A Second Scientific Revolution Reveals the Mortality of the Modern World
In this essay I explain how I moved from a critique of a metaphor of two worlds, America and Europe, to a critique of a metaphor of two worlds, modern and traditional. I also now see America and the modern as symbolic representations of a limitless frontier. I see Europe and the traditional as symbolic representations of a limited home. Once I saw Europeans leaving home to come to an American frontier; now I see modern people leaving traditional homes to come to a universal frontier/marketplace. And I see this powerful modern prophecy of an exodus from a limited old world to a limitless new world as the major cause of our dangerous environmental crisis. We do not nurture our earthly home because we believe we are going to a frontier of unlimited resources.
During the summer of 1944 I became self-conscious of the fact that irony is a significant aspect of human experience. I had graduated from high school into the army in June 1943. Throughout my childhood and youth I was told that my German grandparents had left a European old world of economic scarcity and war and came to an American new world of plenty and peace. But now in an army hospital I began to question this metaphor of two worlds and the concept of a redemptive exodus to a new world. Before being injured in an accidental explosion I had experienced severe poverty from 1940, when our farm was foreclosed, to 1943, when I entered the army. Our home for my father, mother, and me during those years was a small barn that had electricity and running water. We could not afford morphine to ease my father’s pain as he was dying from stomach cancer.
My sense of irony was compounded, therefore, by my financial ability as a disabled veteran to enroll at Princeton University in 1945. Working with my older brother in the 1930s to deliver milk in Princeton, I had learned that Princeton University was a school for the sons of rich men. I was not grateful, however, that I could now sit in classes with young men who came from wealthy backgrounds. But I was grateful that I could begin to prepare for a career in teaching. I wanted to inform my fellow citizens that the metaphor of two worlds and an exodus narrative were not true. They were not an accurate description of human experience.
During my four months in an army hospital I had experienced another major irony. As I lost faith in the exodus narrative that said we Americans had left a corrupt and limited Europe to come to a virtuous and unlimited America, I began to take my Sunday faith seriously. I had gone with my mother to the Episcopal Church in Princeton because she wanted me to share her faith. But I had not felt that I was part of a sacred tradition. I had not felt the presence of a divine spirit. But now I did. A loving spirit was helping me regain my strength. But I was also becoming aware that my Anglican tradition told me that, while we are participants in a sacred mystery, we are not gods. We are limited by our sinfulness. In this world we cannot create a heaven comparable to the one we enter at our death.
This theology has implicitly informed all my articles and books. There I have criticized our modern dream of transcending limits. But I have not made public the theological foundation for my criticism. At Princeton I had quickly learned that academic culture assumed that there are two worlds, one of facts and one of values; one of rationality and one of emotion. It was academic orthodoxy that the academic world was a realm of facts and rationality. I, therefore, began to present my criticisms of our modern pridefulness, our faith that we can achieve perpetual economic growth in secular language. I wonder, however, how readers of my book on male American novelists could ignore the theological implications of the title — The Eternal Adam and the New World Garden.
As I began teaching at the University of Minnesota in 1952, I was being informed by my new colleagues in political science, sociology, and economics that this faith in a redemptive exodus from a dark old world to a bright new world was not limited to particular nations. For these social scientists Europeans coming to America were participants in an exodus from traditional societies, and this exodus would conclude only when all peoples had reached a uniform modern society. They would have moved from many particular societies dominated by imagination and emotion to a single rational society.
It had been difficult for me to accept this shift from a focus on a particular nation to a focus on a transnational civilization because my experience as a student and now as a teacher was with the fragmentation of academic disciplines. I had been taught an American history in isolation from all other American countries. It was taught in isolation from all countries on other continents. The motto of my modern academic world seemed to be that of “autonomy forever. We will never recognize interrelatedness and interdependence.” My writings and teaching, therefore, from 1945 to the 1980s were investigations into an isolated history of the United States. In the 1960s I did suggest to my colleagues in History and American Studies that we should talk about American exceptionalism after we compared cultural patterns of the United States to the cultural patterns of other American and European nations. As I write in 2015, however, I am not aware of any major effort to replace academic independence with academic interdependence.
