Is Order Discovered or Imposed?

Science writer delves into how cultural viewpoint becomes reality


By George Johnson

Alfred A. Knopf

379 pp., $27.50

As a science reporter for The New York Times, George Johnson is an expert at translating the latest work of natural scientists into ordinary speech. Much is lost in such translation, of course. But how else is the public to even glimpse what is going on in these fields of thought?

In his latest book, ''Fire in the Mind,'' Johnson weaves a number of interlocking themes: the latest scientific thinking on the origin of life and the universe; man and the universe as patternmakers; and the nature of man's religious and scientific knowledge.

Johnson's explanations are clear and thought-provoking, and much of what he reports will be new to even well-informed readers. Throughout, Johnson develops a highly technical concept of man as an information gatherer, feeding on the patterns that the universe makes.

Johnson organizes ''Fire in the Mind'' as an intellectual and cultural journey through the landscape of northern New Mexico. Here, institutions of advanced scientific research mingle with native American pueblo villages, and we are never far from the fenced laboratory of Los Alamos where science and technology combined to make the first atomic weapons.

To illustrate the human talent for patternmaking, Johnson describes in some detail the beliefs that organize the lives of the pueblo-dwellers. These beliefs differ from village to village, and differ even more from Christian ideas imported first by Spanish conquerors and again by modern Pentecostals. In this setting, theories of research scientists at the nearby institutes can seem only one of many attempts to impose order on a mysterious universe. To the scientists, however, the feeling that they are d iscovering order rather than imposing it is very strong.

Thus Johnson illustrates in gentle metaphor the battle raging today in our best universities.

On the one side are the multiculturalists who argue that all patterns are interpretations based on different historical experiences and thus of equal value. On the other side is the National Association of Scholars and its sympathizers who see in the natural sciences a mode of discovery that transcends and should dominate that which is merely cultural.

Cultural domination enters ''Fire in the Mind'' like the Biblical snake. European invaders attempt to impose their religion on the natives by force.

The first anthropologists in the region gain the trust of the pueblo-dwellers and then publish their sacred secrets as so much scholarly data. Later, Los Alamos bombmakers treat native-American ceremonies as curiosities and put sacred sites behind fences and gates.

According to Johnson, the local native culture stood firm in the face of all these historical challenges but is finally dissolving under the lure of modern medical technology and consumer goods. Johnson calls this ''reality testing'' - as if technology and industry somehow prove a special connection between modern American culture and reality.

Wouldn't it be equally valid to say that the less-polluting activities of the native American prove their culture to be in better touch with reality?

We can agree with Johnson that, as a practical matter, some people do choose to participate in modern society because it offers penicillin, corn flakes, or televised sports. Conversely, however, others choose to drop out of modern society in order to lead a more peaceful and less-polluting life.

Clearly these are relative choices based on individual values. But far more is often claimed for modern science, namely that it is intrinsically superior because it discovers the ''true nature'' of man and the universe in contrast to the merely ''invented'' explanations given by native Americans, Christians, and other groups.

At the outset of his book, Johnson declares himself neutral on whether the science he reports is a discovery of order or the human invention of it. In fact, he hopes that the advanced scientific thinking in his book will provide a middle ground on which these two views of science can reach a compromise.

Johnson is not neutral, however, in his advocacy of the superiority of science to world views that are merely cultural or religious. This is clear in his comment about reality testing.

In defense of the author of this excellent book, he means to be inclusive and tries to bring warring sides together. But the advanced scientific theories that Johnson so ably describes are no more neutral than any other human system.

In fact, it is the essence of cultural domination to classify others according to your own system - to reject their definitions of themselves and substitute your definitions of them. Native Americans in the Southwest, in their first encounters with Spanish missionaries, were seen as ''fallen'' children of God. It is safe to assume Johnson would not wish his own fellow scientists to be so classified.

To Johnson, however, all religion is just human patternmaking. And so the battle goes on to place one another in the pigeon holes of our own world view.

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