Three Major Recent Publications:
Nicholas Maxwell, Cutting God in Half - And Putting the Pieces Together Again: A New Approach to Philosophy
Nicholas Maxwell, What's Wrong With Science? Towards a People's Rational Science of Delight and Compassion
Nicholas Maxwell, From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution for Science and the Humanities
Cutting God in Half will enthral anyone concerned about ultimate questions – the nature of the universe, the meaning of life, the fate of humanity. It is written in a lively, accessible style, and has original things to say about a number of fundamental issues. The author argues that we need to sever the God-of-Power from the God-of-Value. The first is Einstein’s God, the underlying unity in the physical universe that determines how events occur. The second is what is of most value associated with human life – and sentient life more generally.
Having cut God in half in this way, the problem then becomes to see how the two halves can be put together again. This is our basic problem: to see how our human world, imbued with meaning and value, can exist and flourish embedded in the physical universe. It is our fundamental philosophical problem, our fundamental problem of knowledge and understanding, and our fundamental practical problem of living – personal, social and global.
This book tackles outstanding aspects of this problem, and in doing so throws out startlingly original ideas about science, education, religion, evolutionary theory, free will, quantum theory, and how we should go about tackling impending global crises such as population growth and global warming. It transpires that bringing our basic problem into sharp focus has revolutionary implications. Many aspects of our social and cultural world urgently need to be transformed.
Cutting God in Half is essential reading for anyone concerned about the future of humanity.
"In writing Cutting God in Half, Nicholas Maxwell has, as in his other books, focused on what really matters. It is a powerful, thought-stirring read - one that just might shift the reader's world-view in some positive directions."
Cop Macdonald, The Wisdom Page
“Despite the intentionally provocative title, Maxwell does not seek to offend anyone (at least not excessively), but rather to clarify and extend our understanding of how our universe can be at the same time so many things – cold yet awe-inspiring, impersonal and yet beautiful, traumatic but also loving. And perhaps most importantly, the author has much to say about the role of sentient beings such as ourselves in the continuing evolution and unfolding of the universe. Ultimately, as the last chapter demonstrates, this book is a call to action. . . . In the final two chapters, the book takes a very remarkable turn. In Chapter 8, a series of interpretations of Darwinian evolutionary theory is presented and discussed, the last of which is shown to be wholly consistent with the evolution of sentient and conscious creatures from inanimate matter. This is an especially concise and interesting extension from the mechanistic views of some major biologists and philosophers. As a conclusion, Chapter 9 addresses the importance of wisdom as the primary tool needed to put God back together again. Maxwell points to the failure of higher education systems to remain relevant, and suggests ways in which academia can be overhauled so that it engenders and expands the practical sort of wisdom need to refocus humanity, and to address our world's most pressing problems (such as environmental degradation, global poverty, wars and international conflict) . . This carefully thought-out book makes a much broader philosophical sweep than would be inferred from its title. Maxwell's scope ranges from the nature and limits of science as it's currently framed, to free will, the role of religious models, the aim of good philosophy, the proper interpretation of evolutionary theory, the purposeful evolution of sentience and consciousness, and finally to the unhappy impotence of the world's educational systems. We face grim challenges, but we also have new capabilities to successfully address these challenges, and the overall tone of the book is positive and hopeful.”
Keith Harris, Metapsychology
Cutting God in Half – and Putting the Pieces Together Again: A New Approach to Philosophy, by Nicholas Maxwell, Pentire Press, London, Pp. x + 370; UK: £8.95, USA: $14
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Synopsis of From Knowledge to Wisdom | Publication and Distribution Details | What Critics Said about First Edition
Key Features | Preface to First Edition | Radio Interview about the Book | Comments on Maxwell's Work | Critics on other Books by Maxwell
From Knowledge to Wisdom argues that there is an urgent need, for both intellectual and humanitarian reasons, to bring about a revolution in science and the humanities. The outcome would be a kind of academic inquiry rationally devoted to helping humanity learn how to create a better world. Instead of giving priority to solving problems of knowledge, as at present, academia would devote itself to helping us solve our immense, current global problems – climate change, war, poverty, population growth, pollution of sea, earth and air, destruction of natural habitats and rapid extinction of species, proliferation of armaments, conventional, chemical, biological and nuclear, tyranny and injustice. The basic intellectual aim of inquiry would be to seek and promote wisdom – wisdom being the capacity to realize what is of value in life for oneself and others, thus including knowledge and technological know-how, but much else besides. This second edition has been revised throughout, has additional material, a new introduction and three new chapters. [Back to Top]
“Any philosopher or other person who seeks wisdom should read this book. Any educator who loves education--especially those in leadership positions--should read this book. Anyone who wants to understand an important source of modern human malaise should read this book. And anyone trying to figure out why, in a world that produces so many technical wonders, there is such an immense "wisdom gap" should read this book. In From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution for Science and the Humanities, Second Edition . . . Nicholas Maxwell presents a compelling, wise, humane, and timely argument for a shift in our fundamental "aim of inquiry" from that of knowledge to that of wisdom.”
Jeff Huggins Metapsychology
Publication and Distribution Details
From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution for Science and the Humanities
Published by Pentire Press
pp. 484 Publication Date: November 2007 ISBN 978-0-9552240-0-3 £8.99 $18.00
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What Critics Said about First Edition of From Knowledge to Wisdom
“Maxwell is advocating nothing less than a revolution (based on reason, not on religious or Marxist doctrine) in our intellectual goals and methods of inquiry ... There are altogether too many symptoms of malaise in our science-based society for Nicholas Maxwell's diagnosis to be ignored."
Professor Christopher Longuet-Higgins, Nature .
“a strong effort is needed if one is to stand back and clearly state the objections to the whole enormous tangle of misconceptions which surround the notion of science to-day. Maxwell has made that effort in this powerful, profound and important book.”
Dr.Mary Midgley, University Quarterly.
“The essential idea is really so simple, so transparently right ... It is a profound book, refreshingly unpretentious, and deserves to be read, refined and implemented.”
