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04 May 2015 @ 01:19 pm
Understanding the Present by Bryan Appleyard  
I think my father gave me this book. It must have been years ago and it has followed me around the country since but I recently decided that I should either read it or give it away. It's an odd book veering uneasily between propagandist invective, history of science and thoughtful philosophical musings.

I may as well start with the invective which is the least interesting aspect of the book. Appleyard does not much like Science (which term he uses (and he acknowledges this use) to encompass not just scientific method, but scientific culture, the current body of scientific knowledge and, at its edges, the liberal democracies that have grown up since the Enlightenment and which arguably owe much of their basic tenets to scientific culture). In these parts Appleyard comes across as something of a grumpy old man waving his stick and complaining about political correctness, teenagers and health-food fads. He's also very fond of adjectives like "bleak", "cold", "empty" when applied to science and its works. While he may consider them so, that does not make them so, and the repeated use of such adjectives smacks of propaganda. Anyway, the invective, as I say, is the least interesting part of the book.

The history of science is more interesting, especially since it is told through the lens of how science interacts with culture and, specifically with ideas of truth and morality. It starts out with Thomas Aquinas (the only thinker in the book, along with Wittgenstein of whom, I think, Appleyard approves) who sought a unified account of the workings of the universe that encompassed both external observable phenomena as well as theology and morality. It then progresses through the Enlightenment up to the early 20th century in which science tended to characterise itself as a search for an absolute truth, external to man, and which view he (probably rightly) identifies as still prevalent in many people's perception of science and hence in the way our cultures react to it. He then looks at the shocks the 20th century delivered to this view in terms of interaction between observation and behaviour revealed by Quantum Mechanics, the impossibility of completely accurate modelling revealed by Chaos theory, and the the gap between truth and provability revealed by Godel's incompleteness theorem (and Relativity but I don't personally find the weirdness deriving from relativity as much of an argument against the idea that Science reveals non-subjective truth as the other three).

Onto the philosophy. Hopefully I won't spoil the book by saying that I think Appleyard, like Descartes, has done very well at taking a problem apart, and stripping it down to its bare essentials but a less good job of trying to reconstruct an alternative. So Appleyard identifies several key points:

  • Science1 is presented as a process of revealing the truth about the working of the universe and that, specifically, this truth is a truth that has nothing to say about how mankind should behave. Science explicitly separates out the kinds of truth it reveals and morality.

  • Science is a tool and its works are both good and bad (we have both eradicated smallpox and invented the atom bomb). The works of Science are not a moral good simply by virtue of being the products of science, but our culture has a tendency to treat them as such.

  • As a result of the vacuum created by Science's refusal to say anything about morals, liberal democracies have taken the line of asserting that morals are relative and culturally dependent. There are no absolute morals only relative morals and this leaves us painfully ill-equipped to deal with actual moral issues2 and, moreover, with a tendency to assume that the only thing that is morally wrong is lack of tolerance.


I think these are all good points. I'm not sure, as Appleyard is, that Science's refusal to say anything about morality is something bad about Science. In fact, attempts to present moral systems as scientific in some way have generally not ended well, as far as I can see. But there is definitely a problem that no alternative as appeared to fill the gap - certainly nothing that is as effective as Science has been in allowing us to shape our world. However Appleyard claims that not only does Science (as in 1) purport to reveal the truth, but it purports to reveal the whole truth. This relegates morality to something that is not a truth and that is certainly deeply problematic and definitely leads to the kind of moral uncertainty he addresses in his last point.

Appleyard's solution is not very satisfactory. I don't think he is a "Golden Age" apologist with any delusions that life was better for the average person at the time of Thomas Aquinas than it is now and I don't think he has any wish to roll society back to before the Enlightenment - though that would be one reading of the book. He calls it Understanding the Present so I think he was, first and foremost, interesting in diagnosing the problem rather than offering a solution. However he puts forward a mystical, individualistic remedy based on the works of Wittgenstein, which is to understand that Science is just a way of talking about reality but that it is not reality itself. Reality lies in our own experiences and behaviour and our personal values are as true, if not more so, than the truths offered to us by Science. Simply by going forth and living our lives by this philosophy is Science humbled.

1. As used by Appleyard - so encompassing a fuzzy concept of both science, and our culture's view on science - I'm going to capitalise this use of the word Science because it is a really important distinction. As Appleyard's potted history reveals, current thought among philosophers of science almost certainly considers scientific method to be a process of approximate modelling, and that reality has some very strange interactions with things like consciousness and therefore some distinctly subjective qualities. However I don't think our culture's perception of science has kept pace with these developments. Indeed I was puzzled, in reading a pop science book about wormholes for primeval_denial, to find an argument for their existence was that if they didn't exist parts of the universe were fundamentally unknowable and this was treated as obviously some kind of anathema to the order of reality.

2. Appleyard was writing before the rise of 21st century Islamism and the Islamic state, but this critique seemed particularly pertinent in the light of many people grappling both with the horrific nature of ISIL but also with a desire to tolerate and accept those aspects of Islam that are more acceptable and, in particular, to tell the difference between something that is morally wrong and something which is culturally different.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/154663.html.
 
 
 
daniel_saunders: Sherlock Holmesdaniel_saunders on May 4th, 2015 05:52 pm (UTC)
It sounds a slightly odd book! And odd to be written in the nineties (according to the internet) - I think the public had really lost the kind of blind faith in Science and Progress some time in the sixties or seventies, due to the atom bomb, fear of computers, pollution and so on.

That said, I was going to say no one really puts forward the kind of positivistic view of Science portrayed here any more, but that's arguably more true of the nineties than now: Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins have both put forward the view that Science is Real Knowledge and anything else (religion, philosophy, art and literature) is at most a second-best way of understanding the world and probably not even that.
louisedennislouisedennis on May 4th, 2015 05:59 pm (UTC)
My first reaction to a lot of it was "no one believes that though", but on reflection I felt that the wider point - society acts as if it is true - probably did hold, even if individuals had more nuanced views. And, of course, with a background in Mathematical philosophy the "well *duh*!" reaction I had to a lot of his points may have been very specific to my background.

I suspect my Dad gave it to me shortly after it appeared, he's been extremely cognitively disabled for the past 12 years, so he certainly didn't give it to me later than 2003. My guess would be that he gave it to me shortly after it was published, and my guess would be that he gave it because it was much talked about in scientific circles at the time (he was a nuclear physicist) and he knew I had an interest in science and philosophy. I'm mildly embarrassed that it has clearly taken me 20 years to get around to reading it - though I suspect at the time I would merely have been outraged rather than grasping its more detailed points.

Edited at 2015-05-04 06:01 pm (UTC)