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Spirit in an Age of Science Part I

By John von Heyking on Monday, Dec 29 2008

I previously considered Anthony Kronman’s discussion about the “research ideal” here and here, as well as his discussion of political correctness here and here. I have been working through his thoughtful reflection about the plight of the humanities in the modern university in his book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale University Press, 2007). He provides incisive criticisms of the “research ideal” and political correctness. His final chapter takes up “Spirit in an Age of Science,” which gets directly into the major philosophical questions concerning not only the nature of the humanities’ place in the university, but also the nature of wisdom and the predominance of the natural sciences and the experimental method in the modern age.

This chapter is somewhat of a disappointment because there he admits the natural and social sciences come closest in knocking off the humanities’ ability to satisfy humanity’s yearning for life’s meaning. Both come very close to satisfying humanity’s desire for knowledge. Thus, physics and economics are the twin queens of the sciences. However, they do not quite do the job. He praises them but sees their limitations. However, in seeing their limitations he does not provide an alternative account of how life’s meaning can be striven for, and how the humanities can be positioned to address it in light of the ambitions and limitations of the natural and social sciences.

As the ancient philosophers noted, the desire for wisdom begins with wonder. Kronman makes a useful distinction between the wonder that begins with ignorance (“wonder about”) and the wonder that accompanies knowledge (“wonder at”) (217). We might characterize the latter as delight. He claims “the natural sciences now have a near monopoly on wonder” because of their ability to explain the natural world (219). According to Kronman, we wonder not only at the world we behold, but also at our awesome ability to bring large amounts of it under our control. The modern world has come to accept Francis Bacon’s dictum that knowledge is power (214). After all, the modern experimental method creates a “controlled experience” and manipulates its objects of inquiry. Thus, the experimenter possesses special authority as one who sets up the conditions of control. As a result, for Kronman to claim the natural sciences possess a near monopoly on wonder means that wonder consists both in wondering at the natural world and in man’s power. Wonder is a form of self-love. The ancient philosophers would have disagreed. Insofar as they regarded self-love as the root of injustice, they strove mightily against this modern prejudice.

With wonder as a form of self-love, it is little wonder Kronman views technology in all-encompassing terms in a manner influenced by Martin Heidegger. Technology is man’s attempt to control his environment. It is “the ambition to eliminate every constraint that prevents us from doing as we please” (210). “All we can imagine is more technology” (209). Its ambition is to liberate human beings from fate (the same goal as constructivism, which he claims is the governing ideology of political correctness).

Perhaps the clearest expression of this ambition to overcome all constraint is the biotechnological quest to overcome death, the ultimate limitation (or fate) human beings face. Yet, it is here that Kronman rightfully identifies the self-contradictory nature of technology. Even if we could engineer human bodies not to die, it would create meaningless lives: “An immortal existence can have no purpose, in the strict sense of the word, and the longing we sometimes think we have for immortality is not a longing for life in which our purposes might finally be achieved, but an existence that is free of the burdens of purposefulness that are the mark of our humanity – for an existence that is no longer human” (232). The dream of technology would lead us into a lonely and meaningless existence not unlike that of the immortal Homeric gods who need to partake in the spectacle of the mortals so they too can participate in what is good and noble.

Thus, that Kronman can provide a critique of the emptiness of technology indicates the erroneousness of his claim that “all we can imagine is more technology.” But showing the emptiness of technology differs from providing an alternate narrative to the narrative of the dominance of the physical sciences and technology. This Kronman does not provide, but in fact he explains why the physical and social sciences have a monopoly on wonder and public explanatory power of the way the world works. Yet, their authority, however established by the “regulative ideal” of technology, seems as illusory as the ideal of technology itself.

Part II of this article is here.