Dr.Stewart Richards, Annals of Science.
“Maxwell's book is a major contribution to current work on the intellectual status and social functions of science ... [It] comes as an enormous breath of fresh air, for here is a philosopher of science with enough backbone to offer root and branch criticism of scientific practices and to call for their reform.”
Dr.David Collingridge, Social Studies of Science.
"Maxwell has, I believe, written a very important book which will resonate in the years to come. For those who are not inextricably and cynically locked into the power and career structure of academia with its government-industrial-military connections, this is a book to read, think about, and act on."
Dr. Brian Easlea, Journal of Applied Philosophy.
“Wisdom, as Maxwell's own experience shows, has been outlawed from the western academic and intellectual system ... In such a climate, Maxwell's effort to get a hearing on behalf of wisdom is indeed praiseworthy.”
Dr.Ziauddin Sardar, Inquiry
“ Maxwell's argument ... is a powerful one. His critique of the underlying empiricism of the philosophy of knowledge is coherent and well argued, as is his defence of the philosophy of wisdom. Most interesting, perhaps, from a philosophical viewpoint, is his analysis of the social and human sciences and the humanities, which have always posed problems to more orthodox philosophers, wishing to reconcile them with the natural sciences. In Maxwell's schema they pose no such problems, featuring primarily ... as methodologies, aiding our pursuit of our diverse social and personal endeavours. This is an exciting and important work, which should be read by all students of the philosophy of science. It also provides a framework for historical analysis and should be of interest to all but the most blinkered of historians of science and philosophy.”
Dr. John Hendry, British Journal for the History of Science
"This book is written in simple straightforward language … The style is passionate, committed, serious; it communicates Maxwell’s conviction that we are in deep trouble, that there is a remedy available, and that it is ingrained bad intellectual habits that prevent us from improving our lot … Maxwell is raising an important and fundamental question and things are not going so well for us that we should afford the luxury of listening only to well-tempered answers."
Professor John Kekes, Inquiry
"… a major source of priorities, funds and graduates’ jobs in ‘pure science’ is military … this aspect of science is deemed irrelevant by the overwhelming majority of those who research, teach, sociologize, philosophise or moralize about science. What are we to make of such a phenomenon? It is in part a political situation, in its causes and effects; but it is also philosophical, and this is Nick Maxwell’s point of focus. Such a gigantic co-operative endeavour of concealment, amounting to a huge deception, could be accomplished naturally by all educated, humane participants, a ‘conspiracy needing no conspirators’, only because their ‘philosophy of knowledge’ envelops them in the assurance that their directors, paymasters and employers have nothing to do with the real thing – the research. This, to me, is the heart of Maxwell’s message."
Dr. Jerry Ravetz, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science
"Because Maxwell so obviously understands and loves science as practiced, say, by an Einstein, his criticisms of current science seem to arise out of a sadness at missed opportunities rather than hostility … I found Maxwell’s exposition and critique of the current state of establishment science to be clear and convincing … Maxwell is right to remind us that in an age of Star Wars and impending ecological disaster, talk of the positive potential of means-oriented science can easily become an escapist fantasy."
Professor Noretta Koertge, Isis
‘Maxwell’s thesis is that the evident failure of science to free society from poverty, hunger and the threat of extinction results from a ‘fatal flaw in the accepted aim of scientific endeavour’. . . It is precisely because of ‘the accepted aim’ that acquisition of knowledge, which presumably originated as an essential strategy for survival, has given rise to the relentless pursuit of new and better ways of achieving the exact opposite. . . For Maxwell, the solution is obvious – a radically new approach to the whole business of intellectual inquiry. . . It is hard to argue with these aims . . . If we could only change the way people feel, Maxwell’s solution would be easier, if not easy.’
Professor Norman F. Dixon, Our Own Worst Enemy
‘[T]here is...much of interest and, yes, much of value in this book...Maxwell is one of those rare professional philosophers who sees a problem in the divorce between thought and life which has characterized much of modern philosophy (and on both sides of the English channel, not merely in the so-called ‘analytic’ tradition’); he wishes to see thought applied to life and used to improve it. As a result, many of the issues he raises are of the first importance. . . He has . . produced a work which should give all philosophers and philosophically-minded scientists cause for reflection on their various endeavors; in particular, it should give philosophers who are content to be specialists a few sleepless nights.’
Professor Steven Yates, Metaphilosophy.
"Nicholas Maxwell (1984) defines freedom as 'the capacity to achieve what is of value in a range of circumstances'. I think this is about as good a short definition of freedom as could be. In particular, it appropriately leaves wide open the question of just what is of value. Our unique ability to reconsider our deepest convictions about what makes life worth living obliges us to take seriously the discovery that there is no palpable constraint on what we can consider."
Professor Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolving
‘In this book, Nicholas Maxwell argues powerfully for an intellectual “revolution” transforming all branches of science and technology. Unlike such revolutions as those described by Thomas Kuhn, which affect knowledge about some aspect of the physical world, Maxwell’s revolution involves radical changes in the aims, methods, and products of scientific inquiry, changes that will give priority to the personal and social problems that people face in their efforts to achieve what is valuable and desirable.’
George Kneller, Canadian Journal of Education
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Readership : Scientists, philosophers, historians, philosophers and sociologists of science, educationalists, science policy experts, science journalists, undergraduate and graduate level students, and general readers interested in science, or concerned about problems confronting humanity.
• Has dramatic implications for social science and the humanities, for philosophy, for education, and for the long-term capacity of humanity to learn how to make progress towards a better world
• Written in an informal, accessible way
• Sets out to solve basic philosophical problems concerning science
• Solves the profoundly important, fundamental, but much neglected philosophical problem: What kind of inquiry can best help humanity learn how to make progress towards a civilized world?
