"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

3 Sept 2012

Paralympic and Scientific Arrogance

Having already commented in a previous post on corporate sponsorship in the 2012 Olympic Games, I could not resist responding to the sentimental claptrap from Professor Stephen Hawking (described by the organisers as “the most famous disabled person in the world”) when he announced to the watching world at the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games, the monumental deception that, "We live in a universe governed by rational laws that we can govern and understand." Followed by the misleading advice that we should, "Look up at the stars and not down at your feet."

From ancient Greek myths, such as the nemesis resulting from Icarus' arrogance in flying too close the sun, those much wiser than Hawking have pointed to the folly of aiming at the stars. It is not difficult to puncture the pomposity of those who, like Hawking, believe that the universe can be controlled and governed by mere humans. Destroying the planet we live on as a result of our scientific endeavours is a more likely scenario. But before challenging the myth that science has improved our lives, what of the other interpretation of Hawking's sermon to the assembled paralympians? That we should all seek stardom.

What really defines this event, and the other—significantly separate—Olympic event that finished days earlier, is not winners but LOSERS. First there are the scores of athletes who shed tears of anguish because they failed to win GOLD. Then come those who did not win a medal at all. Then the thousands who did not qualify to take part. Then, of course, there is the rest of humanity. Those who either feel a failure for not measuring up to the super-human physique or achievements of the para/olympians, or, if they have any sense at all, those who regard the whole business of competitive sport as utter stupidity. The absurdity of athletic competition can be summed up by repeating part of the section from Dio Chrysostom's Discourses that I posted in August. When the winner of a hundred yard sprint boasted to Diogenes the Cynic that he was the swiftest among men, Diogenes replied, "What of it? Is it not probable that among ants too, one is swifter than another? Yet they do not admire it, do they? Or would it not seem absurd to you if one admired an ant for its speed? Then again, if all the runners had been lame, would it have been right for you to take on airs because, being lame yourself, you had outstripped lame men?”

Staying with the theme of 'losers', what the passage above highlights is the value and self-regard the rest of humanity have relative to the prize winning athlete. Hawking's obsession with 'reaching for the stars', and the mawkish, condescending description in the media of paralympic athletes as 'superheroes', is symptomatic of everything wrong with our celebrity driven society. One can forgive Hawking for getting carried away by the emotion of the event. The problem is that people actually believe he has some God given authority and wisdom. To answer Hawking's other claim that, 'We live in a universe governed by rational laws that we can govern and understand', who better to respond than Friedrich Nietzsche who warned over 100 years ago:

'They cry in triumph that “science is now beginning to rule life.” Possibly it might; but a life thus ruled is not of much value. It is not such true life, and promises much less for the future than the life that used to be guided not by science, but by instincts and powerful illusions.'

Of course we find using a computer more convenient than writing on papyrus, but are our lives made any happier as a result? Is our writing any more potent? Acknowledging that the progress of science had been amazingly rapid in the preceding decade, Nietzsche warned that if we tried to further the progress of science too quickly we would end by destroying real progress. For Nietzsche, the course of civilisation is not a story of progress toward elevation and advancement but a series of highs and lows in which each of us has the same opportunity for acquiring real knowledge (knowledge relevant to our own unique existence) as those who have gone before us and those who will come after:

'Each man has his own individual needs, and so millions of tendencies are running together, straight or crooked, parallel or across, forward or backward, helping or hindering each other. They have all the appearance of chance, and make it impossible, quite apart from all natural influences, to establish any universal lines on which past events must have run.' 

Science only sees the problems of knowledge, emotional feelings are something alien and unintelligible to it. Nietzsche takes the view that scientists regard all sensual experience as the enemy of their search for truth. Philosophical questions are clearly very different to scientific questions and cannot be easily compared. They exist in parallel spheres of understanding, in different universes of discourse. As Jean-François Lyotard put it, scientific knowledge does not represent the totality of knowledge but has always existed alongside other forms of knowledge with which it conflicts. And Paul Feyerabend’s remark that, 'love becomes impossible for people who insist on objectivity', highlights why science might be largely irrelevant, not only for Feyerabend but for all people who prefer to feel experience rather than have it tested. So what if we can predict the movements of the planets, show that species evolve, or that matter is made up of atoms? What difference does this knowledge make to the everyday lives of most people. Jean Baudrillard undermines the very foundations on which science attaches its claims when he suggests that nature is calling the shots, not science:

"Ultimately, science has never stopped churning out a reassuring scenario in which the world is being progressively deciphered by the advances of reason. This was the hypothesis with which we ‘discovered’ the world, atoms, molecules, particles, viruses, and so forth. But no one has ever advanced the hypothesis that things may discover us at the same time as we discover them, and that there is a dual relationship in discovery. This is because we do not see the object in its originality. We see it as passive, as waiting to be discovered—a bit like America being discovered by the Spaniards. . . . But today, before our very eyes, the enigmatic nature of the world is rousing itself, resolved to struggle to retain its mystery. Knowledge is a duel. And this duel between subject and object brings with it the subject’s loss of sovereignty, making the object itself the horizon of its disappearance.”

Baudrillard points to science for science’s sake and an obsession with providing answers to a whole host of questions, the outcome of which merely allows one camp or another to claim success and publish their results. But as he points out, we are reaping some very unpleasant rewards from our scientific enterprises. We have become, or should be, increasingly aware of the harm caused by science. Take the moral absolutes of the criminal justice system confidently bolstered by forensic science. Leaving aside the possibility of human error in collecting, analysing, interpreting, or presenting forensic evidence, the laws that define whether a particular activity is criminal varies undeniably from one society to another. The ultimate crime, the taking of a human life has relative values, as can be clearly demonstrated by the concept of the death penalty. Even if science could prove conclusively the author of a particular deed or action, it can shed little light on the relative factors (motive, state of mind, provocation, etc.) on which civilised rather than peremptory justice depends. Science has been used to prop up as many injustices as it has justices.

But it is the history of medical science that is most concerning for our future wellbeing. For instance, the evolution of microbes across the planet, accelerated by scientific interference, has produced mutant forms of bacteria as a result of, and a challenge to, the efficacy of antibiotics. As foremost biomedical researcher, Robert Daum, explains, nature has a way of fighting back against anything we can throw at it: ‘Bacteria evolve like humans evolve. The difference is bacteria have a new generation every 20 minutes and humans have a new generation every 25 years, so the pace of bacterial evolution is truly dizzying.’ Not only are scientific attacks on microbes likely to prove ineffective in the long term, but by continually inventing and creating more and more anti-bacterial agents, we are also creating ever more dangerous and unpleasant organisms to maim and kill our own species. We also continue to expose ourselves to new, as yet undiscovered, organisms that have lain dormant. Viruses, for example, that are able to mutate and cross the species barrier: Lassa, Rift Valley Fever, the Ebola virus, and of course AIDS, of which an estimated fifteen million people had died by the end of the last millennium. As if living out the script of a science fiction fantasy we are now reaping the sinister rewards of our scientific egotism.

I do not ignore the many scientific benefits to humans, in the short term at least. It is the dangerous arrogance of scientists like Hawkins, who claim they can 'govern' and 'control' the universe, that prompted today's cynical rant. It's not for everyone, I know, but there is an alternative philosophy to Hawking's, one proposed long ago by the Cynics that, the things that matter to us most will not be found by gazing skywards. They are there all the time right under our noses—even beneath our feet.

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