Saturday, May 16, 2015

Brian Cox and The Fallacies of Hope.

Part 12 of Kenneth Clark's Civilization Series

Professor Brian Cox is a scientific poster-boy for our time. This poster-boy role is no doubt helped by Cox being the very opposite of the stereotypical semi-autistic scientific nerd, inaccessible to the average human being. In fact I don’t think many people would disagree that Cox comes over as a thoroughly likeable sort of bloke. He’s the trendy baby faced electric guitar strumming boy next door, apparently easy to connect with and the last person you’d expect to be a professor of particle physics. This apparently ordinary lad from ordinary old Oldham does not look like one of those academics who would take refuge in an ivory tower. In short Cox is academic science’s much needed human face. Without doubt Cox’s style is a gift to the media.

Before I go any further let me make it clear that as a Christian I abhor the practice of the Christian right-wing fundamentalists who would use Romans 1 to accuse an affable atheist like Cox of “suppressing the truth by their wickedness”. These fundamentalists know who they are so I won’t mention them by name here. In any case Romans 1 is not about atheists – it’s about idolatry – that is, the misrepresentation of God – in Roman society: If God doesn't figure much in your thinking its difficult to be an idolater; except of course in the eyes of the fundamentalists who take contradiction of their opinions to be an affront to God himself.

I felt this blog post coming on because I have recently read Cox’s book “The Human Universe”. This book is a window into the thought life of a genuine atheist and cuts across fundamentalist opinion that most if not all atheists are anti-God conspirators. For a variety of apparently good reasons Cox just can’t find it in his heart to believe and for him it simply doesn’t make sense that anything out there should have a scintilla of feeling for humanity. To him the cosmos is a dispassionate desolation and manifestly governed by impersonal forces. It is a place where humanity is a rare natural anomaly of no greater importance than ants. Human significance only comes by way of humanity’s own estimation of itself. Cox’s book exposes the heart of someone who I would classify as an almost reluctant atheist and it is a slanderous injustice to accuse Cox of suppressing the truth by his wickedness; such only makes sense to religious sectarians who see the world through the paranoia of the fundamentalist precursors to conspiracy theorism. But I’d better not start on that subject here!

I liked Cox’s observation on the way science has stumbled on big things by starting out in a very small humble way:

The purpose of recounting the story of Galileo is not to attack the easy target of the inquisition (which nobody expects). Rather, it is to highlight the fact that the smallest and most modest of scientific observations can lead to great philosophical and theological shifts that in turn can have a tremendous impact on society. Galileo by looking through a telescope, doing some drawings and thinking about what he saw, helped undermine centuries of autocratic idiocy and woolly thinking. In doing so he got himself locked up, but also bridged the gap between Copernicus and Kepler, and paved the way for Isaac Newton and ultimately Albert Einstein to construct a complete description of the universe and our place in it. (p43)

Why do I like [science] so much?  The reason is that it is modest – almost humble in its simplicity – and this, in my opinion, is the key to the success of science. Science isn’t a grandiose practice; there are no great ambitions to understand why we are here or how the whole universe works or our place within it, or even how the universe began. Just have a look at something – the smallest trivial thing – and enjoy trying to figure out how it works. That is science. (p40)

The remarkable thing about science, however, is that it has ended up addressing some of the big philosophical questions about the origin and fate of the universe and the meaning of existence without actually setting out to do so, and this is no accident. You won’t discover anything meaningful about the world by sitting on a pillar for decades and contemplating the cosmos, although you might become a saint. No a truly deep and profound understanding of the natural world has emerged more often than not from the consideration of much less lofty and profound questions, and there are two reasons for this. Firstly, simple questions can be answered systematically by applying the scientific method……whereas complex question and badly posed  questions  such as “why are we here?” cannot. But more importantly, and rather more profoundly, it turns out  that the answers to simple questions  can overturn  centuries of philosophical and theological pontificating quite by accident.  (p40).

There is much truth in all that. In fact some of the prosaic observations that have led to profound thoughts don’t even need Galileo’s simple telescope: Olber’s paradox, which swings on the observation that the night sky is dark, set the cat amongst the pigeons in cosmology. I’m also reminded of my posts here and here about the work and technology of the millers, artisans whose work-a-day concepts were to prove of universal and profound significance in an increasingly techno-scientific society. The idea of the humble troubling the counsels of the high and mighty has great romantic and popular appeal.

But we can’t deny that we humans like big thoughts and I suspect that one of the reasons why we like science - and this probably includes Cox himself  - is precisely because it’s non-greedy approach of not aiming for the big time nevertheless often comes up trumps by some convoluted and unexpected route. There is, in fact, still an implicit role here for those big “badly posed” questions: We keep those questions at the back of our minds and in due time they can be used as the measure of the success of science. But true; greedy methods that go straight for the gold don’t always work; (although sometimes they may!).