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Preface to the First Edition of From Knowledge to Wisdom
This book argues for the need to put into practice a profound and comprehensive intellectual revolution, affecting to a greater or lesser extent all branches of scientific and technological research, scholarship and education. This intellectual revolution differs, however, from the now familiar kind of scientific revolution described by Kuhn. It does not primarily involve a radical change in what we take to be knowledge about some aspect of the world, a change of paradigm. Rather it involves a radical change in the fundamental, overall intellectual aims and methods of inquiry. At present inquiry is devoted to the enhancement of knowledge. This needs to be transformed into a kind of rational inquiry having as its basic aim to enhance personal and social wisdom. This new kind of inquiry gives intellectual priority to the personal and social problems we encounter in our lives as we strive to realize what is desirable and of value – problems of knowledge and technology being intellectually subordinate and secondary. For this new kind of inquiry, it is what we do and what we are that ultimately matters: our knowledge is but an aspect of our life and being.
I shall argue that a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for us to develop cooperatively a better, more humane world is that we have in existence a tradition of rational inquiry of this new kind, giving priority to life and its problems, devoted to the enhancement of wisdom. At present we have no such tradition. As a result we are all more or less severely handicapped in our capacity to resolve in desirable and good ways problems we encounter in our personal and social lives. Many of our present- day social and global problems are in part due to our long-standing failure to develop such a tradition of genuinely rational, socially active thought, devoted to the growth of wisdom. This basic Socratic idea has been betrayed, and as a result, to put it at its most extreme, we now stand on the brink of self-destruction. In the circumstances, there can scarcely be any more urgent task for all those associated in any way with the academic enterprise – scientists, technologists, scholars, teachers, administrators, students, parents, providers of funds – than to help put into practice the new kind of inquiry, rationally devoted to the growth of wisdom.
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For a Radio Interview about From Knowledge to Wisdom on "Weekly Signals" - a public affairs radio program in California - Click Here.
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More Comments on Nicholas Maxwell’s Work
"Maxwell's theory of aim-oriented empiricism is the outstanding work on scientific change since Lakatos, and his thesis is surely correct. Scientific growth should be rationally directed through the discussion, choice, and modification of aim-incorporating blueprints rather than left to haphazard competition among research traditions seeking empirical success alone. . . Of the theories of scientific change and rationality that I know, Maxwell's is my first choice. It is broad in scope, closely and powerfully argued, and is in keeping with the purpose of this book, which is to see science in its totality. No other theory provides, as Maxwell's does in principle, for the rational direction of the overall growth of science."
Professor George F. Kneller , Science as a Human Endeavor
“As Nicholas Maxwell has suggested, if we make one crucial assumption about the purpose of science, then the possibility arises that some paradigms and theories can be evaluated even prior to the examination of their substantive products. This one crucial assumption is that the overall aim of science is to discover the maximum amount of order inherent in the universe or in any field of inquiry. Maxwell calls this ‘aim-oriented empiricism’. . . I agree with Maxwell’s evaluation of the importance of coherent aim-oriented paradigms as a criterion of science. . . The time is ripe, therefore, to replace the incoherent and unconscious paradigms under whose auspices most anthropologists conduct their research with explicit descriptions of basic objectives, rules, and assumptions. That is why I have written this book.”
Professor Marvin Harris, Cultural Materialism
‘[From Knowledge to Wisdom] is the work of an unashamed idealist; but it is none the worse for that. The author is a philosopher of science who holds the plain man’s view that philosophy should be a guide to life, not just a cure for intellectual headaches. He believes, and argues with passion and conviction, that the abysmal failure of science to free society from poverty, hunger and fear is due to a fatal flaw in the accepted aim of scientific endeavour – the acquisition and extension of knowledge. It is impossible to do Maxwell’s argument justice in a few sentences, but, essentially, it is this. At the present time the pursuit of science – indeed the whole of academic inquiry – is largely dominated by ‘the philosophy of knowledge’. At the heart of this philosophy is the assumption that knowledge is to be pursued for its own sake. But the pursuit of objective truth must not be distorted by human wishes and desires, so scientific research becomes divorced from human needs, and a well-intentioned impartiality gives way to a deplorable indifference to the human condition. The only escape is to reformulate the goals of science within a ‘philosophy of wisdom’, which puts human life first and gives ‘absolute priority to the intellectual tasks of articulating our problems of living, proposing and criticizing possible solutions, possible and actual human actions’. The philosophy of wisdom commends itself, furthermore, not only to the heart but to the head: it gives science and scholarship a proper place in the human social order. . . Nicholas Maxwell has breached the conventions of philosophical writing by using, with intent, such loaded words as ‘wisdom’, ‘suffering’ and ‘love’. ‘That which is of value in existence, associated with human life, is inconceivably, unimaginably, richly diverse in character.’ What an un-academic proposition to flow from the pen of a lecturer in the philosophy of science; but what a condemnation of the academic outlook, that this should be so.”
Professor Christopher Longuet-Higgins, Nature
‘In an admirable book called From Knowledge to Wisdom, Nicholas Maxwell has argued that the radical, wasteful misdirection of our whole academic effort is actually a central cause of the sorrows and dangers of our age. . . Thinking out how to live is a more basic and urgent use of the human intellect than the discovery of any fact whatsoever, and the considerations it reveals ought to guide us in our search for knowledge. . . In arguing this point . . . Maxwell proposes that we should replace the notion of aiming at knowledge by that of aiming at wisdom. I think this is basically the right proposal. . . Maxwell is surely right in saying that [the distorted pursuit of knowledge], because it wastes our intellectual powers, has played a serious part in distorting our lives.’ Mary Midgley, Wisdom, Information & Wonder
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Critics on other Books by Nicholas Maxwell
The Comprehensibility of the Universe: A New Conception of Science (1998)
"Maxwell performs a heroic feat in making the physics accessible to the non-physicist ... Philosophically, there is much here to stimulate and provoke . . . there are rewarding comparisons to be made between the functional roles assigned to Maxwell's metaphysical "blueprints" and Thomas Kuhn's paradigms, as well as between Maxwell's description of theoretical development and Imre Lakatos's methodology of scientific research programmes."
