Advertisement
MO BIO
MO BIO

Cultural and Religious Reaches of Science

Hanbury Brown is an Australian astronomer whose observatory has shut down. This has given him time to write a book both superficial and boring, filled with platitudes, rhetorical questions, pious hopes, Whig history and annoying inconsistencies. Scientists will profit little from reading it. Neither will it improve non-scientists' appreciation of science's role in our civilization. The first two chapters survey the growth of science since the 17th century and attempt to sketch the leading ideas

By | February 23, 1987

Hanbury Brown is an Australian astronomer whose observatory has shut down. This has given him time to write a book both superficial and boring, filled with platitudes, rhetorical questions, pious hopes, Whig history and annoying inconsistencies. Scientists will profit little from reading it. Neither will it improve non-scientists' appreciation of science's role in our civilization.

The first two chapters survey the growth of science since the 17th century and attempt to sketch the leading ideas of physics and biology from that time to our own. Regrettably, the writing is fiat-footed and reveals no gift for illuminating simplification or explanatory unification. Readers will put down these chapters with no more real insight into thermodynamics or Bell's theorem than they brought to the work.

What is worse, these chapters show no influences of the revolution in the history, philosophy and sociology of science wrought over the last two decades. Scientific change is blithely described as cumulating progress unobstructed by anything before quantum mechanics. Now, Brown is right to hold that science is in fact cumulative and progressive, but failing to show that these views are today at least controversial, indeed rejected by well-informed writers on science, does the reader a profound disservice.

In the third chapter of The Wisdom of Science, Brown writes that we need to improve the way society controls the practical applications of science; we need to develop better ways for forecasting and assessing the effects of technology. How can we do these things? Education, of course! "We must develop better methods by which such problems can be explained and debated in public so that a wider range of experience and common sense is brought to bear on them," he writes. Sure, but how? That is the interesting question, but unfortunately one which Brown does not address. On the other hand, it's not clear that Brown can even help himself to this solution of letting common sense and experience guide science policy.

The third chapter concludes with the issues of why we should support basic research, and how we should choose which research to support. The novel answers offered are that basic research pays off in unexpected long-run technological advance, and that peer review is a good means of guiding it. One might have expected a scientist to tell us that Western civilization should sustain its most important and only universally accepted institution, simply because it is our greatest cultural achievement. But Brown fobs this off as "an argument … reminiscent of the reasons sometimes given for supporting a useless and decadent aristocracy." Not what we expect from an author setting out to explore the wisdom of science and its bearing on our culture.

In his last chapter, Brown attempts to reconcile religion and science. To do so, however, he robs science of the claims to cumulating knowledge of the way the world is that he embraces in the early chapters. Science and religion can be reconciled, he writes in the last chapter. But first, religion's objectives must be distinguished from those of science: science's aim is to interpret the world's mysteries in terms of systematical knowledge; religion's aim is to interpret those same mysteries in terms of their significance and meaning.

But science and religion cannot be so glibly reconciled. For on the scientific view, meaning and significance, if they are to be found at all, are just natural properties, like adaptation, to be explained by the operation of underlying physical processes, like blind variation and natural selection. Moreover, science aims to reduce mystery, instead of reveling in it. So, in the end, like other attempts at reconciliation, Brown's fails because it refuses to take either or both science or religion seriously.

Rosenberg teaches the philosophy of science at the University of California, Riverside, 92502.
He is the author of The Structure of Biological Science.

Advertisement

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement
INTEGRA Biosciences
INTEGRA Biosciences

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
TwistDx Limited
TwistDx Limited
Advertisement
The Scientist
The Scientist