Monday, February 20, 2012

Land of lost content?

I am sure that sometime in the last eight years I have reproduced here the famous quote from a 1987 article of the Czech poet/playwright/politician Vaclav Havel: "Modern science…abolishes as mere fiction the innermost foundations of our 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…People thought they could explain and conquer nature -- yet the outcome is that they destroyed it and disinherited themselves from it."

He goes on to elaborate: "[Ours is] an epoch which denies the binding importance of personal experience -- including the experience of mystery and of the absolute -- and displaces the personally experienced absolute as the measure of the world with a new, man-made absolute, devoid of mystery…the absolute of so-called objectivity."

One comes across some version the Havel quote all over the place, especially in the writings of the far relativist left and the far religious right. It seems people who agree on nothing else use him as a cudgel. Havel, after all, was almost universally respected. His anti-science screed is the perfect preface for anyone who harbors a grudge against the ideal of objective, human-derived knowledge.

What we can all agree on is that science and scientifically-based technology have changed the world. The question is whether the world we live in today is better or worse that the one we have left behind.

I was thinking about this the oher day as I was reading an article in the NYT Magazine about a Charles Dickens theme park in England, which purports to recreate the London of Dickens' time. The author writes: "And even if it were possible to create a lavish simulacrum of 1850s London -- with its typhus and cholera and clouds of toxic corpse gas, its sewage pouring into the Thames, its average life span of 27 years -- why would anyone want to visit?"

Why indeed?

And don't forget the choking smoke from coal fires, the debtor's prisons, the rotting teeth, the backyard privies, the neighborhood water pump, the rats, the maggots, the famine across the Irish sea, the coffin ships. Ah, yes, those were the days, of mystery and the absolute. That is the land of lost content,
/ I see it shining plain,/ 
The happy highways where I went
/ And cannot come again.