Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Philosophers Thinking about Science: Nothing New

Philosophers have been thinking about science for a long time. Some, like Karl Popper, focused their attention on how science should be done. But many others have thought about what the discoveries of science mean for the future of the human species. One of these philosophers was Max C. Otto (1876-1968), who spent most of his career at the University of Wisconsin. Chances are that you have never heard of him. I ended up with an old copy of a 1949 book, Science and the Moral Life, which reprinted some of his previous writings. The pages of cheap paper are turning brown and flaking away. I’d better tell you about it now, before it is lost forever.

One of the most interesting things about the book was its cover. That perennial symbol of science, the chemistry flask, is divided in two. One half has roaring predators, representing the violent animal ancestry of mankind. The other half shows a 1940’s family looking into the brightness of the future: A tall man, his slightly shorter wife behind him, and the two kids, so so blond, the brother slightly older than the sister. It is clear that science, and the philosophy that unveils it to our understanding, is the key to future happiness. Something that looks like a heart is flying away to the upper right.

This book follows in the tradition of other popular works of philosophy, such as Philosophy Made Simple: Everyone has a philosophy. You might as well think about your philosophy, because if you don’t, you might end up with a bad one. Like Philosophy Made Simple, Otto wrote in clear and powerful sentences.

Otto begins by asserting that human nature today is not what it was in our bestial ancestors: “Man is what he is, not what he was.” Evolutionary scientists today dispute this, pointing out that beasts are not always “bestial.” But, regardless, we all agree that humans have some degree of control over how we think and act—over the development of our human nature. But Otto does have a point: “Man is capable of doing and suffering in a way that his animal brother is not. He is tortured by fears and lured by hopes to which the ape is stranger. No ape brews the venom of human hatred nor does he transform passion into love. Apes speak no language, accumulate no tradition, never see the tragic or the funny side of things.” Modern scientists may dispute these last assertions, but not much.

Otto continued. To Francis Bacon, all science had to have a practical purpose. “The idea in Bacon’s mind was simple and clear. It was to domesticate the untamed forces of nature as wild horses had been domesticated; to put them into harness, hitch them to the human enterprise, invite mankind to climb in and ride away to wealth, health, and felicity.” That is why science had to be brutally honest: “It is designed to lay bare the truth, no matter what it hurts, whom it hurts, or how it hurts.”

Many people have said (I was probably one of them, somewhere back in my flotsam of publications) that all roads of sincere inquiry lead to the same place, which some people call God. Otto said, regarding this, “I say frankly that this seems to me plain hocus-pocus...How would it sound if you put it this way? No one can tell where your road leads to; no one can tell where my road leads to; which proves that they both lead to the same place. You and I are fellow travelers who refuse to stop anywhere but in the city the whereabouts of which are unknown. Hence our slogan must be... “Step on the gas!”

In order to let science lead us into a better future, Otto claimed, we have to let go of traditional religion. In 1943, he wrote that religious forces are taking advantage of our confusion. “The springtime of our church religion dates back many hundreds of years. The thirteenth century was its summer. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the bronze and the yellow of autumn. From 1859 on [he just assumed his readers knew this was when Origin of Species was published] the oaks joined in the pageant, and industrialized science was the cold November rain.” Religion, Otto claimed decades earlier than John Shelby Spong, must change or die. Religion has no more facts to give us; only science can do this. We cannot go back to not knowing what we know now, back to the simple faith of the past. For religion and science to coexist, Otto said, religion must become pure feeling, without doctrinal assertions.

Max Otto, emerging from the crisis of World War I and observing that of World War II, dared to hope that science would lead to a new world in which our old, destructive ways of thinking would be extinct. How wrong he was! He wrote, “Pure tribal spirit has been outgrown, and the trend of human emotions is away from it; so distinctly away from it that the outstanding temper of our day may be said to be the audacious hope [my emphasis] of re-creating the world in the interest of all mankind.” He wrote those words in 1924. How disturbed he would be to see the ethnic selfishness that now rules our thinking, especially by those who hate the memory of Barack Obama, one of whose book titles (TheAudacity of Hope) looks like it emerged directly from Otto’s quote!

Alas, in contrast to Max Otto’s assertions, we will be animals forever and we have to learn to make the best of it.

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