Does Admitting Spengler’s End Of Science Mean We Have To Accept Ways Of Knowing?

Does Admitting Spengler’s End Of Science Mean We Have To Accept Ways Of Knowing?

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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  1. JerryR

    There is one truth.

    Science is one way of knowing that truth but not the only one. Logic is another. Usually they go together but not always.

    There is always new things to know of the Truth and some can be provided by logic alone. There are probably some parts of the Truth that are not attainable.

    If Western Civilization is at an end, it’s because it has abandoned the Truth as an objective. Nothing to do with science but mainly abandonment of logic.

  2. Carlos Julio Casanova Guerra

    I don’t know Spengler, the only things I’ve read by him is the passages you quote here, so, this will be an adventure, but I’ll dare.

    He seems to be a constructivist and a cultural relativist. Maybe, he underpins his constructivism in “scientific revolutions”. So, the problem is a bad understanding of what science is. Of course, nowadays, this misunderstanding is prevalent and many people believe Poincaré-Lorents-Einstein and Mincowski-Macht-Riemman-Einstein, I mean both relativities are reality and not a mathematical model.

    After Galileo, Descartes and Kant, they lost a very important distinction that was common knowledge before. I quote Saint Thomas (S. Th. I, q. 32, a. 1, ad 1, in the New Advent page): “Reply to Objection 2. Reason may be employed in two ways to establish a point: firstly, for the purpose of furnishing sufficient proof of some principle, as in natural science, where sufficient proof can be brought to show that the movement of the heavens is always of uniform velocity. Reason is employed in another way, not as furnishing a sufficient proof of a principle, but as confirming an already established principle, by showing the congruity of its results, as in astronomy the theory of eccentrics and epicycles is considered as established [Ptolemy], because thereby the sensible appearances of the heavenly movements can be explained; not, however, as if this proof were sufficient, forasmuch as some other theory might explain them”. There are TWO PHYSICS, one that is hard science, I mean, proven science, knowledge, “empireo-descrptive”/experimental; and another that is hypothetical-mathematical, models, like relativity. This one is not knowledge, strictu sensu, but classification, approximation. Is it meaningless? Obviously not, it gives order, it makes it possible to make predictions and, therefore, devise new experiments, etc. The prediction power is evidence of its importance and usefulness, its capacity. But, since it is just a good construct, it can be abandoned. But it’s not like because it’s garbage,
    but because there are better constructs than others, constructs that encompass more phenomena, that are more predictive and so on.

    Finally, is the Western civilization in a great crisis, of which there seems to be no way out? Well, of course, just see the trans BS and consider that they are producing “science” in order to justify it. You could say a lot more, but… there, I rest my case… that and the confusion about the two parts of physics, the lack of distinction between a science and a science, the belief that science underpins itself, the belief that science is racism, and a long, deep, wide and tall ETCETERA….

  3. Thank you for this thought provoking essay. Most enjoyable.
    I believe that the important science, music, literature may well come from those who are educated with a truly Christian outlook in the next generation, where objective truth is allowed to exist.
    It took me years to shake off the presuppositions that were educated into me as a child and teenager – CS Lewis and Chesterton were a great help, and getting to know the Bible.

  4. NLR

    On the face of it, science and ways of knowing would seem to be at odds with each other and yet people who think we’re all just machines and people who think science is racist may not always get along, but they are much friendlier to each other than either is to anything from before 1914. So, there has to be something else going on.

    “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?”

    This is a good point. One reason why people think a particular path of discovery and invention is inevitable is because it’s easy to look back and see how each new development built on what had come before. And you can examine the progression in detail. But we can’t see more than a few steps ahead and certainly not in great detail. The consequences of any major development in science or technology involve many steps, both expected and unexpected and small and big.

    So, I would say that the possibilities of development are much larger than people think, but it is hard to know what they are ahead of time. Also, once you start going down a particular path, it’s a lot harder to get off it, because everything that has come before is influencing you in a particular direction.

    Back in the day, say in the ancient world, science moved much more slowly. The current situation of rapid development is very unusual from a historical perspective and there’s no reason to believe that it will continue indefinitely or will continue in the same way. That doesn’t mean the end of science, just the end of a particular kind of science or the exhaustion of a particular set of ideas. So then, what we need are new ideas, but that’s much easier said than done.