My senior thesis at Princeton in 1947 had focused on the men who created the New Republic Magazine in 1914. I pointed out that their prophecy that a new republic was emerging had failed by 1920. An article based on this thesis was published in 1951 by a scholarly journal as “The New Republic and the Idea of Progress, 1914-1920.” My dissertation was published in 1958 with the title The Paradox of Progressive Thought. There I discussed several major academic figures in history, political science, and sociology who shared the prophecy put forward in 1914 by New Republic editors. They, too, became a lost generation by 1920, when their envisioned exodus had not reached a new world.
In my second book, Historians Against History (1965), I described a pattern in which the first English invaders of America believed they had reached a promised land. They would no longer experience time and complexity. But, then, they realized that they had created a new complex and timeful culture. They were not saints who had left sinners behind. A new generation of young people, therefore, had to move away from the timeful homes that had been built along the Atlantic seaboard. They would move West to find a simple timeless frontier. I next saw a similar pattern in which a sequence of historians from the 1830s to the 1930s had expected a successful exodus and then witnessed its failure. But then they became prophets of another exodus that would end time. Charles Beard was the last major historian in this sequence. He bitterly opposed our entry into World War II because he feared we would be corrupted by the profane complexity that existed outside the sacred boundaries of his country.
My third book, The Eternal Adam and the New World Garden (1968) demonstrated that I was still not aware of how extensively my academic colleagues in the social sciences were using an exodus narrative in their theories of worldwide change from traditional societies that were complex and timeful to the simple and timeless space of the modern world and its transnational marketplace. I did not as yet consider that the prophets of modernization were predicting an exodus that would lead to a heaven on earth.
I was aware, however, that I had become a heretic. In The Eternal Adam and the New World Garden, I had discussed several major male novelists. In contrast to the historians, these novelists declared that humans are always complex and timeful and so they will always create societies that are complex and timeful. In Hawthorne and Faulkner and several other novelists, I had found fellow heretics. I was delighted by this questioning of the United States as a heaven on earth, but I still did not see the relationship of modernization theorists to the faith in an exodus leading to an enchanted American world of peace and plenty.
But by the 1980s I did look back at the impact of World War II on the metaphor of two worlds. In my books, The End of American History (1985), Death of a Nation (2002), and Debating the End of History (2012), I focused on how the end of isolation had changed the relationship of a supposedly isolated United States to transnational capitalism. The major story now being created by social scientists was that the United States was the center of international capitalism. In 1945 leaders of the Soviet Union insisted that all the peoples in the world were about to become communists. But theorists of modernization declared that the United States would inspire the conversion of all peoples to a capitalism which would be the economic foundation for a modern world that was perpetually young.
This focus on capitalism as a transnational force supposedly leading humanity from a limited past to an unlimited future brought me to my current book project, The Capitalist Imagination and the Two Scientific Revolutions: Sacralization, Then Desacralization. I had become certain that the exodus narrative and the metaphor of two worlds that had been so powerful in my childhood imagination were much more than a myth about European and American geography. And I wondered, therefore, about the role of capitalists in creating the metaphor of two worlds — the medieval world as a Dark Age and the modern world as the Age of Enlightenment. This shift from a national to an international focus was interrelated with my growing belief that some current scientists were replacing the Enlightenment theory that nature is a timeless space with the theory that nature is a timeful space. As a heretic I had rejoiced when I found novelists who shared my heresy. They, too, believed that humans are always within time. There is no timeless new world. But now I was finding that there were scientists who also were heretics. They, too, denied the modern belief that one can leave a timeful old world and reach a timeless new world. I had become aware, then, that a small group of scientists had been arguing since the 1970s that there were limits to economic growth. The modern faith in endless growth had been given authority by the physics of Isaac Newton in the eighteenth century, who insisted that nature is a timeless space.
Early in my career I had described a sequence of prophecies that Europeans were leaving time behind when they escaped from their homes. They would leave time and limits behind when they reached a frontier that was a New World. They would be free from generational experience. They would be free from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This metaphor of two worlds, I now decided, was fundamental for the revolutionists in Europe during the Reformation and Renaissance. It was central to the capitalist rejection of a medieval home that was timeful and complex as well as corrupt and sinful. The modern sons of medieval fathers could not wait to leave this earthly hell that had been their home.
