Science and anti-science

I composed most of the following as a Note on Facebook, Wednesday, October 3, 2010.

Is there an ongoing or perhaps an increasing antipathy to science, and if so, are scientists to blame? The passage below treats this question, but was written 75 years ago, in December, 1935. The author could remember the war of 1914–1918, a war that he described in his Autobiography as “an unprecedented disgrace to the human intellect”, but “an unprecedented triumph for natural science.”

It is not clear whether the essay containing the passage below was intended for publication. Called “Reality as History”, the essay appeared in R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of History and Other Writings in the Philosophy of History, Oxford, 1999. Collingwood himself had died in 1943. He had called the essay “experimental”: An experimental essay designed to test how far the thesis can be maintained that all reality is history and all knowledge historical knowledge. I recognize his style and themes. (The passage here is from pages 175–6 of the book and is indeed one unbroken paragraph.)

Psychology is an attempt to understand man by the same methods by which modern man understood Nature. These methods, as applied to the study and consequent control of Nature, were built on the double assumption that man, the knower and controller, is intelligent; Nature, the known and controlled, unintelligent: mere mechanism, blind force. When these same methods are turned upon man, they preserve their character unchanged. They therefore assume that human nature, as the object upon which they are exercised, is unintelligent. The result is that intelligence itself is converted into unintelligence. For mind, we are given mechanisms which merely enjoy the honorary title of mental; for activity we are given passive reaction to stimulus; for thought, ideas associated automatically in accordance with fixed laws. Since the wealth and dignity of modern man are constituted by his superiority as mind to the mere Nature over which he rules, this reduction of his own mental nature to the level of unintelligent mechanism marks his bankruptcy and degradation. This application of scientific method to the problem of self-knowledge is consequently, not a demonstration that there are regions where the unit of science does not run: the claims of scientific thought could never allow such a possibility; but a reductio ad absurdum of science itself. The situation is therefore that science has taught us how to manipulate nature; it has given us extraordinary technological powers and enabled us to make anything we please in any quantities we like; and at the same time it has not only failed to give us that instructed wisdom which might be based on a true self-knowledge, but it has taken away the unreflective virtue and simple faith in ourselves which we possessed before psychology dispelled our belief in our own rationality. We have therefore, directly through the work of science, lost at once our honour, or habit of acting rationally, and our nerve, or belief that we can so act. Every increase in the power which science gives us over Nature has been attended by a decrease in our ability to use that power wisely; and if the process could go on long enough it is hardly to be doubted that mankind would all but annihilate itself in a series of mutually destructive wars, while the scientists stood by lamenting over the folly of human beings. What the scientist fails to understand, when he finds himself an impotent spectator of movements he can neither control nor arrest, is that the folly and wickedness which he deplores, the Mephistopheles of this rake’s progress, are of his own creating; it is he that raised the devil by inventing psychology and teaching man that he is neither virtuous nor rational but a mere bundle of instincts with nothing in himself either to respect or to obey. But this is understood strongly enough, though confusedly, among mankind at large; and that is why, among the various movements of the modern world, none is more widespread and more characteristic than a certain anti-intellectualism, irrationalism, hatred of thinking, which is simply the revolt of man against the modern scientific tradition.

Perhaps I live too late to fully understand Collingwood’s antipathy to psychology. He himself went on to say, just after the passage above,

If that were all, the state of man would be desperate. But while the fabric of seventeenth-century scientific theory is everywhere collapsing, the first stages of a new scientific movement are everywhere vigorously asserting themselves.

So it appears he had hope. One may still wonder whether current antipathy to the Darwinian theory of evolution, say, is owing to something like a loss of human dignity caused by science.

One may also argue that, no matter how unpleasant people may find it, science is nonetheless true. Elsewhere in his essay, Collingwood observes that the truths of natural science are general truths, applying to individuals insofar as they are of certain kinds; yet the situations we face in life are not simply of certain kinds: they are unique. History is the science of events in their individuality.

Another point, made in Collingwood’s other writings, is that indeed science is about uncovering the truth, and this is why psychology, in the sense described above, cannot account for things like the human capacity for science.

