The Follies of Science

An anecdote about the myopia of science and the mental-rational consciousness.

I was reading an article in today’s Guardian announcing an important “surprise” neurological discovery, “Newly discovered vessels beneath skull could link brain and immune system“. What was so interesting about the article for me, though, was a statement made by one of the discoverers,

“These vessels were just not supposed to be there based on what we know,” said Jonathan Kipnis, who led the work at the University of Virginia. “I thought the body was mapped and that these discoveries ended somewhere around the middle of the last century. But apparently they have not.”

O dear! They haven’t even scratched the surface of the mysteries of the body, and still there are those who seem to think that the game is up and that the body has been completely mapped.

It reminds me of the time science believed that there would be nothing after Newton — that Newton had given a complete picture of reality with his “Frame of the World” and everything else subsequently would be simply a “mop up operation” of adjusting and harmonising and coordinating science, philosophy, economics, art, religion, society-in-general with Newton’s laws and the Newtonian “Frame of the World”.

All somewhat premature, as it turns out. All quite myopic. The riddles and mysteries of the cosmos only kept expanding, and eventually along came Einstein and then quantum mechanics to open up vast new vistas and horizons of understanding and yet more mysteries and riddles. It was one of William Blake’s chief objections to Newtonianism and to those deluded who believed that Newton had provided a complete and final description of reality.

And here we have, once again, those who believe that our knowledge of the body is complete and final, or at least fully mapped and that there is nothing new to discover.

There is an old saying that seems to apply here: “pennywise but pound foolish”, which has more or less the same meaning as “can’t see the forest for the trees”, meaning obsessing with particulars and details while the Big Picture escapes attention, or “confusing the map with the territory”, as E.F. Schumacher put it in his Guide for the Perplexed. Consciousness far too narrowly focussed, which is the deficient aspect of perspectivisation, or what Nietzsche once called “nook-and-corner perspectivism”.

This closing of the mind to new possibilities (until reality intervenes and hits it on the head) is the very meaning of myopia. Too much analysis, not enough imagination.

We have become a civilisation of the “pennywise but the pound foolish”, as the old saying goes, and which now can’t see the forest for the trees either; myopic and given to tunnel vision. That’s the equivalent of what Blake referred to as “Single Vision”. It’s also what Carl Jung means when he stated “we have grown rich in knowledge but poor in wisdom”, ie, given the ego-nature too much authority in deciding what is and what is not valid.

Why on earth haven’t the anatomists, neurologists and biologists caught up with the insights of quantum mechanics? It’s as though they live on the proverbial “opposite sides of the railway track”. The body will never be completely and definitively mapped because it is an ecology that is constantly changing and evolving. It’s a universe in itself, and there will be no end to the discovery of “facts” about the body, because it is a living body, and thus no complete and definitive mapping will ever happen.

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8 responses to “The Follies of Science”

  1. donsalmon says :

    Nice thoughts – so much to reflect on. When you mentioned Newton, I thought you were going to go on to the end of the 19th century, when physicists were warning young college graduates to go into other fields than physics, since they had wrapped up all the main mysteries of the physics universe (this was just a decade or so before the quantum revolution).

    Have you ever tried to tai to a died in the wool materialist scientist about “laws of nature”? They get all twisted up about it. people have a hard time grasping this when they first think about it, but try this thought experiment on for size:

    Here’s how the materialist view begins. Unless you’re Lawrence Krauss and desperate enough to defeat non materialist views and you want to just make up things whole-hog, we start with nothing. Zip, nada.

    Then, over a period of 360,000 years (this is from the Big Bang up through a few hundred thousand years of chaos) the first “laws” appear to be established – but let’s call them “patterns.”

    So, in a mental rationalistic science that prides itself on its logical acumen, we have nothing, thousands of years of chaos, and then out of absolutely nowhere with no explanation felt to be necessary (Dawkins and Dennett speak of the “dance” of randomness out of which laws of nature’ emerge” – here’s the first sign of the pathology of “emergence” as an explanation – remember Barfield? Chance or “emergence” is an explanation the same way “drowning” is a kind of swimming because it’s something you can do in the water).

    But get ready for more rationalistic miracles. Wouldn’t you think if suddenly out of absolutely nowhere, “by chance” things start to interact in systematic, predictable patterns, that without any intelligent informing source, they would just fall back into chaos.

    Wouldn’t you think that?

