Home Forums Deep Time Journey Forum Is the universe a "living system"? Reply To: Is the universe a "living system"?

Davidson Loehr



In broadest terms, I mean science curricula devoid of the humanities. It produces a lot of scientists who ignore the question of “How we should live, so that when we look back in ten or fifty years, we can be glad we lived that way.” Without including that question in any calculus of who we are and what we should be doing with our intellectual gifts, it has in places produced fundamentalist anti-fundamentalists — Richard Dawkins as the most notorious example I can think of, or H.L. Mencken from nearly a century ago. These “ultimate concerns” have long been claimed by religion, some philosophy (Kierkegaard as the chief one, Wittgenstein as another I know pretty well), the humanities, etc. But we’ve seen the humanities become an endangered species, omitted from a lot of science education because students need to have more hard sciences courses to remain competitive in finding jobs. Religion, philosophy and the humanities can’t carry our ultimate concerns any more, but sciences are pretty loathe to touch them. (Frans de Waal is a notable exception. As the world’s most influential primatologist/ethologist, he has made it his mission to reclaim the subjects of Who we are and How we should live from religions, as many of his book titles show.)


This accusation of exalting Certainty over Humanity can just as easily be leveled against religions, much philosophy, politics, etc: the attitude of Certainty is our most seductive demon (“seduction” as in “leading us astray”). Religious dogmatism & orthodoxy have done immense harm, on a greater scale than sciences (which are much newer). But the history of science is also filled with examples of a dogmatic certainty about the orthodoxy-du-jour ignoring human costs. One famous example is that of Ignatz Semmelweiss; another is the confidence doctors placed in “bleeding” patients in the 17th/18th centuries (maybe later, I don’t know).


Semmelweiss was the obstetrician who, in the mid-19th century, decided that doctors who came from performing autopsies straight to delivering babies might be carrying something — something invisible — on their hands that was contributing to the high death rate among mothers. I don’t want to look up the figures now, but think it approached 10%. He made the doctors under him scrub their hands with a chlorine bleach before delivering babies, and the death rate dropped by around 90% (as I remember it). He had LOTS of empirical evidence saying that it might at least be a good idea to scrub with a chlorine bleach. But germ theory hadn’t been invented, and scientists were certain that his ideas were spooky nonsense. My favorite quote came from a highly respect obstetrician who dismissed Semmelweiss’ idea as foolishness because “Doctors are gentlemen, and a gentleman’s hands are always clean”. Mothers under this doctor’s care continued to die at rates ten times those of Semmelweiss’ patients. That blindness is what I mean by the “orthodoxy of mechanistic/positivist sciences”. I also think of it as the terrible damage that can be and has been done by “the attitude of Certainty”.


The “bleeding” practice is well known, but I placed it with the Semmelweiss story after reading an article sometime this year about how Mozart died at age 35. He was quite ill with what sounded like bad flu-like symptoms, and was very weak. He went to a doctor who promptly bled him, a lot, to cure his illness. He died during or shortly after being bled. The doctor, I’m sure, was certain that “I had done everything I could do to save him.” Mozart was killed by the orthodoxy of late 18th century European medicine.


I framed it as orthodoxy because the attitude, and the blindness to some of the horrible effects of exalting “the way we think things are” over consideration of what’s really happening in front of our eyes — this reminded me of so many horrible chapters in the history of religion. I’d add the Tuskegee syphilis experiment that ran for forty years to the list, too. Keeping black men with syphilis alive — but untreated — so Science could find out if syphilis affected them differently from white men — which could only be determined by an autopsy — this was a horrid example of Certainty, Orthodoxy, intellectualism over empiricism.


Calling it only orthodoxy was misleading; I could have been more clear. Some of this comes from years of discussions/arguments with both religious fundamentalists and “scientistic” anti-religious fundamentalists, and the deep feeling that the arguments all felt the same: arguing against a brick wall of orthodoxy, certainty, arrogance, etc.


Hope this is more clear, and thanks for asking for clarification, Ursula.