The social vision associated with the name Walter Nash, or for present purposes Jack Marshall, has crumbled. The most secure and decent high culture, which flowered for some decades, is now on almost every measure except GNP in rapid decline2.
Why? The two leaders mentioned, and many others important in the building, defence & maintenance of New Zealand, were Christian but also devoted to the secular state. I interpret the downward slide of Kiwi civilisation over the past two to three decades as evidence that the attempt to maintain a system of ethics and law based historicaly and logically in Christianity is doomed if the religion which gave rise to it is not suitably active in its continuance.
In this context, my few years in the Skeptics led me to believe that the scientism dominant in that institution is part of the problem rather than helping with any solution.
It has been widely agreed during almost all human history (and, we can confidently presume, all prehistory) that the human mind can never grasp more than a tiny fraction of all the compositions and transformations of matter and energy, the physical workings of life. It is easy to be impressed with the surge of scientific knowledge, especially this century, but even in biochemistry let alone ecology we have discovered at an even faster rate unsolved scientific puzzles.
Yet more evident is that the non-physical aspects of reality are, to an even greater extent, beyond our ken — inaccessible in principle to science, and difficult of apprehension to even refined scholars and sages.
Severe incompleteness of knowledge is, we thus humbly remind ourselves, the normal situation. Not until three centuries ago did the trend arise of pretending that human comprehension and reasoning can, unaided, discern how things are3 and judge how they ought to be. Since the period now termed “the Enlightenment” it has even become a dominant fashion to say, or at least to assume, that non-physical reality does not exist at all. Science as saviour has become an increasingly influential if vague assumption.
Anti-religion attitudes had several causes, including revulsion at decadence and corruption in religion. The resultant overswing of fashion’s pendulum carried away surprisingly intelligent people who became over-impressed with science and with their own autonomy. A prominent proponent of these errors was Bertrand Russell “the most influential philosopher of the 20th century”4, who most admired a faith
“…that the human species would become progressively more humane, more tolerant, and more enlightened…In this beneficent process rational knowledge was to be the chief agent, and mathematics, as the most completely rational kind of knowledge, was to be in the van.”
In the ascendant for most of the time since the early 18th century, the blunder known as scientism — faith in science as the “only” way of knowledge — seems to me to be the defining characteristic, de facto, of the Skeptics.
The model of the universe as a clock, a mechanism which has been mechanically evolving in accordance with deterministic laws of nature, is sometimes lately attributed to Newton, but that is incorrect. Descartes and Laplace were the main advocates. Newton’s God5 certainly transcended the laws of nature. Indeed, Newton came in for some (misconceived) criticism for invoking in his scheme of things too much intervention by God in the running (not merely the original making) of the universe.
Science and Christianity
Systematic, objective but also respectful study of nature became possible only when the axial religions placed God outside nature. It is not widely enough known that science has never thrived except in Christian societies — with the minor exception of a couple of centuries in some Islamic centres. To dismiss this fact as a coincidence without looking into the main characteristics of Christianity and of science would be ignorant and specifically unscientific.
The “enlightenment” assumption that science can, and will soon, give an essentially complete description of the physical and biological world had become widely influential, though little discussed, when I was a science student.
More politically influential was the notion that science-based technology would indefinitely improve housing, health, education etc. The State was studiedly secular. The mainstream New Zealand culture, though then composed of churchgoers to a considerable extent, had very largely lost confidence in the church, which was no longer viewed as a main source of wisdom.
Science as saviour had been popularised by not only marxists (a minor influence in New Zealand) but more importantly the dazzling successes of Rutherford and many lesser scientific and engineering lights. It was probably among scientists, mathematicians and engineers that atheism had made its most important inroads. A professor of applied maths said on national radio, upon the award of the Nobel prize in 1962 to the originators of “the” double-helix structure for DNA, that it obviated God; and I do not recall any expressions of outrage at his nonsense. The anthem God Defend New Zealand seemed unpopular as if embarrassing.
