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The Two Cultures: a Sequel, Lest we Reinvent the Wheel The Two Cultures: a Sequel, Lest we Reinvent the Wheel
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-01-21 10:41:53
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“Why is there Something rather than Nothing?”
                                                                                              --Martin Heidegger

       ‘Materialism and morality have an inverse relationship – when one increases the other decreases.’
                                                                                              --Mahatma Gandhi

In November 1956, a month after C. P. Snow published his essay on The Two Cultures (already considered in a previous article), the American novelist and professor of biochemistry Isaac Asimov completed his short story “The Last Question” which centers on the pressing reality of universal entropy: endgame of the Second Law of Thermodynamic which can easily be interpreted to mean that the universe is doomed and is journeying toward its own final demise.  In this story we are treated to this intriguing scenario: as humanity merges with the technology it has itself created and idolizes it, each generation asks this crucial question “How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?” only to receive the scientific answer, “There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer”

Of course there is a more crucial question which is the one posed by Heidegger in his Being and Time as stated above: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” but scientists who seem more interested in the how we keep the game going, do not show the same enthusiasm for the why the universe exists in the first place.

But to continue with Asimov’s story, after mankind has disappeared, the sum mental potential of its mental processes lives on in AC, a supercomputer which continues to “think” while the stars crumble, planets cool, and space and time simply cease to exist. Eons have passed, and AC has finally discovered how to reverse the direction of entropy. But there is nobody to tell, mankind and the universe being long dead. No matter. “Let there be light!” AC says, “And there was light.” This is quite a story to reflect upon. What is Asimov trying to tell us as a scientist as he ponders on the future of the universe?

I think that the real message of the story is not that there are deterministic laws at work in the universe, nor that man is an insignificant late comer to the cosmic drama. No, the real message is that when scientists attempt to give final meaningful answers such as the meaning of the universe, they invariably prove that they are still in Plato’s famous cave, and what they allege to be light or the sun is really is a secondary man-made light, the fire in the cave, or science which supposedly has all the answers that philosophy has failed to deliver. What is most shocking in the Asimov story is that at the end AC begins to hubristically think of itself as a god of sorts and and thinks that he can reinvent the wheel of creation. This is Nietzsche’s eternal return in a nihilistic universe without meaning and purpose.

I would modestly propose that it is a great self-deception on the part of man to think that one can escape the box of scientism and logical positivism, with which we are imbued up to our eyes nowadays, by using as a research tool science and logical positivism. One will remain stuck in that box, just at the chained slaves in Plato’s cave remain stuck in the cave looking at appearances and shadows projected on the wall by the light of fire (a secondary light) and assuming them to be reality, as long as they are unable to cut their chains and leave the cave and see the true light of the sun.

I suppose another way to stage the problematic is this question: does human kind have an Archimedean lever by which to escape the constraints of time and space and determine where the universe came from and where it may ultimately be headed? Do those spiritual books, such as the Bible, that ask the right questions and hint at a plausible answer, to be deemed mere myths and fables, a crude unscientific uncivilized attempt to explain imaginatively what one cannot explain rationally and scientifically? I surmise that most atheists would answer with a yes without being able to satisfactorily explain how order can come out of chaos and how the universe can make and then destroy itself, never mind the why which remains a more important question than how in man’s search for meaning.

On a more practical level, there are a plethora of long and impressive scientific papers, complete with hundreds of academic footnotes and bibliographical information which presume to give the “scientific” answer to certain political social problems. We have seen some of those in Ovi magazine, but I suppose we can go all the way back to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in this regard.

These treatises encourage a rather skeptical attitude on just about any social phenomenon, especially religion considered retrograde and obscurantist, except for one: it own positivistic assumptions and methodology. Those are never challenged or looked at. To the question “What exactly does your science consists of?” the forthcoming answer is usually logical positivism, contemptuous of intuition, mythology, the poetical, the visionary, the interpretative (especially of history) and concerned with how to make human life materially more prosperous and comfortable; for in a materialistic universe by bread alone does man live. This shabby cultural phenomenon which has trivialized everything that a used to be called culture and has reduced us to consuming automatons, can be observed everywhere in and out of academia. We are indeed back to the two cultures of C.P. Snow and the warnings of Matthew Arnold.

