The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

January 9th, 2005

Moralists merely wail, but science gives us answers

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” as the philosopher Wittgenstein famously said. That was my response to the tsunami in Asia and its terrible aftermath.

To me it was and is a meaningless horror about which there is almost nothing one can say except, perhaps, to ask what can be done. Perhaps the most picturesque was the belief of Alun Anderson, editor-in-chief of New Scientist, that cockroaches are conscious. That is to say cockroaches and other quite simple animals are conscious of the world around them, though quite differently from humans, and not merely driven by hard-wired, instinctive, scuttling reactions.

That has not stopped thousands of people, particularly media commentators and public pontificators generally, from holding forth about it at length, trying to extract morals and meaning.
I am not complaining about all the reporters and scientists who have been trying to discover useful information about how the tsunami might have been anticipated, its effects mitigated, what can be done now or how relief work is being co-ordinated.

What has depressed me has been the excessive moral and theological posturing. Media atheists have been unfeelingly triumphalist, as if this disaster proved them — yet again — right in their disbelief.

And media men and women of the cloth have, not surprisingly, been reduced to incoherence about their enduring belief. The Archbishop of Canterbury became, and not for the first time in his episcopate, almost incomprehensible.

“The extraordinary fact,” he wrote, “is that belief has survived such tests again and again — not because it comforts or explains but because believers cannot deny what has been shown or given to them. They have learnt to see the world and life in the world as a freely given gift.

“They have learnt to be open to a calling or invitation from outside their own resources, a calling to accept God’s mercy for themselves and make it real for others and they have learnt that there is some reality to which they can only relate in amazement and silence.

“These convictions are terribly assaulted by all those other facts of human experience that seem to point to a completely arbitrary world, but people still feel bound to them, not for comfort or ease but because they have imposed themselves on the shape of a life and the habits of a heart.”

If that contorted prose means anything at all, it would take a very great leap of faith, of a most mystical sort, to believe so.

It is sad that the Church of England, which produced the strong-minded, eloquent lucidity of Cranmer’s liturgy, which is undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements of the English language, should now be reduced to impenetrable waffle.

However, in my case it would have made no difference if the archbishop had spoken with the tongues of men and of angels; I am an unbeliever. Yet the constant images of the disaster in Asia, like the less constant images of broken people and broken lives in Iraq, do naggingly demand some sort of answer to the question of what, if anything, one does believe in.

Confronted with senseless violence, viciousness, corruption high and low, and human weakness generally, it is hard to have faith in anything much, especially if one is not religious. But even so I do believe in the importance of faith — not of religious faith but of faith in a different sense, such as keeping faith or living in good faith.

This is not something I can particularly defend, although some evolutionary biologists have tried. It just seems good to me: I do, like religious people and most irreligious people (whatever they might think), have faith, which is to say I hold an irrational belief in some things that I can’t support with argument or evidence. As a believer in the supremacy of scientific thought (if only through a glass and rather darkly), I’ve always found this awkward.

However, it seems it doesn’t necessarily trouble real scientists. Great scientists have sometimes guessed the truth before they had either the evidence or arguments for it; Diderot called this the “esprit de divination”. And the online magazine Edge began the new year by asking 120 scientists “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” It received 60,000 words of fascinating reply.

Even more startling is the belief of Kenneth Ford, the distinguished American physicist, that microbial life exists elsewhere in our galaxy.

Then there is a heart-warmer from W Daniel Hillis, a physicist and computer scientist, admittedly with a background in the world of Disney. “I know it sounds corny,” he writes, “but I believe that people are getting better. In other words, I believe in moral progress . . . our species is passing through a transitional stage from being animals to being true humans”. In 10,000 years or so, he says, we will be much better and more altruistic.
Scientists don’t normally tend to be quite so astonishingly upbeat as that, but all the same, what distinguishes scientists is their ambitious, open-minded optimism.

Humanity may not make progress, but science certainly does, at a breathtaking rate in many fields, and this sense of increasing discovery and power makes scientists feel hopeful.

By contrast, non-scientific people who have studied and worked in the humanities tend to feel just the opposite — pessimistic, jaded and powerless. Perhaps that is because the human condition hasn’t changed much for the past couple of thousand years and there isn’t a great deal left to say about it.

This first struck me when I worked long ago in the BBC on two science programmes made by a brilliant young producer, one on gerontology and the other on the Big Bang. The producer had an extraordinarily positive quality about him that I had never come across before.

The reason, I began to realise as I listened to him and struggled to understand scientific journals and eminent scientists, was that in science things keep getting bigger, newer, better.

Science is where the intellectual story is. C P Snow wrote famously about a division between the two cultures of literary intellectuals and scientists and suggested a “third culture”, which might unite them.

That never quite emerged. What has happened in the past couple of decades has been that scientists have increasingly bypassed the rather supercilious arts intellectuals and seized the intellectual initiative and the intellectual high ground for themselves.

Many of them have written eloquent and readable books for the general reader, appearing in the mass media or contributing to intellectual online magazines such as Edge.

Scientists, increasingly, have become our public intellectuals, to whom we look for explanations and solutions. These may be partial and imperfect, but they are more satisfactory than the alternatives.

So here is what I believe, without being able to prove it. If there are any answers to life’s greatest questions, or if there are other questions that we should be asking instead, it is science that will provide them.