Dr.Anjan Chakravartty, Times Higher Education Supplement
"Maxwell ... has shown that it is absurd to believe that science can proceed without some basic assumptions about the comprehensibility of the universe . . . Throughout this book, Maxwell has meticulously argued for the superiority of his view by providing detailed examples from the history of physics and mathematics . . . The Comprehensibility of the Universe attempts to resurrect an ideal of modern philosophy: to make rational sense of science by offering a philosophical program for improving our knowledge and understanding of the universe. It is a consistent plea for articulating the metaphysical presuppositions of modern science and offers a cure for the theoretical schizophrenia resulting from acceptance of incoherent principles at the base of scientific theory."
Professor Leemon McHenry, Mind
"This admirably ambitious book contains more thought-provoking material than can even be mentioned here. Maxwell's treatment of the descriptive problem of simplicity, and his novel proposals about quantum mechanics deserve special note. In his view the simplicity of a theory is (and should be) judged by the degree to which it exemplifies the current blueprint of physicalism, that blueprint determining the terminology in which the theory and its rivals should be compared. This means that the simplicity of a theory amounts to the unity of its ontology, a view that allows Maxwell to offer an explanation of our conflicting intuitions that terminology matters to simplicity, and that it is utterly irrelevant. Maxwell's distinctive views about what is wrong with quantum mechanics grow out of his adherence to aim-oriented empiricism: the much-discussed problem of measurement is for him a superficial consequence of the deeper problem that the ontology of the theory is not unified, in that no one understands how one entity could be both a wave and a particle. In response to this problem Maxwell finds between the metaphysical cracks a way to fuse micro-realism and probabilism, which leads him to a proposal to solve the measurement problem by supplementing quantum mechanics with a collapse theory distinct from the recent and popular one of Ghirardi, Rimini and Weber. Maxwell's highly informed discussions of the changing ontologies of various modern physical theories are enjoyable, and the physical and mathematical appendix of the book should be a great help to the beginner."
Professor Sherrilyn Roush, The Philosophical Review
"Nicholas Maxwell has struck an excellent balance between science and philosophy . . . The detailed discussions of theoretical unification in physics - from Newton, Maxwell and Einstein to Feynman, Weinberg and Salam - form some of the best material in the book. Maxwell is good at explaining physics . . . Through the interplay of metaphysical assumptions, at varying distances from the empirical evidence Maxwell shows, rather convincingly, that in the pursuit of rational science the inference from the evidence to a small number of acceptable theories, out of the pool of rival ones, is justifiable . . . Its greatest virtue is the detailed programme for a modern version of natural philosophy. Along the way, Maxwell homes in on the notion of comprehensibility by the exclusion of less attractive alternatives. In an age of excessive specialization the book offers a timely reminder of the close link between science and philosophy. There is a beautiful balance between concrete science and abstract philosophy . . . In the "excellently written Appendix some of the basic mathematical technicalities, including the principles of quantum mechanics, are very well explained . . . Einstein held that 'epistemology without science becomes an empty scheme' while 'science without epistemology is primitive and muddled'. Maxwell's new book is a long-running commentary on this aphorism."
Dr. Friedel Weinert, Philosophy
“ some of [Maxwell’s] insights are of everlasting importance to the philosophy of science, the fact that he stands on the shoulders of giants (Hume, Popper) notwithstanding . . . My overall conclusion is that Universe is an ideal book for a reading group in philosophy of science or in philosophy of physics. Many of the pressing problems of the philosophy of science are discussed in a lively manner, controversial solutions are passionately defended and some new insights are provided; in particular the chapter on simplicity in physics deserves to be read by all philosophers of physics.”
Dr. F. A. Muller, Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics
“In The Comprehensibility of the Universe, Nicholas Maxwell develops a bold, new conception of the relationship between philosophy and science…Maxwell has a metaphysically rich, evolutionary vision of the self-correcting nature of science…The work is important…An added benefit of Maxwell’s analysis…is the possibility of a positive, fruitful relationship to emerge between science and the philosophy of science…his important and timely critique of the reigning empiricist orthodoxy…what does it mean to say simplicity is a theoretical virtue? And why should we prefer simple to complex theories? Maxwell provides an admirable discussion of these issues. He also provides a useful discussion of simplicity in the context of theory unification – simple theories are unifying theories – and illustrates his points with examples drawn from Newtonian physics and Maxwellian electrodynamics…It is hard to do justice to the richness of Maxwell’s discussion in this chapter. I can only say that this is a chapter that will repay serious study…Maxwell turns his attention to issues surrounding the theoretical character of evidence, the idea of scientific progress and the question as to whether there is a method of discovery….The discussion of these matters – as with the other topics covered in this book – is conceptually rich and technically sophisticated. A useful antidote, in fact, to the settled orthodoxy surrounding these philosophical issues…Maxwell has written a book that aims to put the metaphysics back in physics. It is ambitious in scope, well-argued, and deserves to be seriously studied.”
Professor Niall Shanks, Metascience
The Human World in the Physical Universe: Consciousness, Free Will and Evolution (2001)
" Ambitious and carefully-argued...I strongly recommend this book. It presents a version of compatibilism that attempts to do real justice to common sense ideas of free will, value, and meaning, and... it deals with many aspects of the most fundamental problems of existence."
Dr.David Hodgson, Journal of Consciousness Studies
"Maxwell has not only succeeded in bringing together the various different subjects that make up the human world/physical universe problem in a single volume, he has done so in a comprehensive, lucid and, above all, readable way."
Dr. M. Iredale, Trends in Cognitive Sciences
"...a bald summary of this interesting and passionately‑argued book does insufficient justice to the subtlety of many of the detailed arguments it contains."
Professor Bernard Harrison, Mind
“Nicholas Maxwell takes on the ambitious project of explaining, both epistemologically and metaphysically, the physical universe and human existence within it. His vision is appealing; he unites the physical and the personal by means of the concepts of aim and value, which he sees as the keys to explaining traditional physical puzzles. Given the current popularity of theories of goal-oriented dynamical systems in biology and cognitive science, this approach is timely. . . The most admirable aspect of this book is the willingness to confront every important aspect of human existence in the physical universe, and the recognition that in a complete explanation, all these aspects must be covered. Maxwell lays out the whole field, and thus provides a valuable map of the problem space that any philosopher must understand in order to resolve it in whole or in part.”
