Science, a qualified success

A couple of times recently I’ve read the virtues of science being touted in terms of its “success”. Most recently, this was a post by “Mandolin” buried in an old thread on Edward Feser’s blog, when the contrast was with the inutility of philosophy:

Modern society cares not a whit about philosophy because philosophy hasn’t produced a single, solitary iPhone or computer or taxi or…well, anything for that matter.

But before I read that , Ian Hutchinson’s 6th December BioLogos article, though mainly directed against scientism, justified science’s place in the sun thus:

Here, my second answer is that science has a well-earned prestige and authority precisely because of its success. This prestige is, of course, one driving force behind the desire of many disciplines to be considered sciences. To use the metaphor of the market today, it is a question of “branding”.

This would seem to be making a broader contrast with “all-that-went-before-scientific-naturalism.”

Such claims always make me feel uncomfortable, because they’re uncritical at so many levels, like the parent who says they’ve given their child everything money can buy. That’s especially so when the greatest “achievements” named are moon landings, iPhones or taxis.
One reason such claims are foolish is that, as I have previously pointed out, whatever success science has had predates naturalism by centuries, and its increase probably owes more to funding and numbers of professional scientists than to the underlying methodology or philosophy.

A second reason is more serious. To speak of the “success” of science is as naive as speaking of the success of modern politics, or modern economics. Democracy may have replaced the Divine Right and Crusades, but we still have Mugabe, Assad, and the Gulf Wars. Economics may have given iPhones and space travel to the industrial world, but at the cost of a debt-ridden western economy and increasing poverty for the rest.

As for science, I don’t wish to sound like Lisardo in Dibdin’s 1817 “Bibliological Decameron” saying, “Fie on your chemical experiments” (I Googled that source – to be honest I saw the quote first in the mouth of a character in Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, back in the 1950s!). But together with the technological toys that enable governments to crow about their superiority and Joe Public to browse Facebook and shopping catalogues all day long, and those admittedly more substantial gains like increased medical knowledge, one cannot justly ignore the more Promethian results of science. I feel it necessary to enumerate just a few.

Ancient man may have worried unduly about impiety causing the end of the world. Science has, in contrast, almost delivered it. Need I remind anyone that global warming, though usually expressed in terms of heroic science’s warnings to the uneducated and feckless, is the direct result of scientific industrial pollution and vehicular emissions? The holes in the ozone layer that were the previous scare were the result of scientifically-produced refrigerants. Nuclear destruction threatened the end of all life for much of the last half century, despite Oppenheimer’s belated regrets, and the scientific industrialisation of war has killed countless millions from the American Civil War onwards. Thousands of innocents still suffer each year from land-mines. The economic collapse was only possible because of the dubious trading that IT made possible. Even medical science, while it has lessened deaths from infectious diseases (though antibiotic resistance is already drawing that golden period to a close), has condemned more to lingering deaths from cancer or, spared that, the living death of dementia.

If it be argued that science has not been to blame for the implementation of these evils, then it has singularly failed to do anything worthwhile to prevent them: it has failed to make politicians more responsible, except through fear, nor to make the population wiser and more humane, nor to provide more care for the elderly infirm it has multiplied. Indeed, its only solid contribution to social evils has been the Eugenics movement and its promotion and facilitation of abortion and euthanasia. And of course, if it is not to be held responsible for implementing the bad things, then it must equally relinquish its credit for the benefits too.

Science has, for better or worse, lessened the influence of religion on public, if not private, life. But it has yet to provide an alternative way of life that isn’t so arid as to repel the majority – unless, of course, one includes the popularity of the New Atheism which has all the moral and spiritual appeal of the Hitler Youth.

I’m not implying that science is evil – I benefit from science, gained my living from it, love its insights into God’s world and can no more wish it did not exist than I can wish away the rest of my culture. But it is a blessing to the same extent that opening Pandora’s box was a blessing. Prometheus gave us fire – and the ancients knew how ambiguous that was when they had the gods punish him for it.

There is also a third reason for being circumspect about the “success” of science, and that is that its effects on intellectual life have been ambiguous too. Feser, on his blog, cited an apposite post:

“The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrödinger, Boltzmann, Mach, and so on.  But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth…” (Paul Feyerabend, quoted in Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend, For and Against Method)

In the bad old days, natural philosophy was pursued by men whose university education started with a universal language (Latin), moved on to logic, literature, philosophy (including “science”) and ended in theology. Because most of these men were from the upper echelons of society they were also well-versed in politics. In these enlightened times when science reigns, scientists are trained in … science. Or rather, in quantum physics, or in molecular biology, or in physical anthropology, or population genetics, or neurobiology.

Now scientific insights can be lost for decades simply through linguistic illiteracy. As Feser’s thread points out in detail, physicists (and others) encroach on philosophical subjects not only in ignorance, but with an ignorant disdain for philosophy itself. Logic, too, is often scorned by scientists as an armchair discipline removed from the real world of empirical science: sadly it often shows in their papers. I know from my own experience in medicine how divorced from the world of the arts many scientific lives become. There were actually courses run by small bands of enthusiasts to try and redress this in the British medical profession – often considered by the majority to be airy-fairy nonsense. There’s little need to enlarge on the ill-informed theological views of many in the natural sciences, but sadly it even extends to Christians engaged in those disciplines.

In short, science has managed, by its adherence to the post-Renaissance Enlightenment values of rejecting all that came before and, in many cases, everything outside its narrow interests, to become increasingly myopic in its grasp of knowledge. Worse still, by its ascendancy it has passed its limited view of reality on to the rest of society together with its technological toys. Whether, in the grand scheme of things, that constitutes “success” is open to question.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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