However, let’s get back to Cox’s personal take on the cosmos.  As regards to the question of “What does it all mean?”, Cox has this to say:

Building on these ideas, my view is that we humans represent an island of meaning in a meaningless universe, and I should immediately clarify what I mean by meaningless. I see no reason for the universe in a teleological sense; there is surely no final cause or purpose. Rather I think meaning is an emergent property; it appeared on Earth when the brains of our ancestors became large enough to allow primitive culture…. (p9)

That is, you need sentience before meaning, and presumably purpose, becomes meaningful – I’d agree with that, but some of the meanings that have emerged in human culture have been rather horrific: Need I name the Inquisition, the Nazis, Stalin, Pol Pot, Jones Town, Mao Tse Tung, Stalin, Islamic State….?

The reason for Cox’s bleak view of the wider Cosmos appears to be entirely down to the well-known effect of the Copernican revolution in its generalised form: In stages humanity has not only become aware of the sheer size of the cosmos and the apparent insignificance of humanity, but it has also lost any Ptolemaic sense of human centrality. It is with this context in mind that Cox talks about the “dizzying physical relegation” (p8) of human kind and the history of cosmology which has been a “journey into insignificance” pP32) resulting in “our demotion” (p33) and our “magnificent relegation” (p59).  On the penultimate page of his book we read:

It is surely true that there is no absolute meaning or value to our existence when set against the limitless stars. We are allowed to exist by the laws of nature and in that sense we have no more value than the stars themselves.  (p269)

In the section of his book about the golden records onboard the Voyager spacecraft Cox says of these very long shots at interstellar communication:

It is a desire to reach out to others, to attempt contact even when the chances are vanishingly small; a wish not to be alone. The golden disks are futile and yet filled with hope; the hope that one day we may know the boundaries of our loneliness and lay to rest  the unsettling noise that accompanies the enduring silence (p81)

To Cox human existence is a no more than a chance anomaly, significant only because of its rarity:

....our outrageously fortunate existence and our indescribable significance as an island of meaning in a sea of infinite stars (p269)

Our existence is a ridiculous affront to common sense beyond any reasonable expectation of the possible based on the simplicity of the laws of nature, and our civilization is the combination of seven billion individual affronts (p271)

Yes, an affront to common sense notions of randomness and also an affront to more subtle mathematical concepts of randomness; that's why some of us try to make sense of this datum dot provided by our outraged intuitions using theism. But on his own admission Cox has to believe and have faith in something: I have often remarked that atheism teeters on the brink of nihilism and/or postmodern anti-foundationalism, but with Cox his hope against nihilism is invested in humanity:

I am a believer in the innate rationality of human being given the right education, the right information and the right tuition in how to think about problems, I believe that people will make a rational choice. …I have to believe that, otherwise this book is a futile gesture. (p265)

Looking at some of those humanly emerging meanings I have alluded to it seems to me that Cox’s hope in human rationality may not be altogether be rational: The Inquisition, the Nazis, Stalin, Pol Pot, Jones Town, Mao Tse Tung, Stalin, Islamic State have all taken in educated people but what did education do for them?  However, I do appreciate Cox’s point – we have to believe in something; it’s what helps us get out of bed each day.

Cox’s humanism may keep him going, but his cosmic vision is ripe for an existential crises.  Below I quote from a section of a recent piece of writing of mine:


At the start of the 12th episode of his Civilisation series we find Sir Kenneth Clark in the clean rational and regular neoclassical interior of Osterley Park in England. As he looks upon this epitome of rational control he says:

A finite reasonable world, symmetrical, consistent and ….enclosed. Well, symmetry is a human concept because with all our oddities we are more or less symmetrical and the balance of a mantelpiece by Adam or a phrase by Mozart reflects our satisfaction with two eyes, two arms, two legs and so forth. And “consistency”… again and again in this series I’ve used that word as a term of praise. But “enclosed”, that’s the trouble. An enclosed world becomes a prison of the spirit, one longs to get out, one longs to move. One realises that symmetry and consistency, whatever their merits are the enemies of movement……and what is that I hear, that note of urgency, of indignation, of spiritual hunger, yes it’s Beethoven, it’s the sound of European man reaching for something beyond his grasp. We must leave this trim finite room and go to confront the infinite. We’ve a long rough voyage ahead of us and I can’t say how it will end because it isn’t over yet. We are still the off spring of the Romantic Movement and still victims of the fallacies of hope.

The romantics of the late 18th and 19th centuries rebelled against the deconsecration of the cosmos through the symmetries and regularities of enlightenment thinking and yearned for the infinite. They attempted to return to a much more intuitive apprehension of the natural world. As Clark says the journey isn’t over yet and even today our romantic intuitions and aspirations continue to do battle with our reason. I would suggest that two words are missing from Clark’s last sentence….victims of the fallacies of hope…in man!  !  ….. I want to look at the question of why science has left us high and dry…..

Relevant links

No comments: