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Do We Need an Academic Revolution?

- Post discussion comment from Nicholas Maxwell

How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World: The Urgent Need for an Academic Revolution. This is the title of a book,* just published, that was launched into the world on the evening of 20th March at UCL, under the auspices of The Grand Challenge of Human Wellbeing.

I began the proceedings by outlining the basic argument of my book. Philip Ball and Alan Sokal responded, there were lively criticisms and questions from the audience, and the debate continued at the reception afterwards. The bare bones of my talk amounted to the following.

The crisis of our times is that we have science without wisdom. This is the crisis behind all the others. Population growth, the lethal character of modern war, immense differences in wealth and power around the globe, destruction of natural habitats and extinction of species, pollution of earth, sea and air, and above all the impending disasters of climate change: all these relatively recent crises have been made possible by modern science and technology. These make possible modern industry and agriculture, modern armaments, modern medicine and hygiene, which in turn have made possible all our current global problems.

Many blame science, but that misses the point. The fault lies in part with pursuing science in a way that is dissociated from a more fundamental concern to help humanity learn how to tackle problems of living, so that we may gradually discover how to make progress towards a better, wiser world. Knowledge is important. But in the end it is what we do, or refrain from doing, that enables us to achieve what is of value in life.

We need an academic revolution, one which puts problems of living - personal, social and global (such as those indicated above) - at the heart of academia. The basic task of universities needs to become to help humanity solve, in increasingly cooperatively rational ways, those problems of living we need to solve to achieve what is genuinely of value in life. The central, fundamental concern needs to be to articulate, and improve the articulation of, our problems of living, and propose and critically assess possible solutions - possible actions, policies, institutional and social changes, political programmes, ways of living, philosophies of life. Our best ideas about what to do need to influence the priorities of scientific and technological research and, of course, deliberations concerning actions and policy need to take the results of scientific research into account.

Philip Ball, in his response, made clear that he was sympathetic to much of what I had to say, but thought more needed to be said about economics, and the failings of modern democracies. He made the point that interactions between technology and science go in both directions.

Alan Sokal began by declaring that he agreed with what I have to say about science. Theoretical physics only ever accepts unified theories, even though endlessly many empirically more successful disunified rivals can always be concocted. That these disunified, empirically more successful rivals are persistently ignored means that physics does indeed make a big, highly problematic metaphysical assumption about the ultimate nature of the universe: it has some kind of underlying unity. It is physically comprehensible. But this metaphysical conjecture will almost inevitably be false. It needs to be improved. The way to do that is to represent the assumption in the form of a hierarchy of assumptions. As one goes up the hierarchy, the assumptions become less and less substantial, more and more likely to be true. Assumptions low down in the hierarchy, very likely to be false, need to be modified in the light of what is best able to support scientific progress.

Sokal went on to express doubts about whether this hierarchical, aim-oriented empiricist conception of science (which, he said, makes an important contribution to the philosophy of science) could be usefully generalized so as to become applicable to social life and its problems. In his view, universities are not to blame for our failure to take effective action in response to climate change. The fault lies with governments, and with powerful economic interests which have cynically peddled propaganda casting doubts about climate science.

*Nicholas Maxwell, How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World: The Urgent Need for an Academic Revolution, Imprint Academic, £9-95.

Nicholas Maxwell, 21 March 2014

Page last modified on 21 mar 14 16:08