‘How the World Thinks’ by Julian Baggini

by Julian Baggini

27 Sep 2019

This is part of our 2019 Al-Rodhan Prize series celebrating the six non-fiction books shortlisted for promoting global cultural understanding. In this extract from ‘How the World Thinks’ , Julian Baggini looks at the history of secular reason.

The idea that understanding was good for its own sake emerged in the West as part of the growth of science, which was still often known as natural philosophy until the late 19th century. Henri Poincaré, for example, advocated “science for its own sake”, saying, “Science has wonderful applications; but the science which would have in view only applications would no longer be science – it would only be the kitchen. There is no science but disinterested science.” He argued that all the hard work of scientists was “for seeing’s sake; or at the very least that others may one day see”. In this Poincaré was self-consciously evoking a tradition in Western thought of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, which he perhaps incorrectly thought was fully formed in antiquity. “The spirit which should animate the man of science is that which breathed of old on Greece and brought there to birth poets and thinkers.”

Belief in the autonomy of science entails that the scientist belongs in the laboratory and it is for society to decide how to best use its findings. “Science has nothing to be ashamed of even in the ruins of Nagasaki,” said the scientist and broadcaster Jacob Bronowski. “The shame is theirs who appeal to other values than the human imaginative values which science has evolved. The shame is ours if we do not make science part of our world.”

For some, the strength of science is that it is solely concerned with truth, remaining free of ethics and ideology. For others, this is its problem. The contemporary Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr argues that modern science, premised on a “secularised view of the cosmos”, not interested in whether its fruits are used for good or ill, is an aberration. Far from being a glory of civilisation, it is decadent and amoral, responsible for catastrophic climate change, pollution and weapons of mass destruction. “Finally, one can at last ask not only why Islam and China, with their long and rich scientific traditions, did not produce a Descartes or a Galileo,” he writes, “but rather why Europe did.”

Nasr is a strong critic of the West, but many within the tradition have also had misgivings about the moral neutrality of science. “Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals,” said the lawyer William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. Most scientists would agree and see this as no problem. For Bryan, this was a failing. Arguing against teaching the theory of evolution, he said that science can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessels. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the ship of its compass and thus endangers its cargo. 

Even Winston Churchill said, “It is arguable whether the human race have been gainers by the march of science beyond the steam engine.” Pondering “the consequences of entrusting a human race so little different from their predecessors of the so-called barbarous ages such awful agencies as the atomic bomb,” he pleased, “Give me the horse.”

The physicist Fritjof Capra resisted the idea that science and ethics must be kept separate. “Scientists,” he said, “are responsible for their research, not only intellectually but also morally.” Discoveries in his own field “may lead us – to put it in extreme terms – to the Buddha or to the Bomb, and it is up to each of us to decide which path to take.” Similarly, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke saw the need for a moral compass in science. “As our own species is in the process of proving, one cannot have superior science and inferior morals,” he wrote. “The combination is unstable and self-destroying.”

The debate about the right relationship between science and ethics reveals a tension in secular reason. On the one hand, the autonomy of reason implies that we should go wherever our thought takes us, without concern for the practical uses. On the other, it assumes a link between science, reason and progress. But how can we be sure that secular reason will benefit us if it is ethically neutral? Why assume “science for science’s sake” will work for humanity’s sake?

The assumption that autonomous reason will inevitably lead to progress also fosters a dangerous complacency among academics, who often baulk if asked to say how their work benefits wider society. The logic of secular reason would answer that if learning has no practical effect, it doesn’t matter because inquiry is good for its own sake. If it does have an effect, it is bound to be good because learning leads to progress. But it surely makes sense to question whether the right people are studying the right things in the right way, and we cannot answer this unless we have some idea of what “right” is. Is it right, for example, if an academic community breeds a kind of consensus that stifles dissenting voices? Excessive belief in the autonomy of secular reason stops us asking these questions, raising the spectre of academic ‘censorship’.

Secular reason has been a powerful tool for scientific and intellectual development, But complacency about its benefits needs to be challenged, perhaps by traditions that have maintained that philosophy and science exist only to serve human flourishing. If our ultimate goal is human good, the autonomy of reason cannot be absolute. Who would want to build and stock the finest libraries in the world without caring if they stand amidst desolate streets?  

© Julian Baggini from How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy, Granta Books, 2018

How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy is shortlisted for the 2019 Al-Rodhan Prize.

Julian Baggini is a popular philosopher and author of over ten books, including the bestselling The Pig that Wants to be Eaten, Do They Think You're Stupid?, The Ego Trick, The Virtues of the Table, and Freedom Regained. He has written for newspapers, magazines, and think tanks, as well as appearing on Newsnight, BBC One’s The Big Questions, many Radio 4 programmes including Today and Start the Week, and on Celebrity University Challenge (his team were pipped to the post in the final seconds).


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