About What are You Optimistic?

Sometime circa A.D. 2007, an unsolicited question was sent to me with the mildly ungrammatical title of WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT? WHY? I did not recognize the man’s name, nor did he say for what publication, if any, he wished my response.

His somewhat leading question read:

As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put.

What are you optimistic about? Why? Surprise us!

Since this view of science, much less the scientific community, could not be further from the truth, I was at somewhat of a loss.

I wonder if the ever-better questions, ever-better put, now being asked by the ever more powerful tools and techniques of science now include “How Ungoodthink a Shirt was the First Scientist Who Landed a Probe on a Comet-head Wearing?”

Or, the even better ever-better question, “What is a Woman?”

My answer was as follows:

Sir, I am sure there has been some mistake, since I am neither an optimist, nor am I a fan of science unless it sticks to the place right reason accords it. My view of the future is dark: I expect history to be a long series of defeats and degradations. What brought my name to your attention?

Nonetheless, whether by mistake or not, in jest or in earnest, you have solicited my opinion, honor requires that I answer the question. I hope my answer is brief enough to suit: 

I am optimistic about the failure of the worship of science.

Let me describe what I mean by that startling statement. The scientific, technical and industrial revolution in the West brought remarkable changes, unparalleled in history, but also brought in its wake a widespread mistrust of tradition, religion, morality, and everything to do with the past.

This mistrust, taken at face value, was reasonable: since the ancient thinkers had acceded to institutions we now regard as abhorrent, like slavery, and since the ancients were either silent or wrong on basic questions of nature, like the heliocentric theory, there was no reason to credit them with correct answers on questions even more difficult and obscure, such as the nature of right and wrong, or the mysteries of life after death.

But the human soul cannot exist in a vacuum. If iconoclasts throw down the images of God from the cathedral, the goddess Reason will not be enthroned in His place; instead, some other prophet, preaching a mystery just as divine and unearthly, will arise. There is no help for it: to judge from history, the behavior is innate to our species.

With the healthy triumph of science came also an unhealthy worship of certain ideas claiming to be scientific, but which were actually philosophical or mystical, having nothing to do with real science.

Examples include the frivolous economic theories of the Socialists and the frivolous biological theories of the Nazis. Real economists talk about things like the influence of interest rates on the businesses cycle.

Marx talked about the Millennium which would come after the Armageddon: his theory was that, in Socialism, the laws of supply and demand would simply, and for no reason, evaporate; the disutility of labor would suddenly be of no effect. No reasoning was given for these assertions: it was a vision.

Likewise, the Nazis looked at the theory of Darwin and concluded that, if man is a transitional stage between sub-man and super-man, there must be races that lagged behind in the struggle for survival, and races that forged ahead; and these slave-races by right should serve the master-race, or be exterminated.

A real biologist would tell you evolution may be a trial by combat, but not one where the better man wins. The future of man may be the superman, or it may be the helpless Eloi or the flesh-eating Morlocks of H.G. Wells.

Both theories claimed to be science, but both were really an abortive form of religion.

In purely intellectual circles, extreme forms of materialism, such as B.F. Skinner, or extreme forms of empiricism, such as Bertrand Russell, apotheosized similar crackpot ideas.

If the mind of man in nothing other than a machine, lacking free will, programmed by blind forces of evolution or history, that it is not competent to come to any rational conclusions, not even the conclusion that the mind of man is a machine.

Skinner does not believe Behaviorism: he was merely conditioned to react to stimuli so as to produce this epiphenomenon.

Likewise, Russell cannot confirm the findings of Logical Positivism, because Positivism holds as its fundamental metaphysical principle that all metaphysical principles are devoid of meaning. Surely there was no experiment, nothing done in a lab, no observation, which Russell could perform to show us a result we could see with our eyes to confirm or deny a universal statement about the nature of all metaphysical statements.

We can note in passing that Freud did not invent his theory, and allegedly scientific account of the mind of man: it was merely an aberration caused by the frustration of his desire to commit incest with his mother. It must be noted that the theory of Freud is not falsifiable. Freud speculates about the hidden recesses of the mind. No one can be conscious of what hides in his unconsciousness, by definition.

Likewise, Marx’s theory was the ideological superstructure of ideas erected to support his class interests; and he followed these interests because the material dialectic of history conditioned him to respond in this fashion: the means of production in his environment determined his thoughts, not their truth-value. Another non-falsifiable theory.

The whole modern movement since the Enlightenment has been an attempt to reduce philosophy, history, and economics, into a false religion. The religion arrogates to itself the label and prestige of science, but none of these cults has produced a single verifiable or falsifiable theory.

The final gasp of this false religion is nihilism: merely the assertion that nothing is worth doing because nothing has meaning. The contradiction here is that, if nothing means anything, even the statement “nothing means anything” is meaningless.

On an emotional level, this utter despair is reflected in the arts by modernism and postmodernism, absurdity, ugliness. The only comment theme in the arts is a rebellion against an orderly and rational universe: the universe examined by science. It is also a rebellion against cosmos, the universe created by a rational, if supernatural, Supreme Being.

Nihilism is a self-correcting error, because it is self-destructive philosophy. The worship of science is exhausted and bankrupt. No serious economist teaches or studies Marx: he is well-regarded only in the humanities. No serious biologist heeds the master-race-theories springing out of Darwinian Eugenics: they are well-regarded only by the ill-informed.

Science worship leads to nihilism which leads to its own demise. I live in hope to live long enough to see science torn down from its current altars and cathedrals and returned to his humble place in the observatories and laboratories of the world.