  5. since there is no authentic list of ideas that have entered sciences, there is also no person who can claim the end of the non-existent list.
    P.S. the previous does not suppose the list must be constant 😉

  6. Bob Kurland

    Thanks, Matt for a fine article. As a retired physicist, and someone who has studied the history of science, I have my own ideas about whether science, as it is regarded nowadays, is at an end. One principle that might be added is teleology. I’m not sure how one might test that this principle should be operative, but that’s a whole another can of worms. Let me add that some new ideas are being introduced in the interpretation of quantum mechanics. Koons, Kastner, Epperson and others are bringing Aristotlean/Thomistic concepts to explain what might be called quantum mysteries. I’m still on a steep learning curve trying to understand what they’re saying.

  7. John Adams called it a long time ago, substitute pretty much any field of human endeavour for constitution as appropriate:

    “While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation while it is practicing iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candor, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world; because we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” (FROM TO THE OFFICERS OF THE FIRST BRIGADE OF THE THIRD DIVISION OF THE MILITIA OF MASSACHUSETTS, 11 October, 1798)

  8. pouncer

    It may be true that scientific lines of development begin, progress, and come to a end. If so, that says little about new discoveries and new lines of inquiry.

    The scientists of the 19th century were quite proud of establishing the conservation laws of matter, and energy. Nothing can be created, nothing can be destroyed. All change is merely rearranging the things in the situation. And so, Lord Kelvin assured all the world, the sun was aglow from the impact of meteors, and the age of the sun — and so the Earth — could be established within a range certain, within a few million years. (Kelvin dismissed geologists who made wild claims about fossils. No WAY the Earth supported life a billion or more years ago!) Perpetual motion machines, heavier-than-air transportation, rockets in space with nothing to push against… These were just a few of the examples of crazy and speculative nonsense that violated the LAWS OF NATURE and must be dismissed by all intelligent people.

    Then came Henri Becquerel. Marie Curie. Ernest Rutherford. And “something from nothing” energy, even if only weak light, with, apparently, no source, no loss, no whatever it might be to be conserved. A whole new line of inquiry, with consequences still to be determined.

    And yet, we know only 4 sorts of nuclear activity. One is “natural radioactive decay” — with no understanding of the cause, and the assumption that decay rates are immutable. We know of a second event, fission, where a large nucleus can be split by whacking it with a hammer and chisel. Or something like that. We are aware of a third, fusion, where two little nuclei can be married, made one flesh, and begat little baby alpha particles. And we know particle addition.
    Whack a nucleus with a neutron or proton, and see if it decays (see method 1) And that’s it. Unlike the chemistry of electrons, with a periodic table of over 100 possible elements and a seemingly infinite number of methods of splitting and combining chemicals, we know of no good way to bring mid-sized nuclear particles into some kind proximity and react with one another in predictable and useful fashion. But — is it even possible? “Cold Fusion”? “Lukewarm Fission” Are there nuclear catalysts, staged sequences, anomalies that might add to our 4 item process list? Are you CERTAIN that there are not, and never can be? And if so, are you smarter than Lord Kelvin?

    That’s only one field of “hard” physics. What about oceanography? Information theory? Topology?

    It seems to me that doorways into new fields of inquiry exist in many, nearly infant, disciplines. And so it seems to me the heights of hubris to assume and assert that all door have already been opened and all the halls in the labyrinth already explored.

  9. James Daniel

    To even talk about “The End of Science” is thumb-sucking nonsense at its core. Let us say by some miraculous means that we prove that we’re at the end of science, or alternatively prove that we are not at the end of science. Either way, we will have learned absolutely nothing about anything. The answer to the question tells us nothing about the real world, it is only a reflection of one’s attitude towards the world – the same way that talking about “The Science” reflects one’s attitude towards the world and one’s complete misunderstanding of science.

    That said, I would agree that we have apparently run out of the low-hanging fruit of the scientific revolutions of the 20th century, so it can seem like all the “good science” is over, or at least approaching diminishing returns. Except that’s where science was prior to the 20th century, running into very different diminishing returns. As the saying goes, “If it were easy, someone would have already done it.”

