At the beginning of the 2016 film Arrival, the scientist Ian remarks to the linguist Louise that language is not the foundation of civilization. Rather than language, he asserts that “science” is the foundation of civilization. The film plays with, among many other themes, this theme established in their introductory conversation: Whether science or language is the foundation from which civilization springs.
It is unsurprising, given the rise of science, that scientism now pervades our consciousness. But any student of history, philosophy, and even science (at least those who are not masochistic enough to be the handmaidens of the dream for a techno-scientistic utopia), would know that the assertion of science über alles is a fantasy and completely misguided. Even film and pop culture before the 2000s reflected this reality better than the likes of Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and their online mobs.
Stanley Kubrick created the modern science-fiction film genre with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s film is rightfully considered a masterpiece. But the film is less a triumphant and optimistic portrayal of science as it is a cautionary tale of evolution and the spectral revolution. In the most famous cut-scene of the film, and perhaps in cinematic history, the great ape hominid on the plains of Africa throws the bone-tool into the air and it cuts to the contemporary space-ship which houses the astronauts and HAL. The scene is crucial, as were the scenes leading up to that moment.
What 2001 got right is that science is not the axiomatic foundation for the so-called scientific discipline and enterprise. Science is the outgrowth of something far more central and practicable. Tools. Without tools science cannot get off the ground as the film poignantly and softly shows in that scene of tool become spaceship. Moreover, evolution is not driven by science (per se) but by tools.
Again, 2001 got this right. When the two great ape tribes first meet the invading tribe forces the original tribe to abandon the water hole and venture out in the harsh savannah. Having been expulsed from their primary source of survival, the great apes struggle in the desert until one comes across the carcass of an animal. The ape’s cognition advances into a higher sphere of consciousness when he utilizes the bone as a tool. The ape tribe returns to the watering hole to drive off the invaders using bones as tools.
This scene is particularly magnificent for several reasons. First it captures what Saint Augustine called the libido dominandi—the lust for domination—inherent in humans. Second, it captures the struggle for survival and the spirit of collective self-preservation in the state of nature (a subtle nod and critique to Hobbes who rejected the tribal and social nature of man but explained the drive to self-preservation and the conflict for resources in the state of nature recaptured in the opening sequences of the film). Third, and most importantly, we see the evolutionary changes of man because of tools. The great ape tribe that wields the bones as tools are homo habilus, or handy-man. When the two tribes first clashed, they were both hunched over on all fours. Now, when the two tribes clash again, the tribe utilizing the bones as tools stand erect, upright, while the tribe at the watering hole remains hunched over. Why? The now homo habilus tribe has evolved to stand erect to better utilize the tools. The great apes who lack the usage of bones as tools remain hunched over.
The emphasis of technology and evolution, rather than “science” and evolution, is the underlying theme of 2001. An advanced piece of technology propelled heightened consciousness leading to the apes becoming homo habilus with the use of tools. So too does, by film’s end, the myriad of technological forces evolve Dave into the Star Child.
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels also captures this reality of technology and science and how science is really used for instrumental purposes. Science does not lead to any discoveries. Technology does. “Science” is, as the Marxist philosopher and critic Immanuel Wallerstein said in World System Analysis, the code word for progress and capitalism, “science was the code word for achieving progress, the great accepted common goal of the world-system.” When Lemuel Gulliver is in Laputa, all the forces of science are wielded instrumentally. The “science” of the Laputans is not used for new discoveries or advancements in knowledge—since science simply means “knowledge” in the original Latin (scientia)—but wielded for utilitarian purposes. The Laputans utilize their knowledge, their “science,” through their technology to control and manipulate nature and terrorize people beneath them.
Even in more recent science-fiction films we see this truth which Swift was aware of back in 1726. Blockbuster hits or failures, like Armageddon and Sunshine, make use of “science” as an instrument of salvation. Some people may complain about the “scientific inaccuracy” of such films, but it is not that “science” in some mythical, religious, and dogmatic sense which was portrayed inaccurately. It is the “science” of knowledge which is ridiculed as having been portrayed inaccurately—like a nuclear bomb being placed 800 feet inside a giant meteor being able to blow up the meteor in two halves as being “not possible” that is the target of scientific inaccuracy and criticism. Or a nuclear detonation on the surface of the sun revitalizing the sun which is the target of scientific inaccuracy. (Because the “math” or “knowledge” of such accomplishing such an event is wrong.)
The mystical conception of science is precisely that. It is a mystical conception of science with no basis in reality apart from mathematical and measurable proofs. Science, that magical keyword for progress as Wallerstein explained, is a just a magical word. It is a word floated around which we now revere with awe and wonder like the consecrated words of ancient cultic rites and practices. People worship at the empty altar of science not knowing what science is but claiming to know what science is.
Science is not the foundation of civilization or the axiom of knowledge (since science simply means knowledge). There is something more central, more foundational, more generative than “science” unlike what the prophets of scientism claim. That more central axiom is technology. Technology, not “science,” drives discoveries. Technology, not “science,” drives evolution and progress. Technology, not “science,” is that which gives birth to what we mystically and mysteriously call “science.” The science über alles mentality is a myth because myth, in its traditional meaning, means proclamation. We proclaim this mysterious thing called “science” as the core to our world and civilization. And people simply listen and become enchanted by this myth which allows for its self-perpetuation.
But if we are to follow Newton’s Laws of Motion, this myth of science can easily be destroyed if reacted against by another force. And this is what the guardians of science, like Plato’s guardians of the utopian city, ensure will not happen. The myth of science is, ironically, the closing of the human mind by the new dogmas and myth of mystical science.