Sunday, January 06, 2008

Book Review: A History of Knowledge

Since I was in high school, I've been interested in the history of scientific thought, perhaps because of my science fiction reading, which began in junior high. Eventually, this led to other interests, like general ("universal") history and philosophy. It has been my experience that a book will cover one of these topics, but ignore the others. For example, texts discussing the history of philosophy will ignore concurrent developments in science; while histories of scientific knowledge will give short shrift to religious truths, except to show where religious authorities punished or withheld the progress of science. Imagine my unexpected delight, then, to find A History of Knowledge by Charles Van Doren, which manages to cover most of the territory that intrigues me, and manages to give religion, philosophy, and science a fair hearing.

This History is an important book, akin to Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present. Why? Because Van Doren provides sweeping, clear descriptions of humanity's various religions and philosophies as well as insights into the implications of those knowledge systems on human behavior (i.e. Galileo believed X because of his insights into Y; meanwhile, Cardinal Bellarmine saw A because he held to belief B). This is an incredibly useful and compassionate history of thought, and is made all the more necessary given the stridency of today's scientific/religious debates on subjects born out of the Scientific Revolution, including evolution, psychology, and the Big Bang.

Doren's book probably won't lead to any compromises (despite his level-headed descriptions of religious thought, he leaves little doubt which side he's one), but his History does at least provide a means of understanding and civilized language for debate and understanding. He manages to provide a "meeting of the minds" in book form, if folks from either side of the debate are willing to sit down and read it.

Written in 1991, the History has already been overcome by events to some extent. For instance, he portrayed the 1990s as a potentially dangerous decade, yet it turned out--aside from terrorist attacks--to be almost a "vacation from history" compared to the Cold War '80s had proceeded it. He also missed the impact of the Internet completely.

His final chapter on "The Next Hundred Years" follows more or less logically from the rest of the book. He delves into the moral implications of intelligent machines and the implications of controlled eugenics in a democratic society. Oddly, this is the one of the few places in the book where he does not discuss religion and its potential impact upon or interaction with scientific truth.

One thing Van Doren makes clear is that the last 400 years of Western Civilization has been dominated by the scientific viewpoint, which is more focused upon understanding the physical world. He believes that this has led to incredible progress in our daily lives, and greatly prefers this sort of progress, but acknowledges that the moral questions of philosophy that so consumed most of human history have been neglected. Our belief in uninterrupted progress was lost in World War I, but the scientific project continues unabated. He makes few suggestions about how moral questions might be addressed in the future, save for some nods to the moralism of environmentalism (believers in the "Gaia" hypothesis) or a super-competent World State. He seems to believe, disappointingly, that humanity will either just get its act together out of pragmatism or under the threat of force. I don't believe humanity is necessarily that pragmatic or that the utility of force will cause human beings to behave better. Yet if we're left without religion or morals-based philosophies, what other restraints are left to us?

A History of Knowledge deserves to be read, and is not particularly complicated, given its lofty subject. Its examinations of religion, philosophy, and science are necessary, especially if we are to consider what sort of society we are to create out in space. Much as the scientific community would like us to take only our logical minds out into the cosmos, if we send more than machines, we are bound to need philosophy and religion as well. It would be good to know where we've been so we know where we might go in the future.

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