    No one knows what the future holds for science, and it’s absurd to think that it’s possible to know, never mind absurd to ask the question. The whole point of the scientific process is to continually test our understanding of the world and look for flaws in that understanding. That process embodies the assumption that we don’t know what those flaws are and have no way to predict them, which in turn implies that actual science never ends. It’s pretty simple to understand once you replace the dang capital “S” with the lower-case “s”.

  10. C-Marie

    Wow, John Pate!! How wholly correct John Adams was. It comes across as the Holy Spirit’s leading and guiding in his speech!! Thank you so very, very much!! That is where our country is now, and the only way out is through genuine repentance to the Living God.
    God bless, C-Marie

  11. Andras Kuthi

    In another chapter Oswald Spengler continues:

    “…When reason have to be put forward at all in a question of life, life itself has become questionable. At that point begins prudent limitation of the number of births. The primary woman, the peasant woman, is mother. The whole vocation towards which she has yearned from childhood is included in that one word. But now emerges the Ibsen woman, the comrade, the heroine of a whole megalopolitan literature from Northern drama to Parisian novel. Instead of children, she has soul-conflicts; marriage is a craft-art for the achievement of “mutual understanding.” It is all the same whether the case against children is the American lady’s who would not miss a season for anything, or the Parisienne’s who fears that her lover would leave her, or an Ibsen heroine’s who “belongs to herself” – they all belong to themselves and they are all unfruitful…

    At this level all Civilizations enter upon a stage, which last for centuries, of appalling depopulation. The whole pyramid of cultural man vanishes. It crumbles from the summit, first the world-cities, then the provincial forms and finally the land itself, whose best blood has incontinently poured into the towns, merely to bolster them up awhile. At the last, only the primitive blood remains, alive, but robbed of its strongest and most promising elements…

    Consequently we find everywhere in these Civilizations that the provincial cities at an early stage, and the giant cities in turn at the end of the evolution, stand empty, harbouring in their stone masses a small population of fellaheen who shelter in them as the men of the Stone Age sheltered in caves and pile-dwellings. Samarra was abandoned by the tenth century; Pataliputra, Asoka’s capital, was an immense and completely uninhabited waste of houses when the Chinese traveller Hsuan Tsang visited it about A.D. 635, and many of the great Maya cities must have been in that condition even in Cortez’s time. In a long series of Classical writers from Polybius onward we read of old, renowned cities in which the streets have become lines of empty, crumbling shells, where the cattle browse in forum and gymnasium, and the Amphitheatre is a sown field, dotted with emergent statues and hermae. Rome had in the fifth century of our era the population of a village, but its Imperial palaces were still habitable.”

    Although I have a catholic viewpoint on world-history and identify with the “fellaheen” of Spengler, his words are wise and prophetic beyond belief.

  12. Andras @Kuthi, if it is science, then it can be discovered again (through Novelty Search) while waiting for the harvest [yield] that [waiting] makes everyone suffer from boredom [again] … for other disciplines I am less sure about …

  13. Andras Kuthi

    Maybe the following is more to the point about science, or at least its practical brother engineering:

    Ducunt Fata volentem, nolentem trahunt!

    “…Not merely the importance but the very existence of industry depends upon the existence of the hundred thousand talented, rigorously schooled brains that command the technique and develop it onward and onward. The quiet engineer it is who is the machine’s master and destiny. His thought is as possibility what the machine is as actuality. There have been fears, thoroughly materialistic fears, of the exhaustion of the coal-fields. But so long as there are worthy technical path-finders, dangers of this sort have no existence. When, and only when, the crop of recruits for this army fails – this army whose thought-work forms one inward unit with the work of the machine – the industry must flicker out in spite of all that managerial energy and the workers can-do. Suppose that, in future generations, the most gifted minds were to find their soul’s health more important than all the powers of this world; suppose that, under the influence of the metaphysic and mysticism that is taking the place of rationalism today, the very elite of intellect that is now concerned with the machine comes to be overpowered by a growing sense of its Satanism (it is the step from Roger Bacon to Bernard of Clairvaux) – then nothing can hinder the end of this great drama that has been a play of intellects, with hands as mere auxiliaries.”

    Again, Spengler is really prophetic.

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