27 August 2011

Understanding the Present

Another old review of mine from Science and Christian Belief:

Bryan Appleyard, Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man (Picador, 1992)


Arguably science is the most effective form of knowledge the world has yet known. The developments of the past four centuries have given us unprecedented powers to manipulate our environment. But, in addition to the technological innovations spawned by science, it has bequeathed to us an outlook on the world which has had far-reaching effects on western (and, more recently, global) culture.

Bryan Appleyard’s interest in the cultural implications of science stems from interviewing Stephen Hawking for the Sunday Times Magazine in 1988. The result of his investigations is a powerful critique of modern scientific culture.

He adopts an essentially historical approach, tracing the development of scientific culture from the emergence of the modern scientific method some four centuries ago. Appleyard argues that the success of the scientific method provoked an epistemological crisis from which emerged a new worldview.

This worldview (scientism) is the bedrock of modern liberal culture. However, it precludes the possibility of taking about ultimate meaning and purpose. In the face of its ability to manipulate the world around us Western non-scientific culture has been gradually overwhelmed and transformed. Appleyard traces this ‘long tale of decline and defeat’ with particular reference to religious and moral responses. He concludes that Western Christianity has been roundly defeated by the new culture of science: theological liberalism represents its capitulation.

In later chapters, he examines contemporary developments. He explores the way in which doubts about the morality of hard science (fuelled by the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima) have encouraged a green reaction. Within science itself, the strangeness of twentieth century physics has given rise to suggestions that we may be able to develop a new spirituality, but Appleyard remains unconvinced. The final element in his indictment of scientific culture is an examination of attempts to develop artificial intelligence and the erosive implications of this for a more humanistic view of personality and selfhood.

Appleyard’s concluding chapter is both the most important and, in another respect, the weakest chapter in the book. After a lucid summary of the argument so far, he outlines the dangers of the real enemy: modern liberal culture based upon the assumptions of scientism and bolstered by the successes of science and technology. His diagnosis is superb; his proposed remedy is so feeble as to seem ridiculous. He asserts that, ‘Science begins by saying it can answer only this kind of question and ends by claiming that these are the only questions that can 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’ (p. 249). In other words, all we have to do is disentangle science from scientism. But it is not enough merely to reject the worldview of scientism. The human spirit abhors a vacuum. Unless some constructive alternative is offered, other ideologies, perhaps even more abhorrent than scientism, will rush in to replace it.

Many historians and philosophers of science will hate this book. His historical analysis is simplified to the point of distortion. For example, Galileo’s telescopic observation of the moon is blown up out of all proportion. He turns it into an icon of the scientific method. More seriously, for most of the book he confuses the method and the attendant worldview: science and scientism.

Nevertheless this is a helpful book. It is a clear and resounding critique of scientism. Appleyard’s journalistic abilities have resulted in a work capable of reaching a much wider audience than the more erudite tomes usually reviewed in these pages. It should be compulsory reading for all sixth-formers (and undergraduates)!

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