When science becomes a superstition

Bryan Appleyard

I have, since the publication of my book Understanding the Present: science and the soul of modern man in 1992, found myself cast in the role of partially deranged critic of the place of science in the modern world. To some, especially hard science propagandists like Lewis Wolpert and Richard Dawkins, I am, at best, a Luddite, at worst, mad. To others, like Colin Blakemore, I am wrong-headed and anti-progressive, though I do have a few reasonable points about the necessity for the careful assessment of scientific claims. And, finally, to a few I am a defender of the spiritual against the material and a plausible enemy of the cult of technology-driven consumerism.

To myself I am not exactly any of these things, though I would be happy to call myself the last. In truth, I began as an innocent in this fraught but ill-defined debate and now find myself uncertain as to how, precisely, to make points that have always seemed to me to be glaringly obvious. My main point was that we cannot construct a society — indeed, we cannot live as individuals — in a world in which the only generally accepted conception of truth is scientific. Such a conception is either false or, at the very least, unworkable. I was an innocent because I assumed this point was uncontroversial — nobody with any sense could possibly disagree.

I was wrong. Science is, indeed, the only generally accepted form of truth and, suprisingly widely, this is seen as a good thing. So pervasive is this idea that even those who find it unpalatable have difficulty in formulating their objections. An appropriate language does not appear to exist. The reason is obvious — the liberalisation and globalisation of language and culture. Globalisation makes us continuously aware of a vast plurality of world views while liberalisation makes us reluctant to judge or dismiss any on the basis of our own convictions. Science provides a systematic and highly effective language that flows easily across these pluralities. We know it works for everybody — aircraft fly, the Internet functions — and, equally, we know that specific cultural versions of truth do not possess anything like the same competence. As a result, we find ourselves in the situation in which there is a phenomenon called science, and there are the epiphenomena of local cultural expression. All of the latter can, in the scientific view, ultimately be reduced to the former.

The problems of life, untouched

Of course, it is the case that science, as an idea rather than an institution, is simply the sum total of statements about the material world that are true. Theoretically, this is not a problem even for the most fervent anti-materialist. It may be scientifically true that the earth revolves around the sun, but this cannot logically make it any less true that, for example, I am in love or, if you prefer, that Christ died for our sins.

There is a deal involved here. Science will be free to say things that lie within its own material realm of competence and will not — cannot — say anything about the non-material realms of belief, conviction or experience. This deal has held for some time and is implicit in much Western thought. Ludwig Wittgenstein expressed it most cogently when he wrote: 'We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.' It seems intuitively self-evident that the realm of science is necessarily external to our sense of our selves and our lives, external, in fact, to everything of lasting importance.

But how do we talk about this non-scientific sense of our selves and our lives in a globalised world? There are too many different versions for the words we use to be translatable. Usually we simply fall back on some platitude about everybody being different or on the slightly more sophisticated postmodern view that there is no truth, only the interminable interaction of systems. What we say and do is solely an expression of our cultural and temporal locality. Wittgenstein's 'problems of life' become, in such a context, experiences so atomised, so isolated, as to be almost wholly meaningless. Non-material truth is thus reduced, if not to science, then to silence.

The spiritual — whatever that means

This is sustainable if we accept, as Wittgenstein did, the legitimacy of that silence, its permanent, extra-scientific validity. This would define the spiritual as an unspoken — because unspeakable — mystical sense. In fact, in the context of everyday conversation this has actually happened. It is now commonplace to hear people use the word 'spiritual' without being able, when pressed, to say exactly what they mean. This may seem a rather banal version of Wittgensteinian silence, but it springs from the same intuition that science has annexed language with its idea of truth. People are using 'spiritual' to refer to something they dare not and cannot defend as anything as grand as truth.

