The Sojourn of Science

Posted on Oct 7, 2009
The Sojourn of Science

This essay is an excerpt from The Ascent of Humanity.

Scientific thought is essentially power thought—the sort of thought that is to say whose purpose, conscious or unconscious, is to give power to its possessor.
—Bertrand Russell

At its purest, the purpose of science is to better understand the world; or, we could say, it is to bring new worlds into the human domain of understanding. Science begins as an exploration of the unknown, and later becomes a conquest that subjugates that unknown to human purposes. It is thus highly significant that the Scientific Revolution coincided so closely in time with the European Age of Exploration. In both we see the same missionary zeal, the same sense of a new world of possibility, the same ideological roots, and the same tragic consequences.

The Age of Exploration led to the Age of Imperialism, both geopolitical and scientific. The urge to discover new lands was never innocent of the power motive. The sense of mission that drove the Europeans to civilize and colonize the world also infuses science. To civilize: to make tame, to bring order to. To colonize: to make subservient; to administer as a source of raw materials. Science colonizes the world for technology, finding ways to put materials to use, “harnessing” the forces of nature. Each new world that science discovered—the microscopic and the celestial, the electromagnetic and the chemical—was first explored and then exploited as a new dominion.

Both campaigns of conquest, the scientific and the terrestrial, are expressions of the same aspiration: to make the world ours. Starting about five hundred years ago, scientists and explorers issued forth from the Old World into a new. One frontier after another succumbed: the heavens, the sea, the poles, the archeological past, Everest, the cell, the genes, outer space, the atom. Concurrent with the expansion of the territory of civilization, the human realm broadened with each scientific conquest and the realm of the mysterious, the wild, shrank. By the end of the 19th century both conquests seemed nearly complete: only a few scattered hunter-gatherer tribes remained in the earth’s remotest regions, and only a few recondite phenomena, it seemed, still eluded the onward march of science.

The exhilarating promise of the new worlds sparked an optimism and a zeal that was to last for several centuries. Some vestige of it remains today in persistent hopes that nanotechnology or genetic engineering will bring the same easy riches (or even the Fountain of Youth) once sought in the terrestrial New World. But for most, confidence in this promise is wearing thin.

Whether or not its promise will ever be redeemed, perhaps we have entered a new world. Certainly the astonishing, nigh-miraculous technologies of air and space travel, instantaneous communications, and information processing would have seemed fantastical to people five hundred years ago. But if we have entered a new world, we have indubitably brought the old world with us, just as the European colonists brought along and perpetuated the violence and injustice they sought to escape. The new realm that science has opened to us is just like the old: it bears just as much uncertainty, just as much want, just as much suffering and just as much savagery, if only in somewhat different form.

This should not be surprising, because the Scientific Revolution was not really anything new. It was not a cultural discontinuity, but rather the crystallization of trends far preceding it. Science is just the culminating articulation, indeed the apotheosis, of trends of objectification going back thousands of years. Science takes the objectification of nature to its extreme, but conversely, a preexisting objectification of nature is necessary to even articulate its basic tenets and methods. It was only in the 17th century that our separation was sufficient for science to take off. The great names of the Scientific Revolution—Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, Bacon—merely gave expression to ideas whose time had come.

Before the 17th century human beings had not even the basis to dream of the Scientific Program to understand everything and the Technological Program to control it. The mysteries were too great and the powers of nature too awesome, our knowledge too scant and our technology too feeble. However, the slow accumulation of technology and empirical science through the Renaissance period gradually eroded nature’s forbidding immensity, bringing us to a point where such an assault on its mysteries became conceivable.

The conceptual underpinnings of this assault were formulated by Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes in the early part of the 17th century. The key physical insight (discovered by Galileo and formalized by Descartes) seems quite innocuous: a moving body continues to move forever at the same speed and the same direction, unless a force (friction, for example) acts upon it. Before Galileo, people naturally assumed that it takes a constant force to keep something in motion: when the ox stops pulling, the cart stops moving. Galileo said no, without force, nothing new ever really happens. Moving bodies keep moving in the same direction; resting bodies stay at rest. To change anything, force must be applied.

Why was this such a big deal? We live in a world of movement. Before we’d digested the physics of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, it seemed obvious that in order for there to be movement, there must be a Mover, a being to keep the sun and the moon in motion, to blow the wind and to rain the rain, to grow the plants and animate the animals. With the new laws of motion, no such Mover was necessary. Once set in motion, everything keeps moving by itself. At most, motion can get transferred from one object to another. God was no longer necessary to animate the world.

Parallel logic led naturally to the thought, developed by Descartes and others, that maybe animals are machines too, that no anima, no spirit, is needed to animate them either. The law of conservation of momentum is thus a direct denial of the ancient religion of animism. Consider a Native American term for God: “the spirit that moves all things”. With Galileo and Newton after him, no such spirit is necessary. Nothing is innately animate, but only moves by the application of physical force. Matter is inherently dead.