I have sometimes said myself: we humans may in fact be entirely subject to physical laws; but we cannot really believe this.

So ended my note from two years ago. Several friends wrote comments in response. The comments of one friend seem to have disappeared, perhaps because he removed himself from Facebook altogether. I do not believe I should just copy my other friends’ comments here, with or without attribution; so I shall just attempt a partial summary.

One friend responded in particular to Collingwood’s claim about science that “it has taken away the unreflective virtue and simple faith in ourselves which we possessed before psychology dispelled our belief in our own rationality.” The friend suggested that faith in our own rationality must have been ill founded. An edited portion of my response is as follows.

As I understand it, in Collingwood, science does not displace faith in rationality; science displaces faith in science itself (or more precisely in the people who think psychology is science). The test of a theory of knowledge is whether it can respond to the command, “Know thyself.” Psychology (as described by Collingwood) is a failed response. The correct response is history or more precisely scientific history—which is emphatically not history pursued by the methods of natural science.

Collingwood’s criticism of science is paradoxical. Science is an application of reason; how then can it cause us to doubt our own powers of reason? If it does this, there must be something wrong with the science.

The theme of how science disturbs people was taken up. I wrote,

As scientists, we work at communicating our ideas to other people who are interested in them. I don’t know how to communicate with peole who are not interested or are antipathetic. Students may seem uninterested; but at least they have a sense that they ought to learn something.

I sometimes point out to students: nobody can make you accept the correctness of a mathematical argument. You can be tortured into saying something; maybe you can even be tortured into believing something, and this may be the way some organized religion even operates. But you can’t be tortured into understanding and knowing something. This is not the way science works. You have to want to know. So I don’t know what to do about people who don’t want knowledge and understanding.

There was perhaps a suggestion in one of the deleted comments that people want to know the purposes for things, and science does not give them. I myself wrote:

Once on a car trip in the US I pulled into a filling station and said I wanted to wash my windshield. But it had just started to rain, and the attendent said, “The Lord is doing that!” So this man had an explanation for rain, an explanation corresponding to one mentioned in Aristophanes’s Clouds: it is Zeus pissing in a sieve. This is an easier explanation than the meteorological one involving air pressure and cool fronts. Moreover, meteorology still doesn’t explain why it should rain now, if the answer to “Why?” must involve reference to an agent or purpose. Or to put it another way: Aristotle discerned four kinds of reasons why; they are tersely translated as material, motive, formal, and final causes. Meteorology doesn’t give the final cause; but many people want one…

Thinking of my own experience, I find that I appreciated nature more when I was younger. Trees coming into leaf in spring, for example, could be captivating in a way they are not now. I still love nature, but not in the same way. The change is not due to any knowledge of dendrology for example, since I haven’t got it. I think the change is more due to the development of my powers of thought in general. But many people are just not that interested in thinking, or perhaps are not capable of it.

It takes great sustained effort to do mathematics for example; who wants to exert this effort? Not many. I suppose it also takes native ability, though it is hard to tell what this means. Different people can at least appear to put the same effort into mathematics, with different levels of success. But people still want explanations of things. Scientific explanations are too much work to understand, or require abilities many people haven’t got. But Zeus pissing in a sieve: that’s understandable!

So I wonder: are people afraid that scientific explanation will ruin the experience of Bach or a rainbow, or are they bothered by the thought of being expected to do the work of understanding the scientific explanation? This would be like being back in school, where they may have worked hard, but received mediocre grades.

Another theme was freedom and physical law. One friend supplied a quotation of Douglas Hofstadter:

When we humans think, we certainly do change our own mental rules, and we change the rules that change the rules, and on and on—but these are, so to speak, “software rules”. However, the rules at bottom do not change. Neurons run in the same simple way the whole time. You can’t ‘think’ your neurons into running some nonneural way, although you can make your mind change style or subject of thought…you have access to your thoughts, but not your neurons.

This seems to be from Chapter XX of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (the link is to a Russian website that seems to have a poorly transcribed—perhaps by machine—version of the book). We had some discussion of this passage.

(Slightly edited January 14, 2017, with the indicated additions.)


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