    But no, these “patterns’ (laws of nature) hold up everything in the universe, and just keep chugging along for the next 13 or so billion years.

    If you can sit down and really get a materialist scientist to stop and think, they will admit that technically – at least from within their framework, there’s absolutely no reason why these laws couldn’t all just collapse and everything fall back into chaos – at any moment. Or worse, they could just change.

    In fact, there’s growing evidence that these “laws” are not permanent (remember the Buddha, impermanence, anicca?) and in fact may be “evolving.” (See Freda Matthews for more on this – she has written so brilliant challenges to the materialist view of “laws of nature” or whatever you what to call them)

    But rationalist science has not stopped relying on miracles. Out of chaos, patterns emerge, and continue (mindlessly) for 9 or so billion years. Then, miraculously, sentient life “emerges”. And this sentient life grows gradually more and more complex (in parallel with increasingly complex organisms to support it) and at some point, becomes self-aware.

    All this happens through a complex interplay of randomness and mechanical deterministic evolution.

    I am not aware of any creation story from any traditional culture that calls on us to believe in such completely, triumphantly, “in your face” absurdities as this rationalist/materialist scientific story.

    Here’s a very readable comment from Sri Aurobindo on this:

    The more you go inward or upward, the more the view of things changes and the outer knowledge Science organises takes its real and very limited place. Science, like most mental and external knowledge, gives you only truth of process. I would add that it cannot give you even the whole truth of process; for you seize some of the ponderables, but miss the all-important imponderables; you get, hardly even the how, but the conditions under which things happen in Nature. After all the triumphs and marvels of Science the explaining principle, the rationale, the significance of the whole is left as dark, as mysterious and even more mysterious than ever. The scheme it has built up of the evolution not only of this rich and vast and variegated material world, but of life and consciousness and mind and their workings out of a brute mass of electrons, identical and varied only in arrangement and number, is an irrational magic more baffling than any the most mystic imagination could conceive. Science in the end lands us in a paradox effectuated, an organised and rigidly determined accident, an impossibility that has somehow happened, – it has shown us a new, a material Maya, aghaṭana-ghaṭana-paṭīyasī, very clever at bringing about the impossible, a miracle that cannot logically be and yet somehow is there actual, irresistibly organised, but still irrational and inexplicable. And this is evidently because Science has missed something essential; it has seen and scrutinised what has happened and in a way how it has happened, but it has shut its eyes to something that made this impossible possible, something it is there to express. There is no fundamental significance in things if you miss the Divine Reality; for you remain embedded in a huge surface crust of manageable and utilisable appearance. It is the magic of the Magician you are trying to analyse, but only when you enter into the consciousness of the Magician himself can you begin to experience the true origination, significance and circles of the Lila. I say “begin” because the Divine Reality is not so simple that at the first touch you can know all of it or put it into a single formula; it is the Infinite and opens before you an infinite knowledge to which all Science put together is a bagatelle. But still you do touch the essential, the eternal behind things and in the light of That all begins to be profoundly luminous, intimately intelligible.

    • donsalmon says :

      By the way, assume for the moment the mindset of the materialist/rationalist, and you’ve honestly and sincerely thought through the groundlessness of these hypothesized “laws of nature” and you realize that technically, taking them at face value, not questioning these assumptions, they could not only stop, but could radically change – at any moment.

      To get a visceral feel as to how crazy this is, look around you – imagine nothing is holding any of this together. your computer could turn into a rabbit. your lights could suddenly start singing. Your arm could turn into a shovel.

      “But we don’t have to question these laws, we just accept they’re “there.”

      really, is there any reason why, after they miraculously appeared after 360,000 years, they couldn’t have just “stopped working” a minute later?

      What about 2 minutes? 2 years? 2 centuresi? 2 billion years?

      There’s really no reason why they couldn’t’ have ust stopped.

      nor is there any reason – within the materialist mindless universe framework – why they couldn’t have changed.

      nor is there any reason – within that mindless framework – why they couldn’t change right now.

      This moment.

      Now.

      And this is the science that prides itself on being reasonable.

      Truly awe-inspiring!

    • Scott Preston says :

      Great comments, and loved the Aurobindo quote. I didn’t even need a dictionary to understand it, either.