The slowly increasing minority of heretical scientists who, by the 1970s, were challenging the modern concept of space as timeless began to discover a number of isolated heretical scientists who had been challenging the Enlightenment perspective for at least a century. I learned that geology was created in the first half of the nineteenth century. These scientists were insisting that the earth had existed for millions of years and this living earth was constantly changing. The geologists saw a pattern of gradual change. But they also saw several moments of dramatic change when many living creatures became extinct. By 2000 heretical scientists were declaring that our growth economy was causing a period of such dramatic destruction, a Sixth Extinction.
Heretical scientists were also recovering the theories of a few late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century chemists who argued that the widespread burning of coal in the industrial revolution was releasing gases into the atmosphere that was causing climate change. During my undergraduate and graduate years I was taught that the First Scientific Revolution was the final scientific revolution because it revealed the timeless truths of a timeless nature. But now heretical scientists were telling me that these laws did not exist. They were telling me that nature’s laws are timeful. These heretical scientists, therefore, were and are creating a Second Scientific Revolution that must be ignored by modern people because their faith in perpetual economic growth depends upon the existence of timeless space. This is why it was so important for middle-class Europeans to believe in a timeless space. They were revolutionists. They wanted to destroy the world of their fathers that was corrupt and profane. The traditional world of their medieval fathers also defined capitalism as sinful. From the bourgeois perspective, capitalists had been denied their true identity as self-made men. For medievalists, humans inherited their identities from sacred traditions that were passed down from generation to generation. This belief in a sacred world of tradition also was critical of the capitalist commitment to self-interest. Traditional people celebrated interdependence and interrelatedness. A traditional society was a home where everyone was related to everyone. It was a spiritual community that identified usury — demanding interest from members of your extended family — as sinful.
Middle-class sons redefined sin. Their fathers were sinners because they had used their imaginations to create their traditions. They had presumed to be god-like when they participated in their human rituals. But the bourgeoisie in the Renaissance and Reformation insisted that they were not creating another traditional world. They were not engaged in a positive revolution. Their negative revolution would free them from the artfulness and sinfulness of their fathers. Stepping outside timeful traditions, the bourgeoisie were finding the sacred in the timeless nature created by God. The self-made man, using his rationality, could imitate the rationality of God’s Creation. Dwellers in traditional homes were wicked, but middle-class sons moving away from home were virtuous. They were reaching a frontier free from the complex emotions and artfulness of home.
This, I propose, is the orthodoxy of the modern world that is now being challenged by a Second Scientific Revolution. This Second Scientific Revolution agrees with the traditional belief that we are always interdependent and interrelated within our human and natural communities. We are interdependent and interrelated with the renewable resources that provide us with food, water, and shelter. Because modern people must leave their cultural homes, they must deny the existence of a nature that is home. To be modern, one must believe that when one leaves home one will find non-renewable resources that will sustain the exodus leading to a promised land.
As a heretic I am amazed at the power of the modern imagination. The bourgeoisie have never lived outside of culture; they have never lived outside of renewable resources. And, of course, they have never lived outside of generations. Children are born in middle-class homes. This is the timeful world of women who are dominated by their bodies and emotions, according to the bourgeois narrative. They, therefore, cannot be pioneers who find the timeless rational nature to which men can respond because of their capacity to reason. This is the world of the cowboy movies that I watched in the 1930s. Every generation of bourgeois men fail to reach timeless nature because they father children. They are creating families. This is why the bourgeoisie has constructed the nuclear family to replace the extended family characteristic of traditional societies.
In the nuclear family sons are taught that, in contrast to their fathers, they are innocent. They have not created families. They are observers, not participants, in the generations of the family. Fathers in the nuclear family will teach these innocent sons that they must leave home and become self-made on whatever frontier — state of nature, marketplace — they find. Fathers must teach their sons to live apart from families. They must separate themselves from the timeful world of women.
I am back to the major themes of Historians Against History, but now it is the entire community of middle-class people worldwide who are denying time, who are making prophecies that their generation will separate itself from all previous generations. And when the prophecy fails, the nuclear family will teach another generation that they can be self-made men. They will leave home, the world of women, and reach a frontier, the world of men. Each new generation of the nuclear family, if the exodus narrative is true, will be the final generation.
