptly described by the term “technology”. (8)

If modern science is not even the whole of useful knowledge, how much less is it the whole of all knowledge whatsoever. One year after the Cambridge Journal first published Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics”, the University of Chicago Press published an important book by the university’s English professor, Richard M. Weaver Jr., that was entitled Ideas have Consequences. (9) This book was an attempt by Weaver, a Christian Platonist, (10) to understand the origins of the barbarism which seemed to have overtaken Western Civilization, leading to the creation and the use of the atomic bomb. Weaver traced the decay back to the nominalism of William of Ockham in the fourteenth century. Whether in a realm of their own, as in Plato, or innate in the realm in which we exist, as in Aristotle, the real existence of universals had been fundamental to classical and early Christian thinking. Nominalism denied the reality of the universals, teaching that they were just names invented by man for his own purposes. This, according to Weaver, set in action a chain reaction of ideas that reduced reality to the material, nature to the mechanical, and man to the rational, producing modern science, rationalism, positivism, logical positivism, etc.

It was more than just one bad idea leading to another, however. The nominalist rejection of the universals, initiated a retreat away from the perception of God and the higher spiritual truth at the centre of reality. This produced both a social disintegration, because civilization had been built around the spiritual centre of reality and a corresponding fragmentation of knowledge. From classical antiquity, Weaver pointed out, civilized men had been suspicious of specialization in knowledge, because it led to a lop-sided, unbalanced, worldview and an partially developed, and hence deformed, mind. Modern science, however, requires an ever increasing degree of specialization. The retreat from metaphysics, theology, and a balanced, integrated, synthesis with God at the centre, to modern scientific specialization, saw the replacement of the philosophic doctor, at the pinnacle of medieval learning, with his secular successor the Renaissance gentleman, and finally the modern scientific specialist who represented a far greater break with the previous two. Weaver recognized where the appeal in the new specialized knowledge lay:

Knowledge was power. The very character of the new researches lent them to ad hoc purposes. It was soon a banality that the scholar contributes to civilization by adding to its dominion over nature. (11)

The specialization that produced this power and dominion, Weaver argued, was no true knowledge. It required an encyclopaedic study of minute, peripheral details, while neglecting as less certain, and less real, the more fundamental truths that lay at the centre of reality, and held it all together. This both generated dangerous obsessions, and made projects like the atomic bomb project possible by keeping specialists so focused on the details that they failed to see the big picture of where their research was leading them. (12)

All of these are good reasons for considering modern science to be a part, and a small, lesser part at that, of true human knowledge. Knowledge is, of course, a good thing in itself, something to be desired and sought after. It is not the highest good, however, and when it is pursued in the wrong way, it can have unfortunate results, including potentially the destruction that awaited Dr. Faustus in the original version of the legend, and Ulysses in Dante's telling of his story. When the pursuit of knowledge is combined with human arrogance, made subservient to the human will to dominate, and joined to a rejection of the higher truths that make an integrated, complete form of knowledge possible, what ensues scarcely deserves the name of knowledge at all, and is perhaps best described by the words of St. Paul to Timothy as rendered in the King James Version “science falsely so called”. (13)

(1) Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto XXVI, 95-100, 1819 translation by Rev. Henry Francis Cary.

(2) Ibid, 130-131.

(3) Tennyson completed “Ulysses” in 1833. Like the much longer “In Memorian A.H.H.” which took him almost two decades to complete, his immediate motivation for writing “Ulysses” was the death of his friend and fellow poet Arthur Hallam. It was published for the first time in 1842, in the second volume of the collection of poems he published that year, his third collection of verse to see print.

(4) George Grant, “The Computer Does Not Impose on Us the Ways It Should Be Used”, first given as a Massey Lecture and broadcast on CBC Radio in 1975, published for the first time in 1976, and included in William Christian, Sheila Grant, ed. The George Grant Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), pp. 418-434, this particular quote being found on page 427.

(5) To be fair, the idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is much older than the Modern Age, and there are plenty of examples of pre-modern art that can not exactly be described as “beautiful” in the traditional sense.

(6) Edmond de Goncourt, Jules de Goncourt, translated and edited by Lewis Galantière, The Goncourt Journals 1851-1870, (New York: Doubleday, 1958), p. 273.

(7) Michael Oakeshott, “Rationalism and Politics”, first published in Cambridge Journal, 1947, republished as the first essay in Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and other essays, (London: Methuen, 1962). The part of the essay that I am referring to can be found on pages 7-11.

(8) George Grant, “Knowing and Making”, address to the Royal Society of Canada in 1975, published in The George Grant Reader, pp. 407-417.

(9) Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948). My review of this book can be found here:

(10) As was George Grant.

(11) Weaver, p. 57. Bold represents italics in original.

(12) Ibid, pp. 59-66.

(13) 1 Timothy 6:20

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