      But that it was once believed that the description of physical reality was complete is truly mind-boggling. We didn’t even know what space, time, energy were in scientific terms, and still don’t. I did once ask a physicist what space and time were — after all, a real and full description must surely explain these basic things. All I got in response was “space is what the ruler measures” and “time is what the clock measures”.

      One young physicist, though, told me a very humourous anecdote about his own quest to discover the explanation for space, time, energy, life. The response he got for his inquiry was “Shut up and calculate”. Seems to be the motto. Over the doorway to every physics faculty they should write “Shut up and Calculate”.

      • donsalmon says :

        I don’t recall if I told this one before, but it’s a nice complement to your young physicist story.

        Huston Smith taught religion in the Humanities department at MIT for some years. One day he was sitting in the cafeteria talking to a science professor. The scientist was trying to sum up what it was that distinguished what Smith and other Humanities professors did that was different from what he, as a scientist, did.

        Finally he came up with a pithy answer:

        “I know!” he exclaimed. “I count, and you don’t.”

        Of course, superficially he meant that in science, you use numbers and in humanities, you use words.

        Smith never makes clear whether he thought the professor was aware of the implicit value judgment in that statement, but my sense was he suspected the professor was in fact at least subliminally aware of it.

        I count, and you don’t.

        There you have it!

        And now that I’m telling stories (sorry, i’ve told this many times, so apologies if you’ve heard this before: i never get tired of it), here’s another.

        The theologian and pianist Gabriel Marcel was invited one day to talk about the subject of “Grace” to a group of logical positivists. As he talked, they kept requesting that he define his terms, that he make a clear logical statement as to what grace means.

        Finally, after trying to find some way to communicate to them, he said, “I’m sorry, I give up. I don’t think I can explain it to you. But if I had a piano, I could play it for you”

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    A very energizing essay; not to mention the comments by you and Donsalmon that made my day, too 🙂

    “It was one of William Blake’s chief objections to Newtonianism and to those deluded who believed that Newton had provided a complete and final description of reality.”

    It seems to me that William Blake saw that every dimension of reality is comprised of an infinity of layers. Once science thinks that it has found the last layer, it’d better look again, since every layer that is thought to be the last, by definition, must rest on another layer…..ad infinitum.

    • donsalmon says :

      Hi LBM:

      Well, I can’t resist – here is a letter from Krishna Prem (Ronald Nixon; an English professor who became the first Westerner to take Vaishnava vows in India, back in the late 1920s) to a disciple of Sri Aurobindo’s, Dilip Kumar Roy, a prominent classical Indian singer at the time. It’s followed by Sri Aurobindos’ response to the letter (Dilip used to send Krishna Prem’s letter – VERY much against Prem’s wishes – to Sri Aurobindo for comment);

      Here’s Krishna Prem on science and modernity in general:

      28th January, 1932

      My dear Dilip,

      You ask me to explain why I think that modern analytic psychology and subjectivist physics are going to be a more effective veil to Reality than the old Materialism. Well, I can’t give proof — but can only make a few suggestions. Religious apologists made a great mistake in abandoning their defences and retreating to a supposedly impregnable ‘Hindenburg Line’ of subjective experiences. They relegated the truth of religion to the reign of the inner self, then largely unexplored, just as the Theosophists located their Mahatmas in unexplored Tibet. And they bolstered up their position with all sorts of pragmatic arguments such as that prayer was a reality because of the peace it brought etc. Now this was cowardly and therefore foolish….Nayamatma balahinena labhyah. In fact, except on that plane where subject and object are one, there can be nothing subjective without an objective counterpart, and so what was the result? Baffled for the moment, the attackers (and let me say it is an attack and no mere judicial investigation — whatever some may pretend: merely look at the treatment meted out to any scientist however eminent who reports favourably on psychical phenomena; “Poor old Oliver Lodge,” they will say, “he did good work once but he went potty in the end over table-turning”), the attackers, I say, then set to work to study the nature of the fortress in which the apologists had so unwisely shut themselves up. They have now developed and are still developing a technique which enables them to account so plausibly for subjective psychic or mystic experiences that most superficial thinkers are convinced.

      First, the work of anthropologists of the Frazer school collected a mass of information about savage magico-religious rites (which they understood only in an exterior manner — compare, for instance, Sea-brook’s inside account of African Negro magic with the account given by any orthodox anthropologist) and then it was easy to show that the same primitive (and therefore presumably ridiculous) ideas persisted in modern religions.