The feebleness of the church was in effect (though not very logically) a reason for my generation’s drift away from religion. Ideas which had been cherished above all others for the vast majority of the Christian era seemed somehow passe. Indeed, the whole category in which belong the main ideas of Christianity was ignored by not only vigorous proponents of scientism but even many typical Christians of the period; metaphysics was in drastic retreat.
The four categories of cause, identified by Aristotle and unchallenged ever since, were not taught to science students, who were commonly ignoring two or even three of them (as do today the leading scientism proponents such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg).
In the “enlightenment” attempt to implement Christian ethics in a secular state, it has been widely assumed that the secular educated world would apply wiser ethics than had ever prevailed, in order that secular social engineering utilising science for investigation and implementation of policy would build a better society.
The value system on which all this would be done was very little discussed — just vaguely assumed. Huge organisations, capitalist as well as socialist, would be managed in a religious vacuum. Politics, and life generally, was to proceed as if no organisational care, let alone enforcement, were needed to safeguard and refine ethics.
That vague vision has, to put it mildly, not worked out. The “Enlightenment” having failed by very wide margins to deliver on its grandiose promises, its adherents have few options. They can go on as if nothing is wrong, perhaps cooing “all is one”6; or they can revise their axioms and reconsider religion; or they can say, subconsciously, “if rationality can’t suffice, nothing can”, and adopt existentialism, post-modernism, post-structuralism, hermeneutics, constructivism, deconstructionism, or other nihilistic cynical defeatism, as if all reliable beliefs are inaccessible or unidentifiable. These track-covering smokescreens of relativism grandly — “oh, that may be your reality” — waive arguments against ideologies such as feminism — whose axioms and dogmas do entail belief.
That the main “philosophers” advocating these silly nihilisms are French (eg Foucault, Derrida) is I think no coincidence but the logical end of the stupendously wrong fork taken by Descartes and Laplace?
Now we find the Skeptics sponsoring a speaking tour of New Zealand by a scientist who in attacking metaphysics ascribes the coherence of evolution, and even intentionality, to mere molecules (DNA), while ignoring morality.
The kindest comment on such an intellectual shambles is that it should prove a fertile seedbed for resurgence of faith as “The Enlightenment” disappears up its own fundament. Indeed, the odd phenomenon of Dawkin’s enthusiastic following may be interpreted as a sign of searching for faith; it is just a pity that anyone would place faith in such a pathetically inadequate idol as DNA.
Widespread agreement is found that the top three mathematicians are (in historical order) Archimedes, Newton and Gauss, and the top three scientists Newton, Faraday and Rutherford. The titan straddling those lists was a Christian. He got in some trouble with the whited sepulchres of his day in theological disputes which would seem minor to most modern people, but his colossal nuvre is consistent with his faith. (When Noo Eegers8 lately call the clockwork model “Newtonian” they merely underline the ignorance which was already obvious in much of their mental candy-floss.) Faraday was also a Christian (devout if nonconformist).
But by the time of Rutherford, “enlightenment” had become respectable. This, I suggest, constituted a grave threat not only to religion but also to civilisation. The noble and briefly effective Walter Nash vision, indeed any civilisation, cannot long survive the ascendancy of materialism, especially if compounded by individualism. A variety of other politically correct furphies8 — econobabble, anti-science, “anti”racism, and the very influential ideology feminism — have further accelerated social disintegration by confusing people who really ought to be able to see the severe limits of scientism.
So the clockwork model dominates science and its applications. Genetic engineering is the worst result — its breathtaking hubris is very worrying, but lately almost unchallenged. GE can be criticised, devastatingly, from various non-religious viewpoints; but I suggest that one reason why those criticisms have not proved influential is that the pose of “value-free” scientism has become widely accepted.
Perhaps the most flagrantly stupid idea to be widely held in science this century is the assertion that honey-bee behaviour is entirely genetic. Anyone who takes care of a hive for some years will see so many subtle responses to the environment, on various time scales, that the human by comparison may be judged less sensitive than the bee.
