Mary Midgley - Science As Salvation

Author: Midgley, Mary
Title: Science As Salvation: A Modern Myth and its Meaning
Publisher: Routledge
Year: 1992

pages 1-2:

    The idea that we can reach salvation through science is ancient and powerful. It is by no means nonsense, but it lies at present in a good deal of confusion. Its many strands - some helpful, some not - greatly need sorting. In the seventeenth century, when modern science first arose, it was an entirely natural thought. The great thinkers of that time took it for granted as central to their endeavour. Nature was God's creation, and to study it was simply one of the many ways to celebrate his glory. That celebration was understood to be the proper destiny of the soul, the meaning of human life.
    Since that time things have changed greatly. For a number of reasons, God has been pushed into the background. The conceptual maps that he once dominated go on, however, being used as if they did not need much revision. This makes trouble on many issues, and notions about the special saving power of science are among them.
    Does this language of salvation seem alarmingly strong? I use it because I want to stress throughout this book how deeply these matters affect all of us, not only scientists and not only intellectuals. Any system of thought playing the huge part that science now plays in our lives must also shape our guiding myths and colour our imaginations profoundly. It is not just a useful tool. It is also a pattern that we follow at a deep level in trying to meet our imaginative needs.
    This book is therefore not just about our attitudes to science but about those imaginative needs. It is about myth-making, not just as a private vice, but as a vital human function. The way we use science for this function is, however, today not In acknowledged academic topic. Officially speaking, academic studies don't now offer salvation at all. Their journals certainly don't expect to be used by people desperately seeking for the meaning of life, and such people could usually not read them anyway. As in the Tower of Babel, each discipline speaks only in its own tongue. There is no interdisciplinary language for discussing the relations of studies to one another, nor to the world around them. Least of all is there any such language for considering the general meaning for us of each study, the part that it plays in life.
    People who are rash enough to discuss these things must, then, use ordinary speech. However carefully they think, they tend to be classed as informal operators, expressing merely 'intuitions' (a name recently invented for views not officially stamped by any university department). This deliberate self-isolation is specially marked in the physical sciences, where it is often fatalistically supposed that serious work cannot be explained at all to outsiders. Yet there are bold and clear-headed explainers who do manage to do that hard thing.[^1] This work is surely of the first importance, since intellectual enquiries, like nation-states, always do have outside relations which can matter greatly to them. They all draw concepts, presuppositions and metaphors from outside their borders, items which can deeply affect their inner working.

[^1] I cannot embark on an Honours List here, but outstanding among them is surely Stephen Jay Gould.

  • this excerpt needs more context to be understood, but in terms of our current (2023) society-wide conversation about AI and our future, these words seem so on point.
    page 38:

The Conceptual Necessity of Drama
If examples of this insidious crypto-dramatization are wanted, the apocalyptic fantasies already mentioned might serve. But the habit is far more widespread. Thinkers like Monod himself who suppose themselves to be exposing it are as subject to it as anybody else. They are only dealing in different dramas.
The trouble is not just that they are too feeble to be properly impartial, and need more heroism to complete the job .... Nor is it that we must provide for the heroism by letting machines which don't have these distressing human weaknesses do our thinking for us.

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