a blog by josef johann

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Myth of "Science to a Fault"

At underverse, Chris Schoen tackles Jerry Coyne's question of why certain religions are agreed to be stupid and ridiculous while other religions with lots of followers are respected. Scientology is a laughingstock, precisely because its account of the world is impossible. Is this any less true of Catholicism or Judaism? Why, then, should they be respected?

For Chris, the difference appears to consist in the profound thinking can be occasionally generated by religious thinkers, and that this insight should open us up to the fact that the larger part of our humanity comes from truths not suggested to us by science. I have to pour some cold water on this. I also will have to quote Richard Feynman.

I'll start with the cold water: Chris says more by way of gesture and suggestion than by positive claims, so it's a little difficult to refute, but I think the essence comes in this paragraph:

It would be easy to conjure in our minds a hypothetical example of an unschooled rube, possibly bigoted, possibly lacking in self knowledge, and shielded from empathizing with his fellow humans by the comforting certainty of his dogma. To Coyne, or Dawkins, or Sam Harris, all literal religious belief is of this stripe. But we also have the benefit of calling to mind the writings of Kierkegaard, who brilliantly anticipated the quandary we find ourselves in now, by reversing the question: what's so respectable, so free-thinking, of believing something simply because it's patently true?

I will (try to) answer this question shortly. But this second portion is worth excerpting as it brings everything together:

But I nonetheless hope I have begun what may be a necessary challenge to the idea that belief in empirical truth is any more inherently respectable than subscribing to the truth of great art and literature. On what grounds would it be so, that are not self-establishing? Perhaps this question will help to reinforce Murdoch's insistence that "we are moral agents before we are scientists," and that "how to picture and understand human situations" must always precede descriptions from a more putatively objective perspective.

I think this involves a certain failure of imagination for the brilliance open to us in genuine scientific understanding. Science is "merely true" and advocacy of the kind done by biologists like Coyne, Dawkins, etc. supposedly involves a deafness to one's ability to empathize and understand the better part of our creative capacities. They chase after absolute science the way Ebeneezer Scrooge chased after money: to the detriment of their inner sense of humanity. If only they returned to art, to family (to religion?), they would gain back that perspective and become good again. This caricature has been the staple source of science fiction villains for decades, likely because it is widely perceived to still have a grain of truth.

But what a curiously stagnant, stale perspective "science" becomes under this rendering! This is "science" of middle school vocabulary quizzes, of a droning Ben Stein giving a high-school lecture. This is the "science" you get after it filters down through successive peer-reviews and text-book edits and conversational paraphrasings, chopping off ever more of the flailing spirit of curiosity and vision that originally bound it to its manifold participations in the universe.

It's not the science that communicates the profound massiveness of Arcturus. It's not the science that's sensitive to the onslaught of sensory information you experience in a kiss. It's not even the science that elegantly traces the simple net of balancing forces and frictions that somehow hold my stack of books together in my under-shelved room.

At this moment, I can't help but let the utterly irresistible Richard Feyman complete my thought for me (which I will be doing a few times more):

I have a friend who's an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don't agree with. He'll hold up a flower and say, "Look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree. But then he'll say, "I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull." I think he's kind of nutty. [...] There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower.

Here is another outstanding one, where Feynman looks at the stars... and then back at the poet:

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is "mere." I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part... What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

There are so many like this that I can barely hold myself to quoting just these two. This is the popular myth that Schoen is invoking- that there is a mutual exclusivity between our sense of humanity and the perspective we obtain by being scientific, and that therefore we must perform a balancing act that involves appreciating religious, poetic, artistic contributions to understanding, as though they presided over ontologically distinct realms.

I this false distinction comes from the fact that our cognitive sciences still obviously have much to discover, and in the meanwhile we experience all kinds of things like hope, love, fear... that are immediate consequences of the very cognitive processes we have yet to understand. And so, civilization has had century upon century to stand in front of these problems, and generate a flourishing history of literature and poetry, which have inspired premature "answers" to these problems and languished and crystallized over time.

And this is the point where people are wont to throw incredulous questions at one another from across separate language games: one can ask disbelievingly: "So you're saying that there is no such thing as poetry?" (No.) "So we can use science to analyze poetry and aesthetics for us?" (A question that sounds more like a threat than a question, and speaks to the larger conversation about underlying premises that I think is entailed.)

As for his re-asking of Kierkegaard's question: The "mere facts" being advanced by Richard Dawkins, or Jerry Coyne, carry in toe a whole understanding of the scientific perspective that people are still deeply uncomfortable with and unprepared to embrace, because of the mistaken belief that one can be scientific "to an extreme" (e.g. the "moral agent" as something juxtaposed against a person inhabiting a scientific perspective). Poetry is indeed about a world that is physical, and material, a fact that does not diminish poetic truths but rather situates them in a framework that coheres with the scientific understanding. It's this larger stride toward a fullness of perspective without religious explanations that, I think, Dawkins & co. are after. Here again, Feyman states it better than I ever could:

Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers, you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.

I'm glad that a challenge to comparative respectability of empiricism has been initiated. This conversation was inevitable, and there are a lot of well-entrenched assumptions about the "limits" of science that will have to be confronted sooner or later. I think a discussion along these lines will eventually make clear poetic and religious insights (as distinguished from science) is a concept that will go the way of the Cartesian "mind" (as distinguished from body). As Richard Rorty observed, "the mind" was also a belligerent holdover from an old vocabulary when the problem looked differently than it does today, and it is not so much an irony as a haunting fact that today, creationists have begun co-opting the old philosophical arguments in favor of a non-spatial, non-scientific mind to pry open a gap and inject their dogma.

I leave you with a final thought on the value of science by Richard Feynman:

There are the rushing waves...
mountains of molecules,
each stupidly minding its own business...
trillions apart
...yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages...
before any eyes could see...
year after year...
thunderously pounding the shore as now.
For whom, for what?
...on a dead planet
with no life to entertain.

Never at rest...
tortured by energy...
wasted prodigiously by the sun...
poured into space.
A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea,
all molecules repeat
the patterns of another
till complex new ones are formed.
They make others like themselves...
and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity...
living things,
masses of atoms,
DNA, protein...
dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle
onto dry land...
here it is standing...
atoms with consciousness
...matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea...
wonders at wondering... I...
a universe of atoms...
an atom in the universe.


Sharon E. Dreyer said...

The difference between religion and science is that religion is one's belief in God and science is studying everything around us. Some scientist cannot believe in God because they have no equation to proove to themselves and others that exists because: x = ABC = GOD. Since God isn't tangible to them, science becomes their god. The world around us becomes a math equation and everything must be explained because of their calculations. Let's not forget how one scientific theory is examined decades later and found to be flawed and a new theory becomes the scientific standard. Scientists are repeatedly surprised by unexpected results; such is the case of predicting the weather. How many times do the weather scientist get it right? This is a subject that will be debated as long as men walk this earth.

underverse said...

For all his strengths, if Feynman hadn't passed on a couple of decades ago I'd counsel him not to quit his day job. He had a funny sense of what poetry was for. At any rate, I've responded to this at my place.

josef said...


That is so flabbergastingly off topic that I couldn't begin to understand your obliviousness without the risk of internalizing some part of it. Therefore, I won't try.

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