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Understanding the Present: An Alternative History of Science Paperback – January 17, 2004

ISBN-13: 978-1860648915 ISBN-10: 1860648916

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Tauris Parke Paperbacks (January 17, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1860648916
  • ISBN-13: 978-1860648915
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.9 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,718,677 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Science columnist for the Sunday Times of London, Appleyard here chronicles the history of science from moral and philosophical points of view, aiming to explicate the "appalling spiritual damage that science has done." Pandering to neither neo-Luddites nor eco-reactionaries, he argues for the primacy of the human soul, recalling the spirit, if not the ontologic letter, of Teilhard de Chardin. The chapter "The Humbling of Man"--effected by a reductionist science--begins with a discussion of the 17th-century figures Newton, Galileo and Descartes and ends by considering Freud's arguably scientific work as being both in this continuum and a way to move beyond its limitations. Appleyard sees the scientific paradigm as having developed into a psuedo-religion that is incompatible with its core human culture, both personal and social. "Science, quietly and inexplicitly, is talking us into abandoning . . . our true selves." Impassioned and robust, his arguments with such humanist apologists for science as Bertrand Russell and Jacob Bronowski are consistently provocative and often persuasive.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Kirkus Reviews

A withering indictment of modern science by, of all people, the science-and-philosophy columnist of The Sunday Times of London. Appleyard's blast is ferocious: Science has done ``appalling spiritual damage'' to modern human beings, for it rules the day but ``offers no truth, no guiding light, and no path.'' Enough is enough: ``We must resist and the time to do so is now.'' Appleyard's resistance takes the form, largely, of a history of how science came to be and the havoc it has wreaked. The crisis began in 1609, when Galileo peered through the telescope and ``invented the modern.'' Suddenly, observation and experiment replaced rational authority (exemplified by Aquinas's brilliant synthesis of Aristotle and Christianity) as the bastion of knowledge. This new way of seeing eschewed value and meaning, Appleyard says; it found its philosophy in Cartesian dualism, and its final, tragic expression in Darwinism. Appleyard runs through responses to this alleged debacle, from Nietzsche to Kierkegaard--all noble failures, he contends. Science's internal revolutions, especially quantum physics, may provide new life--but Appleyard doubts it. Nor does he have faith in New Age science (Bohm, Capra, Sheldrake) or the Green movement, which he describes as ``a religion of rejection.'' What, then, to do? Consider that science cannot understand self-consciousness or the soul, he says, although subjective experience indicates that we may possess both. These are clues that science is blinkered, that it poses its own questions and then insists these are the only ones that exist. The answer is to ``humble'' science, to see it as just one ``convention'' of knowing rather than as the royal road to truth. An old argument, but Appleyard attacks scientism with uncanny intelligence and heat (who else has managed to squash hard and New Age science with the same hammer, or has scorned Sagan, Hawking, and other scientific icons in such blistering terms?). This should crack a few test tubes. -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Richard G. Petty on August 30, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Science has been good to me.

Not only has it provided the tools to have a life that would have been unimaginable when I was born, but also the fruits of science helped save me when I had a surprising medical challenge. And it became a building block of a successful career.

But I have also been beset by nagging worries about the direction of the scientific enterprise and by the disinterest of most scientists in the implications of what we are doing.

In discussions with many prominent scientists, most go blank or shrug when asked about the philosophical underpinnings of science, or the practical implications of unfettered and unaccountable scientific experimentation.

Enter Bryan Appleyard's excellent book. Bryan is a journalist who writes mainly for the Sunday Times in London, though he has some other outlets: if you are interested, I subscribe to his wonderfully iconoclastic weblog - Thought Experiments - through mine: RichardGPettyMD.blogs. You will have to work out the final part of the address: this review will not allow me to post the whole link!

This is a book about the "appalling spiritual damage that science and how much more it can still do." Not the physical damage of rampant technology, but from an inner desolation.