Professor Natika Newton, Philosophical Psychology
“This is a very complex and rich book. Maxwell convincingly explains why we should and how we can overcome the ‘unnatural’ segregation of science and philosophy that is the legacy of analytic philosophy. His critique of standard empiricism and defence of aim-oriented empiricism are especially stimulating”
Professor Thomas Bittner, Philosophical Books
“I recommend reading The Human World in the Physical Universe . . . for a number of reasons. First, [it] … provides the best entrance to Maxwell’s world of thought. Secondly, [it] contains a succinct but certainly not too-detailed overview of the various problems and positions in the currently flourishing philosophy of mind. Thirdly, it shows that despite the fact that many philosophers have declared Cartesian Dualism dead time and again, with some adjustments, the Cartesian view remains powerful and can compete effortlessly with other extant views”
Dr. F. A. Muller, Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics
“Some philosophers like neat arguments that address small questions comprehensively. Maxwell’s book is not for them. The Human World in the Physical Universe instead addresses big problems with broad brushstrokes.”
Dr. Rachel Cooper, Metascience
"A solid work of original thinking."
Professor L. McHenry, Choice
Is Science Neurotic? (2004)
"This book is bursting with intellectual energy and ambition...[It] provides a good account of issues needing debate. In accessible language, Maxwell articulates many of today's key scientific and social issues...his methodical analysis of topics such as induction and unity, his historical perspective on the Enlightenment, his opinions on string theory and his identification of the most important problems of living are absorbing and insightful."
Clare McNiven, Journal of Consciousness Studies
"Is science neurotic? Yes, says Nicholas Maxwell, and the sooner we acknowledge it and understand the reasons why, the better it will be for academic inquiry generally and, indeed, for the whole of humankind. This is a bold claim … But it is also realistic and deserves to be taken very seriously … My summary in no way does justice to the strength and detail of Maxwell's well crafted arguments … I found the book fascinating, stimulating and convincing … after reading this book, I have come to see the profound importance of its central message."
Dr. Mathew Iredale, The Philosopher's Magazine
"… the title Is Science Neurotic? could be rewritten to read Is Academe Neurotic? since this book goes far beyond the science wars to condemn, in large, sweeping gestures, all of modern academic inquiry. The sweeping gestures are refreshing and exciting to read in the current climate of specialised, technical, philosophical writing. Stylistically, Maxwell writes like someone following Popper or Feyerabend, who understood the philosopher to be improving the World, rather than contributing to a small piece of one of many debates, each of which can be understood only by the small number of its participants…. In spite of this, the argument is complex, graceful, and its finer points are quite subtle…. The book's final chapter calls for nothing less than revolution in academia, including the very meaning of academic life and work, as well as a list of the nine most serious problems facing the contemporary world - problems which it is the task of academia to articulate, analyse, and attempt to solve. This chapter sums up what the reader has felt all along: that this is not really a work of philosophy of science, but a work of 'Philosophy', which addresses 'Big Questions' and answers them without hesitation…. I enjoyed the book as a whole for its intelligence, courageous spirit, and refusal to participate in the specialisation and elitism of the current academic climate…. it is a book that can be enjoyed by any intelligent lay-reader. It is a good book to assign to students for these reasons, as well - it will get them thinking about questions like: What is science for? What is philosophy for? Why should we think? Why should we learn? How can academia contribute of the welfare of people? … the feeling with which this book leaves the reader [is] that these are the questions in which philosophy is grounded and which it ought never to attempt to leave behind."
Margret Grebowicz, Metascience
"Maxwell's fundamental idea is so obvious that it has escaped notice. But acceptance of the idea requires nothing short of a complete revolution for the disciplines. Science should become more intellectually honest about its
metaphysical presuppositions and its involvement in contributing to human value. Following this first step it cures itself of its irrational repressed aims and is empowered to progress to a more civilized world."
Professor Leemon McHenry, Review of Metaphysics
"Maxwell argues that the metaphysical assumptions underlying present-day scientific inquiry, referred to as standard empiricism or SE, have led to ominous irrationality. Hence the alarmingly provocative title; hence also-the argument carries this far-the sad state of the world today. Nor is Maxwell above invoking, as a parallel example to science's besetting "neurosis," the irrational behavior of Oedipus as Freud saw him: unintentionally yet intentionally slaying his father for love of his mother (Mother Earth?). Maxwell proposes replacing SE with his own metaphysical remedy, aim-oriented empiricism, or AOE. Since science does not acknowledge metaphysical presumptions and therefore disallows questioning them - they are, by definition, outside the realm of scientific investigation - Maxwell has experienced, over the 30-plus years of his professional life, scholarly rejection, which perhaps explains his occasional shrill tone. But he is a passionate and, despite everything, optimistic idealist. Maxwell claims that AOE, if adopted, will help deal with major survival problems such as global warming, Third World poverty, and nuclear disarmament, and science itself will become wisdom-oriented rather than knowledge-oriented--a good thing. A large appendix, about a third of the book, fleshes the argument out in technical, epistemological terms. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers; graduate students; faculty."
Professor M. Schiff, Choice
Is Science Neurotic? … is a rare and refreshing text that convincingly argues for a new conception of scientific empiricism that demands a re-evaluation of what [science and philosophy] can contribute to one another and of what they, and all academia, can contribute to humanity… Is Science Neurotic? is primarily a philosophy of science text, but it is clear that Maxwell is also appealing to scientists. The clear and concise style of the text's four main chapters make them accessible to anyone even vaguely familiar with philosophical writing and physics… it is quite inspiring to read a sound critique of the fragmented state of academia and an appeal to academia to promote and contribute to social change.
