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The Unnatural Nature of Science.

Paul Davies in The Mind of God, hopes to show how science is a manifestation of the mind of God. Gerald Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, wants to put the mind back into matter. Both attempt to bridge the gap of dualism. Lewis Wolpert in The Unnatural Nature of Science does not, but more in the category of Bryan Appleyard's Understanding the Present; Science and the Soul of Man asserts that science is on its own. With the major difference that if Appleyard sees science as spiritually corrosive, Wolpert does not see spirituality as scientifically corrosive. Rather, in the face of science, non-existent.

Appleyard cites landmarks such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, Galileo's telescope and Copernicus's displacement of man from his centre as causing the original damage to an Aristotelian universe. Wolpert uses some of these same landmarks to point in a positive, scientific direction. Rather than tracing the landmarks of destruction caused to the soul, he fosters a case for rationality, necessary to science, in the logical and reasoned discussions of Christianity. So the passion for rationality characterizing Christianity may account for science's flowering in the West. The self conscious questioning of Thales (600 BC) and the Greeks contradicted the previous lack of curiosity in natural phenomena (Wolpert notes a historian's view of the origin of science in the Christian refusal to accept ancient pagan dogma on the divinity of heavenly bodies, i.e. that the sky determined events on the earth). Consequently with Thales and the Greeks came the conviction that there were laws controlling nature, and for the first time man and nature were no longer inextricably linked. (In the East, Taoism linked man with nature). With this distancing, together with Aristotle's requirement for logical consistency, the stage for science was set. Science, in other words (though Wolpert does not put it this way), first thrived on dualism.

Appleyard's position takes a negative view of science because of its inability to co-exist. Wolpert tries to make this positive by showing how science is distinct from what is natural -- so we don't have false expectations. For Wolpert it is not a problem that science is incompatible with religion.

Thale and the contribution of Aristotle to the direction of science or philosophy is not however Wolpert's main argument, though perhaps one of his most interesting (in comparison with other big scientific Cs, i.e. Creativity, Competition, Co-operation and Commitment). The bee in his bonnet is that science does not make (common) sense. Rather it is against common sense, counter intuitive, often explaining the familiar in terms of the unfamiliar. Even Aristotle, Wolpert emphasizes, understood that science is an unnatural mode of thought. In the day to day world there is nothing to prepare us for the ideas of modern cell and molecular biology. To understand science we must remove ourselves from day to day life, from our own experience, our own personal constructs. Though science can enrich our lives we can live without knowledge of Newtonian mechanics, cell theory and DNA. Objectivity rather than subjectivity is required. Not only is science unnatural. In human evolution, Wolpert claims, it is also unnecessary. Technology, he sets out to show, was never dependent on science.

Dualism is retrograde to unity. But if dualism is Wolpert's approach, how sound is it? The nature of Wolpert's dualism is to make a distinction between types of knowledge. It should not deny its opposite, only regard itself as separate. But in considering science to be an open system in comparison to what he calls the closed system of the religion and magic of an African Zane, he is setting science above what is not scientific. Then if he claims the holistic approach to be anti-science (contrary to his assertion holism gives primary but not sole importance to the whole), his system would seem to be extremely closed. For he reduces an explanation of the world to molecular biology.

So in trying to persuade us that science is unnatural, distinct from what is natural, he is also trying to say (even inadvertently) that science is the best and only way of explaining reality. He has fallen into a trap. To accept that science is unnatural because separate, but desirable, we don't also have to accept that science has the only plausible explanation for our world. If we do we are accepting that reality is unnatural. Nor need we accept his implication that holism or magic are narrow minded because they don't adhere to his idea of the rational. By his definition, they are only separate.

The easy consistency of Wolpert's style disguises the presumptuousness of its content, until, for instance, we hit sweeping statements on holistic philosophy, to be followed in not so subtle conclusion by an insistent but reasonable argument for genetic engineering. We must be careful, it sounds so reasonable. Cleverly his last sentence warns us against taking scientific ideas as dogma. Otherwise we might have accused him of such an offence.
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Author:Traylen, Maryanne
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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