By Celia Coates
For this week’s post I’d planned to answer a question a friend asked a while ago: “Why does WINN publish articles on so many different subjects?” Well, all the posts relate to one larger subject – the multi-dimensional nature of reality. But that post will have to wait because I was distracted by a small, old book: DAEDALUS: Or Science & The Future.
Published in 1924 by J. B. S. Haldane, it began as a talk he’d given the year before to “The Heretics” at Cambridge University. At that time Haldane taught bio-chemistry – a spelling which highlights that it’s about both chemistry and living matter. Highly educated in the science of his time, he also had expertise in genetics, evolutionary biology, physiology, and mathematics. Five years after he published that small, old book he wrote an article that introduced the idea that life originated in a mix of chemicals – the “primordial soup” theory. He was a brilliant, irreverent, highly independent, and witty scientist with strong views about politics, economics, and religion.
In DAEDALUS Haldane discussed many ideas that really caught my attention but he also wrote some stuff about eugenics and so forth that I happily skipped over. It was clear that he’d had the knowledge and experience necessary to say something about where science might go in the decades that lay ahead of him.
He began by showing the double face of science with two very different scenes from his own life and time. Haldane fought in the British Army during the First World War and the first scene is of the dark destruction of war that chemical weapons created,
“Through a blur of dust and fumes there appear, quite suddenly, great black and yellow masses of smoke which seem to be tearing up the surface of the earth and disintegrating the works of man with an almost visible hatred.”
And describing a scene later in the War when even more destructive weapons had been developed, he wrote,
“The men would have been running, with mad terror in their eyes, from gigantic steel slugs, which were deliberately, relentlessly, and successfully pursuing them.”
The second face of science is pleasant, and even amusing:
“The other picture is of three Europeans in India looking at a great new star in the Milky Way. These were apparently all of the guests at a large dance who were interested in such matters. Amongst those who were at all competent to form views as to the origin of this cosmoclastic explosion, the most popular theory attributed it to a collision between two stars, or a star and a nebula. There seem, however, to be at least two possible alternatives to this hypothesis. Perhaps it was the last judgment of some inhabited world, perhaps a too successful experiment in induced radio-activity on the part of some of the dwellers there. And perhaps also these two hypotheses are identical and what we were watching that evening was the detonation of a world on which too many men came out to look at the stars when they should have been dancing.
These two scenes suggest, very briefly, a part of the case against science. Has mankind released from the womb of matter a Demogorgon which is already beginning to turn against him, and may at any moment hurl him into the bottomless void? Or is Samuel Butler’s even more horrible vision correct, in which man becomes a mere parasite of machinery, an appendage to the reproductive system of huge and complicated engines which will successfully usurp his activities, and end by ousting him from the mastery of this planet?”
Nearly 100 years later science still provides both danger and benefit and it’s only the sophistication of the discoveries that has changed. One current anxiety, for example, is that Artificial Intelligence might surpass and then suppress humanity and mankind might indeed become a mere parasite of machinery and ousted from the mastery of this planet.
Further on in DAEDALUS he to looks into the future,
“I shall not attempt to predict in detail the future developments of transport and communication. They are only limited by the velocity of light. We are working towards a condition when any two persons on earth will be able to be completely present to one another in not more than 1-24 (it was printed this way) of a second. … Developments in this direction are tending to bring mankind more and more together, to render life more and more complex, artificial, and rich in possibilities – to increase indefinitely man’s power for good and evil.”
It seems that in 1924 he could glimpse the development of modern telecommunications and the Internet!
Towards the end of DAEDALUS he seems to open the possibility of a new kind of science, not just new scientific inventions. Haldane was an atheist and he wrote this not about religion, but about exploring other dimensions – a science of “spirit” and mystery,
“Psychology is hardly a science yet. Like biology it has arrived at certain generalizations of a rather abstract and philosophic character, but these are still to some extent matters of controversy. And though a vast number of most important empirical facts are known, only a few great generalizations from them – such as the existence of the subconscious mind – have yet been made. But anyone who has seen even a single example of the power of hypnotism and suggestion must realize that the face of the world and the possibilities of existence will be totally altered when we can control their effects and standardize their application, as has been possible for example, with drugs which were once regarded as equally magical. Infinitely greater, of course would be the results of the opening up of systematic communication with spiritual beings in another world, which is claimed as a scientific possibility. Spiritualism is already Christianity’s most formidable enemy, and we have no data which allows us to estimate the probable effect on man of a religion whose dogmas are a matter of experiment, whose mysteries are prosaic as electric lighting, whose ethics are based on the observed results in the next world of a good or bad life in this. Yet that is the prospect before us if spiritualism obtains the scientific verification which it is now demanding, not perhaps with great success.”
Although it’s moved on beyond spiritualism and grown to become the study of subtle energies, Haldane’s foresight was right. These explorations are “obtaining scientific verification” and there’s been more success than Haldane expected.
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DAEDALUS: Or Science and the Future, J. B. S. Haldane, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1924