Giving the lie to scientific truth

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 August, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 August, 1993, 12:00am

UNDERSTANDING THE PRESENT By Bryan Appleyard (Picador, $85) THIS is a revised edition of a book which, when published in hardback last year, created the kind of storm that still rumbles on.

Interweaving scientific, psychological and religious developments over the past 400 to 500 years, Mr Appleyard tries, with some success, to come to grips with the state of mankind today, especially with the impact of current scientific thought.

He is merciless with the popularisers of science, Sagan and Bronowski, ''and how iniquitous are the efforts of men like [Bertrand] Russell to provide apologias for science''.

Although, in his view, we are clearly in ''a decadent stage'' at the end of the Scientific Enlightenment, he hopes enough imagination will make a change inevitable.

''This change involves not the reception of an argument, but a transformation of attitudes, the first effect of which would be the relativising, the humbling of science. Science would come to be seen as what it is - a form of mysticism that proves particularly fertile in setting itself problems which only it can solve.'' We have a long road to walk with Mr Appleyard before he reaches conclusions like this. However, the direction is there in the preface: ''There are countless accounts of the development of science which present it from the narrow perspective of 'we are right, this is good and aren't we clever'.

''As far as I know, this is the only account that tries to relate the development to its wider, less optimistic implications. A price has been paid for the benefits of science and we ought to be aware of that.'' The fact that this book is written by a non-scientist only makes it the more intriguing.

Mr Appleyard starts gently enough for those who, like myself, are later left feeling somewhat disabled in terms of mental and intellectual capacity.

He sets his scene with Aristotle and Ptolemy. (The latter, incredibly, in about 150AD calculated the distance of the moon from the Earth as 29.5 times the Earth's diameter. Nearly 2,000 years later our figure is 30.2).

Then there was Copernicus who outraged established thought by deducing that the Sun, not the Earth, was the centre of the known universe.

And so we come to Galileo and his telescope: ''A telescope could allow a man to challenge God.'' Mr Appleyard possibly pitches this a little high, especially from the viewpoint of the present. Newton went further and so did Descartes.

The author sees in all this ''the story of a culture being progressively overwhelmed and transformed by science''.

''Science forces us to separate our values from our knowledge of the world.'' Scientists' work has reached new peaks in the present century. In 1900, Max Planck concluded that energy was only ever emitted as a series of ''quanta'' or packets, small but separate.

The apparently smooth lines we see in temperature changes or a sunset are in fact a series of unbelievably tiny jumps - quantum leaps.

Five years after Planck introduced the quantum theory, Albert Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity.

Lists of scientific advances grow too numerous to mention, all of which seemed to regard the existence of God or mankind as irrelevant.

The author accuses science of saying it can only answer certain kinds of questions, and then claiming that these are the only questions that can be asked. But he is determined that the steely grip of science on humanity is coming to an end.

Human culture, he feels, has come close to being sacrificed on the altar of one small aspect of itself. By culture, he means the totality of our ways of life and knowledge, and that, he says, ''must clearly be defended with my life because it is my life''.

''Such an avowal means the end of the rule of science because it denies the infinite open-endedness and willingness to change that science needs for the continued invasion of our souls.

''It also means an insistence that my soul be put back where it belongs - in my body - rather than in the remote realm to which, 400 years ago, science consigned it.'' One blessing of this book is that it does include a brief glossary of the sense in which Mr Appleyard uses various words, because, as he says: ''Words have been colonised by experts. . . Liberalism, for example can have six or seven different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. 'Classical' has almost been diluted out of existence.'' This is an engrossing book and one which I suggest is read twice: once, a quick flick through to establish where Mr Appleyard is going and why, and then a more studious contemplation of the pages. It is worth it.