Sunday, 17 February 2013

That luminous modern thing

Eighty years ago this year, the philosopher George Santayana published an essay titled Revolutions in Science, from which the quote below is taken.

His essay was inspired by the theory of relativity, because he thought such an abstruse theory may be an early symptom of scientific decline. I particularly like his phrase Soviet of seers – he certainly got that one right.

A system, even when it has serious rivals, may be maintained for centuries as religions are maintained, institutionally; but a movement comes to an end; it is followed presently by a period of assimilation which transforms it, or by a movement in some other direction.

I ask myself accordingly whether the condition of the world in the coming years will be favourable to refined and paradoxical science. The extension of education will have enabled the uneducated to pronounce upon everything. Will the patronage of capital and enterprise subsist, to encourage discovery and reward invention?

Will a jealous and dogmatic democracy respect the unintelligible insight of the few? Will a perhaps starving democracy support materially its Soviet of seers?

But let us suppose that no utilitarian fanaticism supervenes, and no intellectual surfeit or discouragement. May not the very profundity of the new science and its metaphysical affinities lead it to bolder developments, inscrutable to the public and incompatible with one another, like the gnostic sects of declining antiquity?

Then perhaps that luminous modern thing which until recently was called science, in contrast to all personal philosophies, may cease to exist altogether, being petrified into routine in the practitioners, and fading in the professors into abstruse speculations.

George Santayana - Revolutions in Science (1933)


Nigel Sedgwick said...

The only thing that matters about science is that, in its domain of the natural world, it predicts what will happen in defined circumstances (though predict may be probabilistic in some/many circumstances). Though it is based primarily on its ability to explain what has already happened, it is the future predictions that are key to both confirmation and to benefit.

That a great deal of science is abstruse, is down to current human knowledge as much as the science itself. Where the things to be predicted and explained are outside of the common experience, of course they will feel strange at first: until the common experience is extended. Consider such scientific explanations that we now accept as obviously 'correct', such as gravitational force and the dual particle/wave theory of light. Their 'correctness' depends only on their ability to predict and explain; that they are abstract (and mysterious to many through that) does not matter.

A more extensive education for the common man and woman is the way forward on this: though that does not seem to be much of the objective of our state-controlled education systems. The ability to handle abstract concepts is what differentiates human thought processes from those of every other animal.

That there are scientific charlatans who use mumbo-jumbo explanations to bolster their societal standing is nothing new. It should not be used to hold back extending the boundaries, or to excuse those who believe it should.

We have not yet found the limits of scientific knowledge (and its beneficial application): just who is it that believes we ever will?

Best regards

Anonymous said...

Perhaps he felt a bit left out by the '30s. Science having become much less 'obvious', the simple ideas of classical science having been pushed aside by quantum ideas and highly structured mathematics. Still inscrutable to the public nevertheless the 'proper' sciences seem to me to be more unified now than hitherto and far from incompatible.

Perhaps Santayana was one of the last gentleman-philosophers.

A K Haart said...

Nigel and Roger - all good points. Santayana was something of an antiquarian in that he saw dangers in abstruse speculation within tightly limited groups. For me, one key phrase is -

"like the gnostic sects of declining antiquity?"

I think we see this issue in string theory, multiverse theory and climate science.

Another key phrase is:-

"but a movement comes to an end; it is followed presently by a period of assimilation which transforms it, or by a movement in some other direction."

Science may well go in another direction, or other directions as certain fields become worked out. These may not be "scientific" in a traditional sense.

Also applies to string theories, multiverse theories and climate science in my view. Two gnostic sects and a political project - not science.