One of the interesting features of blogging about the twilight of science and technology these days is that there’s rarely any need to wait long for a cogent example. One that came my way not long ago via a reader of this blog—tip of the archdruidical hat to Eric S.—shows that not even a science icon can get away with asking questions about the rising tide of financial corruption and dogmatic ideology that’s drowning the scientific enterprise in our time.
Many of my readers will recall Bill Nye the Science Guy, the star of a television program on science in the 1990s and still a vocal and entertaining proponent of science education. In a recent interview, Nye was asked why he doesn’t support the happy-go-lucky attitude toward dumping genetically modified organisms into the environment that’s standard in the United States and a few other countries these days. His answer is that their impact on ecosystems is a significant issue that hasn’t been adequately addressed. Those who know their way around today’s pseudoskeptic scene won’t be surprised by the reaction from one of Discover Magazine’s bloggers: a tar and feathers party, more or less, full of the standard GMO industry talking points and little else.
Nye’s point, as it happens, is as sensible as it is scientific: ecosystems are complex wholes that can be thrown out of balance by relatively subtle shifts, and since human beings depend for their survival and prosperity on the products of natural ecosystems, avoiding unnecessary disruption to those systems is arguably a good idea. This eminently rational sort of thinking, though, is not welcomed in corporate boardrooms just now. In the case under discussion, it’s particularly unwelcome in the boardrooms of corporations heavily invested in genetic modification, which have a straightforward if shortsighted financial interest in flooding the biosphere with as many GMOs as they can sell.
Thus it’s reasonable that Monsanto et al. would scream bloody murder in response to Nye’s comment. What interests me is that so many believers in science should do the same, and not only in this one case. Last I checked, “what makes the biggest profit for industry must be true” isn’t considered a rule of scientific reasoning, but that sort of thinking is remarkably common in what passes for skepticism these days. To cite an additional example, it’s surely not accidental that there’s a 1.00 correlation between the health care modalities that make money for the medical and pharmaceutical industries and the health care modalities that the current crop of soi-disant skeptics consider rational and science-based, and an equal 1.00 correlation between those modalities that don’t make money for the medical and pharmaceutical industries and those that today’s skeptics dismiss as superstitious quackery.
To some extent, this is likely a product of what’s called “astroturfing,” the manufacture of artificial grassroots movements to support the agendas of an industrial sector or a political faction. The internet, with its cult of anonymity and its less than endearing habit of letting every discussion plunge to the lowest common denominator of bullying and abuse, was tailor-made for that sort of activity; it’s pretty much an open secret at this point, or so I’m told by the net-savvy, that most significant industries these days maintain staffs of paid flacks who spend their working hours searching the internet for venues to push messages favorable to their employers and challenge opposing views. Given the widespread lack of enthusiasm for GMOs, Monsanto and its competitors would have to be idiots to neglect such an obvious and commonly used marketing tactic.
Still, there’s more going on here than ordinary media manipulation in the hot pursuit of profits. There are plenty of people who have no financial stake in the GMO industry who defend it fiercely from even the least whisper of criticism, just as there are plenty of people who denounce alternative medicine in ferocious terms even though they don’t happen to make money from the medical-pharmaceutical industrial complex. I’ve discussed in previous posts here, and in a forthcoming book, the way that faith in progress was pressed into service as a substitute for religious belief during the nineteenth century, and continues to fill that role for many people today. It’s not a transformation that did science any good, but its implications as industrial civilization tips over into decline and fall are considerably worse than the ones I’ve explored in previous essays. I want to talk about those implications here, because they have a great deal to say about the future of science and technology in the deindustrializing world of the near future.
It’s important, in order to make sense of those implications, to grasp that science and technology function as social phenomena, and fill social roles, in ways that have more than a little in common with the intellectual activities of civilizations of the past. That doesn’t mean, as some postmodern theorists have argued, that science and technology are purely social phenomena; both of them have to take the natural world into account, and so have an important dimension that transcends the social. That said, the social dimension also exists, and since human beings are social mammals, that dimension has an immense impact on the way that science and technology function in this or any other human society.
