Science made the West pre-eminent. But in the last century the love affair with science has faltered. One reason is that science has become weird. Up to 1900, science made it easier to understand the world. As we learned more, we understood more. But since 1900, with theories of relativity and quantum physics and Freud's dark view of the unconscious, science has made understanding reality harder. Science is producing not the known, but the unknown; and the dangerous as well as the benign.
You can see it in literature. In 1932, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World depicted science as de-humanizing, too easily the tool of dictators and elites. Then came Hiroshima, and the real fear, felt when I was growing up and fed by the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, that mankind could wipe itself out in a nuclear holocaust. Evidence began to pile up that science's triumphs - industrialization and material progress - have begun to poison the planet's water, air, and soil. The greenhouse effect, the depletion of the ozone layer, and the subversion of earth's ecosystem; the destruction of the Amazon rain forest; and the increasing proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction - all were seen as the fruits of science. Astronomer Martin Rees gives humanity only a 50-50 chance of surviving the next 100 years without a major catastrophe threatening life itself.
In the late 19th century, and for most of the 20th, faith in religion declined as faith in science grew. For the last 50 years, this process has gone into reverse. After 1990, more than a third of Americans said they were "born again" Christians. They believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, and that Genesis accurately describes the creation of the world. Let us be blunt. They are living in a pre-scientific world, one they have willfully chosen by refusing to open their eyes and use their minds.
There is a descent into superstition, again led by the pre-eminent country of science. According to a poll in 1997, 77% of American believe in angels. A quarter of Americans believe in astrological predictions - and another 22% are not sure. Sixty percent believe that Satan exists. Forty-eight percent believe in UFOs, and 50% that aliens have visited us and abducted humans.
It is hard to know how seriously to take the polls. Are all these people idiots, or do they just not care what they tell pollsters? Either way, it is not a ringing endorsement of science and reason. People used to look up to intellectuals. Now a significant minority of people don't care what is true, think "everything is relative", and that this gives them a right to believe anything they like, regardless of the facts. They refuse to take responsibility for their minds, or for anything else. They believe in magical and mystical forces. They would have been at home in the Middle Ages, burning heretics and witches.
You can argue that the loss of faith in science doesn't matter. To a greater degree than ever, the world is being shaped by science. Triumphs such as the internet, and medicines to contain or cure deadly diseases, roll relentlessly of the scientific production line. Scientific advance is unstoppable, constant, and cumulative. There is no substitute for Western science. There is no alternative science, no Buddhist science, no Marxist or Nazi science, no New Age science, no relativist science, no fundamentalist Christian science, no Islamic science. The West retains scientific dominance. Science keeps getting funded. What, you may ask, is the problem?
Well, think about the intellectual causes of modern science. As we saw last week, science grew out of belief in a benign and omnipotent God, and out of optimism about humanity's place in the cosmos. Science appears to have disposed of belief in the causes of science. Science has nibbled away at its thought-foundations. If this is true, what is left? "Only" technology, the search for profit, and the ineradicable curiosity of a portion of humanity. These three things are all good. Why then do I say "only"? Because the contribution of science to human meaning, the human spirit, and the non-material richness of civilization have shriveled. Knowledge itself, instead of exciting and uniting Westerners at large, is in danger of becoming a minority taste, corralled into universities, research institutes, and specialized corporations, barricaded against the new breed of barbarians, those already within the city gates, flaunting their ignorance and wallowing in the warm bath of emotional imbecility.
If nobody cares about the scientific truth, we are all victims of spin-doctors and demagogues, those who deliberately subvert the truth because it is convenient to their cause. Justice goes out the window. Power and especially the power of presentation becomes everything. Being slick trumps being accurate. Cynicism abounds. Some of the new barbarians were educated in the world's best universities, and yet they are using their intelligence, honed there, to promote cynical ideas and anti-intellectual values. They are leading the less gifted, not towards knowledge and civilization, but towards their negation. The ideal of a society based on reason and knowledge is receding, and one way or another, sooner or later, we will pay a high price for that. We need our intellectual elite to be honest, to say when they may be wrong, to care about the truth, and to persuade everyone else that truth matters. At the moment, the intellectuals are losing the battle, and so is truth.
Truth, of course, must be sustained by faith of some kind. To function effectively, for our own good, and for the common good, we have to believe in a positive narrative, that gives meaning to our lives and a constructive purpose to society. The belief in truth and science is itself such a faith. Belief in any kind of loving deity is another. You can choose either belief system, and you can choose both, because they overlap - I believe they will again come to overlap perfectly, though I may be wrong. I believe in truth, science, and the possibility that humans can be kind and altruistic. I believe in universities, in humanism, in reason, in enlightenment. I also believe that the universe has meaning, and that part of that meaning is to learn more about how and why that may be true. But if you ask me to say it in six words, I believe in truth and science.