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Undermining the Present?

Bob Fitter reviews Bryan Appleyard’s book Understanding the Present.

In his book Dilemmas, Gilbert Ryle (whom no one seems to take seriously these days) ruefully remarks:

“…no one nowadays is hardy enough to say ‘Bo’ to science…”

That was forty years ago, and was probably not strictly true even then. There was the hardiness of Ryle himself for a start. These days there is still a reluctance to challenge the authority of science. Those who do are usually labelled as pre-scientific, New- Ager, Flat-Earther or witch. Terms that convince all but the hardy to keep their heads well down; and yet here we have Bryan Appleyard prepared to joust at the current orthodoxy. I bring this to the general attention (a) because the book (out since 1992 in hardback) has more recently been released in paperback, and (b) in the light of the recent debate in these pages concerning the virtues and the vices of God and of science, the book may be of interest to those who missed it (or could not afford it) in hardback form.

In a radio broadcast shortly before the original release Appleyard emphasised that he was not antiscience. Subsequent reactions indicate that not everyone took this claim seriously, and judging by some of his comments one can see why. He refers at various times to science as being ‘cruel’, ‘cold’ and ‘corrosive’.

Now there is a distinction that needs to be drawn here between the obvious practical advantages afforded by scientific methods, and the all-too-often fawning attitude we are (I regret to say) apt to display towards science. So perhaps it is the fawning attitudes that ought to be regarded as corrosive rather than science itself.

Appleyard does make a few ‘cooing’ noises towards the boffins. We think science: but this is just one way of thinking. Science has answers: but only answers of a certain sort. It only answers scientific questions. Science is not all there is. Passages like these, though critical, at least hint at possible co-habitation. Having said that, he regards science as an ‘all or nothing’ activity. It is incompatible with religion, and devalues morality. There is clearly a struggle going on here that has to be resolved at some point. We cannot live without science, but how can we live, as human beings, with science? But this is not just a problem in a book that an author has to solve; it is a problem in a life that we all have to solve. Just name any issue you like in contemporary medical ethics. To question science at all is too often presented as if it were a total abandonment of science, which of course it is not. The, sometimes thoughtless, criticism Appleyard has received makes one wonder how much things have changed. The heretics who challenged religion in the Middle Ages found themselves on their way to the stake; question science nowadays and one receives a public roasting of a different sort. It remains an interesting point whether (rather like fire) we can tame science and use it, or are inevitably to be consumed by it.

Appleyard’s main thesis (to return to the book) is this: since science is so much a part of our lives, our culture and our society, to understand society we have to understand science. This sounds reasonable enough to me, but of course Appleyard’s purpose is not just to understand, but to criticise. The task Appleyard sets himself is really a job for a philosopher, but few philosophers seem prepared to tackle it nowadays. This is disappointing. Especially so because philosophy has suffered at the hands of science. Russell and Ayer are singled out for special mention. It is Appleyard’s (and a few other people’s) view, that they sold philosophy short in this respect. In fact Russell gets the dubious honour of being the villain of the book.

His main point is developed: “science has made us who we are… my conclusion is – we must resist.” Now I think we have the right to expect him to argue from the first part of that remark (that science has formed our lives) to the conclusion that we ought to resist it. The claim that since science has made us what we are, it follows that we must resist it might be right; but it needs spelling out, and this is what the book sets out to do.

The first part of the book sweeps its way through history from Aristotle, Aquinas, Galileo, Newton to Einstein, Planck and the rest. Those who are really up on scientific theory may be able to pick a few nits from the result. Other reviews I have seen have picked up errors in this dash through science, and while errors in examples are to be regretted and should not be ignored, it is the main thrust of Appleyard’s argument that is important, and I believe this remains unaffected. This kind of summary is task enough for anyone, but the result is good enough to provide an over-view and tempt interested parties to look elsewhere for details. I have no intention of going into detailed quotes. It is my purpose merely to draw attention to the book and indicate what it says and perhaps how well it says it. I am not, in typically Rylean fashion, going to save you the trouble of having to read it for yourself. (Research students please take note.)

Science shows then (and who would have thought it) that Aristotle was wrong, and that knowledge based on authority is unreliable. Now I don’t dare make a comment on Aristotle; but I wouldn’t really go along with the view that authority itself is unreliable. Scientific methods provide independent tests that can be carried out to check certain sorts of claims. Factual conflicts, with the Bible for example, can be settled by science. But it seems to me that we still have to take someone’s word for that, and would be right to do so. I have never measured the distance to the Sun myself; but I know a man who has. However, it is worth remembering that a change of masters should not be confused with liberation.

The basis of Appleyard’s case amounts to a claim concerning the destructive nature of science. We cannot doubt the God of creation without doubting the God of goodness. What bothers Appleyard is that a system which offered physical explanation and moral guidance is replaced by a system which – though astoundingly successful – is exclusively physical.

The point is not just one of morality. Everything it means to be human has been excluded by a methodology which sees nothing special in human beings. Science has taken over the authoritative role of religion, but without the explanation of purpose or meaning offered by religion.

We are then presented with possible alternatives. This means accounting for the human qualities of human beings while retaining science; because no one is going to argue science can be spurned. Early possibilities are considered and rejected.

New Age religion and environmentalism? Not really. This is little more than a survival technique and a denial of science. Orthodox religion? Hardly. This is the very thing that is being eroded and in so much danger; and a liberal vision of religious belief merely pretends there is no problem. The idea of a spiritual science, that science itself is religion, is itself the very thing we have been warned against. A new religion born of science has that seductive ring to it so common in other scientistic arguments. Everything will be alright in the end, it’s just that we haven’t got there yet. Appleyard’s point is that the answer, if it comes from anywhere, has to come from outside science and not from within it.

In the end the answer turns out to be, as some of us have always known, satisfyingly Wittgensteinian. A few slightly uncertain steps across the private language argument and science becomes just one of the games we play; but we can and do play other games. Human existence is the sum of all its activities, and not reducible to just one of them. Science is part of our life, we are not part of science. Science is something we have produced, a convention. Science, dare I utter the words, has been relativised. We, and the lives we live, become the authority.

At one point in the book Appleyard refers to Columbus, and suggests (interestingly) that what was significant about his voyage was not the actual discovery; but the fact that he set sail at all. That someone was prepared to question and challenge orthodoxy. Now I don’t want to suggest that Understanding the Present is as culturally significant as Columbus going West; but I do believe it is important that books like this, challenges like this, are written and made. Appleyard dares to question what many of us refuse to question. For example: we now have a situation where Ryle’s speciality (remember him?), the philosophy of mind, is over-run with scientistic theories making us more offers than a Reader’s Digest circular. The philosophy of mind is bewitched with Cognitive Science: the Euro-Disney of philosophy. If you really want that sort of thing you can get it in California, and while I suppose we cannot and should not prevent its export, let’s not accept it without question.

I think it would do us all good to read Understanding the Present; it rattles a few cages and cages ought to be rattled. Whether or not you enjoy it of course will depend upon which side of the bars you happen to stand.

Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man by Bryan Appleyard is now out in paperback at £6.99 (Picador ISBN 0-330-32013-0) as well as hardback (Pan Books 0-330-32012-2)

© Bob Fitter 1995

Bob Fitter (philosopher, artist, renaissance man) is doing a PhD at Hull University and has a large beard:

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