But even this tenuous thread of non-material reality is now threatened by a form of scientific rhetoric that has become, over the past decade, the most potent ideology of our time. There are many forms of this rhetoric, but, essentially, they are all scientistic in that they assume the ultimate competence of science in every realm, the human included. The idea has been disseminated by a wave of popular science books that followed the extraordinary world-wide success of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time — a book that famously concluded with the statement that we were on the verge of knowing 'the mind of God'. It is now commonplace to hear of scientists winning six- and seven-figure book deals for works that endorse various forms of scientism.

The most potent form of scientism — both at the popular and intellectual levels — is neo-Darwinism and its associated field of evolutionary psychology. Technologically this ideology is reinforced by the heavily-publicised insights of genetics with its promise of ultimate anatomical knowledge leading to extraordinary medical breakthroughs. Biology has now superseded physics as the standard bearer of scientism, just as, since the deciphering of the molecule of DNA in 1953, it took over the role of the most prominent and most exciting science of the age. At the popular level biology works better than physics simply because it has more intimate things to say about our place in the world.

Neo-Darwinism has a strange political history. When, for example, Richard Dawkins published his book The Selfish Gene — which insists on the centrality of the gene's drive towards replication and turns all organisms into simple by-products of that drive — many thought it was a justification of hard right-wing attitudes. It seemed to say that selfishness was good and natural and therefore to endorse Thatcherite economics. This was in spite of the fact that the left-inclined Dawkins himself denied this. Equally, when the Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson suggested that his work on the sociobiology of ants could be applied to human beings, he was immediately accused of fascism. The argument was that such biological determinism was a way of keeping women in the kitchen and even blacks on the plantations. Again, this was not what Wilson had actually said.

New Labour-friendly

But, in the late eighties, sociobiology was suddenly rechristened evolutionary pyschology and became, mysteriously, acceptable to the left. It is now, for example, routinely endorsed by Demos, the think tank closest to New Labour. The roots of this acceptance are complex and probably as much to do with political change as scientific. Exactly what those roots are is not strictly relevant to my argument here except in so far as they almost certainly lie in a peculiarly twentieth-century hunger for a large-scale scientific explanation of the world. This hunger has previously been satisfied by communism and various forms of radical socialism as well as by the biological justifications of the racial purification policies of Nazism. Sating this hunger is, therefore, clearly dangerous. And it was evidently these precedents that led Isaiah Berlin to insist that 'to claim the possibility of some infallible scientific key' to human understanding was 'one of the most grotesque claims ever made by human beings'. If we long for scientific completion and certainty in the human realm, then, plainly, we court disaster.

And yet neo-Darwinism does just this. For what evolutionary psychology claims is precisely that we are on the brink of complete human understanding. We are, say the neo-Darwinian advocates, creatures defined by our evolutionary inheritance. For example, men are different from women because we have evolved a reproductive system that requires a greater investment by women in the production of children. Our particular form of spatial awareness of the world springs from the long gestation of humanity in the African savannah. And, according to Wilson, our particular love for certain types of landscape — mixtures of water, grass and trees — is an ancestral memory of Africa.

Furthermore, by applying the mathematics of game theory to the behaviour of evolving organisms, we can explain key aspects of human society. For example, altruism — always a mystery in the context of the Darwinian 'survival of the fittest' — now appears to be explicable as the most advantageous move in the survival game. If we, initially at least, assume niceness in others, then it is likely that this niceness will be reciprocated. Game theory seems to show that this — rather than simple self-protective aggression — is the most effective strategy.

At one level such insights may be seen as benign. After all, they point to the possibility of a universal human nature which is, in essence, peaceful and driven by an instinct for order. Nature is no longer 'red in tooth and claw', rather it is a self-ordering mechanism, a moral machine that encourages mutual respect, love and familial stability. Our instincts, far from being at war with society as Freud suggested, are, in fact, the foundations of social order.

