Science the Destroyer

by Ran Prieur

October 25, 2002

Creative Commons License
[Both sections edited December 1, 2012]

July 2011 Update

Back in 2002, I was not as careful with language as I am now, and I wrote this in a way that invites semantic misunderstanding. Now I would say something like this:

The word "science" blurs together two completely different things. One is the scientific method, which works something like this: 1) Observe -- or apply your attention to focus your experience; 2) Make a mental model to explain your observations; 3) Create a situation in which your model is tested; 4) Go to step 1. And in practice these are all sort of done at the same time.

The other thing is a set of cultural assumptions, which might be vaguely lumped together under the word "rationalist". These assumptions include: 1) Matter is more fundamental than mind. 2) We are talking about a reality that is independent of observers. 3) Observation should be from a position of detachment, rather than participation. 4) Experience that can be expressed in number and measure is more meaningful than experience that cannot be expressed in number and measure. 5) Experience that can be reproduced at will is more meaningful than experience that cannot be reproduced at will. 6) Data doesn't count until everyone can be made to see it the same way. 7) The established theory gets the benefit of the doubt.

Now, if we use the scientific method under these assumptions, we get all kinds of amazing stuff like space probes and the internet. Science under these assumptions is a powerful tool. But it's not the only tool -- it only seems like it from inside our rationalist culture. People claiming to speak for "science" often say that certain experiences are not "real", when they've just chosen to observe in a way that excludes those experiences.

Now, suppose we ignore or reverse rationalist assumptions, but still make and test mental models. I think that would lead to a different kind of "science" that is interesting and powerful in a different way.

Original 2002 Essay

What we call "science" is not neutral. It's loaded with motives and assumptions that came out of, and reinforce, the detachment, lifelessness, uniformity, and central control of industrial civilization.

Science assumes detachment. This is built into the very word "observation." To observe something is to perceive it while distancing oneself emotionally and physically, to have a one-way channel of information moving from the observed thing to the self, which is defined as not being part of that thing. This kind of relationship is supposedly not only possible, but good. In fact it's not even possible -- science refutes itself at its most advanced stages, with theoretical physicists discovering that it does not make sense to talk about "what is" independent of perspective. Detached observation is not itself an observation or a fact, but a mental habit that we have learned and can unlearn. As Stan Gooch has noticed, "experience" is a healthier word than "observation" because it does not imply detachment.

Science assumes that matter is more fundamental than mind. This bizarre idea is rare outside Western civilization. Not only is it unprovable, you yourself experience it as false: your own awareness is more fundamental than "matter," which exists only as an idea shaped out of your awareness. Science gets around this by also shaping the idea of "mind" out of your mind, and sticking this idea in a spot dependent on the idea of matter, and simply telling the giant lie that the mindfulness that sees the whole thing is a function of the idea of mind, and not the other way around. This is too deep a shift to easily explain. I've just described it intellectually, but it cannot be practiced intellectually, only by directly experiencing your awareness, your perspective, your being, as fundamental.

And what is this "matter"? By definition, it is both objectifiable and dead, just bouncing particles and waves that can be viewed from an absolute detached perspective, but that do not require for their existence any perspective or mindfulness. Matter is mindlessness, and mindlessness is deeper than mind. Again, this is not something we can see, but a basic assumption that tells us how to look.

The view of reality as not dependent on mind became easier to believe with the invention of more sophisticated machines, because these machines could be used as models. Philosophers could point to a clock and say that an atom, or a dog, or the whole universe, is like that clock, just mindlessly going through motions. But machines are not mindless or dead. They are manifestations of the mindfulness and aliveness of their human creators! And if machines are our model for matter, it follows that matter is not dead, but the manifestation of some deeper aliveness. A few contemporary scientists have noticed this, and have had to say that the universe is not like a machine after all, since a machine is based on mind. Now they say that the basis of reality is something special that we cannot prove or even really imagine -- some kind of myth of bottomless deadness.

The death-based or "mechanistic" view is a religion, the dominant religion of our time. It is far stronger than Christianity, which has totally adopted the machine model, but just tacked souls on top and personified the objectively true detached perspective as an omnipotent sky father deity, manipulating the world from a safe distance.

