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Freedom from the Monster,
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This review is from: Understanding the Present: An Alternative History of Science (Tauris Parke Paperbacks) (Paperback)
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."
He goes on to say that,
"Science is not a neutral or innocent commodity which can be employed as a convenience by people wishing to partake only of the West's material power. It is spiritually corrosive, burning away ancient authorities and traditions. It cannot really co-exist with anything... As it burns away all competition, the question becomes: what kind of life is it that science offers to its people?.... What does it tell us about ourselves and how we must live?"
Though most scientists tend to disclaim responsibility for social and spiritual matters, they cannot continue to do so.
The trouble he says, is not with science, which is simply a method and a tool, but scientism: the belief that science is, or can be the complete and only explanation for life, the universe and everything. But explaining everything means understanding everything that exists, and that is a tall order.
So "scientists inevitably take on the mantle of the wizards, sorcerers and with doctors," and they have become the preferred authority on matters of morality and spirituality. Bryan cites a troubling quotation form the former Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru: "
"It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening of custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, or a rich country inhabited by starving poor... Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid... The future belongs to science and those who make friends with science."
The trouble is that science by its very nature is designed to be objective, and when scientism rules supreme, Nature and the universe are no longer seen as a living whole with purpose and meaning, but is instead dead material for study. Science provides us with descriptions of the universe that contain everything except us.
Subjectivity is not an illusion, even though we constantly see people who claim that all of our thoughts and emotions are simply reflexes.
So what are the solutions?
Bryan believes that understanding the limitations of science and of what it can explain is all to the good. After pointing out the limitations of a purely objective science, he believes that our thoughts and feelings, our relationships with others and the meanings that they create are the bedrock of existence. He also alludes to the idea of a new science that will se beyond the objective and may contribute to the development of a new spirituality.
In this he presages the fascinating work by Alan Wallace who is creating a "contemplative science" that incorporates contemplative practices and contemporary neuroscience to arrive at an extraordinary synthesis.
The myth of an all-seeing all-knowing science that insists that we are simply bio-molecular machines is dangerous in that, if taken too far, it strips us of some of the key components of our humanity.
Although this book was originally written several years ago, its arguments are even more important today, and I recommend it to anyone with any interest in the philosophical foundations of the modern world.
Richard G. Petty, MD, author of Healing, Meaning and Purpose: The Magical Power of the Emerging Laws of Life