Sarah Smellie, Canadian Undergraduate Physics Journal
"Maxwell's aspirations are extraordinarily and admirably ambitious. He intends to contribute towards articulating and bringing about a form of social progress that embodies rationality and wisdom... by raising the question of how to integrate science into wisdom-inquiry and constructing novel and challenging arguments in answer to it, Maxwell is drawing attention to issues that need urgent attention in the philosophy of science."
Professor Hugh Lacey, Mind
“Maxwell has written a very important book . . . Maxwell eloquently discusses the astonishing advances and the terrifying realities of science without global wisdom. While science has brought forth significant advancements for society, it has also unleashed the potential for annihilation. Wisdom is now, as he puts it, not a luxury but a necessity . . . Maxwell’s book is first-rate. It demonstrates his erudition and devotion to his ideal of developing wisdom in students. Maxwell expertly discusses basic problems in our intellectual goals and methods of inquiry.”
Professor Joseph Davidow, Learning for Democracy
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Synopsis of What's Wrong With Science? | Publication and Distribution Details | What Critics Said about the First Edition | Preface to Second Edition |
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What ought to be the aims of science? How can science best serve humanity? What would an ideal science be like, a science that is sensitively and humanely responsive to the needs, problems and aspirations of people? How ought the institutional enterprise of science to be related to the rest of society? What ought to be the relationship between science and art, thought and feeling, reason and desire, mind and heart? Should the social sciences model themselves on the natural sciences: or ought they to take a different form if they are to serve the interests of humanity objectively, sensitively and rigorously? Might it be possible to get into human life, into art, education, politics, industry, international affairs, and other domains of human activity, the same kind of progressive success that is found so strikingly, on the intellectual level, within science? These are some of the questions tackled by What’s Wrong With Science? But the book is no abstruse treatise on the philosophy of science. Most of it takes the form of a passionate debate between a Scientist and a Philosopher, a debate that is by turns humorous, ironical, bitter, dramatically explosive. Even as the argument explores the relationship between thought and feeling, reason and desire, the two main protagonists find it necessary to examine their own feelings and motivations. The book is a delight to read and can be understood by anyone. The book should have a wide appeal. It will be of interest to any scientist concerned about the intellectual and moral integrity of modern science – whether working in a physical, biological or social science. It will be of interest to educationalists, science teachers, students, 6th form pupils, historians, sociologists and philosophers of science, and indeed to anyone concerned about the place and role of science and technology in the modern world. First published in 1976, the book is even more relevant today than it was 33 years ago. This second edition has a new introduction in which the author explains how the book both exploits and develops Karl Popper’s philosophy (see below)
Publication and Distribution Details
What’s Wrong With Science? Towards a People's Rational Science of Delight and Compassion
by Nicholas Maxwell, 2nd edition, Pentire Press, London, pp. xiv + 294, £6.99 $10.60
ISBN 978-0-9552240-1-0. Publication: 1st September 2009.
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What Critics Said about the First Edition
“Nicholas Maxwell believes that science (and also philosophy of science) should be humane and adventurous. In What’s Wrong With Science? he boldly practises what he preaches. The argument is presented as a dialogue; and (rare among philosophers) Maxwell makes the debate lively and well-balanced…as a modern philosophical dialogue, the book is both instructive and great fun.”
Jerry Ravetz, New Scientist
“how to be compassionate should be, on Maxwell’s view, part of the process of our rational inquiry. Through compassion, technology and applied science become humane. How this inquiry can be conducted with the desired result is by no means clear, but that its mastery is required for our survival in the technological age is certain.”
Alan Drengson, Philosophical Investigations
“This is an unusual book…an unusually refreshing one.”
T. A. Goudge, Philosophy of Social Science
What One Critic Said about the Second Edition
‘This rather peculiar and extremely provocative book…. is just "throwing open new possibilities, entertainingly indicating Weltanschauung that may not have occurred to people", and what a possibility he's (really entertainingly) opening! ……. [T]he whole dialogue did work – the reading was pleasant and seemed almost real (rare events are those when philosophers actually do write in an attractive way)….. [I]t cannot be ignored that science has, at least in an indirect way, brought along not just prosperity but also grave global problems (global warming, arms of mass destruction, etc.). If our author is correct, which he probably is, that they are the "almost inevitable outcome" of science's failure to get rid of the philosophical idea of standard empiricism then he just might have a very good point. And even though this book, notwithstanding the hopes of our author, will probably not save the world, it will definitely not contribute to destroying it!’
Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, Metapsychology
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Preface to Second Edition of What's Wrong With Science
This book spells out an idea that just might save the world. It is that science, properly understood, provides us with the methodological key to the salvation of humanity.
A version of this idea can be found buried in the works of Karl Popper. Famously, Popper argued that science cannot verify theories, but can only refute them. This sounds very negative, but actually it is not, for science succeeds in making such astonishing progress by subjecting its theories to sustained, ferocious attempted falsification. Every time a scientific theory is refuted by experiment or observation, scientists are forced to try to think up something better, and it is this, according to Popper, which drives science forward.
Popper went on to generalize this falsificationist conception of scientific method to form a notion of rationality, critical rationalism, applicable to all aspects of human life. Falsification becomes the more general idea of criticism. Just as scientists make progress by subjecting their theories to sustained attempted empirical falsification, so too all of us, whatever we may be doing, can best hope to achieve progress by subjecting relevant ideas to sustained, severe criticism. By subjecting our attempts at solving our problems to criticism, we give ourselves the best hope of discovering (when relevant) that our attempted solutions are inadequate or fail, and we are thus compelled to try to think up something better. By means of judicious use of criticism, in personal, social and political life, we may be able to achieve, in life, progressive success somewhat like the progressive success achieved by science. We can, in this way, in short, learn from scientific progress how to make personal and social progress in life. Science, as I have said, provides the methodological key to our salvation.