One could even be forgiven for arguing that “enlightened” human intelligence is on the whole less wise, regarding the health of the biosphere, than the bees’. Their behaviour is as if they know that this season’s pohutukawa bloom will be heavy and early; if a hive’s preparation for a large nectar crop is not a responsive (group) act of wisdom and will, what is it? Surely not automatism! When that social animal, which has been one of the two best-studied, was not credited with even a sense of hearing9 until a couple of years ago, and is still so poorly understood that it is widely accused of automatism, we should humbly take stock of how very little understanding science has yet achieved.
In this new age of the selfish gene and the commercial gene, we need to revive the understanding of animals in Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
High-school science education has been almost entirely hijacked by a crazy fad. (Like the other furphies attacked here, this is not a purely New Zealand phenomenon — it was imported.) For a period approaching a decade, the high-school science curriculum has been mucked about by their “constructivist” fad10 — the doctrine that scientific knowledge and method cannot be taught but must be “constructed” anew by each child, and that its comprehension is to be judged by the “teacher” then certifying “the child said it made sense”. Rather little science can get taught by those who embrace such a loony doctrine.
New Zealand science has already been gravely damaging by this spinoff from feminism — exacerbated by “Maori science”11. Science will be less productive, and generally less reliable in what it does produce, than it was before these track-covering smokescreens took hold.
There is, at this rate, no prospect that science will deliver much on what Sheldrake calls its promissory notes.12 Even within its own proper province, which is far narrower than scientism assumes, science is not going to give much more than glimpses.
That takes us back to the traditional view: humans will never understand more than a tiny set of glimpses. Humans who, especially, shun religion are doomed to an even tinier, and distorted, set of glimpses. Militaristic attempts from within Islam to fill that religious vacuum are a widely under-rated threat.
But more ominous, partly because it is nameless and has grown so recently and rapidly, is the mainstream materialistic, individualistic, thoughtless atheism which now dominates not only the overdeveloped world but also much of the developing world (notably China) and many elites of the never-to-be-developed world.
The only known basis for a decent society, and in particular the only ethical system under which science is known to flourish, is Christianity. This religion is therefore the basic answer to the global ecological and social crises. Sad to say, Christianity has, assailed by “The Enlightenment”, largely abandoned that self-image. But revival based in educational institutions remains possible.
I hope to have hinted here at reasons for optimism that revival of religiously-based ethics, fully compatible with science and essential to regulate technology, is a feasible, desirable and indeed crucial process beckoning those who have enjoyed the social advantages of Christianity-based New Zealand society while mining rather than maintaining its foundations.
1 This essay originated as a tract distributed at the NZSCM reunion 6 May 1995
2 A useful summary of current NZ trends is: J.L. Robinson Destroying New Zealand, Martinborough: Technology Associates 1996); but I assume readers need no convincing of these facts
3 eg a classic quote: “I expect soon to be able to calculate the position of every star” (Descartes to Mersenne, 1632)
4 R Monk Bertrand Russell — the Spirit of Solitude 1872-1921, New York, The Free Press, 1996
5 J Brooke The God of Isaac Newton 169-183 in Let Newton Be ed. J Fauvel et al, Oxford, 1988
6 (in characteristic Noo Eege inanity, unwittingly echoing Charles Manson’s immortal dictum “if all is one, then nothing is wrong”)
7 William Temple suggests, in my favourite philosophy and natural theology textbook Nature Man and God, Macmillan, 1934, propounding “dialectical realism”, that Descartes’ morning of extreme scepticism leading to “I think therefore I am” was arguably the most disastrous moment in European history.
8 L.R.B. Mann “Living as if Gaia Mattered” NZ Environment 63 28-31, 1989; L.R.B. Mann & A Macfarlane “Why Are We Doing So Badly?” NZ Environment 68 12-14, 1992
9 “because” no ear had been found in bees’ anatomy
10 M Matthews Challenging New Zealand Science Education, Dunmore, 1995
11 M Dickison “Maori Science” New Zealand Science Monthly May 1994
12 R Sheldrake The Rebirth of Nature Century, 1990