Saturday, November 19, 2016
“Science And The Story That We Need”
“Science And The Story That We Need”
by Neil Postman
“The principal spiritual problem confronting those of us who live in a technological age was spoken of some years ago in a prophetic poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her collection “Huntsman, What Quarry?”
“Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts... they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric.”
What Millay speaks of here is a great paradox. Beginning in the nineteenth century, humanity creatively addressed the problem of how to eliminate information scarcity, how to overcome the limitations of space, time, and form. In the early nineteenth century, for example, a message could travel only as fast as a human being, which on a train was thirty-five miles per hour. Language, either written or spoken, was very nearly the only form in which messages could be codified; and, of course, most people did not have access to the expanding knowledge being generated in many fields. And so we attacked these problems with great vigor, and triumphed over them in spectacular fashion.
As a result, in the nineteenth century we remade the world through technology, unleashing a meteoric shower of facts, with telegraphy, photography, the rotary press, the telephone, the typewriter, the phonograph, the transatlantic cable, radio waves, movies, the x-ray, the computer, and the stethoscope—not to mention the penny press, the modern magazine, the advertising agency, and modern bureaucracy. We continued addressing the problem of information scarcity into the first half of the twentieth century, when we added some important inventions so that the burdens of information scarcity were removed once and for all.
We may congratulate ourselves on our achievement, but we have been rather slow in recognizing that in solving the information problem, we created a new problem never experienced before: information glut, incoherence, and meaninglessness. From millions of sources all over the globe, through every possible channel and medium—lightwaves, airwaves, tickertapes, computer banks, telephone wires, television cables, satellites, printing presses—information pours in. Behind it, in every imaginable form of storage—on paper, video and audiotape, on disks, film, and silicon chips—is an even greater volume of information waiting to be retrieved. Where information was once an essential resource in helping us to gain control over our physical and symbolic worlds, our technological ingenuity transformed information into a form of garbage, and ourselves into garbage collectors.
Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we are awash in information, without even a broom to help us get rid of it. The tie between information and human purpose has been severed. Information is now a commodity that is bought and sold; it comes indiscriminately, whether asked for or not, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume, at high speeds, disconnected from meaning and import. It comes unquestioned and uncombined, and we do not have, as Millay said, a loom to weave it all into fabric. No transcendent narratives to provide us with moral guidance, social purpose, intellectual economy. No stories to tell us what we need to know, and especially what we do not need to know.
Without such narratives, we discover that information does not touch any of the important problems of life. If there are children starving in Somalia, or any other place, it has nothing to do with inadequate information. If our oceans are polluted and the rain forests depleted, it has nothing to do with inadequate information. If crime is rampant on our streets, if children are mistreated, it has nothing to do with inadequate information. Indeed, if we cannot get along with our own relatives, this, too, has nothing to do with inadequate information.
What we are facing, then, is a series of interconnected delusions, beginning with the belief that technological innovation is the same thing as human progress- which is lifted to the delusion that our sufferings and failures are caused by inadequate information- which is linked, in turn, to the most serious delusion of all: that it is possible to live without a loom to weave our lives into fabric, that is to say, without a transcendent narrative.
I use the word narrative as a synonym for “god,” with a small “g.” I know it is risky to do so, not only because the word “god,” having an aura of sacredness, is not to be used lightly, but also because it calls to mind a fixed figure or image. But it is the purpose of such figures or images to direct one’s mind to an idea and, more to my point, to a story. Not any kind of story but one that tells of origins and envisions a future; a story that constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and above all, gives a sense of continuity and purpose. A god, in the sense I am using the word, is the name of a great narrative, one that has sufficient credibility, complexity, and symbolic power so that it is possible to organize one’s life around it.
I use the word in the same sense, for example, as did Arthur Koestler in calling his book about communism’s deceptions and disappointments “The God That Failed.” His intention was to show that communism was not merely an experiment in government or social life, and still less an economic theory, but a comprehensive narrative about what the world is like, how things got to be the way they are, and what lies ahead. He also wished to show that for all of communism’s contempt for the narratives of traditional religions, it relied nonetheless on faith and dogma. It certainly had its own conception of blasphemy and heresy, and practiced a grotesque and brutal method of excommunication.
