How did we reach a stage where unprecedented dystopian measures are justified in the name of one of man’s noblest pursuits?
The greater closeness between science and technology than had been the case before modern times is not in itself directly responsible. Rather the quality of this closeness and hence the orientation of European science were highly influenced by the perspective of profit maximisation within which it developed. As stated in its first charter, the Royal Society aimed at “promoting … the sciences of natural things and of useful arts”, and its ranks included prominent merchants with no scientific or technical background. Science, technology, and commerce were thus officially made into interconnected ventures from the outset.
Conversely, the first stage of the shift from merchant to financial capitalism was enabled by both science and mathematics. Principia, as explicitly stated by Newton, was as much motivated by astronomical concerns as by desires to improve machinery. Alongside, chemistry played a prominent role in bringing science closer to industry. Efficient mechanisation contributed to expanding industries, extensive colonies, civilian and military transport back and forth, as well as population growth. These required increasingly more energy. The new field of thermodynamics — the study of the conversion of heat into work — was born in the early 19th century motivated by the need to improve the steam engine. Electrodynamics, the other major scientific achievement of the time, stemmed as much from the desire to understand a natural phenomenon as from the necessity to magnify the efficacy of the transformation of kinetic energy into work.
The study of electricity contributed to a major change: the integration of research within industrial settings, with little to no connection between research and management, research being subservient to the latter. In the framework of the anonymous shareholder system, it must incessantly aim for a maximum amount of ever more profit. In other words, a capitalism where the aim is not just profit, but its maximisation, was now in place.
This influenced science as a whole, even within academic institutions. Not only was the goal of science transformed into the sustenance of profit-making but it was itself transformed into a wealth-generating productive activity. The notions of intellectual property and of patents were elaborated at this time, and had begun to be actively exploited by scientists. The value of a scientific piece of work was now given by the amount of money it occasions. Now, it is not that science is above or below money, it simply has no relation to it. Hence, the choice of an inappropriate criterion for science opened the path towards its distortion.
Indeed, science, being the reasoned study based on reproducible and sufficiently reproduced observation of properties describable through comparison of the sense-perceptible world – a study encompassing interactions with natural surroundings –, must at any given time conform to all known data. It thus warns us when the gap between our theories and reality becomes too significant, and indicates when the impact of our actions on our environment generates alterations to natural conditions that may be harmful for us, at least once this impact is detectable by existing means. Hence, an economic system can no longer be sustained or justified by science once it induces inordinate alterations. Incessant and increasing material growth must perforce rely on advanced research, generating incessant and increasing alterations to our environment, which become less and less suited to human life. So there must come a point where to maintain course this research loses its scientific nature and refutes science itself.
As profits kept soaring, this point was crossed unnoticed. Thus science, the opposite of dogma, – always open to the modification or abandonment of its theories in view of later data –, powerful precisely because it recognizes its limits, was distorted into a new creed, scientism — a set of tenets which claim to be science, yet do not display its characteristics, in particular which do not rest on sufficiently reproduced and reproducible observation-based reasoning. They must therefore be taken on faith.
Deviating from a scientific path was eased by the shortcomings science is riddled with. The complexity of nature is beyond human comprehension, forcing us to simplify, and thus to found our theories on approximations and assumptions. We may be guided by the quest for truth, but we can never know whether our ever evolving scientific understanding is taking us towards any truth. What it does is guide us away from untruths.
However Church-Christianity (the dogmatic version of Christianity) had brought about confusion by its emphasis on sense-perception defying beliefs, notably a resurrection considered factual made into a defining criterion. Accepting untruths in the name of truth for more than a thousand years has left profound traces on European science, especially as the latter never got sufficient space and time for a serene development away from religious or political pressures. All too rapidly institutions of learning, from Church control were brought under that of centralised governments.
Belief in divine miracles was replaced by belief in a miraculous science that would better material life as well as provide the answers to the basic questions of life; belief in the objectivity of religious dogmas became belief in an objective science whose sayings are indisputable. All signs to the contrary were ignored until quantum mechanics forced their consideration. However, the damage was already done, and any reassessment has largely gone unheeded.
Science is a search for unity underlying diversity and recognizes its own subjectivity, while scientism cloaked with characteristics mistakenly attributed to science formerly, seeks to uniformise under one world view as it professes to mirror the truth, which must therefore be enforced on all. In the name of Christianity distorted into dogma, the full repressive power of the Church was unleashed on cowering populations. In the name of science distorted into dogma, the full repressive power of the State is now unleashed on cowering populations.
Like spiritual aspirations formerly, scholarly ones are now enmeshed in money making. Research has become fully entrenched in the global marketplace. Its subservience to the economic ideal or simply conformism is maintained by funding policies and by a culture of prize initiated by a forefront industrialist of the then nascent military-industrial complex, Alfred Nobel, precisely when monitoring research became essential.
When the content of research is closely monitored, when the watchwords are competitiveness, efficiency and standardisation, when a self-appointed coterie heap congratulations on each other, when those pretending to speak in the name of science have forgotten to question, the consequences on the nature and quality of knowledge are evidently most serious
As for the uninitiated, they are kept in awe and made to realise that doctrinal discussions are a matter of experts: just like the spiritual world was once said to be only knowable through the Roman Church’s priesthood, so the sense-perceptible world is now said to be only knowable through the new priesthood. The edicts of scientism are shrouded in the mysticism of mathematics, the latter having replaced Latin as the language of the Cognoscente. Thereby the simple is made to look complicated, the absence of solid foundations of a theory is obscured, and attention is diverted from the basic questions.
This is not to say that science is not fighting back. In spite of consequences to themselves, like their predecessors in other sombre periods, scientists are displaying admirable integrity and courage to continue work when it clashes with approved conclusions.
However, by systematically ignoring their warnings and having recourse to outright distortions to keeping to the path of incessant profit, a stage has been reached where resources have nearly been squeezed to their limits and can no longer sustain yet more financial profits. This has resulted in the virtualization not just of the economy, but of increasing aspects of human life, regarded as a huge computer whose underlying programs can be transformed at will, and which can be merged with the machine.
There is however a basic fallacy with a machine-made virtuality that denies our given reality. It will break in sooner or later. God, if there be one, might or might not “play dice”. But by attempting to change the basic unalterable principles of life, thereby pretending to be gods, we are certainly playing dice with our own fate.
(Published in the Light paper, Feb. 2021. https://thelightpaper.co.uk/issues/february-2021. Based on “On Science: Concepts, Cultures, and Limits”)