What Science Is Not
The following is a continuing review of John Gray’s recent publication Seven Types of Atheism.
Social evolution is an exceptionally bad idea. But bad ideas rarely evolve into better ones. Instead they mutate, and reproduce themselves in new guises. John Gray
In the chapter “A Strange Faith in Science,” from John Gray’s Seven Type of Atheism, he tells of a collection of books under the name “The Thinker’s Library,” published by the Rationalist Press Association in London to “counter the influence of religion in Britain.” It included works by German Ernst Haeckel, Julian Huxley, and H. G. Wells, among others. A common thread Gray weaves among these three authors is one of an embrace by all three of some degree of racist theory: Haeckel with his new religion Monism, a “scientific anthropology” in which the human species was “composed of a hierarchy of racial groups, with white Europeans at the top”; Huxley writing “certain amount of evidence that the Negro is an earlier product of human evolution…and might be expected to have advanced less”; and H. G. Wells predicting that a new world order would be ruled by a scientific elite and that the backward, inefficient peoples— “those swarms of black and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people”—will “have to go….die out and disappear.” Gray offers that these ideas and others promoting eugenics became suspect in the 1930s with the rise of Nazism, but Gray effectively set the negative tone and bias of this chapter against placing too much confidence in the redeeming power of science—a religious faith in science, he calls it. The error these and other thinkers of the late 19th century made was the application of a non-existent mechanism to Darwin’s theory, that mechanism being teleology, or purpose or design, or an assumed progress resulting there from (1). Gray continues the supposed suggested link between the “scientific racism” of those late 19th century thinkers with about a dozen (Kindle-sized) pages revealing the racist writings from some key figures of the the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, and goes on to claim that Enlightenment values “in which human dignity and equality are assumed to be central” are exaggerations at best and further, that “modern racist ideology [and anti-semitism] is an Enlightenment project.” Key offenders from this period include Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and Voltaire.
While the reader scratches her head wondering where the actual connection is between the author’s “strange faith in science,” and a type of atheism, and the works of this menagerie of writers and philosophers with their racist quotations, she is introduced by the author to the modern cult of science “Mesmerism,” whose founder “claimed to have found a universal energy, animal magnetism, which could be use to cure human disorders,” Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science, and Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy. Strange faiths, to be sure; but science? The connection is a matter of strange faith itself, it appears.
With all the examples outlined in the chapter, probably the most fitting—if, in fact, there are any—is saved for last, perhaps because it is the most recent, even though as early as a century ago biochemist J.B.S. Haldane proclaimed “Science is as yet in its infancy, and we can foretell little of the future save that the thing that has not been is the thing that shall be; that no beliefs, no values, no institutions are safe,” presaging Transhumanism, the details of which came together in Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 publication The Singularity is Near; When Humans Transcend Biology. Prolific inventor, futurist, and Google engineer Kurzweil believes momentous advances in science will allow us to transcend the physical world and escape death. The singularity is the point when computers will have human-level intelligence, our brains connecting with them and the cloud and thus increasing our effective intelligence “a billion fold.” Nice idea, to be sure, but is unclear whether this shift will involve humans transcending the the physical world, in which case, Grays correctly says, would put the idea at odds with one of the first materialist thinkers emerging from ancient times—Lucretius—and every other materialist or naturalist since. It would require denying the mind as a function of the physical brain; or a mystical dualism; or a supernatural consciousness; and since science concerns itself with the physical world, something very unscientific-looking—so much so, says Gray, that transhumanism is a “contemporary version of a modern [sic] project of human self-deification.” Gray nods to author Yuval Harari suggestion in Harari’s book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow that the expanding powers brought about by these advances could end up bringing human extinction. We will acquire almost divine powers of creation and destruction and become a new god that is indifferent to human beings; and that will be humanity’s swan song.
As noted in a previous review of this book, Gray doesn’t hesitate to draw from multiple intellectual and popular cultural resources, including literature, science, philosophy, history, and politics, offbeat characters— fictional and historical—and yes, pseudoscience; and with a very lively imagination, mold a quite interesting theme—but the title of this chapter would have more appropriately been “A Faith in Strange Science.”
reporting for The Humanist Advocate
(1)Autobiography, Charles Darwin. 1887 “There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course in which the wind blows.”