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Science and the soul


Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man

by Bryan Appleyard,  283pp. Picador, 1992


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A shorter version of this review first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 1992.

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the poet Ted Hughes expressed his dislike of science in characteristically trenchant terms:

Scientific objectivity has its own morality ... and this is the prevailing morality of our time. It is a morality utterly devoid of any awareness of the requirements of the inner world. It is contemptuous of the ‘human element’. This is its purity and its strength. The prevailing philosophies of our time subscribe to this contempt with a nearly religious fanaticism, just as science itself does.

Bryan Appleyard might well have used these words as the epigraph to his new book, for they express its theme forcefully and succinctly. Appleyard himself is even more succinct and only a little less forceful. ‘Science is effective,’ he writes, ‘but what does it tell us about ourselves and how we must live? The brief answer to this is: nothing.’


At the heart of his argument lies the view that Western science is not simply a neutral method of acquiring knowledge but that it is ‘a metaphysic like any other.’ The foundations of this metaphysic were laid by Galileo, for his discovery was that one of the most effective ways of understanding the world ‘is to pretend that we do not exist.’ Appleyard comments that few faiths or cults can ever have made such a bizarre demand of their adherents as that which is contained in the doctrine of scientific objectivity:

It is precisely as if some sect had insisted only that its followers believe they were invisible and all else would follow. Such a faith would be confined, we assume, to a few eccentrics and inadequates. Yet science’s demand is even more extreme, and we do not notice our own acquiescence, our own eccentricity. And we do not notice because, astonishingly, the demand produces results. It works.

It is this view which runs through his essay on the history of science in which he traces the development of physics from Plato and Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas to Galileo, Descartes and Newton and their modern descendants. Modern science gradually emerges not as the embodiment of reason but as a form of worldly mysticism whose zeal for accumulating knowledge about the inanimate and the non-human, and whose ‘rational’ commitment to technological power and material wealth has almost completely obscured its radical anti-humanism.


The view that the achievements of modern science are best understood not as a testimony to the power of human reason, but as products of an irrationalist cult which is governed by a doctrine of radical self-denial will seem bizarre and extreme to many. One of the most striking aspects of Appleyard’s argument, however, is its detailed congruence with so many aspects of our cultural history. If we were to judge the argument purely by its degree of ‘fit’ with the empirical evidence it might well be thought that it is neither bizarre nor extreme but reasonable, balanced and perceptive. It is precisely because Appleyard’s central proposition does contain a core of truth, however, that his book, for all its incidental wealth, is ultimately so disappointing.


Part of the problem has to do with the medicine which he prescribes for our cultural malaise. With impressive tough-mindedness he rejects some of the alternative therapies which are currently on offer. He provides an excellent critique of the ecology movement and goes on to rebut firmly the mysticism of science-gurus such as Fritjof Capra. Such scepticism, however, only makes his own prescription more surprising. For when, five pages before the end of the book, he finally produces it, it turns out to be the oldest nostrum of them all and even comes in a bottle clearly labelled ‘the immortal soul’.


‘People throughout history,’ writes Appleyard, ‘have felt they have souls. This feeling is real...’. Human souls exist, he argues, in the same way that Santa Claus exists, because both are embodied in the language of those who believe in them. An imaginary monster exists in the same way, but it has less existence because fewer people believe in it: ‘To be a dreamed-of dragon is one form of existence,’ he writes, ‘to be a believed-in Father Christmas is another, higher form.’ That any writer can seriously propose that we can save our culture from the corrosive power of science by affirming the existence of a human soul which is accorded the same ontological reality as Santa Claus is remarkable. In fairness to Bryan Appleyard it must be said that most of his book is much more sensible than its conclusion.


This conclusion, however, clearly points to the central weakness in the book’s larger argument. Where it founders is on the question of the relationship of science to religion. Appleyard in his role as cultural historian is ever ready to be seduced by superficial schisms into ignoring the huge continuities of Western history.


‘Science contradicts religion as surely as Judaism contradicts Islam’ he writes, ‘– they are absolutely and irresolvably conflicting views.’ The most obvious problem here is that Islam developed directly out of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and shares much of its world-view with Judaism – whose prophets Muslims revere. At the same time modern science was the almost exclusive creation of zealous Christians who were seeking not to escape their faith but to confirm and magnify it. Descartes, Newton and Robert Boyle, to name but three representative figures, all believed they had triumphantly succeeded through their science in bearing witness to the majesty and rationality of God.


Although Appleyard seems to be sporadically aware of the deep religiosity of Western science, he cannot bring himself to accept that many of the sins he attributes to ‘science’ might more accurately be traced back to ‘religion’. He is, I believe, quite right to stress the degree to which post-Newtonian scientism, with its hunger for mathematical clarity and conceptual simplicity, is implicitly hostile to the self and to human complexity. But his observation would carry much more weight were it attended by the recognition that science’s contempt for the human is rooted in the Christian doctrine of contemptus mundi and in the traditional desire of the Christian intellectual to escape upwards from the Satan-ridden world of human beings, into the divine empyrean. When Stephen Hawking declares that his aspiration as a physicist is ‘to know the mind of God’ he is speaking out of this same tradition. His words should remind us that the epistemology of Western science has been both shaped and scarred by Christian asceticism, the asceticism which was developed throughout the middle ages in the monasteries of the West and disseminated most triumphantly by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.


In his determination to blame ‘science’ for all our ills Appleyard distorts this profound cultural continuity, averting his eyes from it whenever he can. In doing so he fails adequately to recognise that ‘modern science’ is not monolithic, and that Darwinian biology in particular is potentially subversive of the very crypto-theological values which post-Newtonian physics revered, and which Appleyard opposes under the impression that he is opposing ‘science’ itself. If the truly subversive implications of some of Darwin’s insights have yet to emerge, it is largely because Darwin himself failed to break out of the prison-house of theological assumptions he had inherited from Christian scientists such as Newton, Boyle and Paley.


One reaction to this failed escape is for us all to throw up our hands and loudly proclaim our belief in the reality and complexity of the human soul in the hope that by doing so we can triumph over science. The other reaction is to think more carefully, more sensitively and more systematically about the very aspects of human reality which science has traditionally neglected. Only if we do this is it possible that our intellectual culture may yet triumph over its own history, and over the spiritual extremism which shaped modern rationalism and bequeathed to us a contempt for the ‘human element’ whose religious origins we too readily forget.


A shorter version of this review first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 1992.



© Richard Webster, 2002