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Science, Meaning and Auschwitz

April 18, 2012

The psychologist and Holocaust survivor Bruno Bettleheim observed that two groups in particular tended to survive better mentally in Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps – Communists and Jehova’s Witnesses.  Primo Levi, the Italian-Jewish writer who survived Auschwitz, was impressed by the Salonika Jews whose intense group and religious identity made them a formidable bulwark of psychological robustness – and hence physical survival.Image


I guess that what these groups had in common was a sense of meaning or, more specifically, a personal identity which was embedded in a broader – and to some extents transcendent – reality or ideology, whether that be  Christianity, Judaism or the Class Struggle.  This made the threat of extinction of their individual personality less of an existential threat because the greater identity, whatever that was, would live on. 

Among educated,  relatively well-off middle-class academia in the western world, science seems to be becoming a source of meaning and purpose – even a generator of ‘moral good’.  I welcome this because scientific thinking is one of the few bulwarks against superstition and the sort of biased and self-deluding heuristics that Nobel prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky so beautifully identified in human thinking.

BUT – there is a problem: science is JUST a method, NOT a ‘science-ology’ system of beliefs.  Science is a wonderful invention designed to combat the enormous biases and lacunae that exist in human attention, perception, memory and reasoning.

The evangelical zeal with which Richard Dawkins and others  preach a sort of science-ology, including on adverts on London buses, offers science as a source of meaning, which it can never be, because – quite simply – it is just a method.

So here is my question: to what extent is the comfort and solace apparently offered by science really just an outcrop of the fact that its main advocates are well-off, well-educated, western people who have known only peace in their lifetimes?  How would science-ology fare in Auschwitz and other extreme situations? Would it, in other words, survive the watchful eyes of Bruno Bettleheim and Primo Levi?   

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 14, 2013 9:00 pm

    “Science, Meaning and Auschwitz Professor Ian Robertson”
    was indeed certainly pleasurable and useful! In the present day society that’s quite hard to deliver.
    Thank you, Leonardo

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