This, then, is why we are now experiencing an epic intellectual battle between capitalists and members of the Second Scientific Revolution. To exist, capitalism must constantly expand. This requires that every generation of capitalists can leave the limits of home to find a limitless frontier — the marketplace. But the members of the Second Scientific Revolution do not see two worlds. For them the earth is a home, not a frontier. Modern people, for these scientific heretics, have engaged in self-destructive behavior when they have treated their home as if it were a frontier. Economies within homes sustain the health of the community. Economies within frontiers-markets are committed to a constant expansion that liberates individuals from community.
Several defenders of timeless capitalism have tried to undermine the credibility of members of the Second Scientific Revolution by suggesting that they sound like pre-modern religious figures who warned against a future dominated by capitalism. This parallel, for me, is true. Members of the Second Scientific Revolution share the viewpoint of traditional societies that there are not two worlds — home and frontier. There is only the one world of home. Implicit in this vision of one world is the rejection of the modern belief in an old world of values and imagination and a new world of facts and rationality. Members of the Second Scientific Revolution are replacing an either-or world with a both-and world. They explicitly can talk about a profane and sacred world.
I see this intellectual war growing more intense because of the failure of the prophecies made by the modernizers in the 1980s and 1990s. They had declared that humanity was close to the climax of the exodus narrative. All peoples were about to step out of a flawed timeful world into a flawless timeless world. This is the pattern I discussed in my book, Debating the End of History (2012). But the worldwide crash of markets in 2007-2009 contradicted this prophecy.
More than a century ago Frederick Jackson Turner lamented the failure of the prophecy that Western frontiers would be a timeless space for self-made men. But there have been several prophecies since then which predicted that humanity would find a timeless international frontier. Given, however a world in 2015 that looks more like chaos than heaven, can modern people revitalize the prophecy of the 1990s? Can they create a new prophecy that when we leave home we will find a universal promised land, a final frontier?
At this moment of crisis the members of the Second Scientific Revolution are predicting that any attempt to revitalize the exodus narrative will fail. This makes me curious about the role of Judaism and Catholicism in this major culture war. From one perspective, they should not be present in the modern world because they celebrate sacred traditions passed down over generations. They are people who want to stay in their cultural home. They expect that sons will see the world as their fathers had.
One important warning in the sacred stories of Judaism and Catholicism is that humans will never experience perfection in this world — their home. But, for Judaism and Catholicism, this flawed world is good and beautiful. Their traditions, therefore, teach their members how to live in community by respecting their neighbors and respecting their natural environment.
But most modern people in 2015 think of Jews and Catholics as participants in the modern world. And many Jews and Catholics are indeed both traditional and modern. On the Sabbath they participate in the world of their sacred traditions. They celebrate generational continuity. But during the workweek, many Catholics and Jews implicitly base their lives on the modern faith that the economy will always expand. They participate in the modern faith in self-interest. It makes sense to them that one can be self-made in the marketplace. Like other modern people they don’t see how economic growth can be harmful to an earth that is, in the modern view, supposedly lifeless.
But if these Jews and Catholics, like the members of the Second Scientific Revolution, lose their faith in an immortal capitalism, will they use their traditional celebration of home and its generations to help create public values committed to economic sustainability rather than to economic growth? Looking back at traditions to find alternatives to the modern faith in endless growth may be a crucial aspect of any rejection of modern orthodoxy.
We are experiencing a revolution that has no revolutionary class. Heretics are not like the middle class planning to replace medieval aristocracy and peasantry. Heretics are not like a Marxist working class planning to replace the middle class. The members of the Second Scientific Revolution are not prophets of an exodus from an old to a new world. These critics of the modern world are people who were initiated into that culture. They, therefore, are heretics who renounce the modern exodus narrative. They no longer want to participate in a middle-class culture which insists that it has no limits. This renunciation of the modern world is based on the belief that all efforts to transcend limits are self-destructive. Members of the Second Scientific Revolution and other heretics want to save a living earth that is their home. Are we at the beginning, therefore, of a growing heresy that will replace modern orthodoxy? This alternative orthodoxy promises that we will experience spiritual fulfillment when we reject the exodus narrative and choose to stay home and take care of it. Will we, like traditional Jews, see ourselves in a transnational wasteland? Will we, like them, hope to experience an exodus that takes us back to a meaningful world, our home?
David W. Noble was born 91 years ago on a farm near Princeton, New Jersey. He earned his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin in 1952 and taught at the University of Minnesota from 1952-2009. He has published 10 books and directed more than 100 dissertations.