From a social standpoint, it’s thus not actually all that relevant that that the scientists and engineers of contemporary industrial society can accomplish things with matter and energy that weren’t within the capacities of Babylonian astrologer-priests, Hindu gurus, Chinese literati, or village elders in precontact New Guinea. Each of these groups have been assigned a particular social role, the role of interpreter of Nature, by their respective societies, and each of them are accorded substantial privileges for fulfilling the requirements of their role. It’s therefore possible to draw precise and pointed comparisons between the different bodies of people filling that very common social role in different societies.
The exercise is worth doing, not least because it helps sort out the far from meaningless distinction between the aspects of modern science and technology that unfold from their considerable capacities for doing things with matter and energy, and the aspects of modern science and technology that unfold from the normal dynamics of social privilege. What’s more, since modern science and technology wasn’t around in previous eras of decline and fall but privileged intellectual castes certainly were, recognizing the common features that unite today’s scientists, engineers, and promoters of scientific and technological progress with equivalent groups in past civilizations makes it a good deal easier to anticipate the fate of science and technology in the decades and centuries to come.
A specific example will be more useful here than any number of generalizations, so let’s consider the fate of philosophy in the waning years of the Roman world. The extraordinary intellectual adventure we call classical philosophy began in the Greek colonial cities of Ionia around 585 BCE, when Thales of Miletus first proposed a logical rather than a mythical explanation for the universe, and proceeded through three broad stages from there. The first stage, that of the so-called Presocratics, focused on the natural world, and the questions it asked and tried to answer can more or less be summed up as “What exists?” Its failures and equivocal successes led the second stage, which extended from Socrates through Plato and Aristotle to the Old Academy and its rivals, to focus their attention on different questions, which can be summed up just as neatly as “How can we know what exists?”
That was an immensely fruitful shift in focus. It led to the creation of classical logic—one of the great achievements of the human mind—and it also drove the transformations that turned mathematics from an assortment of rules of thumb to an architecture of logical proofs, and thus laid the foundations on which Newtonian physics and other quantitative sciences eventually built. Like every other great intellectual adventure of our species, though, it never managed to fulfill all the hopes that had been loaded onto it; the philosopher’s dream of human society made wholly subject to reason turned out to be just as unreachable as the scientist’s of the universe made wholly subject to the human will. As that failure became impossible to ignore, classical philosophy shifted focus again, to a series of questions and attempted answers that amounted to “given what we know about what exists, how should we live?”
That’s the question that drove the last great age of classical philosophy, the age of the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Neoplatonists, the three philosophical schools I discussed a few months back as constructive personal responses to the fall of our civilization. At first, these and other schools carried on lively and far-reaching debates, but as the Roman world stumbled toward its end under the burden of its own unsolved problems, the philosophers closed ranks; debates continued, but they focused more and more tightly on narrow technical issues within individual schools. What’s more, the schools themselves closed ranks; pure Stoic, Aristotelian, and Epicurean philosophy gradually dropped out of fashion, and by the fourth century CE, a Neoplatonism enriched with bits and pieces of all the other schools stood effectively alone, the last school standing in the long struggle Thales kicked off ten centuries before.
Now I have to confess to a strong personal partiality for the Neoplatonists. It was from Plotinus and Proclus, respectively the first and last great figures in the classical tradition, that I first grasped why philosophy matters and what it can accomplish, and for all its problems—like every philosophical account of the world, it has some—Neoplatonism still makes intuitive sense to me in a way that few other philosophies do. What’s more, the men and women who defended classical Neoplatonism in its final years were people of great intellectual and personal dignity, committed to proclaming the truth as they knew it in the face of intolerance and persecution that ended up costing no few of them their lives.
