Brian Appleyard

UNDERSTANDING THE PRESENT

Science and the Soul of Modern Man


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

A recent survey of British people has shown that 69 per cent of the population believes in the soul; 25 per cent does not, and the remaining 6 per cent doesn't know. This result ought to delight Brian Appleyard, whose book is an attack on 'science', which he sees as destructive of our belief in the soul. If this survey is to be believed, the British soul, at least, is alive and well. But Appleyard thinks that spiritual attitudes of this kind are barely holding their own in the face of the massive skepticism induced by modern science.

In outline, Appleyard argues that the growth of science that has occurred in the last 400 years has brought us immense practical benefits but has exacted a terrible price for them. One way it has done this is, obviously, by enabling us to make weapons that are far more destructive than any the world has seen hitherto. Another, which may ultimately be more important, is by eroding traditional beliefs, especially religious beliefs. We have lost faith in our values and in ourselves. But this loss of faith ought not to have occurred, because the claims of science to explain everything are bogus. It is time to set things right.

The greater part of the book is devoted to a potted history of modern science, which Appleyard takes to have started with Galileo's use of the telescope to observe the heavens and make discoveries which challenged the Church's description of the world. With this event, religion entered on its long decline, which still continues. From Galileo we move to Newton, and Appleyard discusses the philosophical implications of the new science that the work of these two men ushered in. Here he makes much of the fact that Newton was not only a rationalist but was also a 'magician', who spent much of his life in the pursuit of practical alchemy and other esoteric matters; he was also deeply religious, though in a somewhat unconventional way. But later science abandoned Newton's all-inclusive view of the world and became more and more one-sidedly materialistic.

In his next chapter Appleyard continues the historical theme, tracing the development of modern science in the philosophy of Descartes and in the theories of Darwin and Freud. All this is necessarily done fairly sketchily, at Sunday Supplement level, and readers who are already familiar with the history of ideas and the development of modern science will not be in for any surprises here. Much the same applies to the later chapters, where Appleyard looks at recent developments in science, such as quantum theory, relativity, and chaos theory. These are all vast subjects, and although one can understand why Appleyard felt it necessary to include them (the book would have been very incomplete without them), his attempt to compress them into a small compass is hardly successful. Indeed, in at least one instance—his account of the Weak Anthropic Principle—the need for brevity leads to incomprehensibility. However, Appleyard's main aim is not to recount history but to make a debating point. The effect of science, he holds, has been to displace human values from the centre to the periphery, and ultimately to diminish them almost to vanishing point. But science has continued to grow in prestige because, at the practical level, it works; it yields astonishing technological advances that have altered all our lives beyond recognition. In the process, however, its claims have become more and more grandiose, until now it claims to be the sole arbiter of what is true.

A number of modern writers have claimed that the most recent ideas in science, such as quantum theory, are so different from those of Newton and Descartes that they offer a radical alternative to the mechanistic universe. By taking them into account, they hope, we can introduce spiritual ideas into science. But Appleyard doesn't agree. And he undoubtedly scores a point when he dismisses the claim of physicists such as Fritjof Capra to have found significant correspondences between modern physics and the language of Eastern mystics: the linguistic similarities don't prove that the two traditions are really saying the same thing, and, in any case, physics may well change drastically from what it is at present, in which case the alleged similarities will look decidedly dated.

If we discount these semi-mystical interpretations of science, however, we seem to be left with the rather bleak view of the universe that Appleyard dislikes so much. But maybe that is just too bad. Appleyard quotes a conversation he had with Richard Dawkins on the subject. 'Maybe the logic is deeply pessimistic', Dawkins said; 'the universe is bleak, cold, and empty. But so what?' Dawkins doesn't find this idea depressing; Appleyard does, and he can't accept it. But what is his alternative?

The solution is supposed to appear in his final chapter, which he calls 'The Humbling of Science'. Here he considers, and rejects, a number of proferred solutions. As we have seen, he doesn't accept the idea that a new spirituality can arise within science. He is also unpersuaded by environmentalism and the 'return to nature' because, he says, we are fundamentally outside nature. Orthodox religion is available to a fairly small number of people only. So what is left?

This is where I lose the thread of the argument. Appleyard has a number of villains and heroes. The arch-villain is explicitly stated to be Bertrand Russell, whom he regards as 'one of the most fabulously stupid men of our age' for his pragmatism and rejection of tradition. The heroes are mainly Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, though two others get an honourable mention: the novelist John Updike and the philosopher Daniel Dennett. I was certainly surprised to find Dennett receiving this accolade, since he is an arch-Darwinian and a materialist, but he is also an anti-Cartesian, which explains Appleyard's approval of him. (However, he is also rapped over the knuckles for his view that 'things change, and we cannot cling to the conviction that, because things matter now, they will always matter'.)

So it seems to be the eternal verities that Appleyard is hankering after; these are supposed to be embodied in our 'culture', which he insists is wider than science and is in grave danger of being subsumed by science. But, as he acknowledges, culture 'is [in] some ways a disastrous word in that it tends towards a fatal vagueness in use'. It is indeed this vagueness which, in the end, renders Appleyard's argument nugatory for me.

It is perhaps significant that Russell, whom Appleyard execrates, was a model writer of English prose; you may disagree with him, but at least you know exactly what he means. Appleyard's chosen heroes, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, I find considerably more difficult to read - particularly Kierkegaard. This may indicate a temperamental difference between Appleyard and me, but, whatever the reason, I have to say that I find his book wrong-headed, in much the way that I find Anthony O'Hear's book After Progress wrong-headed. Both authors make some valid points, and both make criticisms of modern society that it's hard to disagree with; but I'm temperamentally out of tune with their conclusions. Perhaps science will in the end destroy us, but meanwhile it's immensely exciting intellectually and I wouldn't wish to go back to the pre-scientific world of the Middle Ages, even if that were possible. Yet this seems to be what Appleyard wants us to do.

Nevertheless, I'm sure it's good to read books that you disagree with, since they make you think; and from that point of view Appleyard's book is worth reading.


%T Understanding the Present
%S Science and the Soul of Modern Man
%A Brian Appleyard
%I Picador
%C London
%D 1992
%G ISBN 0-330-32012-2
%P xiv + 283 pp
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