Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man

Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man

by Bryan Appleyard
Doubleday, New York, 1992; xvii + 269 pages, hardcover.

Human history, in the Theosophical view, is patterned like a great spiral, consisting of seven cycles. Each cycle includes seven subcycles, each subcycle has seven sub-subcycles, and so on. During each cycle and subcycle, one of the seven aspects of human consciousness is being developed, unfolded from latency to greater activity. When the spiral reaches its last turn, human beings will have developed as completely as is possible in our current world period.

At the present time, we are in our fifth cycle and its fifth subcycle. During this time, the human mind (the fifth aspect of consciousness) is the focus of our evolution. This is also a time when the fifth ray of life is dominant in our society, and that is the ray of science. So we live in a time of intellect and science. That Theosophical view of contemporary human culture will hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has thought about modern life.

In his recent book, Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man, Bryan Appleyard examines the consequences of this scientific dominance. Appleyard is a correspondent for the London Sunday Times who writes on science, philosophy, and the arts. His thesis is simple. He argues that for all its magnificent accomplishments, which have transformed our lives, science has a blind spot - it has nothing to say about values, meanings, and purposes.

The overwhelming philosophical impact of science was the separation of knowledge from value. Indeed, this seems to be what ensures its success. For science is, of necessity, dynamic. It requires always the possibility of experimental refutation and a permanent process of skepticism about its own findings. But, if we attach a value to one particular view, then either the process is paralyzed or the value is vulnerable to overthrow…Science is always restless and always destructive of any attempt to freeze its conclusions into a more than scientific truth. (p. 62)

Scientists, however, being human beings, tend to devalue whatever they can say nothing about. And thus ironically science becomes not merely neutral, but inimical to values. "Science begins by saying it can answer only this kind of question and ends by claiming that these are the only questions that can be asked" (p. 234). Yet value, meaning, and purpose are central to human life. To deny them is to create an intellectual and social crisis. We are Dr. Frankenstein, and science is the monster we have made.

Appleyard points out that science is not just an abstract intellectual game scientists play. The rules of this game mold the way we think about the world and ourselves. And through its practical application in technology, it has transformed our everyday lives. Consider technology: scientific theory made possible the development of automobiles, jet airplanes, and space capsules; television, computers, and the electronic information superhighway; vaccinations, organ transplants, and genetic engineering; massive food production and marketing. artificial fibers, and so on through practically every aspect of contemporary life.

In addition to revolutionizing our material culture. the metaphysics of science has also, Appleyard believes, transformed our social lives. Out of the scientific view of the nature of knowledge and the search for knowledge, grew the liberal democratic theory of government , which is the ideal of our time. In it, the function of government is to maintain order, plurality. and tolerance, without convictions about the transcendent values of human life. The message it conveys, however, is that citizens need not be concerned about those values either. And so increasingly we have a loss of social coherence and commitment.

This dominant scientific mindset, which sees all truth as relative, is fundamentally incompatible with religion, which is concerned with absolutes and values. We want the benefits of science, but they involve the subversion of religious absolutes. "We all want penicillin and we all must pay for it in roughly the same way," says Appleyard (p.8):

Science transports the entire issue of life on earth from the realm of the moral or the transcendent to the realm of the feasible. This child can be cured, this bomb can be dropped. "Can" supersedes "should"; "ability" supersedes "obligation"; "No problem!" supersedes "love."

When meaning is devalued, human life becomes meaningless, and the old medieval disease of acedia becomes endemic:

The pessimism, anguish, skepticism and despair of so much twentieth-century art and literature are expressions of the fact that there is nothing "big" worth talking about anymore, there is no meaning to be elucidated. (p.11)

There is an old academic joke that specialists are people who know more and more about less and less, until finally they know everything about nothing. If for "nothing," we read "nothing of value," we have Appleyard's thesis, and Wittgenstein's:

"We feel," wrote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, "that even when all possible scientific Questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched." (p.15)

Appleyard develops his thesis by a Cook's tour of the history of science from 1609, when Galileo peeped at the moon through his telescope, through the villains of his plot-Descartes, Newton, Darwin, and Freud - down to contemporary efforts to correct the scientific and technological lacuna from within. Those efforts consist of the ecological movement; the mystifying (not to say mystical) theories of relativity, the quantum, and chaos; and the work of scientists who are pushing the boundaries of classical science, such as Robert Dicke's Anthropic Principle, Rupert Sheldrake's morphogenetic fields, and David Bohm's implicate order.

We are not willing to give up science and its benefit s, nor should we. But on the other hand, we cannot give up the religious impulse either:

It is clear that there is something about the human condition that demands a dimension we call religious, whatever it might be. Particular faiths have come and gone, but nothing has ever displaced the religious presence itself from human life. It has always accompanied men and their cultures. (p.80)

This religious dimension is the quest for value , meaning, and purpose. It got tied into knots by Descartes, who thought of the human self as an "isolated, thinking thing, trapped in yet separate from the body" (p.227). Appleyard sees those knots as untied by Wittgenstein's insight that there is no private language, so there is no separate, isolated cogitation.

He [the human being] cannot isolate himself and his words from the public realm of language. He must have language before he can have the concept of a sensation. There cannot be such a thing as a private language because language is, by definition, a public thing. (p.227)

Appleyard has identified a problem in modern life. His solution will not satisfy all his readers, and indeed the premier British scientific periodical Nature has called this "a very dangerous book." However, the Appleyard solution can be given a Theosophical slant that brings it into harmony with the Wisdom Tradition.

As Appleyard says, the everyday languages we speak are by definition public thing s. They are also the surface, outer, or exoteric expressions of a deep, inner, or esoteric mental structure. That inner structure is not an individual thing either, but is the common property of all humanity, being derived ultimately from the universal mind, which is the divine intelligence.

Although in our present stage of evolution, the human mind is dominant and science is our primary mode of understanding, we have other aspects of consciousness within us with different fields of operation. A person who can see, but does not hear, taste, smell, or feel, has a limited view of the world. To rely exclusively on the mind and science is just as limiting. The hum an goal is to develop all aspects of consciousness and all our faculties to their fullest , but also to develop them harmoniously with each other.

It is not anti-intellectual or anti-scientific to point out that intellect and science are incomplete views of the world. It is not anti-religious to point out that science and reason are invaluable ways of knowing reality. The Cartesian dualism is false; we are not souls in bodies, but unified beings with varied aspects. We are not isolated entities, but beings who communicate within a community. Knowledge is not fragmented; there is a synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy. It is called by many names. One of them is Theosophy.


Autumn 1994