Attacks on science are two-a-penny, but rarely do they come from someone birthed into a family of engineers, who taught him to respect science and its handmaiden: technology. He does not want some return to nature of like Rousseau or the Luddites: he wants to restore balance into human affairs.

As he says, despite the admirable intentions of most scientists, "science, quietly and inexplicitly is talking us into abandoning ourselves.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By John Granger on April 28, 2003
Format: Paperback
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is the modernist or skeptic's assault on modernity in general and the regime of science specifically. As limited as this view must be relative to a traditional or symbolist perspective (i.e., from someone not using the methods criticized to criticize them), I have not read a more accessible book on the subject. If you want to know how much and in what ways our present time (as all times) are an 'Age' with peculiar blind spots, graces, and misconceptions, this is the place to start. Ignore the two reviews below that offer apologies for the regime and accuse Applyard of pessimism; the man who sees the train about to roll over him - rolling over him? - is not a pessimist. Guenon's The Reign of Quantity and Upton's System of AntiChrist are this book's betters but they assume much more on the reader's part; please find this book and delight in his illumination of the ideas that frame our shallow and narrow worldview in the present time. Then read Swift's Battle of the Books and see that this fight is an old one each person must come to terms with.
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 27, 1998
Format: Paperback
Bryan Appleyard's indictment of science as the "Frankenstiens Monster" of our day is well written and very inciteful. He explains very succinctly how various luminaries of the Enlightenment have tried to deal with science and its unwillingness to co-exist with other types of knowing about our world, and ourselves. The author places the major part of the blame on science's effectiveness at solving problems through its "handmaiden", technological development, and the awareness that modern man has of these solutions as universal in nature, rather than cultural. His argument relies heavily upon the evidence that the structure of our modern, liberal-democratic societies is due mainly to our underlying philosophical beliefs about reality as they have been formed by science in the modern era. He provides a well thought out argument for why we should put science back in the cultural box, so that it will be forced to co-exist with other forms of knowing, such as religious faith. He believes that most of us already do this to some extent, and that what needs to happen is we must simply become aware of why we do this, to counter the "appauling spiritual damage" that we have allowed science to wreak upon us. For those people out there who have always wanted an intellectual basis for their belief that there is meaning to our existence that science has no right to judge, I highly recommend this book. But beware! It is not light reading. You will probably have to read it at least three times over (as I did) in order to see the poignancy of his arguments clearly. (I would have given this book a five-star rating if the arguments could have been fully grasped by a single reading, but this is not the author's fault, it's the subject's.)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Dr. H. A. Jones on June 28, 2012
Format: Paperback
Understanding the Present: An alternative history of science by Bryan Appleyard, I.B. Tauris, 2004, 300 ff.

Bryan Appleyard is a journalist and frequent contributor to The Times and several other newspapers. Here he mounts an attack on scientism - the idea that the only source of meaningful knowledge is science - and urges caution in the prevalent public view that science can solve all our problems. The core of his thesis is expressed in the Preface: `the benefits of science are not cost-free' and `we should not be deluded into thinking that science can provide salvation from the human predicament.'

This book is not anti-science and the author expresses great admiration and respect for its achievements, but he is clearly disturbed by the deterministic and materialistic view of contemporary science (especially biological science!) that says we are all at the mercy of dispassionate physical forces, and always have been throughout the course of evolution. He quotes Richard Dawkins as saying that the universe is `bleak, cold and empty', and indeed this is the theme of much current scientific thinking. But Appleyard comments: `The scientific understanding as a basis for human life is radically inadequate, yet it continues to triumph. As a result, human life will become inadequate.' For scientists too are human and their interpretation of data will inevitably be influenced by their own individual beliefs.

That great scientist, philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell saw scientific objectivity as its greatest strength: `One of the greatest benefits that science confers upon those who understand its spirit is that it enables [people] to live without the delusive support of subjective certainty'.
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