Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Since the world began...

The philosophy of the present day...is neither scoffing, nor presumptuous, nor destructive. Since the world began, there never has been so deep a reverence for truth, so keen a sense of the fallibility and limitation of the intellect of man, so earnest a desire to build up some theory of this wonderful universe that cannot be shaken by the questioning of a child, so profound a yearning "Im Guten, Ganzen, Wahren, resolut zu leben" [to live resolutely in the good, the whole and the true: Goethe] as among the scientific workers of this age and generation.

Never has there been so clear an appreciation of the unity of all phenomena, and hence of the absurdity of both materialism and spiritualism. Never has the consequent necessary identity of of the methods by which truth of all kinds must be attained been so clearly obvious as it is now. And, therefore, never has the attempt to set bounds to scientific inquiry and to the extension of the scientific method into every subject concerning which a proposition can be framed, proclaimed itself at once so fatuous and so impotent as now.
It is not hard to catch here the voice of that old scraper Thomas Huxley, lecturing the churchmen and politicians of the British establishment, who while giving lip service to the practical applications of science (steam engines, telegraphs, railroads, etc.) resist any scientific inquiry that would erode the divine affirmation of rank and privilege.

At the heart of Huxley's argument is a dismissal of the archaic distinction between natural and supernatural, material and spiritual. There is one world, he argues, and no part of it is out-of-bounds to empirical examination. No, no, tut-tutted establishment divines; do away with the distinction between God and nature and you shatter the foundations of a civilized society. Nonsense, replies Huxley. Religious feeling and morality are part of human nature, quite independent of theology. If we want to be good and whole and true, let us reverence truth wherever we can find it and retain a healthy sense of fallibility.

A century-and-a-half later, the likes of Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert are taking up Huxley's cudgel. Eton and Oxbridge have lost their preeminence, but supernaturalism is as rife as ever. "Suave and illiberal" churchmen and politicians from Washington to Tehran still evoke the supernatural to buttress their authority. The G-word appears on their lips as piously as flag pins appear in their lapels. They are happy to accept the technological and medical conveniences of empiricism, but they hold fast to faith-based theories of the universe that were obsolete even in Huxley's time.