Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Discomfort and ignorance

Vaclav Havel, the Czech poet, playwright, and statesman, famously said: "Modern science...abolishes as mere fiction the innermost foundations of the natural world: it kills God and takes his place on the vacant throne so henceforth it would be science that would hold the order of being in its hand as its sole legitimate guardian and so be the legitimate arbiter of all relevant truth." He was, of course, chiding what he perceived to be the overweening hubris of scientists.

His remark has been much quoted in an approving way. Mistrust, even fear, of science is rampant. The reason, I think, is clear. Scientific knowledge threatens some of our most cherished notions, in particular the existence of a personal (i.e. humanlike) divinity who minds attentively each and every human life, and, perhaps even more fundamentally, the immortality of self.

The universe revealed by science is not measured on the human scale of space or time. The cozy cosmic egg of our ancestors, with us at the center as the measure of all things has been shown to be a delusion. As D. H. Lawrence sourly opined: "Science has killed the sun, making it a ball of gas with spots."

Add to this the fact that science is complex, difficult and counterintuitive and it's no wonder that it sends a chill up so many spines.

There are two possible responses. The most popular is to simply put science out of mind -- while accepting, of course, the economic, medical and technological benefits science provides -- and go on believing the comfortable myths of our ancestors. The less popular response is to embrace the universe of the DNA and the galaxies, and learn to live with some measure of disillusion. As the biologist Lewis Wolpert has said, "Scientific knowledge and method may be uncomfortable, but [it} is surely better than ignorance."

Science may have toppled God from his throne, but it doesn't take God's place. Science tell us nothing about how to live a good and fulfilling life. For that, we will always need artists and poets, activists and contemplatives, ethicists and saints. But whatever lives we create for ourselves, it would seem advantageous to build them on the foundation of the most reliable knowledge we have of this world, even if that knowledge is tentative and discomfiting. The staggering success of scientific method speaks volumes in its favor where it comes into conflict with the consoling balm of traditional lore.