Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Book Review: Time Lord, by Clark Blaise

Clark Blaise Time Lord (2001) Blaise won the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction for this book. It is a good read, but finally a not very satisfying one. The bio of Fleming is competent enough, especially considering that Fleming himself left little evidence of his thoughts and feelings. Though he kept journals, their contents are almost entirely the facts of his life: arrival and departure times, what he spent his money on, whom he met, and so on.
     It was a misread timetable that prompted Fleming to think hard and deep about the problems of time keeping. Railways connected so many places that the inconvenience of calculating timings in terms of dozens of local times prompted the railways to adopt standard times of their own. Eventually, the railroads of N. America agreed to a common standard of time zones. This was the precursor of worldwide standard time. Great Britain had already adopted a single standard time. Blaise is good at tracing Fleming's involvement and influence in the move to standard time, a move that started as a technical problem and of course ended as a political one.
     But Blaise also meditates on the effects of standardising time, of removing time keeping from the natural rhythms of sunrise and sunset, of midnight and noon. Here, his essay is less successful. Not because he doesn't make excellent points and observations, but because his reinterpretation of Victorian life in many ways breaks new ground, or looks at well known facts and ideas from a new angle. Inevitably, much of what he says is not fully worked out or clarified. He sees the changes in Victorian arts and social fabric as a response to the shift from the natural world of the senses to the abstract world of reason. In this he follows the Romantic criticism of the industrialisation of Europe. But unlike the Romantics, he sees those changes as forerunners of our own problems, not as redefinitions and abrogations of old ones. His argument amounts to a paradox: by freeing ourselves from natural time, we have become enslaved to abstract time. He hints and alludes to this paradox, but does not explicate it. But this very lack of full explication prompts the reader to think about the implications of what Blaise says.
     Blaise either forgets or chooses not to explore how early in European culture time became an abstraction. In the Middle Ages, clock time became a guide. The monks were the first to take clocks and calendars seriously, and they used them to order their spiritual life. It was a pope who authorised the recalculation of the calendar, a calendar inherited from the Romans. These clerics were the first to abstract time. The Romans took the first steps towards decoupling holy days from the moon and the sun, defining many of them in terms of their dates in the calendar rather than by the phase of the moon. Christians needed to calculate Easter, a holy day that links the phase of the moon to the position of the sun. The calculation required the abstraction of moon time and sun time so they could be brought into accurate relationship with each other. That, I think, was the beginning of the process that led to Standard Time, and in our own day has led to Universal Co-ordinated Time.
     The book is valuable as much for what it suggests as for what it says. What Blaise does say is often spot on, for example his analysis of the effects of a new awareness of time on painting: impressionism and cubism, he says, are attempts to make pictures timeless, to disconnect them from time. When time no longer inheres in the natural objects that surround us, we experience them as moments, as mere surfaces, not as carriers of narrative. Narrative, too, breaks up. Blaise says that Hemingway's style converts time into a series of events. Time is no longer the architecture of a life. To quote a saying he doesn't cite: Life is just one damned thing after another. Plot implies a structure in time, it is a structure in time. Modern literature abandons plot, replacing it with abstract patterns of image and event, of character and response, of perception and memory.
     A good book, because it makes one think. ***

Monday, February 05, 2007

Science is a Sacred Cow (Bookreview)

Standen, Anthony: Science is a Sacred Cow (1950) I got this book for Christmas, from my son, who is able to find all kinds of good things in used book shops. This is one of those good things, even though Standen's rant in the end fails to convince any but those who want some sticks to beat science with.
Standen writes well, and makes many valid points, but overall his book doesn't satisfy. He isn't attacking science so much as scientism - the belief that Science is the final answer to everything. He does capitalise Science, which shows he knows that he is attacking an attitude towards science rather than science itself. He was a scientist himself, actually.
But his arguments, relying as they do on shifting definitions and vague concepts, as often miss the target as hit it. The problem begins with his use of the word science or Science. Most of the time he is clearly talking about some people's attitudes (most of them, like himself, academics, by the way.) Sometimes, he is talking about science as social, political, or economic activity, or of some combination of these three. Yet he almost always fails to state explicitly what he's attacking, which is a pity, since his attacks on scientism are as valid today as they were back in 1950. Sometimes, usually when he's saying something nice, he is talking about science as a human activity. And while he writes in an easy to understand style, that doesn't mean he writes clearly. In fact the colloquialism of his style often hides the muddiness of his thought. Perhaps he thought that by being more precise he would leave "the interested layman" trailing after him wondering where on earth (or elsewhere) Standen was leading him.
Besides, much of his specific criticism has failed as science has continued to discover new things since 1950. His critique of psychology, for example, rests on the (correct) observation that Freud, Jung et al were in fact poets, and that novelists do a much better job of what these men set out to do. Since his day, these men's psychological theories have found some use in literature departments, and among those people whose malaise is one of the imagination rather than of the nervous system. Standen also believes that psychology of the more biological kind is pointless because man has a soul. So he really rejects psychology as a science.
Standen himself has a blind spot: he believes that science aims for Truth, and so of course he's upset when it produces merely probable truth. Thus mathematics, in which one can know (his emphasis) that one is right is the best science of all. Here and there he drops hints about God and morality which suggest that the major reason he rejects Science is that it conflicts with his beliefs in absolute moral truths. But he tends to disguise this attitude in the (correct) claim that there are questions that science can't answer, and that many of these questions are even more important than the questions science can answer. Which of course is true, and immediately raises the question about what questions are worth asking, and how to answer them. On this he makes wise comments, pointing out that science can only supply a more or less accurate description of what happens, and what is likely to happen if one chooses one or another course of action, but that the choice is an ethical question. But he fails to allow that precisely because science can predict a wide range of consequences, it is essential to any decision-making. One of the criteria for any ethical choice is that its consequences do less harm than the problem that raised the ethical issue in the first place. That is, choices based on moral judgements are only as good as the reach of those judgements. Too many are made with insufficient analysis of probable consequences, and so often lead to more harm than they are intended to prevent.
Since scientism is a common attitude in universities and colleges, Standen has found many quotations from science texts, and these make for both hilarity and appalled fascination. He makes too few comments on the kind of science education that should be offered so that the ordinary person has enough of the scientific attitude to facts that (s)he can make sense of the rather complicated questions that must be resolved, such as climate change. Standen's type of critique has had its effects: Scientists rarely give certain answers these days. Something is happening to the weather, and the best guess is that it's caused in large part by our spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But since the mechanisms are poorly understood, and at best the models lead to only more or less probable scenarios, many people think that climate change itself is a merely probable guess about what's happening, and that nothing is actually happening after all.
Ironically, many religionists, who believe in absolute certainty, refuse to accept the probabilities that science offers because they also believe that Science is about Truth. Which is Standen's attitude, too, so that in the end Standen is hoist by his own petard. He rejects scientism because it assumes that all sciences are equally about Truth. Yet that is not so, and it doesn't take a scientific training to have that insight. Standen grades the sciences on a descending scale, with math at the top because it provides certainty, and the social sciences at the bottom because they provide at best correlations. So he, too, wants Science rather than science - and his rant is perhaps as much the whinge of a disappointed believer as that of a coolly skeptical critic of self-aggrandising experts. But he writes with wit, so the book is pleasant reading. **