Sunday, April 15, 2007

Magic, Science and Civilization.

Jacob Bronowski, Magic, Science and Civilization (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978). Richard Rorty, "Method, Social Science, and Social Hope," in The Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1982), pp. 191-210.

Also recommended:

Floyd Matson, The Broken Image: Man, Science and Society (New York: Doubleday, 1966).
Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).

As of April 12, 2007 at 12:31: A.M., there were 219 intrusion attempts against my computer. By the end of the day, there will be twice that many. Primary attacker today 24.192.170.120. My hotmail address will be blocked. I will be unable to navigate my blogs or do further research. Frustration and destruction of my written work will be part of my effort to examine these philosophical issues. I do not believe that such harassment can take place, over a period of years, without the active participation or cooperation of government agencies. I doubt that such harassment promotes the interest of science or is a display of scientific objectivity. For example, hackers are making it very difficult for me to write this essay, suggesting a fear of truth on their part that is distant from the scientific endeavor. I will continue to struggle to write this essay-review. You cannot torture a person into abandoning opinions or philosophical beliefs, while claiming the right to judge anyone's "ethics." Philosophical truth does not depend on physical strength or powerful friends.


What follows is a reaction to, and comment on, Jacob Brownowski's elegant essay defending scientific method as well as his strong conception of scientific knowledge claims and universalizing methods. There are several philosophical confusions on display in this essay that are somewhat surprising from a person of this author's stature. I enjoyed and admired Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man." In reviewing this work, I focus on several issues discussed by Bronowski, who sometimes fails to distinguish and even confuses these distinct, if related issues.

Richard Rorty's work serves as a useful contrast and corrective to Bronowski's confident assertions. Science-worshippers may be in for a surprise, since they tend to admire both Rorty and Bronowski, usually without realizing that their views conflict. My discussion focuses on: a) Bronowski's claims concerning scientific imperialism; b) Bronowski's humanism; c) Bronowski's unrecognized idealism and metaphysical assumptions that are contrasted with Rorty's position. I conclude with suggestions concerning scientific method put forward by leading philosophers of science and scientists. Among these thinkers Michael Polanyi and Marjorie Grene are especially important.

A. Scientific Imperialism.

Bronowski's subject in this work is "the place of science in the total field of human knowledge and that of human values as we have to reformulate them in this century." (p. 1.) Bronowski's conclusion is clear -- there is no alternative to science from now on in human history. I think he is mistaken to the extent that science is expanded to include the whole of human life and knowledge: "We are committed to a scientific way of thinking and to what it entails, a technological way of acting and we cannot go back." (p. 2.) Curiously, only a few pages later Bronowski tells us that "the great revolutions are intellectual revolutions." (p. 5.)

No intellectual revolution is the product of an experiment or was discovered in a laboratory, not even Darwin's theory of evolution. That theory was not found "in" an experiment, but invented or discovered in Darwin's materials and notes to "explain" the results of Darwin's own investigations of the fossil record. Intellectual revolutions have led to the recognition of scientific methods and benefits to be derived from laboratory work. Hence, there is a "chicken and egg" objection to Bronowski's thinking: What is it that produces science and scientific revolutions? Philosophy. But then, what is it that may be considered primary -- ideas (including philosophical ideas) at the heart of the scientific enterprise? Or scientific method? Scientific objectivity is also a kind of philosophy? Scientific method is merely the product of one set of philosophical ideas. Is it the discipline that gave rise to such things as science and scientific method, philosophy, that should be the proper object of reverence rather than science? Both?

Bronowski says: "science is primary." My response is: "For what purposes and in what context is science primary?" When proposing marriage, do you conduct an experiment? I doubt it. Notice that religion gave rise to rational philosophy, which leads to science. Religion and philosophy continue to be pervasive or foundational in all human thinking, including so-called "pure science." For example, science assumes the existence of a real world and truth, Bronowski tells us, and these assumptions already involve controversial philosophical and religious ideas. The very concept of science as distinct from biology or chemistry and the other scientific disciplines is a "universal" reflecting philosophical values and epistemological as well as metaphysical assumptions.

Bronowski finds himself providing a metaphysical theory, for example, even as he rejects metaphysics. He fails to realize that the rejection of metaphysics is a well-known "metaphysical stance," though not a very attractive one. What gave rise to the scientific revolution was philosophical ideas and changing historical conditions, as I say, which made those ideas both possible and attractive. This should be sufficient to indicate the importance of philosophy and history, apart from scientific concerns, in human life.

