Thinking About Science


  • David Lorimer (ed.), Science, Consciousness and Ultimate Reality, Imprint Academic, 2004.
  • Tony Rothman, Everything's Relative and Other Fables from Science and Technology, John Wiley and Sons.
A collection of essays on the problems of consciousness, the nature of reality, and the relationship between science and religion representing several viewpoints are expressed but mainstream scientific naturalism tends to be downplayed. It would seem that the majority of the contributors are unhappy with scientific naturalism and especially with the idea that consciousness is contingent on brain activity. It is probably the psychical researchers Bernard Carr and David Fenwick who express the most traditional dualistic approaches. Curiously, Carr emerges as even more materialist than the naturalists when he argues that our perceptions exist in higher-dimensional physical space. Philosopher Mary Midgley and psychologist Stuart Claxon argue against this kind of apartheid dualism which sees the "real person" as something alien and apart from the natural world.

Several writers address the relationship between science and religion, which they invariably equate with Trinitarian Christianity, and claims that theology has access to truths that science doesn’t. The problem here is that they make claims that some mythologies (for example the Hebrew, or the Vedic in the case of some of the other contributors) contain truths that others (eg Viking, Sioux, Xhosa, Roman) don’t. Perhaps we should look on a more global basis at all the world’s traditions. For example, reviving the notion of the "undead" may help to solve a number of current medico-ethical problems. Instead of seeing the world in sharp terms of the living and the dead, we should see that there are various levels of 'undeath' between the two.

Textbook history, especially the sort used in schools, has a way of over-simplifying everything, and creating nice, neat, little stories often focusing on particular heroic individuals. The history of science and technology is no exception to this rule.

Here Rothman shows how the often very complex and difficult to discern paths of scientific discovery are reduced to convenient fairy tales of unique discovery or invention by a single charismatic individual. Thus penicillin was 'discovered' by Fleming, the electron by Thomson; Edison invented the light bulb, Bell the telephone, Morse the telegraph and Marconi radio. Eddington’s study of solar eclipses in 1919 'proved' the general theory of relativity, Young conducted a key experiment which demonstrated the wave nature of light and so on. Rothman argues that the real situations were often far more complicated.

Often the paths to inventions take place in stages, or there are rival claims; something can be discovered several times over before it enters the public historical domain. In many cases it is having the right connections and flair for publicity which leads to the attribution of a discovery, rather than who is genuinely first. Discoveries and inventions are often "in the air" and it is a matter of luck who gets there first. A nice revisionist history and excellent antidote to hero worship.

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