In addition, evolutionary psychology suggests there is, indeed, such a thing as human nature. This idea was widely rejected in revulsion at the biological determinism of Nazism in favour of an exclusively environmental view of the human personality. The human baby was seen as a blank sheet to be written on by social systems. There was, therefore, no original sin, only the faults of society. But evolutionists see the baby as an organism significantly predetermined by human biological history. It has a specific nature, specifically designed to make it function more effectively in the context of this particular species. The way to a better society, therefore, is to embrace human biological destiny. E.O. Wilson takes this idea to its logical conclusion by saying that evolution will provide the new unifying myth of humanity, a myth that has, he says, the crucial advantage over previous myths that it happens to be true.

The key to human nature?

With such a claim it becomes apparent that the insights of evolutionary psychology may, all too easily, lose their benign aspect. Wilson is merely the most explicit of these thinkers. All of them, in one form or another, are convinced that they have found the scientific key to the human realm, a key that has so far eluded the so-called 'soft' sciences like sociology and psychology. With this key we can unlock the door to human nature and destiny and all that we are can be brought within the rational prescriptions, injunctions and analyses of the scientific method.

The most obviously alarming aspect of this is the certainty such a view demands of science. Plainly if we are to embrace this 'true' myth, we will do so on the basis that it is, indeed, true. Yet the history of science is a history of changed minds. Ptolemy was the last word in astronomy until Copernicus came along. Newton was complete until Einstein showed he was not. Space was a vacuum until we found it was full of virtual particles. A protein was the genetic messenger until we found it was DNA. In spite of such radical transformations, scientists persist in courting finality. We have, for decades, been close to the Holy Grail of physics, the Theory of Everything, and yet now, it seems, we are as far away as ever. The Human Genome Project — soon to be completed — promises an anatomy complete down to the molecular level. And so on. Always science seems close to the end, but, somehow, it never is.

But the illusion of the end has an immense power. It flatters the present by placing it at the summit of human achievement. The forward movement of human history — introduced by the cumulative nature of scientific knowledge — gives us the thrilling impression that we are the highest and the best.

Well, scientific knowledge is certainly cumulative, but it is certainly not the case that it accumulates in one correct direction. We don't know where the end may be. At any one time we may be racing down a blind alley. And, even if we reached what we thought was the end, how could we be sure we were really there? Human knowledge can seem very true for an awfully long time before it is shown to be false or incomplete — look at Ptolemy, look at Newton. We need not a vanity of the present but a humility of history. Geneticists often say we know more than the Nazis so we won't make those mistakes again. But how much more? And how much would be enough?

A new superstition

That amounts to a practical warning against scientific hubris. But it points to a deeper, spiritual issue. We know, as Wittgenstein indicated, that all this science seems perversely to evade what we care most about. Tell me my complete molecular anatomy down to my last DNA base pair, tell me every electrical pathway in my brain and you tell me nothing. Or rather you tell me only what is most inessential to my being in the real world of values, emotions and other people. And yet evolutionary psychology seems to be saying that it can tell us about those things. But it can only explain them within a certain material context, it cannot explain them away. The illusion that it can is just that — an illusion. And if we talk ourselves into accepting that illusion, then, inevitably, we reduce our sense of ourselves.

The general point is that, in selling so effectively its advance into the human realm, science is fostering a form of superstition. The superstition is that we can, indeed, rationally categorise and explain our condition. This is no more likely to be true now than at any time in the last two or, indeed, ten thousand years. It just seems that it might be true because, in so many areas, science has proved so improbably effective.

My response to that point — my, if you like, Luddism — is simply to draw attention to the fact that it is a superstition. We cannot — must not — make the mistake of thinking that our present knowledge somehow invalidates all previous knowledge, that it frees us from the burden of culture and of history.

However exact our DNA maps of ourselves, we remain free and responsible and yet also products of processes we can never hope fully to understand precisely because they are distinctively human. That seems to me to be an optimistic and humane view. And if others conclude I am a mad enemy of progress, then I have no choice but to accept that gratefully as further evidence in my defence.

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