So many historical generalizations in this essay are based on flawed readings of history. There are very different understandings of the Renaissance and Florentine Neo-Platonists than Bronowski offers, for example, but he seems unaware of this fact. Philosophical assumptions are made in this essay that are not only controversial, but bizarre -- even as the author insists on the importance of precision and care in experimental method.

The admirable attitudes and methods used in scientific work are often disregarded by Bronowski, when he is writing on historical or philosophical topics with results that are less than entirely successful. Compare Sir John Hale, The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance (New York: Atheneum, 1994), pp. 206-207 ("Ficino and the Neo-Platonists") and Robert Ergang, The Renaissance (Princeton: D. Van Nordstrom, 1967), pp. 263-280 ("The Rise of Modern Science"), with Bronowski's summary of Renaissance humanism. Crane Brinton places the "success" of science a bit later than Bronowski on the historical timeline. See The Shaping of the Modern Mind (New York: Prentice Hall, 1953), pp. 112-137.

At one point Bronowski suggests, falsely, that magic "died around 1500." (p. 23.) Well, the great witchcraft scare erupted in the seventeenth century, resulting in the deaths of more than a million victims -- most of them women. Also, another craze concerning "magic" exploded in France in the mid eighteenth century. This statement by Bronowski is simply factually inaccurate. At the very least, it requires clarification.

Dionysius the Areopagite is laughingly dismissed, for example, for suggesting that persons are attracted to one another because "the universe is filled with the love of God." Bronowski says: "You can't do any science with the love of God. Dionysius had an excellent idea -- bodies attract one another -- and he had a good reason to think so. But it was not a reason which was going to tell him whether the attraction fell off at the inverse distance of the inverse square." (p. 9.) French existentialism is also tossed aside, with a chuckle, because: "it won't solve any differential equations." (p. 11.)

Existentialists may not be seeking to solve differential equations. Dionysius may not have intended his observations primarily -- or at all -- as descriptive statements about empirical reality. An existentialist, including a scientist who also happens to be an existentialist -- such as the foremost philosopher of science of Bronowski's generation, Michael Polanyi -- may regard the sort of questions to which existentialism addresses itself as more primary and even foundational to the scientific enterprise than, say, differential equations. Thus, Polanyi writes:

"Upon examining the grounds on which science is pursued, I found that it is determined at every stage by undefinable powers of thought. [Intuitions?] No rules can account for the way a good idea is produced for starting an inquiry; and there are no rules either for the verification or refutation of a proposed solution to a problem."

Personal Knowledge, p. ix.

Science and philosophy or religion necessarily involve a "commitment" to a tacit epistemology, according to Polanyi (and Bronowski). This turns out to be only a form of phenomenological existentialism, which is unknowingly embraced by Mr. Bronowski, then seasoned with a little idealism, which is also unrecognized by Bronowski.

This Kantian-constructivism by Bronowski, strangely, follows his rejection of French existentialism. (p. 45.) We are required to choose, Bronowski tells us (sounding like Sartre), between "magic and science." This is exactly Polanyi's point, along with the observation that each is involved in the other. My interpretation and that of other thinkers dealing with these issues, each in his own way -- for example, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Richard Rorty -- is that the distinction between these theoretical models (science and philosophy, religion and magic) is not all that clear because each continues to inform the others. Professor Floyd Matson comments:

"This recognition that, in Polanyi's phrase, 'knowledge is personal' -- and most profoundly when it is knowledge of other persons -- has been widely resisted on the assumption that it constitutes a confession of human frailty and therefore (as Hull considered it) a counsel of despair. And no doubt to those who are convinced that the stockpile of human knowledge increases in direct ratio to the distance between subject and object, the very notion of 'personal knowledge' can have the appearance of a blooming, buzzing confusion of logic."

Matson adds:

"... it is instructive to be reminded, once more, of the singular fact that throughout three centuries of scientific ascendancy the lingering suspicion that we cannot get away from ourselves -- and even, perhaps, that we should not -- has never been altogether silenced or suppressed. Phrased another way, this is the view which holds that to acknowledge the inner personal dimension in behavior, as well as in the observation of behavior, is not to confess a fatal defect but to identify a source of strength -- a unique prerogative of the human condition which provides the sole basis for genuine communication between man and man, and hence for the understanding of other voices, other minds, other behaviors."

The Broken Image, p. 238 (emphasis added).

