The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:
A Debate on the Value of Science

Edward Carpenter.
(Photograph by Fred Holland Day.)


Difficult though it may be to imagine today, many leading intellectuals of the waning Nineteenth Century believed that the Age of Science had already reached its end. By this they meant not (as a few classical physicists claimed) that all the important discoveries had already been made; rather, they viewed science itself as a discredited Nineteenth Century creed, due to be replaced.

Such was the view of the philosopher and anarchist Edward Carpenter, one of the Twentieth Century's forgotten founders. Carpenter, a renegade Anglican priest who ostensibly dropped out of polite society to live as a peasant, was a friend or correspondent of nearly all the demigods of modernism, from Isidora Duncan to D. H. Lawrence, but he was chronologically of an older generation; in his person, he showed the continuity between the Victorian avant garde and the Jazz Age. As the photograph above perhaps suggests, he consciously strove to be England's Walt Whitman, and is remembered today largely as the original of the gay protagonist of E. M. Forster's novel Maurice.

Despite his relative obscurity now, Carpenter was in his day an immensely influential anti-establishment thinker, eager to tackle all the conventions of the age with astonishing fearlessness. Science was only one of his many targets, but his attack on it (parts one and two of this series) had considerable impact. Leo Tolstoy, in his 1890s cult-leader mode, rejoiced to hear that contemporary Britain had produced a sandal-wearing utopian of its own, "a worthy successor to Carlyle and Ruskin". Tolstoy's imprimatur helped to spread "Modern Science: A Criticism" beyond the English-speaking world, but his essay promoting it (part three of this series) suggests that "the Sage of Yasnaya Polya" missed Carpenter's subtler points -- or perhaps just ignored them as different from his own, and therefore beneath notice. This is, after all, the Tolstoy who considered himself so much the paragon of True Revolution that (as we will read) he brushed off Karl Marx as a representative of the status quo!

Scientists themselves were uneasy about the future of their discipline in the fin de siècle. Besides the impending storms of radioactivity, relativity, and quantum mechanics there were other equally ominous-looking clouds that never broke: geophysicists insisted that the earth was too young to accomodate the geological time-scale; biologists, with no understanding of heredity, were increasingly doubtful of natural selection but afraid to say so publicly. Carpenter's challenge, therefore, could not go unanswered, and the one champion equally respected in scientific, philosophical, and literary circles took up the challenge: Henri Poincaré. His essay on "The Choice of Facts" (fourth in this series) does not quite answer all of Carpenter's points (and in some ways shows less awareness of the changes taking place in physics than Carpenter does), but on the whole makes a quite solid and thought-provoking defense -- at least until the conclusion. Just when one thinks that he is going to rest his case, if not on religion then on its turn-of-the-century secular replacement, Art For Art's Sake, he instead abruptly veers into the doubtful waters of sociobiology and gives us a Darwinian argument that the scientific mentality is justified in its results: Europeans dominate the world. Carpenter, the anarcho-socialist friend of Tagore and Gandhi, if he read this, must have rolled his eyes; Tolstoy would have taken it as conclusive proof, were any more needed, that science is a lackey of the capitalist antichrist.

Despite this flaw at the close, Poincaré's piece mostly retains its value; it articulates a philosophy of science still vital and appealing after a hundred years. But what about the critique that provoked it?

A Twenty-First Century scientist (this one, at least) cannot help but find both Carpenter's and Tolstoy's essays irritating, but for different reasons. Tolstoy is irritating because he pontificates freely but evinces little understanding of what science is actually about. Carpenter -- a Fellow of Trinity who passed the Mathematical Tripos -- is irritating because he understands science perfectly and remains unimpressed! If some of his criticisms, echoed a century later by postmodernism, seem unreasonable, all too many others are (even now) exactly on target. To make his critique entirely up to date, one need merely replace "ether" and "atoms" with "dark matter" and "superstrings".