Saturday, 18 September 2010

Science as a religion - a personal view

For a long time, science was my religion; in the sense that it supplied a major part of the meaning and motivation for living.

This life in science reached its peak between early 1994, when I seriously began to engage with evolutionary theory, and tapered-off in the early 2000s after I had published my 'magnum opus' - Psychiatry and the Human Condition.

But how does this work? How can science (sort of, for a while) provide someone's life with significant meaning and motivation?

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The hope was for salvation by doing creative work in science. At one level it was losing myself in the flux of learning, thinking, discussing, doing and writing science.

I would have problems which I would work on, think about, read about - for days, weeks, months even years. It was absorbing.

And then there was the business of checking, clarifying, communicating any discoveries. Again absorbing.

The importance of this was (somehow) self-evident.

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Part of the support for this life came came from a faith that if I did good work it would be noticed, would be recognized, would make a difference. My job was therefore merely to do good work; my belief was that the mysterious (magical) system of science would ensure that any good work (whether done by me now, or done anywhere by anybody) would sooner or later rise to the top. And that the creator's identity (e.g. my name) would still be attached to the work, as it were, when it rose to the top - so I would get credit for it (at least among the people who mattered).

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For me science was a poetic activity, it produced similar effects on my mind as did poetry; and I felt that the kind of scientist that I was (i.e. mainly theoretical, not much in the way of experiments or empirical study) was akin to a poet, and worked by instinct as well as logic.

Often, ideas and answers came to me in a trance like state, in solitude, early in the morning, in coffee shops, walking through town or across fields...

Seldom in my office!

It was pleasing to see that science had its irrational, unpredictable side - just like poetry.

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However, there was also a tremendous amount of daydreaming and loose fantasizing about *success*, of high scientific status, prizes and awards, fame among those I most respected.

This was based on the optimistic hope that good work in science would not just be its own reward; but would lead on to deserved independence, fame, security, and better conditions for further success.

The importance of this shallow egotism and childish wishful thinking as a motivator to work was not fully apparent, not really recognized by me, until after it began to sink in that this type of success was *not* going to come; and that - even when I thought I had done some really good work - it almost certainly never was going to be noticed or recognized, and that in fact much better work than mine often was not noticed or recognized, ever.

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The religion of science is thus a version or sub-type of the religion of creativity - more often associated with the arts, with poetry, painting and classical music - which has been around since the romantic era.

This phenomenon is analyzed and critiqued very well in a book called The Re-enchantment of the World by Gordon Graham.

But the religion of science has certain advantages over the arts. Science has been (until quite recently - during my lifetime) apparently thriving, whereas the high arts have been declining for about a century. Science has a legitimate, necessary, social dimension - which makes its practice intrinsically less lonely than that of (say) a poet or novelist.

Also science is (or can be) abstract - which is very appealing for someone of my sort. To work among the abstractions of science is to be distracted from the intractable aspects of worldly life in a way which does not seem like escape or evasion - although arguably it is exactly that.

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Someone like Einstein really did seem to live his life *inside* science, inside the subject, inside the abstract world of meaning and truth.

Science therefore is - or was, or can be, for some people - a Glass Bead Game of high endeavor which (for a while) yet claimed to carry relevance with its abstraction - and this general claim was generally conceded on the basis that any science *might* turn-out to be relevant and important - it was hard to exclude this possibility at any rate.

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But there always was a problem. And that is the way that science destroys its past. Science is not the history of science, and the names and identities of scientists are nearly always discarded along with their contributions. Current eminence entails the dissolution of past eminence.

Scientists are merely a means to the end of science - which negates the meaningfulness of participating in the process of science.

In the end, to be lost in the flux of doing science is a kind of unconsciousness, a kind of intoxication, a sub-human state.

While, on the other hand, the daydreaming about acclamation is nothing to do with science at all, but merely a specific example of the general, evolved drive for high status.

And taking pleasure in doing science, in a system which does not actually recognize or respond to one's work and is indifferent to persons and to psychology, is actually a powerful inducement to pride; even to a kind of delusional pride in which motivation and meaning are sustained by believing the reality of one's own wishful thinking fantasies.

So my life in science tended towards a very typical modern combination of self-gratifying pride and distraction: the progressive construction of ever-more armour-plated solipsistic arrogance being characteristic of the times of reflection, oscillating with a dreamlike loss of awareness in times of action when I became absorbed in the 'flow state' of working.

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When freed from the delusional thinking sustained by conceit and ignoring the potentially pleasurable and absorbing but unmeaning distraction of working inside an abstract system; it may be seen that a life in science does not generate sufficient meaning or purpose, and its motivations (although sublimated) are base.