Adam Gopnik on the Scientist’s Lack of ‘Heroic Morals’

In an essay reviewing some contemporary historical work on Galileo, (‘Moon Man: What Galileo saw‘, The New Yorker, February 11, 2013), Adam Gopnik, noting Galileo’s less-than-heroic quasi-recantation before the Catholic Church, writes:

Could he, as Brecht might have wanted, have done otherwise, acted more heroically? Milton’s Galileo was a free man imprisoned by intolerance. What would Shakespeare’s Galileo have been, one wonders, had he ever written him? Well, in a sense, he had written him, as Falstaff, the man of appetite and wit who sees through the game of honor and fidelity. Galileo’s myth is not unlike the fat knight’s, the story of a medieval ethic of courage and honor supplanted by the modern one of cunning, wit, and self-knowledge. Martyrdom is the test of faith, but the test of truth is truth. Once the book was published, who cared what transparent lies you had to tell to save your life? The best reason we have to believe in miracles is the miracle that people are prepared to die for them. But the best reason that we have to believe in the moons of Jupiter is that no one has to be prepared to die for them in order for them to be real.

So the scientist can shrug at the torturer and say, Any way you want me to tell it, I will. You’ve got the waterboard. The stars are still there. It may be no accident that so many of the great scientists really have followed Galileo, in ducking and avoiding the consequences of what they discovered. In the roster of genius, evasion of worldly responsibility seems practically a fixed theme. Newton escaped the world through nuttiness, Darwin through elaborate evasive courtesies and by farming out the politics to Huxley. Heisenberg’s uncertainty was political—he did nuclear-fission research for Hitler—as well as quantum-mechanical. Science demands heroic minds, but not heroic morals. It’s one of the things that make it move.

Gopnik’s conclusion is a curious one: he seems to have made an excessively reductive statement about science and the scientist, and he does so by ensnaring the scientist in a net that brings in a bigger catch. For the distance of the scientist from his work, its import and its consequences, is equally that of the artist from this creations. I do not think it a coincidence that Gopnik refers to ‘genius’ as broadly as he does. For after all, ‘evasion of worldly responsibility’ is often claimed as a ‘fixed theme’ for the artist as well: the work stands on its own, it needs no moral justification, it need not take a moral stance and so on. Perhaps this is the viewpoint of the aesthete alone, but it is one often associated with the artist’s place in the world and his supposed moral responsibilities. The claim that Gopnik makes about the scientist, in attempting to portray him as amoral adventurer, is a narrowly restricted one: the ability of the scientist to manipulate, intervene, poke and prod at the world makes him into an actor too, one that might be required to act in conformance with moral codes, ones which might be internalized by the scientist. Human creativity always requires little more than ‘heroic minds’; the ‘heroic morals’ always come much, much later, determined by a nexus of needs and interests, historically situated.

Gopnik relies too, on a non-socially-situated view of science: its truths endure, independent of man’s activities. But again, he does not believe this himself, for as he notes, Galileo gets to stop caring about his ‘transparent lies’ only after his book was published. Not before. Perhaps the scientist needs to do more to have his ‘truths’ accepted and recognized. They get to endure once his ‘community’ says they do.

Note: H/T to Corey Robin who excerpted the Gopnik quote above on his Facebook page.

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