Both mechanistic science and mechanistic Christianity were popularized by the philosopher Rene Descartes, who really believed that the scream of a tortured dog is no different from a bell ringing on a machine. "Putting Descartes before the horse" is deservedly the most common pun in philosophy, because that's what Descartes did. "I think therefore I am" means that something cannot be aware unless, beneath that awareness, it has mindless objective existence. Also the saying narrows existence and awareness to the egocentric forms of "I am" and "I think." Most other cultures have it the other way around: nothing exists unless it exists as part of some awareness.

Of course a man doesn't get the urge to deny the pain of a weaker creature out of nowhere. We were massacring villages and cutting down forests to build insane social monoliths of disempowerment for thousands of years before Descartes. His thinking was not a cause of civilization, but an intensification, an intellectual sanctioning of what was already happening. It makes it a lot easier to turn everything alive into something dead, to turn forests and people into resources and capital, if you believe everything was dead in the first place.

Science makes everything dead not only by declaration, but by method. Science deals only with the quantitative. It does not admit values or emotions or the way the air smells when it's starting to rain -- or if it deals with these things, it does so by transforming them into numbers, by turning your oneness with the smell of the rain into your abstract preoccupation with the chemical formula for ozone, by turning the way it makes you feel into the intellectual idea that emotions are only an illusion of firing neurons.

Number itself is not truth but a chosen style of thinking. If you see three apples, you are temporarily avoiding the perspective that sees this apple and this apple and this apple. Once we think this way we are on the path to the famous quote: "One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic." Or consider money: Every dollar bill ever made is different. But inside a computerized account, or even in a sum on paper, every dollar is exactly the same, because you're in a fantasy sub-world where it's defined that way.

Defenders of science will say that of course science deals with the quantifiable. If it didn't, it wouldn't be science. And that's my point: We have chosen a habit of mind that focuses our attention down into a simulation of reality, where nothing has quality or awareness or life of its own. We have chosen to transform the living into the dead. Science denies emotion but it is not itself unemotional. Emotional detachment is an emotion. Denial of subjectivity is an emotional act. Turning wild messy life into cold still numbers is not an intellectual choice but an emotional choice that people make because of how it feels.

Careful-thinking scientists will admit that what they study is a narrow simulation of the complex real world, but few of them notice that this narrow focus has become a foundation for technological and economic and political systems that work together to narrow our consciousness. And we are not just limited to numbers -- we are further limited to numbers that are reproducible, predictable, and the same for all observers.

A factory predictably makes one million alarm clocks that all look the same and all predictably go off at the time they're set for, so that one million people will predictably get to their jobs just when their employers expect them -- where they're likely to work with machines that, like the alarm clocks, are standardized, so that any laborer can use any machine, and one person is the same as another. States of consciousness that cannot be reliably dispensed are classified as insane and excluded. Anomalous experience, anomalous ideas, and anomalous people are cast off or destroyed like imperfectly-shapen machine components.

Does all this necessarily follow from science? Could we have a system of knowledge based on predictability that produced a culture of chaos and surprise? If we did, it would be through resistance to that predictability and not through obedience to it. But our culture has never wanted surprise anyway.

Science is only a manifestation and locking in of an urge for control that we've had at least since we started farming fields and fencing animals instead of surfing the less predictable world of wild nature. And from that time to now, this urge has driven every decision about what counts as progress. In a little known fork in the road of natural philosophy, Goethe experimented with optics in a different way than Newton: where Newton shined lights through prisms, producing projected spectra for detached observation, Goethe had people look through prisms, and developed these experiments into a model of reality that was deeply different from Newton's but equally verifiable and self-consistent. No one knows what strange technological path this theory might have led us to, because it was ignored in favor of Newton's theory, which was more compatible with objectification.

If you find it hard to believe that the universe has room for divergent experimentally confirmable "truths," then it's because you have been raised inside what William Blake called "single vision and Newton's sleep." In an even less known fork in the road of pre-science, Medieval alchemical literature reports that some alchemists actually succeeded in creating gold. Of course we can tell ourselves that they were lying, but maybe in 500 years our descendants will say we were lying about splitting the atom or building flying machines, or they will say it was all metaphor. Maybe it is.

My point is, we can look through any filter we want. Instead of focusing toward what's most predictable, repeatable, quantifiable, detachedly observable, we can focus toward what's most fun, most beautiful, most magical, most alive. And we can turn this focus -- as we did with science -- into a self-reinforcing system of thought and action, a culture, a society, a sustained wonderful reality. Why did we ever do anything else?