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Science and the Modern World
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The technical aspects of the book are, of course, sparse on facts. There is evidence that Whitehead (who, in 1925, had been at Harvard for only a year and was now engaged full-time with philosophy, less so with the mathematics of his earlier career) was aware of the sweeping changes in the world brought on by the quantum physics. He was certainly aware of its potential. Niels Bohr said that anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it; on this definition, Whitehead did indeed understand it, because the new physics never ceased to amaze him. He grew up, after all, and was edicated as a mathematician, in a very Newtonian world. But it is important to situate the book: the theories that shape what we today know as quantum mechanics were still being debated and worked out in the 20s. Most of the most stiking information has been theorized since that time, certainly long after Whitehead's death. Two examples are Bell's work on separated systems (60s) and Wheeler's discussion of a self-observing universe (1979!).
Whitehead's book is most useful as a book on the philosophy of science, as well as a succinct and accurate appraisal of science in the modern world (modern meaning 17th-19th centuries, historically speaking). He takes a very "post" modern view of the extent of science, writing in chapter one, "if science is not to degenerate into a medly of ad hoc hypotheses, it must become philosophical and must enter upon a thorough criticism of its own foundations." At the same time one can imagine his glee over such recent developments as chaos theory. Whitehead would disagree with Einstein, and side with Bohr: God does indeed play dice.
If you take your science as religion, i.e. the scientific method is still your Nicene creed, you will dislike this book, and most of the recent work on the philosophy of science. However, if you are interested in a hermeneutical perspective on science's recent past, and are willing to see science as as much a faith committment as any other world view (a la Kuhn, for example), you will benfit greatly from this book. If you take Rouse's (1987,1996) and van Huyssteen's (1998,1999) position that even so-called "hard" science is thoroughly corrigible and foundationalist, you will enjoy this book. Whitehead's ideas are opposed to scientific materialism from the get-go, and he is absolutely against dogmatism on the part of science or philosophy. To this extent, 75 years down the road this is still a great book, worth the price of the volume simply for the essays "Origins of Modern Science," "Science and Philosophy," and "Religion and Science" alone.
_Science and the Modern World_ has some stunning, timeless insights, and many things I'm fond of quoting. Here's a favorite, from the last chapter:
"Modern science has imposed upon humanity the necessity for wandering. Its progressive thought and its progressive
technology make the transition through time, from generation to generation, a true migration into uncharted seas of adventure.
The very benefit of wandering is that it is dangerous and needs skill to avert evils. We must expect, therefore, that the future
will disclose dangers."
(Here it comes:)
"It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties."
"The prosperous middle classes, who ruled the nineteenth century, placed an excessive value upon the placidity of existence. They refused to face the necessities for social reform imposed by the new industrial system, and they are now refusing to face the necessities for intellectual reform imposed by the new knowledge."
(Same as it ever was!)
"The middle class pessimism over the future of the world comes from a confusion between civilization and security. In the immediate future there will be less security than in the immediate past, less stability. It must be admitted that there is a degree of instability which is inconsistent with civilization. But, on the whole, the great ages have been unstable ages."
I was moved by the concluding words of his book .
" I have endeavoured in these lectures to give a record of a great adventure in the region of thought. It was shared in by all the races of Western Europe .It developed with the slowness of a mass movement. Half a century is its unit of time. The tale is the epic of an episode in the manifestation of reason. It tells how a particular direction of reason emerges in a race by the long preparation of antecedent epochs, how after its birth its subject- matter gradually unfolds itself, howit attains its triumphs, how its influence moulds the very springs of action of mankind ,and finally how at its moment of supreme success its limitations disclose themselves and call for a renewed exercise of the creative imagination. The moral of the tale is the power of reason ,its decisive influence on the life of humanity. The great conquerors from Caesar to Napoleon, influenced profoundly the lives of subsequent generations. But the total effect of this influence shrinks to insignificance, if compared to the entire transformation of human habits and human mentality produced by the long line of men of thought from Thales to the present day, men individually powerless, but ultimately the rulers of the world. p. 186