I discovered Karl Popper’s work when I was a graduate student doing philosophy at Manchester University, in the early 1960s. As an undergraduate, I was appalled at the triviality, the sterility, of so-called “Oxford philosophy”. This turned its back on all the immense and agonizing problems of the real world – the mysteries and grandeur of the universe, the wonder of our life on earth, the dreadful toll of human suffering – and instead busied itself with the trite activity of analysing the meaning of words. Then I discovered Popper, and breathed a sigh of relief. Here was a philosopher who, with exemplary intellectual integrity and passion, concerned himself with the profound problems of human existence, and had extraordinarily original and fruitful things to say about them. The problems that had tormented me had in essence, I felt, already been solved.
But then it dawned on me that Popper had failed to solve his fundamental problem – the problem of understanding how science makes progress. In one respect, Popper’s conception of science is highly unorthodox: all scientific knowledge is conjectural; theories are falsified but cannot be verified. But in other respects, Popper’s conception of science is highly orthodox. For Popper, as for most scientists and philosophers, the basic aim of science is knowledge of truth, the basic method being to assess theories with respect to evidence, nothing being accepted as a part of scientific knowledge independently of evidence. This orthodox view – which I came to call standard empiricism – is, I realised, false. Physicists only ever accept theories that are unified – theories that depict the same laws applying to the range of phenomena to which the theory applies. Endlessly many empirically more successful disunified rivals can always be concocted, but these are always ignored. This means, I realised, that science does make a big, permanent, and highly problematic assumption about the nature of the universe independently of empirical considerations and even, in a sense, in violation of empirical considerations – namely, that the universe is such that all grossly disunified theories are false. Without some such presupposition as this, the whole empirical method of science breaks down.
It occurred to me that Popper, along with most scientists and philosophers, had misidentified the basic aim of science. This is not truth per se. It is rather truth presupposed to be unified, presupposed to be explanatory or comprehensible (unified theories being explanatory). Inherent in the aim of science there is the metaphysical – that is, untestable – assumption that there is some kind of underlying unity in nature. The universe is, in some way, physically comprehensible.
But this assumption is profoundly problematic. We do not know that the universe is comprehensible. This is a conjecture. Even if it is comprehensible, almost certainly it is not comprehensible in the way science presupposes it is today. For good Popperian reasons, this metaphysical assumption must be made explicit within science and subjected to sustained criticism, as an integral part of science, in an attempt to improve it.
The outcome is a new conception of science, and a new kind of science, which I called aim-oriented empiricism. This subjects the aims, and associated methods, of science to sustained critical scrutiny, the aims and methods of science evolving with evolving knowledge. Philosophy of science (the study of the aims and methods of science) becomes an integral, vital part of science itself. And science becomes much more like natural philosophy in the time of Newton, a synthesis of science, methodology, epistemology, metaphysics and philosophy.
The aim of seeking explanatory truth is however a special case of a more general aim, that of seeking valuable truth. And this is sought in order that it be used by people to enrich their lives. In other words, in addition to metaphysical assumptions inherent in the aims of science there are value assumptions, and political assumptions, assumptions about how science should be used in life. These are, if anything, even more problematic than metaphysical assumptions. Here, too, assumptions need to be made explicit and critically assessed, as an integral part of science, in an attempt to improve them.
Released from the crippling constraints of standard empiricism, science would burst out into a wonderful new life, realising its full potential, responding fully both to our sense of wonder and to human suffering, becoming both more rigorous and of greater human value.
And then, in a flash of inspiration, I had my great idea. I could tread a path parallel to Popper’s. Just as Popper had generalized falsificationism to form critical rationalism, so I could generalise my aim-oriented empiricist conception of scientific method to form an aim-oriented conception of rationality, potentially fruitfully applicable to all that we do, to all spheres of human life. But the great difference would be this. I would be starting out from a conception of science – of scientific method – that enormously improves on Popper’s notion. In generalizing this, to form a general idea of progress-achieving rationality, I would be creating an idea of immense power and fruitfulness.
I knew already that the line of argument developed by Popper, from falsificationism to critical rationalism, was of profound importance for our whole culture and social order, and had far-reaching implications and application for science, art and art criticism, literature, music, academic inquiry quite generally, politics, law, morality, economics, psychoanalytic theory, evolution, education, history – for almost all aspects of human life and culture. The analogous line of argument I was developing, from aim-oriented empiricism to aim-oriented rationalism, would have even more fruitful implications and applications for all these fields, starting as it did from a much improved initial conception of the progress-achieving methods of science.
The key point is extremely simple. It is not just in science that aims are profoundly problematic. This is true in life as well. Above all, it is true of the aim of creating a good world – an aim inherently problematic for all sorts of more or less obvious reasons. It is not just in science that problematic aims are misconstrued or “repressed”; this happens all too often in life too, both at the level of individuals, and at the institutional or social level as well. We urgently need to build into our scientific institutions and activities the aims-and-methods-improving methods of aim-oriented empiricism, so that scientific aims and methods improve as our scientific knowledge and understanding improve. Likewise, and even more urgently, we need to build into all our other institutions, into the fabric of our personal and social lives, the aims-and-methods-improving methods of aim-oriented rationality, so that we may improve our personal, social and global aims and methods as we live.
One outcome of the 20th century is a widespread and deep-seated cynicism concerning the capacity of humanity to make real progress towards a genuinely civilized, good world. Utopian ideals and programmes, whether of the far left or right, that have promised heaven on earth, have led to horrors. Stalin’s and Hitler’s grandiose plans led to the murder of millions. Even saner, more modest, more humane and rational political programmes, based on democratic socialism, liberalism, or free markets and capitalism, seem to have failed us. Thanks largely to modern science and technology, many of us today enjoy far richer, healthier and longer lives than our grandparents or great grandparents, or those who came before. Nevertheless the modern world is confronted by grave global problems: the lethal character of modern war, the spread and threat of armaments, conventional, chemical, biological and nuclear, rapid population growth, severe poverty of millions in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, destruction of tropical rain forests and other natural habitats, rapid extinction of species, annihilation of languages and cultures. And over everything hangs the menace of climate change, threatening to intensify all the other problems (apart, perhaps, from population growth).