To speak of understanding as distinct from knowledge in science is to shift into hermeneutics. Bronowski defines magic as: "... the view that there is a logic of everyday life, but there is also a logic of another world. And that other logic works in a different way and if you can only find the secret key, if you can enter into some magical practice -- particularly if you can find the right form of words -- then either the Almighty will be on your side, or you will collect all the votes, or people will believe that because you call it peace, that it's not the same word as war, and all those other things which Orwell has portrayed so brilliantly but which really always come to the same thing: trying to command the world and particularly the opinions of other people by some formula which is other than the truth." (p. 12.) (emphasis added)

Several difficulties to notice about this passage leap out at the reader: First, there are indeed several kinds of logic, even a "revolution in logic" (Peano, Russell, Whitehead) emerging in the twentieth century that called into question many of the assumptions of the early modern era that were foundational to the scientific revolution and classical logic. Godel's proof of incompleteness is a good place to start exploring these issues. Amazingly, yet another "error" was inserted in this text since my previous review only a few days ago. I have corrected that inserted "error" once again.

Also, how the world "is" may depend, for some theorists, on how we choose to describe it. (See Austin's "How To Do Things With Words.") There are any number of objectively valid and true descriptive schemes -- such as science, philosophy, art, even mathematics -- which may be used to construct descriptions that we may live in different contexts and for different purposes. The work of Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933), pp. 169-243 is helpful on this issue. Richard Rorty explains:

"To be told that only a certain vocabulary is suited to human beings or human societies, that only that vocabulary permits us to understand them, is the seventeenth century myth of Nature's Own Vocabulary all over again." (Rorty, p. 198.)

This is the myth that says there is a "way the world is" that merely needs to be seen and described. We'll just go and look. Sadly, it's not that simple. Notice that Rorty and Bronowski disagree strongly on whether there is such a thing as the truth or a single way that the world "is." None of this deprives us of a concept of truth, by the way, provided that it is context-sensitive or INTERPRETIVE. We simply slide, again, from scientific discourse and inquiry into hermeneutics, as we have in Continental philosophy of art and politics.

There are multiple and true interpretations of multiple "worlds" and their corresponding descriptive schemes. There is both a way things are, whether knowably or unknowably is a different issue, and a multiplicity of descriptions of how things are. For this reason, we need art and philosophy as well as science. Notice that descriptions or interpretations may be meaningful entirely apart from whether they are true.

We live, in other words, in the era of the "multi-world" theory, so that "other-worlds" thinking is now much more of a scientific hypothesis than a philosophical one. More importantly, it is the many perspectives on this world that should concern philosophers of pluralism, suggesting that the sort of logic useful in calculating your taxes may not be the best wisdom or method to follow in deciding whether or how to talk to an attractive woman at the next scientific symposium that one attends. ("Would you like to see my new ruler?")

Yet another kind of logic may be involved in determining the human meaning of scientific knowledge claims. Bronowski is unable to grasp this point. Also, science is much more often associated by Orwell and Huxley with totalitarian forms of domination and the ghastly horrors of the concentration camps in the twentieth century. Bronowski's response is that Mengele and the Nazi doctors were "not eminent scientists" or that they did not "conduct proper experiments." This may be true, but it is beside the point. The very notion of experimenting on persons in violation of fundamental rights to autonomy and human dignity (even Duncan Kennedy and other critics of rights are in favor of human dignity) is an abomination, though often a "scientifically-conducted" abomination:

"People such as Mengele, Entress, Professor Clauberg worked in the concentration camps particularly on experiments that tried to sterilize people in large numbers. Now it's difficult for me or for any scientist to discuss dispassionately the dreadful stupidity of the work."

Even if the scientific experiments had been done "properly" or "intelligently" they would be just as hideous, even more so!

"People like Clauberg had rows of female prisoners brought in, produced some kind of gunk which contained some proportion of acid, squirted up the women's vaginas, and then asked, 'Is it going to work or is it not?' And that was called scientific experimentation." (p. 85.)

Had the scientific methods been flawless -- conducted under perfect laboratory conditions -- sterilizing or experimenting on those women in such sexually violative ways would remain despicable and evil. However, such a thing -- as Bronowski admits -- might indeed be done with scientific efficiency. He believes that this could lead to "valuable results." (See "Terry Tuchin, Diana Lisa Riccioli, and New Jersey's Agency of Torture" and "Psychological Torture in the American Legal System.")