It has not been a good pair of centuries for gods. Charles Darwin, we might say, began the great assault by arguing that we were not the children of God, with a capital “G,” but of monkeys. His revelation took its toll on him; he suffered from unrelieved stomach and bowel pains for which medical historians have failed to uncover a physical cause. Nonetheless, Darwin was unrepentant and hoped that many people would find inspiration, solace, and continuity in the great narrative of evolution. But not many have, and the psychic trauma he induced continues barely concealed to our own day. Karl Marx, who invited Darwin to write an introduction to “Das Kapital” (Darwin declined), tore to shreds the god of nationalism, showing, with theory and countless examples, how the working classes are deluded into identifying with their capitalist tormentors. Sigmund Freud, working quietly in his consulting room in Vienna, bid to become the world’s most ferocious godbuster. He showed that the great god of Reason, whose authority had been certified by the Age of Enlightenment, was a great impostor, that it served mostly to both rationalize and conceal the commands of our most primitive urgings. The cortex, as it were, is merely the servant of genitalia. For good measure, Freud destroyed the story of childhood innocence, tried to prove that Moses was not a Jew, and argued that our belief in deities was a childish and neurotic illusion.
Even the gentle Albert Einstein contributed to the general disillusionment. Einstein’s revolutionary papers led to the idea that we do not see things as they are but as we are. The oldest axiom of survival- seeing is believing- was brought to heel. Its opposite- believing is seeing- turned out to be at least as true. Moreover, Einstein’s followers have concluded, and believe they have proved, that complete knowledge is indeterminate. Try as we will, we can never know certain things. Not because we lack intelligence, not even because we are enclosed in a prison of protoplasm, but because the universe is malicious.
The odd thing is that though they differed in temperament, each of these men intended to provide us with a firmer and more humane basis for our beliefs. And some day that may yet happen. Meanwhile, humanity reels from what has been lost. God is dead, Nietzsche said before he went insane. He may have meant gods are dead. If he did, he was wrong. In this century, new gods have rushed in to replace the old but most have had no staying power.
For example: the gods of communism, nazism, and fascism. The first claimed to represent the story of history itself, and so could be supposed to serve as an inspiration until the final triumph of the proletariat. It ended rather suddenly, shockingly, and without remorse, in a rubble of stone on the outskirts of West Berlin, leaving the proletariat to wonder if history, like the universe, is also malicious. Hitler’s great tale had an even shorter run. He prophesied that the Third Reich would last a thousand years, perhaps longer than history itself. His story began with a huge bonfire whose flames were meant to consume, once and for all, the narratives of all other gods. It ended twelve years later, also in fire and also in Berlin, the body of its godhead mutilated beyond recognition. Of fascism we may say that it has not yet had its final hour. It lingers here and there but hardly as a story worth telling. Where it exists people do not believe in it; they endure it.
Is there then no secular god left to believe in? There is of course the great narrative known as inductive science. It is worth saying of this god that its first storytellers- Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, for example- did not think of their story as a replacement for the great Judeo-Christian narrative but as an extension of it. In fact the point has been made more than once that the great age of science was prepared by a belief in a god who was himself a scientist and technician, and who would therefore approve of a civilization committed to such an enterprise. “For all we know,” Eric Hoffer once wrote, “one of the reasons that other civilizations, with all their ingenuity and skill, did not develop a machine age is that they lacked a God whom they could readily turn into an all-powerful engineer. For has not the mighty Jehovah performed from the beginning of time the feats that our machine age is even now aspiring to achieve?” Galileo, Kepler, and Newton would largely agree, conceiving of God as they did as a great clock-maker and mathematician. In any case, there is no doubt that from the beginning of the age of science, its creators believed in the great narrative of Jehovah. Their discoveries were made in the service of the Judeo-Christian god. And could they know of Stephen Hawking’s remark that the research permitted by the (now abandoned) supercollider would give insight into the mind of God, they would be pleased.