Recall if you will that Snow attempts to narrate the decadence of Britain as due to the fact that scientists and philosophers do not talk to each other. In his famous essay he compares Britain with Venice in its decadence: "Like us, the Venetians had once been fabulously lucky. They had become rich, as we did, by accident… They knew, just as clearly as we know, that the current of history had begun to flow against them. Many of them gave their minds to working out ways to keep going. It would have meant breaking the pattern into which they had crystallized. They were fond of the pattern, just as we are fond of ours. They never found the will to break it." And here Snow while having a valid insight fails to properly formulate it, as Vico does with the history of the Romans. The insight is this: one cannot get out of the box of positivism by using positivism which is what he was doing as a scientist, albeit he also fancied himself a novelist which he was not; at best he was a mediocre novelist.

What Snow needed to do but fails to do is to challenge the basic positivist scientific assumption  he utilized in analyzing the two cultures. So, predictably he ends up with the wrong-headed solution which is fairly Baconian: knowledge is power and power controls the world and now let us proceed to identify who the villains who control the world might be. That is a world apart from the Socratic Aristotelian “knowledge is virtue.” It is however quite close to the social Darwinism of an Ayn Rand and her “virtue of selfishness.”

There is another work worth mentioning here which attempts to analyze the roots causes of so much inequality and injustice in the world. It is The Money Masters – a 1996 documentary film produced by attorney Patrick S. J. Carmack and directed and narrated by William T. Still. It discusses the concepts of money, debt and taxes, and describes their development from biblical times onward. It covers the history of fractional-reserve banking, central banking, monetary policy, the bond market, and the Federal Reserve System in the United States. The film, which is widely available online, was followed by The Secret of Oz in 2009. These documentaries, not unlike C.P. Snow’s inquiry into the two cultures need to be viewed and pondered carefully since it too may lead to some fruitful dialogues and insights into the birth and decay of advanced powerful cultures which go astray and end up losing their very soul. But this obtains only as long as one’s interlocutor is willing to examine his/her research assumptions. We ought to read those works, if for no other reason than avoiding the danger of reinventing the wheel and then fool shingly proclaiming that we have made a great new discovery. We ought to be careful in choosing and formulating the themes of our cultural proposals lest they reveal not visions and dreams but prejudices and biases. In academia those questions are called “loaded questions,” they already have an answer in mind before the question is even asked.

Which is all to say I suppose, that C.P. Snow’s and William Still’s inquiries while important as far as they go, unfortunately do not go far enough. If they really intended to carry on a fruitful dialogue with the second culture and perhaps create a third synthesis of science and liberal arts, a third culture so to speak, they would have needed to find the courage and the vision to boldly go beyond the analysis of mere economic-political phenomena such as bankers, bureaucracies, unions, media, industrial commercial entrepreneurship, multinational corporations, “bully capitalism,” big business, environmental degradation, government control, federal reserve policy, bond market, central banking and so on, you name it, ad nauseam.

They would have had to go beyond the mere proposal of reforms, as if everything else is otherwise ok with the global village in which we now live. They would have had to propose a dream and a vision within spiritual realities now considered retrograde and passé, beyond materialistic national xenophobic narratives; they would have had to propose what Silone calls “the conspiracy of hope” beyond mere ideologies. They would have had to challenge first and foremost the basic fallacious tenet that “economic growth” based on social Darwinism and ceaseless consumerism, or what we call savage capitalism, is always desirable and leads to individual and social happiness (understood in a materialistic sordid way rather than the Aristotelian eudaimonia), always preferable to socialism or other forms of governance. So their works begin to sound as mere anti-communist propaganda for capitalism and entrepreneurship.

Moreover, what they should have paused upon is the catastrophe of having two cultures replete with very intelligent people who have not found a creative positive way to talk to each other. There is indeed a moral in such a tale which may well apply to all those who are out to reform the world and perhaps even change it, but then obtusely refuse to examine their supposedly “enlightened” assumptions which support their critique. Be that as it may, hope springs eternal and one may continue hoping for Silone’s conspiracy of hope. What did Socrates say? “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

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Emanuel Paparella2013-01-21 21:24:08
Errata: a follow-up by way of a correction, if I may: in the eight line of the first paragraph of the above article there is a rather glaring typographical mistake: “date” should be read as “data.” I regret the oversight which is mine and mine alone.

The Ovi Team2013-01-21 23:57:44

Emanuel Paparella2013-01-22 00:02:58
Thanks a lot Ovi team. You are the best!

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