Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Report, Part Two

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken any way you please, is bad,
And strands them in forsaken guts and creeks
No decent soul would think of visiting.
You cannot stop the tide; but now and then,
You may arrest some rash adventurer
Who--h'm--will hardly thank you for your pains.

Vibart's Moralities, Rudyard Kipling

Further observations on the third strand: The author as curmudgeon

I had a few nit-picky observations on the third strand in the book, the generalised grumping about how everything has gone to pieces, but have decided to leave them behind and talk instead about the appearances of science in Bloom's book.

First they came for the philosophers...

Near the end of the book Bloom takes a tour of various disciplines, examining how they have fared in the twenty-odd years of the collapse of the idea of the university and to what extent they brought the calamity upon themselves. The hard sciences are the only ones that come out looking reasonable. They have not participated in the philosophical and political hijinks that have precipitated the crisis; their standards are maintained; their enrolments are solid; they are thought to be necessary: “Modern regimes were conceived by reason and depend on the reasonableness of their members. And those regimes required the reason of natural science in every aspect of their activity, and the requirements of scientific advance largely determine their policy.” Furthermore, the hard scientists are still essentially in touch with the 'philosophic use of reason' in a way that the rest of academia has largely abandoned. “The demonstrations of science come from within man, and they are the same for all men. When I think the Pythagorean theorem, I know what is in me at that moment is precisely the same as what is within anyone else who is thinking that theorem. Every other supposedly common experience is at best ambiguous.” From the vantage point of now, it looks like a perfectly splendid time to be a scientist. I can see why Bloom is at times a bit irritable with them.

Bloom sees the main flaw of the hard scientists within the university as rejection of community: collectively they are happy to hover Laputa-like over the chaos below; individually they are happy to pursue interests so narrow as to be 'immoral nonsense' to practical men, and do not lift their eyes to see the necessity of a philosophy to unify what they do. Both these criticisms are more or less true. On page 351 he says: 'inwardly they believe that the only real knowledge is scientific knowledge'. So we do. So the desire to ignore all the tomfoolery going on around us is strong. And most of us are very narrowly focussed. We are aristocratic in Bloom's sense in that we believe details are important, and that progress is not often made through generalisations. When we venture into the wider world even the greatest of us are apt to write things that are shallow and silly.

Yet in defence: science is the radical democratic form of knowledge. There is room for all on the floating island. Join us. And, while most of us might not lift our eyes to make sense of what we do within a coherent philosophical view of the world, Bloom does not offer any philosophy worthy of our attention. Neither does he pay any attention to the great philosophy that was in fact created by a working scientist: pragmatism is not mentioned until p.378, only a few pages before the conclusion, and Peirce not at all.

And the last 29 years have not been kind to us. The natural sciences are no longer a 'Gibraltar' standing aloof from the relativism of the wider institution. The graduates of '82 are the movers and shakers now, the people at the top of their careers, and we live in the world they have made. The graduates of '82 were brought up under the shadow of nuclear war, with Rachel Carson's “Silent Spring”, and Three Mile Island, and they do not much like us. Seen only as a commodity for maintenance of a technological society, we are in oversupply in the developed world. It is easier to outsource our function to other lands. On this utilitarian basis science has been hollowed out across Australia: a scary number of Australian 'universities' have ceased to offer an internationally recognisable physics or chemistry major. In the country Bloom was writing about, science no longer commands the respect it once did. It is not exciting. There is no money in it. There are the best science departments in the world, and the native-born, still filled with Tocqueville's democratic spirit after all these years, stay away from them.


Klaus Rohde said...

I guess one has to read the book to fully appreciate the review. As far as I am concerned, I am not one of those who believe that the only thing worth knowing or doing is science. Bach's music has nothing to do with science: but are there really scientists who believe this? (Although one could argue that the complexity of music somehow "corresponds" to the complexity of nature's structure. But that does not make it science).

I have just read Loretta Napolioni's book "Maonomics" and am planning a review of it.

Chris said...

I agree that science is not the only thing knowing or doing. But I think it is still the only "real knowledge".

One could keep writing fugues forever, and this will create more beauty in the world, but they do not bring us closer to truth. And you do not need to go to university to appreciate Bach, you just need a piano and a good ear and plenty of time to practice.

Similarly, culture and history are continually creating new facts, and it is fun to learn these facts, but do they teach us anything new, do you need to go to university to learn those facts? I think no, true knowledge is only when those facts are systematised and used to make predictions, which is science.

I look forward to your review! :)