With a population of persons about to die in a concentration camp, Bronowski tells us, experiments on causes of cancer might be legitimate. Let's induce cancers and see what happens. I disagree. I think such violations of what a human being is and how one should be treated by other persons is an undermining of science itself, which should be based on the human value of knowledge leading to truth in the service of humanity. Scientific "inquiring" is a form of humanism, embraced by Bronowski in this same essay, even as he contradicts himself in such passages by claiming imperial and exclusive rights for science in the knowledge field, thus revealing an absence of feeling and sensitivity that can only heighten fears concerning scientists' lack of compassion and charity:

"I once said in an interview on the BBC that I have a marvelous life because I've always been paid to do what I liked -- just like a prostitute." (p. 67.)

Professor Bronowski may not have fully appreciated the lack of choice for many women in the "sexual services industry" or the suffering and self-esteem issues that many women struggle against in dealing with the effects of such a life. Many women in the sex industry are like those women sterilized against their will and sexually assaulted -- even in a Nazi concentration camp -- as they faced death. This is not a trivial or laughable matter. It is a revealing instance of what is left out and ignored in Professor Bronowski's analysis: emotive factors and considerations that should go into rational deliberations -- like empathy, sympathy and compassion, respect for the humanity and dignity of "subjects," women. No wonder they insert "errors" in this essay. ("Can you lobotomize the soul?")

Women in the sex industry need protection from exploiters. Decriminilizing of commercial-sexual acts between consenting adults is long overdue. Health care and other safety issues need to be addressed, not more stigma and suffering for women who usually have enough to deal with in their lives. Much of this can be said on behalf of men doing similar work and facing similar problems.

If it were possible to learn something about men's scientific "thinking" by inserting, secretly, a device in their rectums (let's try it on Terry Tuchin of Ridgewood, N.J.), without their consent or permission, a device that would "beep" loudly whenever male scientists were distracted from their efforts by a sexual thought, then to have attractive prospective sexual partners stroll by their laboratories, at regular intervals, the results might well be valuable. We can "learn" from such experiments. Would it be right to perform such experiments, secretly, on victims without their consent? I doubt it.

I venture to suggest that scientists subjected to such treatment would find the process somewhat invasive and inappropriate. I agree with them. I would not do such a thing even to a person who has tortured me. This flawed historical reasoning leads to Professor Bronowski's self-contradictory humanism.

B. Bronowski's Humanism.

Unlike many in the "we're-just-animals" school of scientific thinkers, Bronowski admits "... this revolution worked as much in the sciences as in the arts and that it is impossible to understand the really radical change that the Renaissance made unless we see science not as an afterthought but as an integral part of that humanism -- rhetoric, linguistics and all." (p. 26.)

Notice that, despite his criticisms of "God talk," Bronowski then makes this crucial point: "This sense that man and the universe are one, that the presence of God in the universe is a different kind of presence, is what makes the neo-Platonic revolution crucial in the science of the Renaissance." (p. 29.)

There may be what philosophers describe as a "slight tension" between these statements. Like many other scientific thinkers, Bronowski wishes to speak of the "world as it is" and of "science" as the discipline that reveals "how the world is." The problem is that there is no way the world is which can be entirely distinct from our descriptions of how the world is, descriptions which (admittedly) must be related to that external reality "somehow." This is not to deny the validity of the descriptions. Think of the debate between formalists and realists in the philosophy of mathematics. The descriptions may still be true, even if they are opposed or conflicting descriptions -- and to the extent that these descriptions are true, they are absolutely true and even context transcendent. (Kant on synthetic a priori propositions.)

For Kant's kind of reasons, we may not be able to know how the world is apart from our cognitive capacities. We cannot take the world in one hand and our minds or descriptions of it in the other. To grasp the world at all is to know it through our perceptual capacities, such as vision or touch, language and the OBJECTIVE AND TRUE concepts (including mathematical concepts) made possible by language. These human cognitive capacities are our "irremovable spectacles" that construct as they perceive, as they must for all rational agents who are similarly situated. Take another look at Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

Hey, don't panic. Chill. We can still speak of truth and objectivity in interpretive terms. Now check out some Hegel. The interpretations may even be necessary for all rational agents, again, or persons -- except for beings from New Jersey, of course, who can "arrange" for things to be different. Anybody seen "Cheech"? In Trenton, 2 + 2 equals "whatever you want." This may explain the difficulties with the state's vanishing pension funds. Otherwise, there are rational constraints on our interpretive schemes, which have the effect of creating -- as they describe -- empirical and social realities. ("Say Goodbye to Your N.J. State Pension.")

