Or, The Trouble with Science
This essay first appeared on the Dark Mountain blog.
I spent the beginning of this year immersed in works of popular science. Completely absorbed, the way I have been by few works of fiction. Hours spent poring over books and articles on chaos theory, cosmology, string theory, stopping only to try to imagine some consequence or take note of some insight. Why, I had to ask myself, do I care so passionately about the arcane world of theoretical physics? Science had never been my talent or my discipline; my math was poor, my academic studies were in that softest of all subjects: literature. But for many years I had had these bouts of real absorption with the ideas of science, particularly physics. I realized it had something to do with the need to understand the reality in which I lived to the fullest extent, in a particular way that nothing else but science seemed capable of now.
As a student of literature, I favored the idea that stories and storytelling were the chief means through which we attempted to convey our understanding of the cosmos, and what our place was within it. And this had always been the case, at least since humans developed complex language. Highly specialized societies became the norm, and with them we lost myth as the organizing narrative of our lives, but we still looked for narratives and rituals that filled its function. In every area of human activity and thought, we continued to develop stories that served to position us with respect to other beings and to fundamental principles at a cosmological or near-cosmological scale.
But one after another, the disciplines we had fractured out of myth had seemed to fail at doing justice to this role: theist religion, politics, history, and the arts had mostly downgraded or dismissed the non-human world, the vast majority of reality. And either they withdrew from the ultimate questions about the nature of the cosmos and the idea of our purpose and belonging within it, or else considered them patly resolved by some suspiciously anthropoid superpower.
But not science. I grew up with the ideas of two great humanist popularizers of science, Jacob Bronowski (The Ascent of Man) and Carl Sagan (Cosmos), intimately beamed into my adolescent brain by television. The story they told was exhilarating and beautiful. Modern science was a hard-won triumph over bigotry and ignorance; it was the ultimate homage to nature. It had discovered many of the laws that governed the physical world, and yet there was so much more to know. Science was a great adventure, and there was room for us all to join. Carl Sagan told us that humans were “star stuff,” grown to be able to contemplate itself and the cosmos, and now longing to return to the stars.
Together with evolutionary biology, theoretical physics was the only contemporary endeavor seeking to present a complete picture of the cosmos and explain how it is and why it is as it is—without closing off the process at some point by attributing it all to a metaphysical dimension or super-being. I understood enough of its methods and conclusions to see that physics was striving, without any social coercion, through a union of observation and speculation, for a fundamental, all-encompassing, coherent, and beautiful picture of reality. Which was exactly what I was looking for. And with increasing urgency, in recent years, as the society that surrounded me became more fragmented, disconnected from the living world, and apparently unconcerned with any deeper understanding of it.
But now there was a problem that became clearer to me the more I read.