The difference between them and Hawking is that Hawking, as an avowed atheist, does not believe what he said. To him, the story of Jehovah’s wonders is only a dead metaphor, and the great story of science is enough for Hawking, as it has been for many others. It is a story that exalts human reason, places criticism over faith, disdains revelation as a source of knowledge, and, to put a spiritual cast upon it, postulates that our purpose on Earth is to discover reliable knowledge. Of course, the great narrative of science shares with the great religious narratives the idea that there is order to the universe, which is a fundamental assumption of all important narratives.
In fact, science even has a version (of sorts) of the concept of the “mind of god.” As Bertrand Russell once put it, if there is a god, it is a differential equation. Kepler, in particular, would probably have liked that way of thinking about the matter; and perhaps that, after all, is what Stephen Hawking meant. In any case, the great strength of the science-god is, of course, that it works- far better than supplication, far better than even Francis Bacon could have imagined. Its theories are demonstrable and cumulative; its errors are correctable; its results practical. The science-god sends people to the moon, inoculates people against disease, transports images through vast spaces so that they can be seen in our living rooms. It is a mighty god and, like more ancient ones, gives people a measure of control over their lives. Some say the science-god gives more control and more power than any other god before it.
But in the end, science does not provide the answers most of us require. Its story of our origins and of our end is, to say the least, unsatisfactory. To the question, “How did it all begin?”, science answers, “Probably by an accident.” To the question, “How will it all end?”, science answers, “Probably by an accident.” And to many people, the accidental life is not worth living. Moreover, the science-god has no answer to the question, “Why are we here?” and, to the question, “What moral instructions do you give us?”, the science-god maintains silence. It places itself at the service of both the beneficent and the cruel, and its grand moral impartiality, if not indifference, makes it, in the end, no god at all.
Into the breach has come still another contender- the offspring of the science-god- the great god of technology. This is a wondrous and energetic story which, with greater clarity than its parent, offers us a vision of paradise. Whereas the science-god speaks to us of both understanding and power, the technology-god speaks only of power. It refutes the promise of Christianity that heaven is a posthumous reward. It offers convenience, efficiency, and prosperity here and now; and it offers its benefits to all, the rich as well as the poor, as does Christianity.
But it goes much further. For it does not merely give comfort to the poor; it promises that through devotion to it the poor will become rich. Its record of achievement- there can be no doubt- has been formidable, in part, because it is a demanding god, and is strictly monotheistic. Its first commandment is a familiar one: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This means that those who follow its path must shape their needs and aspirations to the possibilities of technology. The requirements of no other god must interfere, slow down, frustrate, or, least of all, oppose the sovereignty of technology. Why this is necessary is explained with fierce clarity in the second and third commandments. “We are the Technological Species,” says the second, “and therein lies our genius.” “Our destiny,” says the third, “is to replace ourselves with machines, which means that technological ingenuity and human progress are one and the same.”
But we know, and each day receive confirmation of it, that this is a false god. It is a god that speaks to us of power, not limits; speaks to us of ownership, not stewardship; speaks to us only of rights, not responsibilities; speaks to us of self-aggrandizement, not humility.
Those who are skeptical about the language and presuppositions of the great god of technology, those who are inclined to take the name of the technology-god in vain, have been condemned as reactionary renegades, especially when they speak of gods of a different kind. Among those who have risked heresy was Max Frisch, who remarked that “Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it.” But he along with other heretics were cast aside and made to bear the damning mark of “Luddite” all of their days. There are also those, like Aldous Huxley, who believed that the great god of technology might be sufficiently tamed so that its claims were more modest. He once said that if he had rewritten “Brave New World”, he would have included a sane alternative, a society in which technology were used as though, like the Sabbath, it had been made for man, not as though man were to be adapted and enslaved by it.