The awkward fact remains that classical philosophy, like modern science, functioned as a social phenomenon and filled certain social roles. The intellectual power of the final Neoplatonist synthesis and the personal virtues of its last proponents have to be balanced against its blind support of a deeply troubled social order; in all the long history of classical philosophy, it never seems to have occurred to anyone that debates about the nature of justice might reasonably address, say, the ethics of slavery. While a stonecutter like Socrates could take an active role in philosophical debate in Athens in the fourth century BCE, furthermore, the institutionalization of philosophy meant that by the last years of classical Neoplatonism, its practice was restricted to those with ample income and leisure, and its values inevitably became more and more closely tied to the social class of its practitioners.
That’s the thing that drove the ferocious rejection of philosophy by the underclass of the age, the slaves and urban poor who made up the vast majority of the population throughout the Roman empire, and who received little if any benefit from the intellectual achievements of their society. To them, the subtleties of Neoplatonist thought were irrelevant to the increasingly difficult realities of life on the lower end of the social pyramid in a brutally hierarchical and increasingly dysfunctional world. That’s an important reason why so many of them turned for solace to a new religious movement from the eastern fringes of the empire, a despised sect that claimed that God had been born on earth as a mere carpenter’s son and communicated through his life and death a way of salvation that privileged the poor and downtrodden above the rich and well-educated.
It was as a social phenomenon, filling certain social roles, that Christianity attracted persecution from the imperial government, and it was in response to Christianity’s significance as a social phenomenon that the imperial government executed an about-face under Constantine and took the new religion under its protection. Like plenty of autocrats before and since, Constantine clearly grasped that the real threat to his position and power came from other members of his own class—in his case, the patrician elite of the Roman world—and saw that he could undercut those threats and counter potential rivals through an alliance of convenience with the leaders of the underclass. That’s the political subtext of the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity throughout the empire and brought it imperial patronage.
The patrician class of late Roman times, like its equivalent today, exercised power through a system of interlocking institutions from which outsiders were carefully excluded, and it maintained a prickly independence from the central government. By the fourth century, tensions between the bureaucratic imperial state and the patrician class, with its local power bases and local loyalties, were rising toward a flashpoint. The rise of Christianity thus gave Constantine and his successors an extraordinary opportunity. Most of the institutions that undergirded patrician power linked to Pagan religion; local senates, temple priesthoods, philosophical schools, and other elements of elite culture normally involved duties drawn from the traditional faith. A religious pretext to strike at those institutions must have seemed as good as any other, and the Christian underclass offered one other useful feature: mobs capable of horrific acts of violence against prominent defenders of the patrician order.
That was why, for example, a Christian mob in 415 CE dragged the Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia from her chariot as she rode home from her teaching gig at the Academy in Alexandria, cudgeled her to death, cut the flesh from her bones with sharpened oyster shells—the cheap pocket knives of the day—and burned the bloody gobbets to ashes. What doomed Hypatia was not only her defense of the old philosophical traditions, but also her connection to Alexandria’s patrician class; her ghastly fate was as much the vengeance of the underclass against the elite as it was an act of religious persecution. She was far from the only victim of violence driven by those paired motives, either. It was as a result of such pressures that, by the time the emperor Justinian ordered the last academies closed in 529 CE, the classical philosophical tradition was essentially dead.
That’s the sort of thing that happens when an intellectual tradition becomes too closely affiliated with the institutions, ideologies, and interests of a social elite. If the elite falls, so does the tradition—and if it becomes advantageous for anyone else to target the elite, the tradition can be a convenient target, especially if it’s succeeded in alienating most of the population outside the elite in question.
Modern science is extremely vulnerable to such a turn of events. There was a time when the benefits of scientific research and technological development routinely reached the poor as well as the privileged, but that time has long since passed; these days, the benefits of research and development move up the social ladder, while the costs and negative consequences move down. Nearly all the jobs eliminated by automation, globalization, and the computer revolution, for example, used to hire from the bottom end of the job market. In the same way, changes in US health care in recent decades have benefited the privileged while subjecting most others to substandard care at prices so high that medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US today.
