Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Science Beats Historic Determinism

Edwin Land, founder of Poloroid, on science standing superior to historic determinism:
  • I believe there are two opposing theories of history, and you have to make your choice. Either you believe that this kind of individual greatness does exist and can be nurtured and developed, that such great individuals can be part of a cooperative community while they continue to be their happy, flourishing, contributing selves — or else you believe that there is some mystical, cyclical, overriding, predetermined, cultural law — a historic determinism.
    The great contribution of science is to say that this second theory is nonsense. The great contribution of science is to demonstrate that a person can regard the world as chaos, but can find in himself a method of perceiving, within that chaos, small arrangements of order, that out of himself, and out of the order that previous scientists have generated, he can make things that are exciting and thrilling to make, that are deeply spiritual contributions to himself and to his friends. The scientist comes to the world and says, "I do not understand the divine source, but I know, in a way that I don't understand, that out of chaos I can make order, out of loneliness I can make friendship, out of ugliness I can make beauty."
    I believe that men are born this way — that all men are born this way. I know that each of the undergraduates with whom I talked shares this belief. Each of these men felt secretly — it was his very special secret and his deepest secret — that he could be great.
    But not many undergraduates come through our present educational system retaining this hope. Our young people, for the most part — unless they are geniuses — after a very short time in college give up any hope of being individually great. They plan, instead, to be good. They plan to be effective, They plan to do their job. They plan to take their healthy place in the community. We might say that today it takes a genius to come out great, and a great man, a merely great man, cannot survive. It has become our habit, therefore, to think that the age of greatness has passed, that the age of the great man is gone, that this is the day of group research, that this is the day of community progress. Yet the very essence of democracy is the absolute faith that while people must cooperate, the first function of democracy, its peculiar gift, is to develop each individual into everything that he might be. But I submit to you that when in each man the dream of personal greatness dies, democracy loses the real source of its future strength. Does it not mean, perhaps, the opposite: that we must skillfully make them mature sooner, that we must find ways of handling the intricacy of our culture?
  • The fact that civilization is becoming more intricate must not mean that we treat men for a longer period as immature.
  • Now this error in attitude — mistaking these men for boys — permeates the whole scholastic domain, permeates it so thoroughly that it is hard for anyone within the domain to recognize it.
    What do I mean by saying that a man is treated as a boy? I mean that he is told, the moment he arrives, that his secret dream of greatness is a pipe-dream; that it will be a long time before he makes a significant, personal contribution — if ever.
    He is told this not with words. He is told this in a much more convincing way. He is shown, in everything that happens to him, that nobody could dream that he could make a significant, personal contribution.
  • The role of science is to be systematic, to be accurate, to be orderly, but it certainly is not to imply that the aggregated, successful hypotheses of the past have the kind of truth that goes into a number system.
  • I would urge that just as democracy initially meant the right of man to defend himself, to have a sword, and then meant the right to write, and then meant the right to read — so, now, democracy means the right to have the scientific experience.
  • A contemporary man who has not participated intimately in actual work in science is, in my opinion, not a modern man. I believe that this experience in science should come early in the life of all of our pupils.
  • There are areas where untrained people may work effectively and with limited equipment. Our pupil doesn't need a big laboratory to do this, he needs freedom; he needs encouragement.
  • I think we must say this to each department: "Sharpen up the edges of ideas for the students in fields other than your own. They will not have years in which to find out what you meant, years during which they might achieve a sense of rich insight into your domain. But they are intelligent, they are earnest in their own department; they will profit all their lives from one year of brilliant teaching."
    • In thinking about what the human animal might have gone through in the evolutionary process, have you wondered how some of the small changes which must have occurred could have had survival value? Haven't you wondered how they could have survived, when, in all of our experimental work every small change we make dies? ... How many changes must have occurred in the human eye, occurred and died, before one change came along — an apparently trivial change ... that gave the whole animal a significant increase in its power to perceive and hunt down its enemies and find its food. This is the kind of change that survives.
      To treat young men like men; to use modern recording techniques to capture the moment of exciting teaching; to gather ninety great men out of our one-hundred and seventy million — these, in retrospect, will seem like small changes indeed if they succeed in building a generation of greatness.
    • In my opinion, neither organisms nor organizations evolve slowly and surely into something better, but drift until some small change occurs which has immediate and overwhelming significance. The special role of the human being is not to wait for these favorable accidents but deliberately to introduce the small change that will have great significance.

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