Huxley did not rewrite “Brave New World,” but, as it has turned out, it was unnecessary. That the technology-god enslaves and gives no profound answers in the bargain is now increasingly well understood. Heidegger wrote of it, and Mumford, and Ellul and Weizenbaum and Roszak and dozens of others, so that the covenant we made with technology is each day being shredded. It is a victory of sorts but a bitter one, for we are left at last with no loom to weave a fabric to our lives. This is the problem Vaclev Havel spoke of when he addressed the U.S. Congress. He said we will need a story that will help us “to be people with an elementary sense of justice, the ability to see things as others do, a sense of transcendental responsibility, archetypal wisdom, good taste, courage, compassion, and faith.”
Where shall we find such a story? The answer, I think, is where we have always found new tales: in the older ones we have already been telling. We do not need to invent a story for our times out of nothing. Humans never do. Since consciousness began we have been weaving our experience of ourselves and of our material world into accounts of it; and every generation has passed its ways of accounting on. And as new generations have encountered more and more of the world and its complexities, each generation has had to reread the stories of the past- not rejecting them, but revising and expanding their meaning to accommodate the new. The great revolutions and revelations of the human past, and I include the Christian revelation, have all been great retellings, new ways of narrating ancient truths to encompass a larger world.
We in the West are inheritors of two great and different tales. The more ancient, of course, is the one that starts by saying, “In the beginning, God . . . ” And the newer is the account of the world as science and reason give it. One is the tale of Genesis and Job, of Mark and Paul. The other is Euclid’s tale, and Galileo’s, Newton’s, Darwin’s. Both are great and stirring accounts of the universe and the human struggle within it. Both speak of human frailty and error, and of limits. Both may be told in such a way as to invoke our sense of stewardship, to sing of responsibility. Both contain the seeds of a narrative more hopeful and coherent than the technology story. My two favorite quotes on this matter were made 375 years apart. The first is by Galileo, who said, “The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.” The second is by Pope John Paul II, who said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”
I take these men to mean what I would like to say. Science and religion will be hopeful, useful, and life-giving only if we learn to read them with new humility- as tales, as limited human renderings of the Truth. If we continue to read them, either science or Scripture, as giving us Truth direct and final, then all their hope and promise turn to dust. Science read as universal truth, not a human telling, degenerates to technological enslavement and people flee it in despair. Scripture read as universal Truth, not a human telling, degenerates to Inquisition, Jihad, Holocaust, and people flee it in despair. In either case, certainty abolishes hope, and robs us of renewal.
I believe we are living just now in a special moment in time- at one of those darkening moments when all around us is change and we cannot yet see which way to go. Our old ways of explaining ourselves to ourselves are not large enough to accommodate a world made paradoxically small by our technologies, yet larger than we can grasp. We cannot go back to simpler times and simpler tales- tales made by clans and tribes and nations when the world was large enough for each to pursue its separate evolution. There are no island continents in a world of electronic technologies- no place left to hide or to withdraw from the communities of women and men. We cannot make the world accept one tale- and that one our own- by chanting it louder than the rest or silencing those who are singing a different song. We must take to heart the sage remark of Nils Bohr, one of our century’s greatest scientists: “The opposite of a correct statement is an incorrect statement. The opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth.” He meant to say that we require a larger reading of the human past, of our relations with each other and the universe and God, a retelling of our older tales to encompass many truths and to let us grow and change.
We can make the human tale larger only by making ourselves a little smaller- by seeing that the vision each of us is granted is but a tiny fragment of a much greater Truth not given to mortals to know. It is the technology-god that promises you can have it all. My own limited reading of Scripture tells me that that was never a promise made by God- only that we should have such understanding as is sufficient- for each one, and for a time. For people who believe that promise, the challenge of retelling our tale for new and changing times is a test not of our wisdom but of our faith.”
Neil Postman is Chair of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University. An earlier version of this essay was given as a talk at a conference of the Skirball Institute on American Values in Los Angeles.
Click image for larger size.