I remember Karl Popper (1902- 1994) from my time doing a PhD at The London School of Economics and Political Science (the famous LSE). He used to give lectures on political philosophy which attracted great crowds of students. He was a rather wizened, bald-headed character with a thick Austrian accent, very forceful.
One thing I took away from his classes was his strong assertion that a scientific fact, or theory, could not be proved. Hypotheses could be advanced, but could not be proved. They could only be disproven. Science, he said, was a constant process of thinking up hypotheses from the available data, then systematically testing them. If they held up, so far so good. That could be taken as the given “truth” as long as it was not disproven.
This “falsification” principle would become a leading paradigm until it itself was challenged by new philosophers (such as Thomas Kuhn). Popper welcomed such debate. This was what science should be about.
Students of human evolution have long argued that it has long been powered, not by natural selection, but mainly by “social evolution”. Humans can emancipate themselves through cultural change, which accumulates knowledge and passes it on directly to descendants via education. Traditions are built up ” which may take the form of superstition, myth, doctrine, or rite, or may be codified by law or taught as recognised academic knowledge. In the span of human culture, these external bodies of formalised information form a second tier that overlays the message of our genes… But we must be aware that in such a system it is risky to remove elements arbitrarily, even those that are apparently bad, for they are part of a coherent system of a complexity comparable to that of our instinctive behaviour patterns. They are so intricately linked that pulling out one brick may topple the entire structure. Anthropologists rightly warn against subjecting primitive tribes to ‘culture shock’. A culture is not easily directed from without, but can be all too easily destroyed – and the humanity of man, deprived of its supporting culture, is destroyed with it”.
Alec Nisbett (1976).
The founder of modern ethology (the study of animal behaviour) wrote this in 1973:
“All the advantages that man has gained from his ever-deepening understanding of the natural world that surrounds him, his technological, chemical and medical progress, all of which should seem to alleviate human suffering … tends instead to favour human destruction”
Konrad Lorenz, Civilized Man’s 8 Deadly Sins (1973)
This from a scientist who generally described himself as an optimist !
” Though Freud himself was always striving to express his findings in terms of objective realities, the actual entities he constructed were far more like the spirits, virtues, and faculties of a medieval morality play than the material entities of the physicist and chemist.
The unconscious, with its trinity of ego, super ego, and id, the complexes, the censor, the libido, and the death-wish, were all invented by Freud to explain the strange imaginings, dreams, and compulsive behaviour of his patients… [These constructs] tended to take on, especially with his followers, an absolute character, and created a fixed and almost mythological inferno of evil influences…..”
Bernal, Science in History (1957)
You may have noticed that I have been working on that great radical crystallographer Desmond Bernal.
I will have an essay on him ready by next week and will, post it on my blog. Don’t miss it.
After the destructive phase of the Renaissance and Reformation was over a new compromise was needed between religion and science:
“Newton’s system of the universe did represent a considerable concession on the part of religious orthodoxy, for by it the hand of God could no longer be clearly seen in every celestial or terrestrial event but only in the general creation and organization of the whole.
God had, in fact, like his anointed ones on earth, become a constitutional monarch. On their side the scientists undertook not to trespass into the proper field of religion – the world of man’s life with its aspirations and responsibilities”
Desmond Bernal, Science in History (1957)
“Already the cost of nuclear power is comparable with that from thermal sources, and we may reasonably expect that with the use of breeder piles… it will become cheaper as time goes by. There need be no fear for a 1000 years or so of any shortage of nuclear fuel…
If wat can be avoided, the era of nuclear power is rapidly approaching and by the end of the [20th] century it will be the main source of electricity”
J. D. Bernal, Science in History (1957)
I wonder what he would think today?
Desmond Bernal was debating this issue way back in 1954. The scientific advances of the Industrial Revolution underlay the Victorian Doctrine of Progress. After two horrific world wars that doctrine was no longer in vogue:
” It is certainly not so now, in these grim and anxious days, when the power that science can give is seen to be more immediately capable of wiping out civilization and even life itself from the planet than of assuring an uninterrupted progress in the arts of peace”.
J. D. Bernal, Science in History (1954)
“Science as something existing and complete is the most objective thing known to man. But science in the making, science as an end to be pursued, is as subjective and psychologically conditioned as any other branch of human endeavour – so much so, that the question “what is the purpose and meaning of science?” receives quite different answers at different times and from different sorts of people”.
” The self-doubt of the young is nothing compared to the self-doubt of the old”
Shostakovich (before his death in 1975)