The arts? That's us! Oh noes! According to White, science is actively fighting with literature and other forms of high culture over the territory of human understanding. And science is winning: it is reducing humans to mere machines. When that happens, when science finally wins and convinces everyone they are merely a bunch of atoms, there will be no place for art.
So why am I not feeling threatened? Maybe because I was raised in a highly-scientific community by a scientist, and eventually I married a scientist. I've been bathed in science since I was born, and I've never felt science has subtracted from my imagination. If anything, it's aided it. Science raises far more questions than it answers, and continuously shows us how much bigger the universe is than we ever imagined. Not just the macro-universe, either, but the micro-universe: if you turn the scopes inward, you can delve down deeper and deeper. Organs, neurons, molecules, atoms. None of this has to be reductive, either: if we get bored with the cosmos or quantum fields, we can turn our attention to emergence: the way complex systems spontaneously arise from "mere parts." For the mystery-minded, emergence offers plenty: how does an ant colony work? How do all those neurons in the brain form a mind? I feel no lack of wonder and curiosity even when I restrict myself to pure science, but of course I don't restrict myself that way. I indulge in the arts as much as the sciences, and don't feel I'm betraying either when I do.
Another reviewer, Mark O'Connell, sympathetic to White's position, says this: "The problem, obviously, isn’t science; it’s the arrogance with which many scientists, and popularizers of science, dismiss the value of other ways of thinking about questions of meaning, about the world and our place in it." Perhaps the issue here is that a few spokespeople have said a few things that are taken as The Word of Science, rather than the opinions of a few men. But it may also be that these opinions are being misunderstood: I've read Dawkins and Dennett, and I'm not seeing the attack on art or imagination. I do see an attempt to replace superstition with reason and evidence — to me, this is not the same as killing human wonder. How can it be, when a dozen inquiries open up for each question answered?
Clearly, though, some people do feel threatened by science. And it's not just theists, it's increasingly people like White: liberal, secular, and Romantic. That's "Romantic" as opposed to "Enlightenment," not as in flowers and candlelit dinners. Maybe White's book is just a continuation of that old debate. Romantic thinkers, like Rousseau and Whitman, tended to focus on the emotions, especially those of terror and awe; they deified raw nature; they embraced mysticism. If you like Edgar Allen Poe, Kerouac's On The Road, and and Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, you may have Romantic sensibilities. Romantics also tend to be nostalgic, looking back to the past for how things should be. Enlightenment thinkers, like the founding fathers of the US, are forward-looking: science and reason should replace superstition. They are humanists, valuing the products and potential of humans; Romantics tend to be suspicious of humanity, feeling somehow that humans aren't really natural and fit less into the world the more they "progress."
O'Connoll, like White, thinks we need "a return to the spirit of Romanticism, to an intellectual culture that looks to poets and philosophers and artists, rather than scientists, for insight into what used to be called 'the human condition.'" What I don't understand is the dichotomy: it's not either-or. All those things White feels are on the verge of being lost — mystery, wonder, curiosity, imagination — are still there, ready to be plumbed by scientists, philosophers, and artists alike. We can all work together, it's not a zero-sum game.
So: artists & writers out there: do you feel scientific progress is threatening your livelihood? Or is this a war happening in White's admittedly vivid imagination?
|Cat's Eye Nebula|