It’s all very well for the promoters of progress to gabble on about science as the key to humanity’s destiny; the poor know that the destiny thus marketed isn’t for them. To the poor, progress means fewer jobs with lower pay and worse conditions, more surveillance and impersonal violence carried out by governments that show less and less interest in paying even lip service to the concept of civil rights, a rising tide of illnesses caused by environmental degradation and industrial effluents, and glimpses from afar of an endless stream of lavishly advertised tech-derived trinkets, perks and privileges that they will never have. Between the poor and any appreciation for modern science stands a wall made of failed schools, defunded libraries, denied opportunities, and the systematic use of science and technology to benefit other people at their expense. Such a wall, it probably bears noting, makes a good surface against which to sharpen oyster shells.
It seems improbable that anything significant will be done to change this picture until it’s far too late for such changes to have any meaningful effect. Barring dramatic transformations in the distribution of wealth, the conduct of public education, the funding for such basic social amenities as public libraries, and a great deal more, the underclass of the modern industrial world can be expected to grow more and more disenchanted with science as a social phenomenon in our culture, and to turn instead—as their equivalents in the Roman world and so many other civilizations did—to some tradition from the fringes that places itself in stark opposition to everything modern scientific culture stands for. Once that process gets under way, it’s simply a matter of waiting until the corporate elite that funds science, defines its values, and manipulates it for PR purposes, becomes sufficiently vulnerable that some other power center decides to take it out, using institutional science as a convenient point of attack.
Saving anything from the resulting wreck will be a tall order. Still, the same historical parallel discussed above offers some degree of hope. The narrowing focus of classical philosophy in its last years meant, among other things, that a substantial body of knowledge that had once been part of the philosophical movement was no longer identified with it by the time the cudgels and shells came out, and much of it was promptly adopted by Christian clerics and monastics as useful for the Church. That’s how classical astronomy, music theory, and agronomy, among other things, found their way into the educational repertoire of Christian monasteries and nunneries in the dark ages. What’s more, once the power of the patrician class was broken, a carefully sanitized version of Neoplatonist philosophy found its way into Christianity; in some denominations, it’s still a living presence today.
That may well happen again. Certainly today’s defenders of science are doing their best to shove a range of scientific viewpoints out the door; the denunciation meted out to Bill Nye for bringing basic concepts from ecology into a discussion where they were highly relevant is par for the course these days. There’s an interesting distinction between the sciences that get this treatment and those that don’t: on the one hand, those that are being flung aside are those that focus on observation of natural systems rather than control of artificial ones; on the other, any science that raises doubts about the possibility or desirability of infinite technological expansion can expect to find itself shivering in the dark outside in very short order. (This latter point applies to other fields of intellectual endeavor as well; half the angry denunciations of philosophy you’ll hear these days from figures such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I’m convinced, come out of the simple fact that the claims of modern science to know objective truths about nature won’t stand up to fifteen minutes of competent philosophical analysis.)
Thus it’s entirely possible that observational sciences, if they can squeeze through the bottleneck imposed by the loss of funding and prestige, will be able to find a new home in whatever intellectual tradition replaces modern scientific rationalism in the deindustrial future. It’s at least as likely that such dissident sciences as ecology, which has always raised challenging questions about the fantasies of the manipulative sciences, may find themselves eagerly embraced by a future intellectual culture that has no trouble at all recognizing the futility of those fantasies. That said, it’s still going to take some hard work to preserve what’s been learnt in those fields—and it’s also going to take more than the usual amount of prudence and plain dumb luck not to get caught up in the conflict when the sharp edge of the shell gets turned on modern science.
Teaser image Bill Nye Science Guy via GSFC/flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 license.
GMO plants via Lindsay Eynik/flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 license.
Death of philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria by Louis Figuer via Wikimedia.