Let’s expand a point made in the post Blish & Spengler On The End Science. Both Blish, in his summary of Spengler, and Spengler himself, said that West Civilization (in Spengler’s definition) had entered its Winter, a time after all the best ideas are used up and intellects are smoking only butts. Not all ideas: the best, the core.
Not everybody agrees, as you can expect. We’ll start by looking at criticisms, and at another date dig more into Spengler’s specific reasons. One critic is Susan Haack in Defending Science Within Reason (2007) says:
“That which physics—which exists only in the waking consciousness of the Culture-man—thinks it finds in its methods and its results was already there, underlying, and implicit in, the choice and manner of its search,” Spengler avers; the formulae of physics are physics are meaningless until they are interpreted, and their interpretation can only be an expression of cultural presuppositions. The “facts” which the scientist imagines are really thus and so are the creation of his own culturally conditioned subjectivity. “Polarized light-rays, errant ions, flying and colliding gas-particles, magnetic fields, electric current and waves—are they not one and all Faustian visions,” Spengler asks, “closely akin to Romanesque ornamentation, the upthrust of Gothic architecture, the Viking’s voyaging into unknown seas, the longings of Columbus and Copernicus?”
So the profoundest history of science tracks, not its theoretical results, but its symbolism, its style, as it shifts and changes through the inherent historical necessity…With the “ruthlessly cynical” theory of relativity, Spengler though, and with the concept of entropy, the “symbol of decline,” physics was drawing near to the limit of its possibilities. Its “mission as a historical phenomenon has been to transform the Faustian Nature-feeling into an intellectual knowledge, the faith-forms of springtime into the machine-forms of exact science”; but “[f]rom out standpoint of today, the gently sloping route of decline is clearly visible.”
Haack quotes historical notables predicting the end of science in the manner of how important people at the start of the computer revolution said nobody would need more than forty bytes of memory, or whatever. She is right to do this. It is always well to remind ourselves how difficult prediction is. But we should remember it goes both ways.
She tells us of a goofy new age hippy conference which announced “THE END OF SCIENCE”. This was conducted by one of those ways-of-knowing groups, people who argue that Western science is only one way of knowing how the world works. Which, of course, is true. These groups also make Spengler’s point that activities like science take place inside a Civilization, and are therefore bound and constrained in certain ways.
These groups go too far and intimate that other “ways of knowing” are therefore—this is their fallacy—equal to, as Spengler says, Faustian man’s way. This is false on its face, for if they were equal, then there would be no differences worth arguing about.
Ways-of-knowing are not equal: they are different by definition and therefore have different value. Haack’s mistake is to shrug off Spengler’s claim that Faustian Man’s Way is used up lest she is forced, she thinks, to surrender to ways-of-knowing silly claims of equality. Her fear is not unjustified. That faux equality is responsible for preposterosities like claiming solutions to mathematical equations should be based on feelings because “racism”—the great idiocy of our age.
It is then she makes her mistake, as many do, that because there has been so much progress, and many guessed wrong about its end, that therefore “progress” is inevitable. It is a natural enough mistake, too, since for those born before, say, the year of our Lord 2000, progress was the pattern, and for at least a century. The progress now is in output: never has there been so much science. But, as regular readers have seen, most of it is bad or of little use. (A claim which I’ll back up again and again.)
Haack allows that “In art, music, and literature, as in science, traditions grow up and develop, later generations build on the work of previous generations, and so on. But art, music, and…literature are not, like the sciences, kinds of inquiry; and are not cumulative in the special, epistemological sense that science it.”
This is quite wrong. Art, for instance, certainly says something about the Way Things Are, but it does not express its discoveries in math as science does. And to say science is cumulative, and art is not, is to assume a large part of the argument. Cumulation, if you will, also goes both ways. Hoarders accumulate junk. The greater the pile the worse the situation.
Spengler would agree that science, and art, accumulate up to a point, a point at which the ideas which gave rise to their movements are exhausted. We accept this easily in music. I joked in my conversation with Scott Turner that polka, which we can still and do enjoy (as we saw), has exhausted its limits. There will be no new, new in essence, polka. Nobody disputes that. But some dispute the same kind of thing can happen in science.
Yet, after exorcising the words “historical necessity” in the quoted passage, since it implies we had to make the specific discoveries we did, Spengler’s remarks strike me as true, and even obviously true. You can only go so far with any idea. The question, which I think is answered by looking out the window, is have our ideas been exhausted?
About Spengler’s specific reasons why he foresaw the exhaustion of science, such as his critique of entropy and the abandonment of cause in quantum mechanics and the rise of (sad!) probability and statistics, we’ll discuss at another time, as I said.
What rankles the Whig in Haack, and in all of us, though, is the thought that we can’t break free, that our decline is inevitable. But Spengler does not say this is impossible. In the first volume of The Decline of the West Spengler writes (p. 60):
There are doubtless certain characters of very wide-ranging validity which are (seemingly at any rate) independent of the Culture and century to which the cognizing individual may belong, but along with these there is a quite particular necessity of form which underlies all his thought as axiomatic and to which he is subject by virtue of belonging to his own Culture and no other.
More to come.
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