A lot os us who majored in subjects like Middle English lyrics have made side careers out of buying books with titles like "Relativity for the Millions" and "The Big Bang Theory Without Tears."
Anything to light up those black holes of ignorance in our universe where knowledge of the sciences is supposed to exist!
Alas, we are likelier to finish "War and Peace" than the preface of one explain-it-all book. We continue to get by on the learning provided by conversations about "Nova" programs, overhead from two rows back on the bus.
Still, in spite of our conspicuous sloth, certain very general news has reached even us. We have become aware, for instance, that biologists have gradually replaced physicists as the stars of the scientific disciplines -- the theorists on the leading edge.
In a brilliant essay in the current Psychology Today a Yale professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, Harold J. Morowitz, confirms another impression. Not only have biologists taken over the intramural leadership, they have replaced physicists as the most dogmatic explainers. In the 19th century the physicists, standing confident on their Newtonian laws, represented what Professor Morowitz calls "hard-core materialism."
einstein's discoveries famously shook the fixed-in- place universe of Newtonian physics. It is no coincidence, Professor Morowitz implies, that the new physicists like Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger have turned to Eastern philosophy and the Upanishads. Quantum physics has had the effect of making the universe mysterious again, if not mystical, and to a considerable extent, an act of perception. "It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness," the Nobel prize winner Eugene Wigner confessed.
And so the new physicists -- not becase they wanted to but because they had to -- complicated their act by introducing into the old Newtonian model of the universe as simple machine something alien and apart, something very like the old-fashioned idea of mind.
Meanwhile, Professor Morowitz, points out, the new biologists, whose discipline had once reserved "a privileged role for the human mind in nature's hierarchy," have swapped positions with the old physicists and become today's theorists of "hard-core materialism." If the thrust of the Newtonians was to reduce the universe to a system of atomic determinism, the thrust of the new biologists is to do something curiously the same with human beings -- to reduce "atoms to molecules to neurons to mind," as Professor Morowitz puts it. He cites Carl Sagan in his best-selling book "The Dragons of Eden" as expressing the popular wisdom of the new biology: "My fundamental premise about the brain is that its workings -- what we sometimes call 'mind' -- are a consequence of its anatomy and physiology and nothing more."
This is a suspiciously neat cause-and-effect explanation -- even tidier and more self-enclosed than Newtonian physics. There is an ancient scent of nivete to the claims to final truth of a description of human beings that limits itself to biomechanics. Something in us that is not amino acid warns that here is not the Great Once-and-for-all Unlocking of the Secret.
Professor Morowitz lends the authority of his skepticism ot ours. But what makes his essay remarkable is that he goes beyond the formal process of rebutting the Sagan position. "In addition to being weak," he writes, "it is a dangerous view, since the way we respond to our fellow human beings is dependent on the way we conceptualize them."
The limits of our language establish the limits of our world, the linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, and he might have added: the limits of ourselves.
These are the truths only majors in Middle English lyrics are supposed to understand. But nobody could ahve stated them better than Professor Morowitz, eloquently warning us that to see ourselves as animals or machines can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.