      And the the subjective experiences. Experiments with drugs showed that to some extent similar states (to the mystic’s experiences) can be produced in the laboratory. Other experiences are dealt with in the manner satirized in one of G. K. Chesterton’s fantasies: A man shipwrecked from his yacht found himself in the compound of a lunatic asylum and was promptly assumed to be a patient. Every explanation he tried to give of his arrival was assumed to be delusion about shipwreck. Thus, if the mystic escapes the Scylla of Freudian repressed sensuality, he is caught in the Charybdis of Jung’s ‘racial unconsciousness’ in which, for some reason, all the religious symbols of the past are supposed to be preserved like flies in amber and to issue unexpectedly, causing the appearance of mystic experience.

      But I must come to the point. There is a saying in Vishva-Sara Tantra; “What is there is here, what is not here is nowhere”: yadihasti tadamutra yannehasti na tat kvachit — If God exists in the subjective world then he exists equally in the objective world. But the objective side has generally been abandoned by the defenders. If the working of the mind in mystic experiences is explained as has been the working of Nature, the the ordinary educated man will feel that the last stronghold is gone and that all farther belief is impossible. And it will be so explained away. This is quite certain. There is a universal tendency to think that when the process by which a thing happens has also been explained, then the reason for which it happens has also been explained. Why? Because the mind, as you know, is just as much mechanical (and as little if you like) as the outer world. It is merely more subtle: sukshmah: both are mere modifications of prakriti and explicable in similar ways. The real subject (and object, too) is the jivatma (soul) and that is for ever beyond the ken of mechanistic science because it is in a different dimension. (I use dimension only metaphorically). Now the modifications of prakriti form a closed circle as it were, Guna guneshu vartante, as the Gita says. Science moves in the sphere of phenomena, that is, of the gunas, and there will always be an apparent causal sequence among all phenomena in the plane of phenomena and there is small reason to suppose that the end will ever come and, even if it did, it would be back at the beginning again — the snake with its tail in the mouth. In time, science will no doubt come to admit certain apparently marvellous phenomena now denied, but they will be found also to be explicable along similar lines to all other natural phenomena. All phenomena can be explained in two ways: one in their own plane, and the other at right angles to it, as it were, that is, in a different dimension. In their own plane all phenomena follow mechanical laws. This is the mechanism by which they take place (for, after all, everything, however ‘marvellous’ has to take place in some definite way) and this mechanism is in the realm of science. The other explains the reason for which they happen and this is the sphere of the mystic or yogi. This possibility of two-fold explanation applies, I believe, to all phenomena whether ‘physical’ or ‘mental’ or ‘psychic’. (I use ‘psychic’ here in its ordinary meaning — somewhat different from that which it bears in Sri Aurobindo’s system, I believe). But when an explanation has been given along the lines of the first method there is an almost universal tendency to think that the phenomena in question have been completely explained — not to say explained away. Hence my forecast of a thickening of the veil, for it is the second method alone which brings the seeker through other planes into the region of real causation and of the Ultimate Reality. And this method requires an act of faith at the outset and an attitude of mind throughout that is quite different from that of most scientists.

      I have said nothing so far about the modern tendencies in physics. The subjectivism of Jeans, Eddington and others is no doubt nearer the truth than the nineteenth-century conceptions. But the crucial point is not whether the universe is compelled of miniature billiard-balls vibrating in an elastic jelly or of geodesics in an expanding soap-bubble of space-time, but whether its basis is to be found in Sachchidananda or merely in a tenuously incomprehensible but ultimately dead square-root of minus one; and on this point physics, however subjective, can give no answer.

      One last word and I have done. I think you will find in what I have said above concerning the two-fold explanation of phenomena the meaning of certain apparent paradoxes in the Gita. For instance, you will find there two sorts of statements about the way in which things happen:

      Na kartritvam na karmani lokasya srijati Prabhuh

      Na karmaphala-samyogam svabhavas-tu pravartate.

      That is:

      The Lord produces neither agency nor actions nor yet the union of action and fruit. All is a manifestation of Nature.

      And then, on the other hand:

      Isvarah sarvabhutanam hriddeshe’rjuna tisthati

      Bhramayan sarvabhutani yantrarudhani mayaya.

      That is:

      O Arjuna! the Lord, seated in the hearts of all, whirls around by His maya all beings as if they were mounted on a machine.

