Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ortega y Gasset on the Mediocrity of the Scientific Mind

"It was Jose Ortega y Gasset, in his invaluable work The Revolt of the Masses, who best described the shortcomings of the scientific mind, and the effects on thought and politics which were likely to follow by ceding a cultural primacy to such a mentality," writes poet, playwright, and essayist Mark Anthony Signorelli — The Jurisdiction of Science.
    For Ortega y Gasset, what characterizes the modern world most distinctively is the rise of the “mass man,” the unqualified person, to a leading role in the affairs of the time: “the characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.” The man of science, in his mediocrity, is a “prototype of the mass-man,” because the nature of his work requires no special talents: “a fair amount of the things that have to be done in physics or in biology is mechanical work of the mind which can be done by anyone, or almost anyone;” as a consequence, “experimental science has progressed thanks in great part to the work of men astoundingly mediocre, and even less than mediocre.”

    The scientist is essentially a specialist, a man who has acquired deep learning in one particular line, without so much as casting his eyes on any other discipline; he “’knows’ very well his own tiny corner of the universe; he is radically ignorant of all the rest.” Despite his mediocrity, then, the scientist regards himself as one in the know, because of his mastery of one field of inquiry, and behaves with all the self-assurance of one in the know.... As a result of his own intellectual self-satisfaction, the scientist asserts his opinions over the whole range of human endeavor, with absolutely catastrophic consequences
The author goes on to quote the Spanish philosopher, "Anyone who wishes can observe the stupidity of thought, judgment, and action shown today in politics, art, religion, and the general problems of life and the world by the 'men of science,' and of course, behind them, the doctors, engineers, financiers, teachers, and so on," and offers as examples "the image of a Dawkins or an E.O. Wilson," the latter of whom "after a lifetime spent collecting bugs, begins churning out book after book filled with the most superficial and uninformed observations on religion and ethics." Tolle, lege.

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