Beyond New Jersey, the universe is rational -- that is, if we are rational and would like the universe to be rational also. By inventing the concept of gravity, for instance, scientists can explain why it is always true in human experience and in the experience of all rational agents that things fall when they are dropped on the planet earth. Just remember that we invented scientific concepts, not the other way around. If we prefer to be irrational, then we can happily claim that there is no gravity, it just looks that way to some people and not to others. However, if we leap off a tall building, I am confident that we will fall to earth -- rationalists and irrationalists alike. This sort of unpleasant experience is something else that can be arranged for annoying critics (or even Governors on the Turnpike, perhaps) in New Jersey, for a small fee. How you doing, Cheech, and how do you like it "down da shore"?

"How about God?" asks the feisty science major. The word and concept of "God" is a human invention to describe an experience of something beyond all human descriptions, which is pretty universal for humanity -- kind of like gravity. Merely because our descriptive schemes or myths to attempt to get at this unique experience of something powerful and real are inadequate, should not lead you to doubt the reality of what such flawed human minds and descriptions intuit. "Here it is, at last, the great thing ... please sit." These were the final words, according to some scholars, spoken by Henry James. What was Mr. James trying to say?

There is indeed something "out there," underlying the order of the cosmos and the music of the spheres -- and She is pretty awesome. In the immortal words of Albert Einstein: "And how."

C. Metaphysical Assumptions and Idealism.

Bronowski explains at length that he is not interested in metaphysics. He then writes:

"I have put forward the view that science is a world picture. It is not a technique; it is not a form of power; it is not even simply an accumulation of knowledge which makes a world view. And to this, I hold, we have been irrevocably committed roughly since the Renaissance. I hold that the scientific revolution from 1500 onward was an essential part of the Renaissance, that without it the Renaissance cannot be properly understood as a revaluation of man [and woman,] as what Professor Kristeller and his colleagues call in their joint book 'The Renaissance Concept of Man.'" (p. 41.)

Two problems: 1) persons have always been "committed" to creating pictures of the world and trying to live within them. Thus, there is nothing new in this statement; 2) furthermore, this is a metaphysical statement -- despite Bronowski's denials -- one which leads to a kind of idealism anticipated by Iris Murdoch contradicting Professor Bronowski's professed empiricism and realism. Read this next paragraph very carefully because Professor Bronowski failed to do so:

"With all its miraculous interconnections the brain, the human brain, the most complex brain of all, is still a very coarse instrument. And it can only find regularity in nature by digging it out or putting it there (however you like to put it) but not simply by recording nature." (p. 44.) (emphasis added)

There is no such thing for persons as "simply recording nature," Bronowski says. However, we can still have truth and objectivity in our descriptive schemes. Bronowski's reasoning undermines itself because it may well be true that we are "committed to the scientific world view," but this is only for some and not all purposes. This "putting there" of the order we find in nature is what philosophers call "idealism." This is another way of speaking of constructing as we perceive.

Among the purposes for which science will be of limited utility is deciding what values we will "put there" in our human interactions. Perhaps we will decide to treat women as equals and all persons as autonomous and inviolable subjects, who are not to be experimented upon against their will. Most importantly, persons are to be included in deciding on the scope of scientific methods and knowledge, along with areas better studied in other ways, whenever they will be affected by such methods and knowledge. No person is a slave nor an unwilling experimental animal. Scientists cannot violate fundamental rights of persons and escape liability for their actions.

Bronowski's essay was fun to read, not least because of the good professor's philosophical troubles. We all have those. I will give the final word to Richard Rorty, with a little help from me. Where would these guys be without me?

"For we shall not think that 'the study of man' or 'the human sciences' have a nature, any more than we think that man does."

Man's and woman's nature, Professor Rorty, is to wonder whether we have a nature. ("The Heidegger Controversy.")

"When the notion of knowledge as representing goes, then the notion of inquiry as split into discrete sectors with discrete subject matters goes. The lines between novels, newspaper articles, and sociological research gets blurred. The lines between subject matters are drawn by reference to current practical concerns, rather than putative ontological status." (p. 203.)

This may be "true," Professor Rorty, but you have not proven (or even argued) that there is no ontological status attached to those objects of practical and epistemic concerns -- like science, truth, or God.

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