With last week’s fruitful exploration of True Detective, I realized that TV does at least make for good fodder. I have been wanting to address issues involving science for a while now, so with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos now airing, it’s as good of a time as any. Science and reason itself are in many ways the best things we’ve got, but they are not the destination. They are plateaus and if we are not careful, we run the risk of becoming mired.
The theme I focused on last week when exploring True Detective was narrative, the stories we tell ourselves to understand the world. Science is one of those stories. The concept of narrative has been around in postmodern theory for quite a while. I’m a big fan of postmodern theory even though many people, even academics, get angry with it. To me, it is a perspective steeped in a dose of much needed humility. When considering the vast scope of the universe, the inadequacy of language, and the general limitations of human beings, any stab at what we would call truth seems ultimately inconsequential. Postmodernism asks us to take a step back and rebuild our understanding of ourselves and our world without some of the longstanding assumptions that have become entrenched as part of our worldview. So when Jacques Derrida would write the word “being” as being, you could see it as coy and frustrating, and indeed there is a sense of playful subversion at work in his writing and thinking, but it’s really just saying, “Hey, listen, we actually haven’t really figured out what being is and we should respect the power of language, so let’s just identify this word/concept as incomplete and the best thing we’ve got for now.”
And here is where the problems with science arise. As Derrick Jensen puts it in his book Dreams, science is really great at making matter and energy jump through hoops, but if you held a gun to someone’s head and forced them to jump through a hoop, does that say anything about the fundamental nature of that person? Science at its best is a tool for our earthbound terrestrial existence. When thinking about what I wanted to say in this episode of my column, I walked past a construction site, and yes, there it is: the physics that allowed for the tall crane, the mechanical engineering that allowed for that dump truck, or the chemistry that allowed for cement and other materials. Life as we know it is built on the back of science. There’s no doubt about that. But where science oversteps its bounds is when it presents itself as a view of our existential context.
To me, the greatest philosophical question ever posed is, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” That is the essence of our struggle in the development of this thing we call consciousness. The answer to that question had long been the bread and butter of religious dogmas. Science sets itself as the opposition to the problem arising from the dogmatic oppression of religion, but upon closer look, it is no different. Terence McKenna once said of science, “Give us one free miracle, and we’ll explain the rest.” He was referring to the Big Bang and the massive amount of conjecture that theory rests upon. But, Cosmos is full of miracles. See, the problem with science is that it seeks to tell a definitive story of the world in which we find ourselves. That act of generating narrative is the essential act of religious dogma. Yes, we base it on the sacred concept of evidence, but what is evidence other than the world wrangled and forced to jump through the hoops of our five senses, and when it’s not those hoops directly, it’s the hoops of instruments and tools designed to interpolate data into the sensual. The real response to dogmatic narrative is to abandon the act in and of itself, to step back from the hubris of knowing and into a more humble space of sensing and approaching.
In Cosmos, we have the ironic portrayal of Giordano Bruno as the martyred figurehead on the side of science. This is hilarious because, yes, he saw the universe as science eventually came to see it, but he did this not at all by way of the methodology of science, and that is what science is,a methodology. And, when it overreaches its bounds, it betrays itself. Let’s take evolutionary development for example. The methodology of science reveals to us this strange picture that suggests that life in its many forms is simply melodies of a song sung by DNA itself. All signs point to the idea that somehow, DNA itself has an understanding of the macroscopic world we find ourselves navigating, and it expresses itself in accordance. This kind of interpretation of the data would in some ways undermine the presumptions that science has built over the course of its lifetime. Thus, when the dogma undermines the methodology, we find ourselves with an institution no less draconian and self-serving than all the rest.
I’m sure there are many out there that would pounce all over my sloppy conjecture, but my point is ultimately that much of science knocks upon the door of the mystical. Robert Anton Wilson once pointed out that mysticism itself was once considered a science as it was the ordered study and exploration of consciousness. But these days, when the mystical answers, science seems to quickly close the door.
Regardless of any of these philosophical concerns, science is utterly failing as a practical source of true morality. We are locked in a destructive paradigm chock full of industrial complexes that are keeping us from true progress, and science seems just as mired in politics and special interest as anything else. A recent study from Stanford proposed that 100 percent renewable energy is possible and affordable, now. If science wants to be our champion, then it must deliver us from evil. The world could be transformed by free and boundless energy. Tesla knew this, and we need it now more than ever.