Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Absurd and Science

Perhaps the most beautiful and compelling of all the passages I have encountered in Camus is his critique of the insufficiency of science to resolve the problem of the absurd. It is the ultimate aim of secluarist scientists to reduce the world to a mathematical series of formulas, and they assume that such a reduction is more or less inevitable. They treat the comprehensibility of the world and their materialist philosophy as so self-evident as to defy criticism. Camus, and of course others, have rightly observed that by all objective standards, science always ultimately dissolves not into scientific formulas but into romantic verse:

And here are the trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes -how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanisms and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art. What need had I of so many efforts? The soft lines of these hills and the hand of evening on this troubled heart teach me much more. I have returned to my beginning. I realize that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world. Were I to trace its entire relief with my finger, I should not know any more. And you give me the choice between a description that is sure but that teaches me nothing and hypotheses that claim to teach me but that are not sure. A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations.

It is intriguing how Camus' despair at the inability of science to resolve the absurd is also vividly poetic. It mirrors the sentiments of Petru Dumitriu as he laments the simultaneously mathematical and incomprehensible universe. But while Camus stops with the lament that he cannot find assurance that the world is his, Dumitriu so embraces the foreignness of the world that, so far from being his, he insists that it must belong to someone else:

For nothing is simple, and the universe is mathematicable, but incomprehensible -- really incomprehensible, and really constructed according to a plan that is not a human one.

The most perfect parallel to Camus' critique of science (at least that I have found) is actually in the work of G. K. Chesterton. Writing well before the birth of absurdism, Chesterton anticipated Camus' observations about science and its inability to adequately give answers to the truly pressing questions of the world. Just as it completely failed to resolve the problem of the absurd, science was totally impotent in the face of the ultimate question: why?

In fairyland we avoid the word "law"; but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it. Thus they will call some interesting conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced the alphabet, Grimm's Law. But Grimm's Law is far less intellectual than Grimm's Fairy Tales. The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales; while the law is not a law. A law implies that we know the nature of the generalisation and enactment; not merely that we have noticed some of the effects. If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets. And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears...It is the man who talks about "a law" that he has never seen who is the mystic.

Chesterton goes on with astonishing parallels to Camus and his complaint that science inevitably collapses into poetry:

Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist. He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none. A forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together. A sentimentalist might shed tears at the smell of apple-blossom, because, by a dark association of his own, it reminded him of his boyhood. So the materialist professor (though he conceals his tears) is yet a sentimentalist, because, by a dark association of his own, apple-blossoms remind him of apples. But the cool rationalist from fairyland does not see why, in the abstract, the apple tree should not grow crimson tulips; it sometimes does in his country.

Just as with Camus, Chesterton himself slips easily into his own rhetorical poetry when speaking about the world. They admit that awed ignorance is the appropriate response to reality and recognize that even science (in its own cold, self-deluded way) will always end at the same place as everyone else: wide-eyed wonder. It certainly raises questions about the whether or not apophatic thinkers have had it right all along; the end of human knowledge is silence before God. More to the point though, this realization should work to resolve the lingering fear that has been created by the false triumphalism of science with reference to religion. Faith has nothing to fear in science because science ultimately has nothing to say to faith. It is itself just a gelid, mechanical mysticism which has had the unfortunate fate of being so convinced by its own facade that it thinks it is somehow above and apart. In truth, science offers only transient answers to transient problems. It crumbles in the face of the absurd, like all human effort.

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