Saturday February 23, 2008
In a couple of recent posts, I have written about the curious cultural trope of presenting a scientific, materilist view of the world as one that entails a kind of grim assent to difficult-to-swallow truths. So the psychologist Pyszczynski writes of the “horrifying possibility that we humans are merely transient animals groping to survive in a meaningless universe, destined only to die and decay,” Bertrand Russell writes of building the foundation of our lives upon unyielding despair, and more recently in his book The Robot’s Rebellion, Keith Stanovic writes of our “staring into the Darwinian abyss”. This is all part of a tendency to claim that the picture of our place of things provided by proper grown-up science is one that, for all of its beauty perhaps, is only for more heroic souls. The truths of science are hard truths; but if we are brave enough, we can rise to the challenge.
I am sceptical of this trope. It is not that I have a problem with the science, it is just I have a problem with the emotional tone of these assertions about what it is to approach the world from a scientific viewpoint. The Epicureans are, in this context, instructive. They were advocates of both materialism and of the systematic study of the world; and yet the character of their writing was markedly different from that of these more contemporary commentators. Here is Epicurus writing on the study of celestial phenomena:
We begin by recognizing that knowledge of the phenomena of the sky, whether discussed along with other doctrines or separately, has no other purpose than for peace of mind and fearlessness, just as it is in all our other pursuits […] Each of these phenomena allow several differing explanations for its creation and its nature, all of which may agree with visible evidence. Rather than committing to explanations based on unwarranted assumptions and dogma, we may only theorize as far as the phenomena allow. For our life has no need of unreasonable and groundless opinions; our one need is untroubled existence. So if one is satisfied, as he should be, with that which is shown to be less than certain, it is no cause for concern that things can be explained in more than one way, consistent with the evidence. But if one accepts one explanation and rejects another that is equally consistent with the evidence, he is obviously rejecting science altogether and taking refuge in myth.
There are several things that are of interest here, for example the Epicurean claim – perhaps influenced by ancient Scepticism – that competing explanations for which there is equal evidence should be equally favoured, at least until more evidence is in. However, what interests me most is the suggestion of Epicurus that the purpose of understanding the world is “no other… than for peace of mind”. The Epicureans knew all too well the human tendency to project elaborate stories upon the world, stories before which we then find ourselves trembling. For the Epicureans, the practice of close attention to the world leads to the quenching of the fretful fires of the stories that we compulsively weave. And although the Epicureans do not flinch from the possible horrors of existence – after all, Lucretius’s On the Nature of the Universe ends with the most harrowing portrait of the plague of Athens – at the same time, they maintain a commitment to this idea that through knowledge, even through knowledge of that which appears terrible, we can come to see ourselves at home in the world.
The curious obsession with presenting the findings of science as hard truths that compel our assent whilst offering us only misery (and, of course, a certain noble heroism) in return is a mistake. It does none of us any favours. Those who seek to communicate science, I think, could do with rather less of the abyss, and rather more of this kind of Epicurean sensibility, if they wish public understanding of the sciences to flourish. They could do with taking the lead of Carl Sagan, one of the great science communicators of the last century, whose wonderful Cosmos is an exquisitely articulate and intelligent tour of the last thirteen and a half billion years. Sagan is remarkable not only for his breathtaking imaginative scope, but also for his genuine love for and wonder at the universe. If you have not yet seen Cosmos, then watch it. It is truly wonderful viewing. But this is not heroic science that forces us to stare into the echoing meaninglessness of the void; in spirit, it is much more Epicurean, leading us through endless paths into a deeper understanding of the world, a closer attention to things, and hence a more profound appreciation and love of this material cosmos.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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