A Darkening Horizon: the Surge of Irrationalism

According to a news item not widely reported, rioting university students in South Africa are calling for a wholesale revision and ‘Africanisation’ of the curriculum, including the teaching of science. A few months ago they demanded the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, and after an extended period of disruption the authorities complied, perhaps understandably but unwisely in my view (see my post of December 2015). This time Newton’s theory of gravity in particular seems to have incurred their wrath, which while purporting to be a universal law is now apparently considered merely an expression of a Western imperialist mindset that takes no account of the indigenous beliefs about the nature of reality. In a wider context, these demands are not just the rage of a few radicals inspired by post-colonialist rhetoric, but seem part of a semi-coherent if uncoordinated movement to dismantle the intellectual and social achievements of humanity of the past several millennia.

We are used to attacks on science in the West, and there are continual attempts to downgrade the theory of evolution to a hypothesis on the same level as whatever the latest version of creationism is. But evolution has always been controversial, and although its central tenets of variation and adaption have remained largely undisputed for the past 150 years, theoretical insight into its exact mechanism is both ongoing and disruptive. However, this is no more so than the rest of science. There are few, if any, theories several centuries old which have remained intact, with the possible exception of optics. It is the fate of all theories to be eventually replaced, although the best live on as approximations or limited cases of more general rules. Few people today, outside of the school classroom, believe that Newtonian physics is true, having in the twentieth century been superseded by Einstein’s theory of relativity on the universal scale and quantum mechanics on the atomic and smaller scales. However, Newton’s theory of gravity was still accurate enough at the macroscopic scale to take Apollo to the moon and send Voyager’s 1 and 2 to the outer planets. It will get us to Mars if we ever decide to go there, though probably not to even the nearest stars, for that will demand the type of speeds at which relativistic effects will have to be taken into account.

The achievement and the universality of science is not in the truth of any particular theory, which taking a historical perspective will always show to have been incomplete, but in its ability to give an ever more accurate picture of reality, one, moreover, that has allowed a deeper and more penetrating mastery of that reality in the form of technology. It is that technology, which has transformed human lives over the past few centuries, that allows us to live longer and healthier lives, which keeps the lights on and allows us to live social lives beyond the diurnal cycle and in numbers beyond the natural capacity of the earth. Presumably, this is not what the rioting students are complaining about, or if they are, that individual rioters themselves would probably not prefer to be the ones to forego these benefits. Like most protesters who take a knowingly anti-scientific stance – rather than those who are just ignorant of science as such – they are in thrall to an intellectual colonialism that has its roots in nineteenth century European philosophy.

This anti-rationalist stream of thought began with Schopenhauer, but has its most complete expression in the writings of Frederick Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a brilliant and penetrating thinker, to the point of madness. He sought to unpick the intellectual consensus and received values of the Western tradition, in particular its technocracy and Christianity. He detested what he perceived to be the insipid weakness of character promoted by Christianity and championed the heroic and mythical age of the ancients in the form of the Übermensch . The Übermensch is an ideal of the human who lives entirely by their own values rather than the received values of society. As well as being one of the strands of National Socialism, Nietzsche’s ideas fed into existentialism (Heidegger and Sartre) and through existentialism into post-modernism. The philosophers of this school have inherited Nietzsche’s mode of radical critique, extending it to the entire Enlightenment project and, like many philosophical trends pushed to the limit, it has had some paradoxical consequences, creating the intellectual climate not only for leftist and nationalist militancy, but for the resurgence of fundamentalism and nativism.

Luce Irigaray, the Belgian postmodern theorist and feminist writer, took issue with Einstein’s theory of mass-energy equivalence E = mc2, not because of inconsistencies with new data, but because she considered the concepts of energy, mass and the speed of light to be an expression of patriarchal presumption and the dominance of phallocentric rationalism. Outside of the small world of French intellectual society and radical feminist theorising, such assertions would have escaped the notice of the general public and practicing scientists, and to the majority of that small number to whose attention they had been brought, occasioned mirth followed by a deserved oblivion. But since that time there has been a gradual trickle-down and acceptance of postmodernist thinking, particularly in shaping the form of that political activism that seeks to identify, nurture and advocate the rights of ‘victims’ of social norms; and the attack on science and even on mathematics is one of its hallmarks. Under pressure from student groups some American universities’ mathematical textbooks now censure Euclidean geometry for privileging the straight over the non-straight as a form of homophobic violence.

The world seems to be embarking on a retreat from the universalist ideal of the last century, that vision of a peaceful and prosperous global society underpinned by scientific advance and humanitarian ideals, into a world of enclaves defined by shared illusions and resentments which trump knowledge and empathy. The Middle East, which until a generation ago was at the forefront of  modernisation, and produced some of the finest scientists, intellectuals, novelists and artists (although many of them had to travel to the West in order to flourish) is entering a new dark ages in which fundamentalism is gaining sway over humanism (and, ultimately, brutalism over both). There is a space for traditional views, of religion and custom, within a scientific worldview; I would even say a necessity at the human dimension, to anchor us in the quotidian, while providing reassurance and a transcendent dimension to our existence. However, so disparate are the truth claims of these perspectives on the world that they cannot be reconciled within actual social institutions. Rather, this process is intensely personal and requires a high degree of reflectivity or pragmatism. Some scientists like Einstein or the Jesuit anthropologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin moved in the direction of a mystical pantheism. Others have moved in the direction of ironic belief or suspended disbelief, what Paul Ricoeur refers to as ‘second naïveté’. These build upon, accommodate or attempt to reconcile the inner life of the individual with the knowledge, traditions and accomplishments of human civilisation; they do not subvert or attempt their destruction.

There is a point of contention regarding Africa and science, but not the point made by the protesting students: it is that on the world stage there are very few African scientists, and certainly none of the stature of a Newton or an Einstein. If one looks at pictures of meetings of physicists they have been predominantly white affairs, with a few Indians thrown in, and nowadays increasingly a Chinese contingent. Fundamental research into nature is only a priority when more basic needs are met such as good governance and a thriving economy. These students have been denied that until now. At the end of the era of white rule South Africa was the richest country in Africa, with the most vibrant economy and the strongest institutions, which despite the monstrosity of Apartheid were able to deliver a peaceful transition to majority rule. The country had a new constitution, which the people themselves had had a role in writing, a much-loved and inspirational president and the good will of the rest of the world. After twenty years of uninterrupted rule, the ANC presides over a country with a stagnant economy, high unemployment, one of the highest murder rates in the world, and rampant corruption. Rather than address these problems, the response has been to blame the problems on colonialism. We may sympathise with these students’ plight, but we do not have to believe for one moment that their or our interests are going to be served by a retreat into a cultural and intellectual backwater.

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