Monday 1 September 2008

Bronowski: Enduring Optimism (2008)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVI No.2

An Appreciation of Jacob Bronowski

By Anthony James 

An article by Matthew Reisz, in Times Higher Education (23.1.2008),  about Lisa Jardine and her father Jacob Bronowski, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, gave some very welcome attention to a great intellectual who has been too often ignored in Britain since his death in 1974. Bronowski's contribution to contemporary philosophy has been particularly underrated in this country, despite the fact that his optimistic scientific humanism remains with us like a mountain in the shifting mists of intellectual fashion and taste, largely because we have never really found a tenable philosophy to replace it. However much science and scientific endeavours are misunderstood by the public, our world cannot dispense with science, and the life of society and most individual lives cannot continue without some idea of ascent, adventure and improvement, so that even politicians, pessimists and cynics have to pay lip service to these ideas.

In America, Bronowski's reputation stands much higher and his book of essays on epistemology, The Identity of Man is still in print as a volume in the Prometheus Books (New York) series of philosophical works. Here, Bronowski is quite explicit about his intentions:
'In this form, what I shall construct by way of an answer is a philosophy for modern man ... I mean a total philosophy which shows how a man thinks and feels, how he makes his values, what man is which integrates afresh the experiences which always have been and are human.'
We may now regret his gender-biased language but delight in how clearly and engagingly he writes. Throughout The Identity of Man, Bronowski is concerned with describing his radical concept of the self. Bronowski sees the essential self of each human being not as a static thing, but as a process, a process of accumulating experience arranged toward future action that is, knowledge. He shows us that both science and literature originate in the imagination; however, scientists try to minimize ambiguity when they record their findings, while literature relishes and exploits ambiguity. Further, the human capacity to produce literature and to respond to literature opens another mode of knowledge, which we do not know how to feed into any machine whose principle of operation we can now conceive. We learn from it an enlargement and a sharpening of our sympathy; we enter the contraries of the human predicament more fully. This distinction between human beings and machines seems to me a real and profound one, even in these days of advanced artificial intelligence, over forty years after Bronowski wrote these words.

Reading Bronowski as a philosopher reminds us how science is too often ignored or misunderstood in modern philosophy, though Karl Popper is among the honourable exceptions to this tendency. The idea that induction in science consists of repeated observations of a phenomenon, heaped up until a generalization can be made, often assumed, is a notion that Bronowski exposes as false. Science is not like this, scientists do not predict that the sun will rise tomorrow because they have observed it rising on many previous occasions, they try to formulate profound laws that will include and explain the rising of the sun. Every scientific experiment worth making forms part of a connected view of the world and the results of the experiment will be judged by referring to that connected view.

We may guess that Bronowski would have had little sympathy with the suggestion made by Colin McGinn recently that the way in which our physical, material brain tissue can give rise to our consciousness, our sense of self, may be something that we are simply unable to understand and are not equipped to understand. Undoubtedly, Bronowski would remind us that we do understand something about how consciousness and sentience are related to material brain tissue (although we understand very little at present) or there would be no phenothiazine tranquillizers to treat psychosis and no drugs that act on the acetylcholine and glutamate levels to treat Alzheimers disease. He would also have reminded us that science is a language for describing the world just as poetry is, but no language is free from ambiguity, therefore, we will never know with certainty how the brain works, but the scientific pursuit of truth will yield a richer, more detailed, more inclusive description of the brain in the future.

The author of The Identity of Man would have had no sympathy whatsoever with postmodern notions of relativism, so wittily dealt with by another intellectual celebrity who came to Britain from central Europe, the historian Eric Hobsbawm. This fashionable notion urges us to accept that objective reality is inaccessible to us and therefore every view of the world and every view of the past is a mental construct, one construct being as valid and as factual as another. A view of the world according to which the Holocaust never happened, Elvis Presley is still alive, and the earth is flat is no doubt real enough to those who believe in it, but as a description of reality it explains very little and excludes a great deal. Certainty is beyond us, as Bronowski kept reminding us, and every account of the world contains a fair amount of uncertainty, but it in no way follows that one account is as good as another.

In the last chapter of The Ascent of Man, Bronowski strikes an uncharacteristic note of caution and alarm. 'And I am infinitely saddened to find myself surrounded in the west by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into ... into what? Into Zen Buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, Are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery.' Today, he might add religious fundamentalism, neo-conservatism and falsely profound questions about whether objective truth is attainable to his list. The world of 2008, a hundred years after his birth would also have saddened him, but we get the sense from everything he wrote that his optimism would not have been quenched. He could be direct and brilliant in his insights in a way that might (and should) make some of the historians and political commentators of today feel ashamed. Of course, it is tempting to close ones eyes to history, and instead to speculate about the roots of war in some possible animal instinct: as if, like the tiger, we still had to kill to live, or, like the robin redbreast, to defend a nesting territory. But war, organised war, is not a human instinct. It is a highly planned and co-operative form of theft.

The Identity of Man not only sets out a radical concept of the self, but also an ethical approach to life based on science. Bronowski points out that scientists have a common duty to seek the truth, though they arrive at knowledge and never at certainty, and he also reflects that for the first time in history there is a professional body of individuals within society, doing practical and indispensable work, to set an example of integrity in seeking the truth. It is upon this example that Bronowski's ethical approach is based, as well as upon the other mode of knowledge that comes from literature and art, an equally important knowledge, an enlargement and sharpening of our sympathy. Science, and modern physics particularly, shows that there is an element of uncertainty in every description of the world, and a certain tolerance in the engineering and scientific sense of the word must be built into every scientific statement. Bronowski urges us to look to science and to literature as constant reminders of the need for tolerance in its social and ethical sense.

No loyalty is enough, no bright sense of mission, no righteous conviction that our opponents are not merely wrong but perversely wrong they really know better. A nation cannot be run that way, and the world cannot. We cannot personify states as if they were men, and have them treat their rivalries as if they were love affairs ... There is another set of virtues, which is founded on the central value of truth, and which is denied when truth is denied. But there is this disparity: that in our culture, truth does not carry the passionate assent that the intimate values do. We live by human links, and it matters more to us that others share our beliefs than that they be true. So somehow falsehood (and even deception) does not have the personal air of outrage that, say, disloyalty has; perhaps, we say, it is only an error. We are willing to treat a lie in private life as an act of kindness, and in public life as an act of policy. Written, as they were, by a man born in Poland in 1908, these words are unnervingly relevant to our world of today.

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