`All the central questions of humanity are beyond science'

September 22, 1995

The two worlds of science and the humanities are still being pitted against each other. John Carey, Oxford's Merton professor of English literature, has no doubt which is winning. For him, as he tells Lucy Hodges (left), it is scientists rather than the arts intelligentsia who are the new intellectuals. But Brian Ridley (below) dismisses the notion of the superiority of science, believing the two cultures to be complementary. And on the right Aisling Irwin reports on Stephen Jay Gould berating us for still clinging to the idea that evolution is progressive 150 years after Darwin expunged purpose and progress from nature.

Science v literature. The old two cultures controversy - which raged most loudly in the 1960s - has never really gone away. Most of the issues have long been thrashed out and may be thankfully forgotten. But there are two that continue to concern me as a scientist.

One is the virulence of anti-science feeling that informed, not to say infested, the intemperate rebuttal F. R. Leavis made of C. P. Snow's less defensible comments on the literary establishment. The other is the perceived incompatibility of literature and science, a perception so deeply ingrained in us by 400 years of antagonism, that we have stopped thinking about it and accept it with a shrug.

Both stem from the profound psychological effect the power of science has had on us all. Because of it, at least partly, religion has wilted into utilitarian social work, and for most, the idea of reverence has become meaningless - and there is even the feeling that human existence has lost any conceivable point. In short, science is perceived to be antagonistic to the human spirit.

Something is seriously amiss. How can science cast such an evil-seeming shadow on the human spirit when it produces some of its acknowledged achievements? How is it that literature - which tells us about the richness of human life itself - can be so repelled? The problem is complex and the solution is not easy to come by. But one possible answer is suggested by the sheer success of science. Why science should work so well is a mystery worthy of reverence - there is no logical reason why it should. Its power and success have given rise to the tradition that scientific progress in our understanding of the natural world will continue indefinitely so long as the scientific method survives, a tradition I fully endorse. But tacked on to this tradition is the expectation that this progress will naturally extend to all spheres of human knowledge. This expectation was debunked long ago by David Hume, and the belief that science would say knowledgeable things about value was dubbed "the naturalist fallacy" by G. E. Moore. It seems nevertheless the case that the science tradition and the naturalist fallacy have taken hold of society with an intensity normally associated with myth. These days any idea of salvation is scarcely to be separated from science.

It is difficult to understand how the science myth can be taken seriously. What can it possibly mean to apply the scientific method to morality or aesthetics, to love and to friendship, to imagination? A whole class of individual everyday experiences lie outside the power of science to investigate. All the central questions of humanity - why are we here, what are we for, is there a meaning to life outside brute existence? - are beyond science, which at best can only answer questions beginning with "how". If belief that there is nothing that science cannot solve, given time, were confined to those ignorant of science, it might be bearable. But unhappily, this is not the case. As a scientist, it is intellectually embarrassing to observe eminent fellow scientists abandon the imaginative and subtle thought they display in their own fields and cheerfully promulgate this appalling myth. The worst are reductionist molecular biologists who are either able to gloss over enormous semantic cracks and see morality in a gene or who regard morality as meaningless. But even in my field of physics there have been examples: most recently, the claim of the possibility of a grand unified theory of the universe slipping easily into an unqualified claim of the possibility of knowing God. If the no-bounds myth of science is entrenched in the minds of our brightest and best, it is not surprising to find it in society.

The rot is in science, and justified more often than not by the dismissal as meaningless of all human values, all questions beginning with "why". This in spite of the fact that concerns about value and "why" are empirically observable and are as much part of the world as a molecule is, and infinitely more richly experienced. That these concerns lie beyond the power of science seems hard to bear for a certain cast of scientist and indicate that science has limitations. One limitation is dictated by the fact that science is a worldwide collaboration. This means its fundamental feature is the unambiguous communicability of its findings, and this in turn means it can deal only with knowledge that is so objective, so testable, so repeatable and so public that it is meaningful to anyone engaged in the scientific method. Only what is repeatable is extracted from the rich activity of nature and converted into publishable science. Scientific knowledge is a special abstraction of what is presented by nature. It cannot have anything to do with the unique, the unrepeatable. Yet nature is rich in unique, unrepeatable happenings. Each one of us is such a happening, or so we are told, ironically enough, by geneticists.

Understandably, all this perplexes literature - prose and poetry - to be the articulation of the possibilities of life, past and present, and as such is of vital significance to mankind. It has been rightly appalled by the immoderate claims made on behalf of science and, all too often, by science itself. Keats, concerned by the rationality of science, predicted the disappearance of poetry. I. A. Richards, observing that science could answer questions only if they began with "how" but not if they began with "why", concluded that poetry was safe but, like many others, saw science as essentially antagonistic to poetry.

There are very great differences between science and poetry. Science strives to write sentences that are unambiguous. By contrast, poetry describes "emotions recollected in tranquillity" and magically transmitted to the reader by the choice of form, style and the right word in the right place. It is never what a poem says that matters, but what it is. This uniqueness is beyond science to emulate: poet, poem and reader form a resonant entity by which thoughts, moods, emotions could not otherwise be communicated, there being not sufficient vocabulary in the world to describe the delicate shades of feeling. Poetry is dealing with a part of the universe science cannot touch, and in this key sense, poetry is complementary to science, not antagonistic or contrary to it.

There is, however, a common historical bond between literature and science in that they once shared a tradition that embodied a magical view of the universe. In this view, the world was a living entity with hidden correspondences between its parts - for example, between the stars and men's souls - where every happening had meaning, and men could seek control by understanding its occult powers. Words had power in their own right. Incantations combined with the proper deployment of symbols at the right time and right place could invoke powerful forces that could be used to control people and things. Once the proper deployment of symbols was found - in other words, once the experimental method became established by Gilbert, Tycho Brahe, Galileo and others - magic gave way to science, and the antagonism of religion, always jealous of its revealed truths, switched accordingly. The loss of the magical view changed literature. After Shakespeare and Donne, the magic circle of the ancient world was broken, and along with that came an uneasy relation developing into antagonism between literature and science.

Yet magic has not really disappeared. In poetry, it exists in the ordering and choice of words. In science, it exists in the fact that we know how to manipulate bits of nature, even though the fundamental powers of the world - gravity, electricity, magnetism - remain alien and mysterious. In both poetry and science, there is a correspondence, the one between poet and reader, the other between nature and mankind, which is nothing less than magical. The aim of magic, Yeats said, was to obtain control of the sources of life. In their complementary ways that is the aim of poetry and science. They belong together in the key cultural activity of the human spirit. And yet there is always something more. Is there not in everyone something that mourns the passing of the magico-religious age? And does not that same something place the blame for its passing on science? Science, being powerful, will always have to bear some opprobrium, and the thin, intellectual idea of complementarity will not save it from the mistrust of literature.

Brian Ridley is professor in the department of physics, University of Essex.


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