      The first couplet refers to the first type of explanation in which Sri Krishna plays no part, being outside the series; the last to the second type in which He plays the only part. Tameva sharanam gaccha, O Dilip! (Take refuge in Him alone).

      Affectionately yours,

      Krishnaprem

      ******

      And here’s Sri Aurobindo’s comments:

      One feels here [in the letters of Krishnaprem] a stream from the direct sources of Truth that one does not meet so often as one could desire. Here is a mind that can not only think but see — and not merely see the surfaces of things with which most intellectual thought goes on wrestling without end or definite issue and as if there were nothing else, but look into the core. The Tantriks have a phrase pas ́yantı ̄ va ̄k to describe one level of the Vak-Shakti, the seeing Word; here is pas ́yantı ̄ buddhi, a seeing Intelligence. It might be because the seer within has passed beyond thought into experience, but there are many who have a considerable wealth of experience without its clarifying their eye of thought to this extent; the soul feels, but the mind goes on with mixed and imperfect transcriptions, blurs and confusions in the idea. There must have been the gift of right vision lying ready in this nature.

      It is an achievement to have got rid so rapidly and decisively of the shimmering mists and fogs which modern intellectualism takes for Light of Truth. The modern mind has so long and per- sistently wandered — and we with it — in that Valley of the False Glimmer that it is not easy for anyone to disperse its mists with the sunlight of clear vision so soon and entirely as has here been done. All that is said here about modern humanism and humani- tarianism, the vain efforts of the sentimental idealist and the inef- fective intellectual, about synthetic eclecticism and other kindred things is admirably clear-minded, it hits the target. It is not by these means that humanity can get that radical change of its ways of life which is yet becoming so imperative, but only by reaching the bedrock of Reality behind, — not through mere ideas and mental formations, but by a change of the consciousness, an inner and spiritual conversion. But that is a truth for which it would be difficult to get a hearing in the present noise of all kinds of many-voiced clamour and confusion and catastrophe.

      A distinction, the distinction very keenly made here, be- tween the plane of phenomenal process, of externalised Prakriti, and the plane of Divine Reality ranks among the first words of the inner wisdom. The turn given to it in these pages is not merely an ingenious explanation; it expresses very soundly one of the clear certainties you meet when you step across the border and look at the outer world from the standing-ground of the inner spiritual experience. The more you go inward or upward, the more the view of things changes and the outer knowledge Science organises takes its real and very limited place. Science, like most mental and external knowledge, gives you only truth of process. I would add that it cannot give you even the whole truth of process; for you seize some of the ponderables, but miss the all-important imponderables; you get, hardly even the how, but the conditions under which things happen in Nature. After all the triumphs and marvels of Science the explaining principle, the rationale, the significance of the whole is left as dark, as mysterious and even more mysterious than ever. The scheme it has built up of the evolution not only of this rich and vast and variegated material world, but of life and consciousness and mind and their workings out of a brute mass of electrons, identical and varied only in arrangement and number, is an irrational magic more baffling than any the most mystic imagi- nation could conceive. Science in the end lands us in a paradox effectuated, an organised and rigidly determined accident, an impossibility that has somehow happened, — it has shown us a new, a material Mayā, very clever at bringing about the impossible, a miracle that cannot logically be and yet somehow is there actual, irresistibly organised, but still irrational and inexplicable. And this is evidently because Science has missed something essential; it has seen and scrutinised what has happened and in a way how it happened, but it has shut its eyes to something that made this impossible possible, something that it is there to express. There is no fundamental significance in things if you miss the Divine Reality; for you remain embedded in a huge surface crust of manageable and utilisable appearance. It is the magic of the Magician you are trying to analyse, but only when you enter into the consciousness of the Magician himself can you begin to experience the true origination, significance and circles of the Lila. I say “begin” because the Divine Reality is not so simple that at the first touch you can know all of it or put it into a single formula; it is Infinite and opens before you an Infinite Knowledge to which all Science put together is a bagatelle. But still you do touch the essential, the eternal behind things and in the light of That all begins to be profoundly luminous, intimately intelligible.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        Hi, Donsalmon.

        “The real subject (and object, too) is the jivatma (soul) and that is for ever beyond the ken of mechanistic science because it is in a different dimension.”

        Exactly. I think within our lifetime we will see many, in addition to sages, beginning to see science and reason for what they are: only a limited methodology and far from the whole of reality.

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