Photo: Reuters / Brian Snyder

In 1930, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset warned that science was in grave peril. “Has any thought been given to the number of things that must remain active in men’s souls in order that there may still continue to be ‘men of science’ in real truth?” he asked.

“Is it seriously thought that as long as there are dollars there will be science?”

This apprehension did not seem to fit what was going on at the most advanced levels. For instance, Erwin Schrödinger published the equation named after him in 1926, while Warner Heisenberg announced his uncertainty principle in 1927. In 1931, Andrey Kolmogorov published his theory of probability to serve as the basis for modeling random processes.

In the same year, Kurt Gödel proved that the consistency of any mathematical system rich enough to include whole-number arithmetic (which is not much) cannot be proven by the basic principles of logic. The dream of guaranteed mathematical consistency and determinism had given way to randomness and uncertainty, which the scientists and mathematicians regarded as a breakthrough.

Outside of science, however, the situation was moving in a different direction. On January 30, 1930, the Soviet Politburo, under the control of Josef Stalin, set in motion the extermination of the kulaks. On September 14, 1930, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party received more than 6 million votes and became the second-largest political party in Germany – in a little over three years Adolf Hitler would become chancellor.

On April 14, 1931, King Alfonso XIII of Spain abdicated – in five years the Spanish Civil War would commence. And lest one forget, Benito Mussolini had been in power in Rome since 1922. It was amidst these ominous events that Ortega y Gasset questioned the future of science.

His fears were validated by the exodus of European scientists to the United States. It is worthwhile recalling some names to gauge the extent of the loss: John Von Neumann (1930), Albert Einstein (1932), Hermann Weyl (1933), Edward Teller (1935), Enrico Fermi (1938), and Kurt Gödel (1939).

In 1934, the German minister of science, education and national culture asked David Hilbert, one of the greatest mathematicians of the century: “How is mathematics in Göttingen now that it has been freed of the Jewish influence?” The 72-year-old Hilbert replied: “Mathematics in Göttingen? There is really none any more.”

The exodus of outstanding scientists from a Europe falling under the domination of National Socialism brings into focus the challenge of maintaining a civilization that sustains scientific thinking. Ortega y Gasset never specifies what must remain active in men’s souls for there to be genuine scientists, but he does make clear that the continued existence of such men is far from guaranteed. He writes:

“Experimental science is one of the most unlikely products of history. Seers, priests, warriors and shepherds have abounded in all times and places. But this fauna of experimental man apparently requires for its production a combination of circumstances more exceptional than those that engender the unicorn. Such a bare, sober fact should make us reflect on the supervolatile, evaporative character of scientific inspiration.”

The scientific revolution began in the early 17th century with Francis Bacon’s call for a unity of reason and empiricism in the concept of a designed experiment. According to Immanuel Kant: “To this single idea must the revolution be ascribed, by which, after groping in the dark for so many centuries, natural science was at length conducted into the path of certain progress.”

The desire for knowledge is infused into a young person by the culture in which he is raised, in particular, the persons of authority around him.

The scientific pioneers were knowledgeable of the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition, as well as the evolution of that tradition into European philosophic and religious thinking. In the 20th century, Einstein emphasized the importance of a historical grounding when he wrote: “A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is – in my opinion – the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”

The grounding goes beyond the philosophic, mathematical, and physical details, it goes to the formation of the scientist as a person, his thinking, his motivation and his desire for profound knowledge. These are not independent of his milieu. The desire for knowledge is infused into a young person by the culture in which he is raised, in particular, the persons of authority around him.

If, as in Aristotle’s best governed state, persons of authority extol the “realization and exercise of virtue,” with virtue being “the result of knowledge and purpose,” then one might expect desire for profound knowledge to be manifested in many souls. However, if persons in authority provide an “education” based on a childish postmodern relativism, then it is highly unlikely that men will thirst for knowledge. Indeed, such chatter breeds indifference.

A half-century ago, with ingenious experiments having revealed uncertainty and particle-wave duality in physics and massive complexity in biology, it would have appeared ludicrous to predict a rejection of the experimental method and a return to groping in the dark.

Yet this is precisely what has happened under the guise of rapidly changing buzzwords like “data mining” and “deep learning.” This groping goes on with virtually a complete absence of supporting theory and yearly expenditures in the billions of dollars.

This is the pre-Baconian world entered by a young aspiring scientist or engineer, who is taught that knowledge can be obtained without deep thought: just make up magical algorithms and run data through them – no need to learn the science and mathematics upon which our technological society has been built. Computations whose applicability and output no one rigorously understands will produce fantastic new results.

This cavalier mentality fits in perfectly with the meaninglessness instilled into youth by a superficial education. How could they possibly relate to the greatness of the past and incorporate that greatness into their own thinking?

Compare the current courses and textbooks to those of a half-century ago. A society can increase its graduates a hundredfold, but if they are less educated, they will neither solve the complex problems of today, nor understand the solutions to the problems of the past.

Ortega y Gasset recognized the historical basis of science, as well as its peculiarity to European civilization, that some set of conditions existed in a very small geographic area over a small span of time that was conducive to scientific development. With darkness descending over Europe, he commented: “Blissful the man who believes that, were Europe to disappear, the North Americans could continue science!”

Sixty years ago, Americans might have laughed and accused Ortega y Gasset of chauvinism. But then the United States was living on the direct legacy of Europe’s science, with many professors either being European or having studied under Europeans. We are now well beyond that legacy, and Ortega y Gasset may have the last laugh.

Regarding the catastrophe that befell the liberal arts in the 1960s, Allan Bloom pointed out that the university no longer believed in its higher vocation. In The Closing of the American Mind, he wrote: “The American universities in the ’60s were experiencing the same dismantling of the structure of rational inquiry as had the German universities in the ’30s.”

Why would one expect science not to suffer a similar fate? If the university no longer puts the thirst for knowledge first and foremost, then it undermines the teaching of science, mathematics and engineering. It abandons scientific inquiry and scholarship in favor of data-crunching and pleasing theories – mindless empiricism on one hand and fruitless rationalism on the other.

And what can be said of the United States’ Asian competitors? On one hand, they are doing much better in that their students are being taught substantially more mathematics than American students. Since all scientific knowledge is constituted in mathematics, the more mathematics one knows the greater is his potential for science.

On the other hand, their education systems are as woeful as those in the US when it comes to providing their students with a historical and philosophic grounding.

Their fix is easy: Teach students serious epistemology and science. The situation in the US is much more problematic: In addition to serious epistemology and science, it requires a complete retooling of mathematical education from kindergarten through university.

These are political decisions, like the decision of the National Socialists to rid Europe of many outstanding scientific minds – National Socialist dogma prevails over national security.

Closing the mind to Plato and Kant entails closing the mind to deeply appreciating Newton and Einstein. If the culture is so depleted that Plato’s dialogues, Kant’s critiques, Isaac Newton’s laws and Einstein’s theories do not quicken the pulse and fill the heart with awe, then assuredly men’s souls are too impoverished for there to continue to be “‘men of science’ in real truth.”

Look around. Do you wish to face the future without “men of science”?

Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.

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