Science, the only reliable leader (but to where?)
by Ken Myers
“In his Essai sur l'étude de la littérature (1761), Gibbon set out to trace the origins of a fundamental shift in intellectual values in the West. During the previous hundred years, he noted, physics and mathematics had gradually come to replace the study of belles lettres as the pre-eminent form of learning. Indeed, this was just the kind of thing that Meric Casaubon had feared and warned against a hundred years earlier. ‘I hope it will not be required’, Casaubon writes, that learning generally and divinity in particular 'shall be tried by the Mathematicks, and made subservient to them; which yet the temper of some men of this age doth seem to threaten, which scarce will allow anything else worth a man’s study; and then, what need of Universities?’ Casaubon, like all students of belles lettres, had regarded the study of ancient literature — philosophy, history, poetry, oratory — as an intrinsic part of any form of knowledge of the world and our place in it. Gibbon sensed that, by the 1750s, the era of belles lettres as the dominant form of learning and understanding was coming to an end.
“Gibbon himself was one of the first to attempt a sustained analysis of the fundamental transformation of intellectual values of his era. This transformation was to become even more radical and complex over the next hundred years, and it has a strong claim to being the single most fundamental feature of the modern era. The West’s sense of itself, its relation to its past, and its sense of its future were all profoundly altered as cognitive values generally came to be shaped around scientific ones. The issue is not just that science brought a new set of such values to the task of understanding the world and our place in it, but rather that it completely transformed the task, redefining the goals of enquiry. The redefinition begins with attempts by seventeenth-century natural philosophers to establish the legitimacy of science, or natural philosophy, as it was then. The means by which this legitimacy was established involved a fundamental appeal to objectivity and non-partisanship, what later became the idea that science should be value-free. But how can something that is value-free realize human ideals and aspirations? The answer is that it cannot, and what in fact happens instead is that scientific, technological, and economic goals replace — rather than realize — more traditional political, social, and cultural ones. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, provides a typical example of what is at issue in a speech in 1960, where he spelled out how he understood the implications of science for India in these terms:
“It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people. . . . Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we seek its aid. . . . The future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science.
“At stake here is not merely an issue of how a third-world country might model itself on and catch up with the West, but rather something that goes to the core of the way in which the West conceives of how its future will be determined, and what values and goals this future will embody. As John Gray reminds us:
“Today, faith in political action is practically dead, and it is technology that expresses the dream of the transformed world. Few people any longer look forward to a world in which hunger and poverty are eradicated by a better distribution of the wealth that already exists. Instead, governments look to science to create ever more wealth. Intensive agriculture and genetically modified crops will feed the hungry; economic growth will reduce and eventually remove poverty. Though it is often politicians who espouse these policies most vociferously, the clear implication of such technical fixes is that we might as well forget about political change. Rather than struggling against arbitrary power, we should wait for the benign effects of growing prosperity.’”
— from Stephen Gaukroger, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1210-1685 (Oxford, 2006)