Thursday, September 21, 2017

Mysticism and Logic, Chapter II

"The Place of Science in a Liberal Education," pages 33-45

This essay is divided into two untitled parts, with part I covering pages 33-39, and part II covering pages 39-45.

Most people see science through the persistent parade of new technological marvels. Man’s growing control over nature is a good reason to promote scientific research, but there are other strong, though less appreciated reasons, including the inculcation of a scientific cast of thought. Inventions like wireless telegraphs stem from impressive and fundamental theoretical advances, with the eventual application in useful products valuable but possessing less of a broad sweep.

Even scientists are likely to associate culture not with their own activities but with the productions of those trained in literary or classical pursuits. That is, scientists themselves justify their supposedly inferior activity through the practical gadgetry that results, and not from the careful, disinterested build-up of knowledge that sharpens mental acuity.

An education in the classics has great value, though “I have not myself enjoyed its benefits…[p. 35].” [Russell makes this point elsewhere – RBR] The focus on the past, especially on a rather refined version of the past, however, can lead to insufficient appreciation of the present and future. Such a concern goes beyond the study of classics, to any excessively static and academic education.

What is the aim of education? First, let’s describe what I [Russell] mean by education. I do not mean the broad definition that includes all life learning; nor do I mean the narrow definition of formal instruction concerning specific information, like the three R’s in elementary school. Education here will be taken to mean “the formation, by means of instruction, of certain mental habits and a certain outlook on life and the world [p. 37, italics Russell’s].”

We all are driven by a finite number of primary impulses. Each of these primary drives is supported by a plethora of secondary desires that arise in support of the primary impulse. If we lose a primary impulse, the supportive ones will themselves wither and die: our previous interest in them will be deprived of all zest, all color. Meaning in our lives is always connected to a primary desire – the secondary ones, unlinked with a primary drive, cannot lend meaning to our existence.

Education, therefore, does not create a heretofore non-existent primary drive nor generate new meaning for living, but it can enlarge the scope of our existing primary interests. Unfortunately, much education in practice has attempted to thwart natural impulses, thereby producing “stunted and contorted hypocrites [p. 38].”

A proper education does not serve to impede instincts, but rather hones them, managing their conflicts and limiting negative consequences. It broadens one’s contacts with the world and its people, both across time and across space. “It is this simultaneous softening in the insistence of desire and enlargement of its scope that is the chief moral end of education [p. 39].” The intellectual end is to see the human and the non-human world, and the relations between them, as they are, and not as we might like them to be. Educational success can be measured by the outcome of this de-biasing project.

With the second untitled part of this essay beginning on page 39, Russell returns to discussing science. Relative to art and literature, science possesses the advantage of providing hope, both for the future and for what a dedicated student can accomplish. This hope helps to counter a cost that can accompany science’s other comparative advantage, namely, the independence of scientifically-revealed truths from human desires.

Study of art and literature is backward looking, to Ancient Greece or the Renaissance. The pinnacles reached in the past “actually increase the difficulty of fresh triumphs by rendering originality harder of attainment [p. 40].” Science builds on past successes, but not so art; indeed, civilization produces a sophistication that inhibits the sort of wide-eyed wonder that spurs artistic creativity. Artists cavil at the present, and their impulse for originality is reflected in a bizarre iconoclasm.

Since Galileo, we have had the scientific method at hand, and hence have a recipe for generating progress that is not available to artists. We do not need a person of genius to produce every advance in science, though artistic breakthroughs require such prodigies. Those who contribute most to science are those who develop a new method, though many of the valuable discoveries will subsequently be made by others who apply the method.

Beyond the individual methods is the more general scientific method, which “includes deduction as much as induction, logic and mathematics as much as botany and geology [p. 42].” This method develops from an outlook which understands that the world is what it is, irrespective of how we might wish it to be. Though such an outlook might seem to be the obvious one to adopt, in practice it has proven hard to inculcate. Aristotle thought that the stars move in circles because he viewed the circle as the most perfect of curves – and thereby let his preferences decide questions of fact. Malthus, who wrote post-Galileo, did better: his mistaken population theory derived from a dispassionate view of people as creatures exhibiting consistent behaviors that would bring certain consequences. Darwin, inspired by Malthus, has helped to cement the scientific approach to the study of man.

Philosophy remains rather unscientific, even if philosophers like to deploy scientific terms. The scientific approach requires the abjuration of feelings or anything else that impedes the search for truth, for a view of reality untarnished by preconceptions or hopes. Our attachment to rationality and desire for progress should not, on its own, lead us to believe that the universe coheres with our logic and improves (or deteriorates) over time. Our hopes and fears limit the potential for philosophy.

The desire to build something lasting can be satisfied more intensely in science than in poetry. Our curiosity can realize the payoff of new knowledge when deployed in a scientific manner – it broadens and depersonalizes our interests, promoting our wellbeing. A scientist who makes a new discovery receives the additional satisfaction of public admiration and the knowledge that society has been benefitted. “A life devoted to science is therefore a happy life, and its happiness is derived from the very best sources that are open to dwellers on this troubled and passionate planet [p. 45].”

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