All these grave global problems are the almost inevitable outcome of the successful exploitation of science and technology plus the failure to build aim-oriented rationality into the fabric of our personal, social and institutional lives. Modern science and technology make modern industry and agriculture possible, which in turn make possible population growth, modern armaments and war, destruction of natural habitats and extinction of species, and global warming. Modern science and technology, in other words, make it possible for us to achieve the goals of more people, more industry and agriculture, more wealth, longer lives, more development, housing and roads, more travel, more cars and aeroplanes, more energy production and use, more and more lethal armaments (for defence only of course!). These things seem inherently desirable and, in many ways, are highly desirable. But our successes in achieving these ends also bring about global warming, war, vast inequalities across the globe, destruction of habitats and extinction of species. All our current global problems are the almost inevitable outcome of our long-term failure to put aim-oriented rationality into practice in life, so that we actively seek to discover problems associated with our long-term aims, actively explore ways in which problematic aims can be modified in less problematic directions, and at the same time develop the social, the political, economic and industrial muscle able to change what we do, how we live, so that our aims become less problematic, less destructive in both the short and long term. We have failed even to appreciate the fundamental need to improve aims and methods as the decades go by. Conventional ideas about rationality are all about means, not about ends, and are not designed to help us improve our ends as we proceed. Implementing aim-oriented rationality is essential if we are to survive in the long term. To repeat, the idea spelled out in this book, if taken seriously, just might save the world.
Einstein put his finger on what is wrong when he said "Perfection of means and confusion of goals seems, to my opinion, to characterize our age." This outcome is inevitable if we restrict rationality to means, and fail to demand that rationality – the authentic article – must quite essentially include the sustained critical scrutiny of ends.
Scientists, and academics more generally, have a heavy burden of responsibility for allowing our present impending state of crisis to develop. Putting aim-oriented rationality into practice in life can be painful, difficult and counter-intuitive. It involves calling into question some of our most cherished aspirations and ideals. We have to learn how to live in aim-oriented rationalistic ways. And here, academic inquiry ought to have taken a lead. The primary task of our schools and universities, indeed, ought to have been, over the decades, to help us learn how to improve aims and methods as we live. Not only has academia failed miserably to take up this task, or even see it as necessary or desirable. Even worse, perhaps, academia has failed itself to put aim-oriented rationality into practice. Science has met with such astonishing success because it has put something like aim-oriented empiricism into scientific practice – but this has been obscured and obstructed by the conviction of scientists that science ought to proceed in accordance with standard empiricism – with its fixed aim and fixed methods. Science has achieved success despite, and not because of, general allegiance of scientists to standard empiricism.
The pursuit of scientific knowledge dissociated from a more fundamental concern to help humanity improve aims and methods in life is, as we have seen, a recipe for disaster. This is the crisis behind all the others. It is this crisis that this book tackles head on.
Much of the book takes the form of a fierce debate between a Scientist and a Philosopher, although towards the end of the book various other characters blunder into the book – a Romantic, a Rationalist, a Liberal, a Marxist, a Christian, a Buddhist and, right at the end of the book, a Wino. I am ashamed to say that even I put in an appearance towards the end, when things get a bit out of hand.
When I wrote the book, I wanted the Scientist to be misguided, a firm upholder of the orthodox conception of science of standard empiricism, but nevertheless a man of intellectual integrity. I had in mind someone like the psychologist Hans Eysenck. My idea was that the argument should reflect real life arguments in being explosively emotional at times, and also such that no one was convinced by the arguments of the opposition. In Plato, again and again, Socrates produces ridiculous arguments and his opponents say “Yes, O Socrates” and “How true, O Socrates”. In my experience this never happens in real life. My dialogue, I decided, would be the very opposite of Plato’s dialogues in this respect.
I first had my “flash of inspiration”, upon which this book is based, in 1972. I wrote a manuscript called The Aims of Science and sent it off to Macmillan’s for consideration for publication. I met three editors, each of whom became very excited about the book before leaving and passing the manuscript onto their successor. Finally the book was passed onto a new editor, a Marxist I was told, who I never met, and who rejected the book. It was never published. I wrote and wrote drafts and sketches of books, one after another, in a frenzy of despair, fearing I would never succeed in publishing my great idea. Then a friend introduced me to a friend of his, who said he would publish a book of mine if I could get it ready in six weeks. I thought about it for three weeks, and then, in a state of exalted concentration, managed to write the whole of this book in the remaining three weeks. The debate between Scientist and Philosopher raged furiously in my head. I remember feeling as if I was in a train hurtling towards a dark tunnel; I had a few precious seconds to release a dove with an all-important message for humanity, but if I was not quick, the train would enter the tunnel, it would be too late, the dove would be killed, and the message would remain undelivered. I did finish the book on time, and it was published in the Autumn of 1976.
This book definitely belongs to the romantic phase of my working life. One of the accomplishments of the idea I expound is that it achieves a synthesis of rationalism and romanticism. As I say at one point: “At its best, science puts the mind in touch with the heart, and the heart in touch with the mind, so that we may acquire heartfelt minds, and mindful hearts”. Nevertheless, it is difficult in practice to achieve a balance between these two wings of our culture. In subsequent work I have swung into rationalist mode, anxious to make out as cogent a case as I can for the idea I have been struggling to communicate all these years. In this book, the romantic mode prevails.
But in rereading this book for this second edition, I was delighted, but also somewhat dismayed, to discover that much of the work I thought I had propounded later, in subsequent books and articles, is already present here, even if sometimes in nascent form. What the book has to say is as relevant today as it was in 1976 – perhaps more so. Subsequent intellectual developments have not dimmed its message, and subsequent events have, if anything, only served to highlight the urgency of what it has to say. Apart from correcting typographical errors, and adding at the end a list of relevant books and articles published after 1976, I have made no changes.
We are in deep trouble. We can no longer afford to blunder blindly on our way. We must strive to peer into the future and steer a course less doomed to disaster. Humanity must learn to take intelligent and humane responsibility for the unfolding of history. I hope this book helps.
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