In 1992 when the Western world was trying to celebrate Columbus's discovery with great fanfare, there were many (legitimate) protests from the victims of that discovery and their sympathizers. The moral transgression (whether originally intended or not) in the adventurous accomplishments of Columbus et al. cannot be overlooked from our current framework, but few can call into question the many positive consequences that ensued (for a vast number of people) from that phase in human history.
A somewhat similar circumstance has arisen around the birth of classical
science that occurred some four hundred years ago. Rene Descartes, born in 1697,
formulated the view of science as an effort by the observing mind (res
cogitans) to comprehend an
observed objective reality (res extensa); and like Columbus, he too has
been receiving quite a beating at the hands of many thinkers of the post-modern
age as the tercentennial of his birth approached.
For more than three centuries, the positive sciences,
erected on the Galilean-Cartesian-Newtonian
framework, had been bagging success after success in their tireless
efforts to explore, explain, and exploit countless aspects of the physical
world. By the close of the 19th century to many it seemed as if all our
problems, material and even moral, would eventually be solved if only the whole
human race followed the emancipating path of science.
Something had to happen to mollify this unadulterated optimism before the
practitioners of science became too cocky and contemptuous of other modes of
human creativity. And something did.
Already by the beginning of our century, cracks began to develop in
this potential omniscience, symbolized by the name of Descartes. But
Descartes' trouble actually started in the 1920s with Heisenberg's innocuous
uncertainty principle which put
into evidence the inevitable interaction between a measuring device and a
measured entity in the microcosm. Its epistemological interpretation as a
reflection of the limitation of human knowledge, its revelation of the role of
the mind in the description of physical reality, and its recognition of the
inseparable interconnection between subject and object, all conspired to do much
damage to the dichotomy of Descartes.
The principle of uncertainty bluntly
stated said that there was a limit
to the precision with which one could simultaneously specify
measurable attributes of microcosmic entities. "Big deal!," one
may be tempted to exclaim sarcastically. But big deal it really was, since this
was taken as a repentant confession on the part of scientists that they were not
all that powerful. More seriously, one began to question the possibility of
objective knowledge and external reality.
Philosophers and pious people pounced upon
classical science's claims and methods to understand an external
objective world, with a glee almost resembling that of a populace
when an arrogant billionaire files for bankruptcy. By its own admission,
science had drawn its self-limiting line. Essentially, it all amounts to the
Reflective thinkers and perceptive poets, awakened mystics and simple
people, and thoughtful scientists too, whose
hearts had been touched by the majesty of the starry heavens and the joy of
love, have recognized for ages that that there is more to human experience than
gross matter, ordered laws, and cerebral interactions with these, and that the
Ultimate will for ever be a mystery. However,
to regard these as valid perspectives because physics
says so seems to add greater weight to minds which are itching to debunk
Naively forgetting or cleverly re-interpreting the superstitions,
magic-mongering, and abject fears that characterized (and still do) societies
untouched by scientific awakening, some also began to belittle
the Enlightenment, that reason-riddled child of the scientific revolution
which had dared to consider possibilities of ethical behavior without
expectation of Heaven or fear of
Hell, and committed the sacrilege of initiating an examination of saints and
sacred books in historical terms.
Since Heisenberg proved that science can achieve only incomplete
descriptions of the world, and Goedel revealed the limitations of logic even in
mathematics, it has been argued in erudite tomes and popular presentations that
the time has come to reject Descartes and his intellectual offspring. So they
have been writing eloquently against the scientific method and poetically on
the connections between quantum physics and meditative mysticism.
Then again, the environmental mess created by reckless technology and
greedy industry began to create aversion even for the so-called fruits of
science, especially in those countries of the world which have those fruits in
excess. After all, instead of simply enhancing our creature comforts and
diminishing our muscular effort, technology has succumbed to raw greed and threatens our very existence as a viable
species on the planet.
Also, aside from the epistemological implications of quantum mechanics
which cast doubt on the Cartesian subject-object demarcation, there is the
instinctive longing for the utterances
of distant ancestors in different lands and climes. Ancient visions have a
magical continuity and consoling
power that not all the equations of Einstein and all the symmetries
of the standard model can even approximate. Transient hadrons and weakly
interacting leptons are no match for
the hymns grandly chanted in
hallowed places of worship, when it comes to soothing the heart or uplifting the
spirit. All this has helped fuel
the movement whose goal is as much to show that Descartes was dead wrong as to
establish that ancient sacred texts are revelatory of deeper truths beyond the
grasp of crude and logic-based science.
So, hundreds of books and articles have come to be written to proclaim
that science cannot know everything, as if there is some other enterprise from
which one can know everything. From this it was only one more step to deny that
science says anything right at all, and yet another to revel in the
glorification of the irrational and the absurd. So it has been suggested it is
time to bid farewell to Descartes, and some have even held him responsible for
the inner fragmentation of the spirit. He and his ilk, they declare, have
dragged humanity to its present precarious predicament.
It must be allowed that much of this anti-Descartes
and anti-Enlightenment noise is insightful, interesting and
intellectually stimulating, certainly so as long as we have electric power,
thermostats, long distance telephones, vaccines and vitamin pills (to list only
a few of the countless convenient
outgrowths of Classical Cartesian science).
In scholarly anti-Descartes expositions
it is not always recalled that three hundred years of Galilean-Cartesian-Newtonian science
have given the world a far deeper understanding of perceived reality, and put
into evidence the existence of more entities and principles otherwise
unreachable, than was accomplished during ten thousand
years of recorded history; much less that useful and very valuable
knowledge and information, contributing
greatly to human thought and experience, are still being accumulated all over
the world in such fields as geology and observational astronomy, polymer
chemistry, molecular biology and much more, by adopting the old Cartesian
prejudice of a subject-object dichotomy.
So, even if the conundrums of quantum epistemology encourage us to ponder
mystical interconnectedness cosmic wholeness and transcendent reality, it may
perhaps be somewhat premature, not
to say ungrateful, to bid good-bye to Descartes and to classical scientific
methodology. One may write books proclaiming Descartes' Error,
but it was a magnificent error, nevertheless: perhaps the most fertile,
consequential, and revelatory error in all of human history.
Scholars who disparage Descartes are like spacemen who look down upon
earthlings because the new magnificent view is so much more thrilling than what
appears from down below, but they forget they could never have reached their
soaring heights and perspectives if the folks below hadn't done the needful.
should therefore be thankful to Descartes
et al. for launching humanity on the eye-opening and mind-freeing path of modern
science from which still more wondrous things are yet to emerge! So, I'm
inclined to say, Hooray Descartes! on the 300th anniversary of his birth.