Descartes, Galileo, and the rest still believed in God, but they removed Him from the world of matter. God became a watchmaker, and creation became a discrete act and not an ongoing process. The universe became, essentially, a machine. The divine, once wholly identified with nature, and gradually abstracted through the age of agriculture and the Machine, was now completely removed from the world of matter.

With God no longer participating in the moving of the world, there is nothing to stop human beings becoming the world’s masters. And the tools of our mastery are the tools of force. There is nothing we cannot alter if we can only apply enough force in the right way. Our power over the universe, the body, and each other is limited only by the amount of force at our disposal, and our understanding of where to apply that force. Herein lies an intriguing definition of technology: it is a system of techniques for the application of force.

And how do we know the correct way to apply force? Only through the application of reason to the quantitative, objective description of reality that science provides. Our power, in other words, comes through the faculties of the mind. And what is the domain of the mind? Which aspects of the universe are to be included? Kepler’s answer was this: “As the ear is made to perceive sound, and the eye to perceive color, so the mind has been formed to perceive quantities.” Galileo heartily concurred. The brain, he believed, is wholly concerned with the apprehension of what he called primary qualities: size, shape, quantity, and motion. Everything else, even and especially sensory experiences such as sounds, odors, and colors, was secondary, outside the province of mind and outside the province of science. After all, we share those experiences with animals, but the abstraction and quantification that Galileo attributed to pure mind is a singularly human trait. By implication, the more fully we devote ourselves to that function, the more separate we are from the animals, the more ascended.

In exiling quality from reality, Galileo banned subjectivity from science and denied the importance of how we experience the world. Science today still strives to remove any dependency on individual subjective experience; following Galileo, it concerns itself with that which is independent of subjectivity. Lewis Mumford puts it succinctly: “Following Kepler’s lead, Galileo constructed a world in which matter alone mattered, in which qualities became ‘immaterial’ and were turned by inference into superfluous exudations of the mind.”[4]

So deeply has the gospel of objectivity taken hold that it pervades our very language, so that when we use words to deconstruct it, we risk unconsciously reinforcing it. Witness the odd phrase above: “…in which matter alone mattered.” Here, to matter is to be significant, to be effectively real. Matter, turned into verb form, means to be real. Implicit in that very verb is that only matter is real. (And what about weighty matters?) If we tried to posit the opposite sentiment, say, “Spirit matters more than matter,” we are actually reinforcing the primacy of matter via the tacit assumptions embodied in the language itself.

Even more subtly, every declarative “is” sentence also reinforces objectivity by making a peremptory claim about an absolute reality independent of anyone’s subjective experience. You see, that’s just the way it is.

If, as modern physics suggests, the observer is inseparable from the observed, then any “is” sentence is at best an approximation and at worst a lie. This lie inheres already in the abstraction of symbolic language, originating tens of thousands of years before. In the abstraction of symbolic culture, the alienating conclusions of Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes are already present. These thinkers merely formalized separation as an ideological principle. A long-gathering undercurrent had now risen to the surface and would soon sweep all before it.

Galileo’s excision of God from the world of matter mirrored the even more audacious banishment of subjective experiences from the domain of rigorous intellectual exploration. Not only their knowability was questioned, but even their reality. Science is the study of reality; what is not measurable is not a valid subject of science; therefore what is not measurable is not real. A century later, David Hume took up this position with great enthusiasm: “Let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames; for it contains nothing but sophistry and illusion.”[5]

In defense of these philosophers, it helps to see where they were coming from. The ideology of objectivity doubtless had a salutary effect initially, liberating thought from the stultifying Scholastic traditions that had long sequestered knowledge in the arcane volumes of Aristotle and the Church theologians. The new scientific knowledge, in contrast, was accessible to anyone; scientific experiments were replicable by anyone seeking to see for himself. No faith in dogma was necessary; all knowledge was to be open to first-hand verification. Truth was taken out of the hands of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The Scientific Revolution sought to free thought, not to bind it.

Ironic indeed, then, is the present state of science, in which once again vast areas of inquiry are off-limits; in which experimental results that contradict orthodoxy are excluded from publication; in which knowledge is restricted to those initiated into the language of its abstruse texts; in which whole fields wallow in fruitless hyperspecialization; in which the public can only await the pronouncements of this new quasi-ecclesiastical hierarchy, holder of the keys to the gates of knowledge. Can we say that we have not replicated the old world within the new? Upon the Scientific Method, which freed thought from the institutionalized, authoritarian superstition of the Middle Ages, we have built yet a new orthodoxy, more totalitarian, if more subtle, than the first.

Returning to Galileo, his assertion that the universe is “written in the language of mathematics” potentially subordinates all its mysteries to human understanding and human control. Accordingly, to this day we attempt to understand the world by (1) gathering data, and (2) manipulating that data according to mathematical models. Nature is thereby rendered tractable, promising a reliable foundation to the Technological Program of control. Mathematically, the ambition of subordinating the universe to numbers took form in Descartes’ system of coordinates, which associated every point in space and time with a number. Descartes was also among the first to fully grasp the potential power of this new approach to knowledge, as in this famous passage:

For by them I perceived it to be possible to arrive at knowledge highly useful in life; and in room of the speculative philosophy usually taught in the schools, to discover a practical, by means of which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans, we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature. And this is a result to be desired, not only in order to the invention of an infinity of arts, by which we might be enabled to enjoy without any trouble the fruits of the earth, and all its comforts, but also and especially for the preservation of health.[6]

Here Descartes articulates quite clearly the relationship between science and technology that was to dominate the next three centuries. Science achieves understanding, upon which basis technology achieves control. If we can understand precisely how something works, then we can conceivably control it with infinite precision. And the purpose of all this, the motivation and the justification, is to dominate nature, eliminate labor (“enjoy without any trouble the fruits of the earth”), ensure comfort, and conquer disease. He doesn’t go so far as the techno-utopian ideal of overcoming death itself—such audacity had to wait the twentieth century—but he nonetheless lays out the Technological Program in all its essential details.

While Galileo and Descartes posited the mathematization of the universe, the first promising claim to having actually achieved such a feat had to wait until the defining figure of the Scientific Revolution, Isaac Newton. With his famous equation F=MA (force equals mass times acceleration), Newton put Galileo’s discovery into rigorous mathematical form. Force, and only force, causes acceleration, a change in the rate and direction of movement.

Newton also furthered the removal of spirit from the world of matter by uniting heaven and earth. Up through the Middle Ages, heaven was not an abstract concept, but literally identified with the sky. That’s where God lived. The sky, the heavens, was the abode of God during the agricultural phase of humanity. The Greeks put their gods first on Mount Olympus, and then later on an invisible, supernatural Olympus in the sky. The same identity existed in classical China as well: in Chinese, the word tian means both heaven and sky, and the semi-divine emperor was the tianzi, the “son of heaven”.

Before Newton, the heavenly realm and the earthly realm remained separate. The heavenly realm was the realm of perfection, where heavenly bodies moved in perfect circles (well, actually ellipses) and along predictable paths. The earthly realm was chaotic; what order there was (tides, day and night, seasons, and so forth) seemed to originate in the heavens. Naturally, then, people associated the heavenly realm of order and mathematical perfection with God. Heavenly bodies were not subject to earthly laws—the moon does not fall out of the sky the way Galileo’s weights fell from the leaning tower of Pisa.

Newton’s accomplishment was to show that, by understanding gravity as a force, the same equation, F=MA, could be made to describe both realms, the heavenly and the earthly. A single equation replaced the empirical laws of both Galileo and Kepler, which had seemed entirely different. One equation described both the motions of the planets and the motion of an apple falling from a tree, an astonishing unification. Here was the first candidate for a “theory of everything”, still the Holy Grail of physics. Here was the first plausible hope that maybe the whole universe and everything in it really could be understood in the form of mathematics, just as Galileo said.

Interestingly, even as they furthered the reduction of nature to mathematics, Newton’s Laws required a new advance in that reduction to even be conceived. The derivation and application of Newton’s laws required a novel mathematical technique—calculus—that solves problems by treating time as a succession of infinitesimally brief instants, essentially reducing process to number and becoming to being. Even as mere mathematics, calculus smuggles in a very different mode of conceptualization that perhaps could not have occurred outside the context of increasing objectification of the world. Maybe this is why Archimedes did not invent calculus two millennia beforehand, despite having applied the basic technique to numerous problems in geometry. Similarly, maybe it is an unconscious rejection of this leap in abstraction that renders so many students, even those who were “good at math” in high school, seemingly unable to learn calculus. And you thought you were stupid!

Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation purported to be just that, universal. The mind of man had finally penetrated the deepest secret of the universe. The greatest mystery had been revealed. Newton had discovered the key to the mechanism of God’s creation. The human realm of the understood now encompassed the entire cosmos via a single governing equation. All that was now needed was to accumulate data.

No wonder Newton’s discovery was so exhilarating and why Newton himself was such a celebrity. Poets spoke of him discovering the key that unlocks the universe. (His epitaph, penned by Alexander Pope, reads, “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night / God said: ‘Let Newton be’ and all was light.”)

It is significant that the canonical founders of modern science were so preoccupied with the sky, an unearthly realm well suited to a mode of inquiry that strove to be independent of human subjectivity. This focus links them back to the priesthood of the ancient builder civilizations with their semi-divine rulers, the sons of heaven, the earthly representatives of the solar god.

Even in those days, the court priest-scientists gazed upon the skies for purposes of astrology and calendar-making. Scientists, with their heads in the clouds, are not too concerned with earthly affairs—hence the stereotype of the absent-minded professor. They have also generally been politically innocuous—as long as they “stick to science” and “don’t enter politics”. The worldly realm is supposed to be separate from the realm of science, which is the non-earthly, the celestial. Metaphorically this holds even more strongly. Science, especially “pure” science which is loftier than applied, is a rarefied plane of pure thought, inaccessible to all but the most highly trained intellects. It is wholly in the realm of the mind. And since intellect or mind is itself a uniquely human realm, pure science represents the loftiest human ascent, and the scientist is the most highly ascended human being. Yes, scientists are the modern priesthood, gazing with their mysterious instruments at invisible worlds to divine the truth. We the uninitiated stand outside their temples awaiting their pronouncements.

The work of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton amounted to a conquest of the heavens, a bringing of celestial phenomena into the human domain of abstract mathematics. The literal “conquest of space” had to wait a few more centuries, but the ambition to do so was inevitable.[7] Space travel was to be the fulfillment of human destiny, holding all the promise of a new world and the final transcendence of the old. Yet when we finally landed on the moon, nothing much happened. Our leaders, channeling a generalized aspiration, had their heads in the clouds, the heavenly realm. But the earthly realm proved not so easy to leave behind. Space exploration was an unprecedented and literal “ascent” of humanity. The original abode of God, the rarefied plane of science, had been physically breached. We had literally entered the heavens, and we found that we had taken our earthly problems with us into our New World. We had not left biology or the world behind; in fact, space travel required that we take them with us, a bit of earth enclosed in a space capsule.

Neither are our forays into the realms of the mind ever unsullied by worldly matters. The culture of science is no more immune than any other human sphere to pettiness, vanity, politicking, cheating, favoritism, and prejudice. And like space travel, any attempt to divorce a rational society or a rational life from the organic supporting matrix where it belongs requires tremendous effort and incurs tremendous danger. Such a life or society is tenuous, fragile, and short-lived. It cannot exist for long without reconnecting to the wellspring of life.

No more independent of nature are we than an astronaut is independent of the earth. Only a very foolish astronaut would think that he has no more need of the planet: “Hey, I’ve got food, I’ve got water, I’ve got oxygen… I’m fine!” Such is the myopia of the civilization of fire, encapsulated in its own vehicle of exploration, fueled and sustained by the supplies—natural, social, cultural, and spiritual capital—that it has taken along. Our voyage has taken us far, but to what end?

We reached the moon, and it was barren. The bleak moonscape of rocks and dust is a fitting metaphor for the landscape of separation, whether the emotional desolation of the man of reason, or the ugly homogeneity of suburbia. Yet our sojourn—the entire course of separation—is not without purpose. To convey a hint of what that purpose might be, I’ve selected a few quotes from astronauts describing their experiences as they gazed upon the earth from the vantage point of the most extreme literal separation human beings have ever known:[8]

From the moon, the Earth is so small and so fragile, and such a precious little spot in that Universe, that you can block it out with your thumb. Then you realize that on that spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you — all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it right there on that little spot that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective that you’ve changed forever, that there is something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was.
— Rusty Schweickart

When I was the last man to walk on the moon in December 1972, I stood in the blue darkness and looked in awe at the Earth from the lunar surface. What I saw was almost too beautiful to grasp. There was too much logic, too much purpose — it was just too beautiful to have happened by accident. It doesn’t matter how you choose to worship God… God has to exist to have created what I was privileged to see.
— Gene Cernan

On the return trip home, gazing through 240,000 miles of space toward the stars and the planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the Universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious.
— Edgar Mitchell

The first day we all pointed to our own countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.
— Sultan bin Salman al-Saud

It isn’t important in which sea or lake you observe a slick of pollution, or in the forests of which country a fire breaks out, or on which continent a hurricane arises. You are standing guard over the whole of our Earth.
— Yuri Artyukhin

With all the arguments, pro and con, for going to the moon, no one suggested that we should do it to look at the Earth. But that may in fact have been the most important reason of all.
— Joseph P. Allen

Like its most iconic achievement, space travel, science has taken us on flights of intellect to a cold, barren, alien realm, reducing life to a collection of forces and masses. And yet, this new vantage point has revealed a previously unsuspected splendor. Gazing through the lens of accumulated scientific knowledge at a body or a cell, when we really get its complexity and orchestration, its order and its beauty, the perfect mesh of levels and systems, then we know we are in the presence of a miracle. Awe is the only authentic response. Science has brought us to a place where we can walk in living awe of the ongoing miracle that is the world. In analogy to Joseph Allen’s thought above, perhaps it is this, and not control, that is the true purpose of science. It is to apprehend new realms of the awesome.