§7.1

a blog by josef johann

Thursday, July 30, 2009

If Max Baucus fails

The Missoula Independent profiles Max Baucus. They open with two competing portraits of Baucus, this being the positive one:

One view suggests Baucus is fulfilling his political destiny. The Montana senator, a Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, has prepared his entire 34-year career in Congress for this role. He's a savvy centrist. His political independence and the relationships he's fostered with senators on both sides of the aisle make him uniquely suited to broker intensely complicated negotiations among the most powerful people and special interests in Washington, D.C. Colleagues claim no one works harder than Baucus. He's spent more than a year—beginning well before President Obama took office and made health care reform his top domestic priority—holding hearings and educating committee members on the nuances of the issue. Baucus himself calls the process fun.


That being the case, if Baucus can savage the health care bill so much, and still not get significant Republican support, I think it would be fair to say his career is a failure. Is 34 years as a savvy, cooperative centrist finally culminating in a committee chairmanship and more than a year of hearings and devastating compromises not enough to win a couple Republican votes?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Harris and The Synthesis

There is an ongoing caricature of critical atheists, according to which they are identified more with an objectionable tenor than a body of criticisms. I think this characterization reflects a form of misoneism more than engagement, but it is probably also in part because the criticisms, such as they are, have only begun to cross over from philosophy departments into the sphere of "public dialogue."

In any case, if I could will that the character of atmospheric disagreeableness be replaced with a specific statement, it would be this:

Even the thoroughly liberalized thinking-mans theology, which has amended itself to the requirements of modernity by carving out its place as an explanation for the subtleties of human empathy and nature, is based on an unwarranted and premature assumption about the limits of science.

That it hasn't done so, I think, is typically held up as the point of differentiation between this moderated form of theology and its more fundamentalist counterparts. And it's one of the reasons why it's ok to aggressively refute any of the various iterations of fundamentalism, but not to treat moderates in a similar manner.

I think it would be pointless or even destructive to kick up a culture clash for the sake of it, as these moderates have also distinguished themselves from fundamentalists in that they continue to be relevant participants in the conversation on "human nature," so far as we are capable of having one.

However, there will probably come a point when the state of our scientific knowledge advances to the point that certain religiously inspired conceptions of the limits of science will prove to be a hindrance to scientific understanding in the same way that fundamentalism is now.

Hopefully Sam Harris's op-ed in today's New York Times regarding the appointment of Francis Collins as the director of the National Institute of Health will represent a step forward, and out of the discussion about tenor. Collins, a brilliant geneticist, has attempted to perform The Synthesis, but as Harris points out, it's a way of thinking that could tangle otherwise clear thinking on scientific issues.

Most scientists who study the human mind are convinced that minds are the products of brains, and brains are the products of evolution. Dr. Collins takes a different approach: he insists that at some moment in the development of our species God inserted crucial components — including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

Dr. Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”

One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health. After all, understanding human well-being at the level of the brain might very well offer some “answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” — questions like, Why do we suffer? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God, necessarily constitute “atheistic materialism”?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Matthew Yglesias on Prof. Gates' getting arrested:

Meanwhile, note that racial motivations or [their] absence have really nothing to do with the nature of Officer Crowley’s misconduct. What happened basically is that Crowley accused Gates, whether for good reason or not, of breaking into his own home. Gates, pissed off, offended Crowley. At which point Crowley, even though he was now perfectly aware that Gates was not guilty of anything, decided to exact revenge by manipulating the situation to create a trumped-up disorderly conduct charge. That’s not professional policing, and it’s not a good use of the City of Cambridge’s law enforcement resources. That’s why the charges were dropped, and that’s why it’s fair to say that Crowley was acting stupidly racial issues aside.*


And the asterisk:

* To consider a race-free instance, I was actually treated extremely rudely by an MPDC officer yesterday. I, wisely, just decided to not worry about it and move on. But suppose I’d decided to respond to him being rude by overreacting and blowing up at him. And then he decided to respond to me being rude by finding some pretext on which to arrest me. Neither the fact that the cop’s not a racist nor the fact that I had overreacted would make retaliating with a trumped-up charge the right way for the cop to respond.


Of course, the fact that the charge was dropped seems to be getting glazed over as though it were an inconsequential background piece (though not necessarily by Yglesias).

But, the charge was dropped. Unless one is committed to the a priori assumption that the officer was incompetent, he probably knew quite well that the charges were going to be dropped but arrested him anyway. There was no arrest for burglary, because the officer knew there was no burglar. There was only a misunderstanding that escalated into a baseless arrest.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Limits of Science Revisited

I hope Mr. Schoen of the u n d e r v e r s e doesn't mind my picking on him once more, as I will be doing exactly that.

First, Sean Carroll has a great post up on the "limits of science," that is almost exactly the subject I have been mulling over in the last few posts.

...what does science actually have the power to do?

I can think of one popular but very bad strategy for answering this question: first, attempt to distill the essence of “science” down to some punchy motto, and then ask what questions fall under the purview of that motto. At various points throughout history, popular mottos of choice might have been “the Baconian scientific method” or “logical positivism” or “Popperian falsificationism” or “methodological naturalism.” But this tactic always leads to trouble. Science is a messy human endeavor, notoriously hard to boil down to cut-and-dried procedures.


He's pointing out that impasses on "the limits of science" debates almost always hinge on the fact that the meaning of science gets slighted the more clear people try to be about it. That's not a rejection of clarity, it's rather a comment on an unfortunate state of affairs- it's hard to be precise about a dynamic process without also lopping off crucial parts of its dynamism.

Sean is exactly right- though "punchy motto" should be taken to mean a clear description of particular process. There is more than a motto: there is always, for any particular attempt to describe what science is, a large intellectual effort concerned with clearing the ground for a certain method: you identify a problem and criticize conventional approaches to it; you set up an internally consistent vocabulary; you make a set of arguments about why that vocabulary is the correct one to use. Eventually enough precision is reached to describe a process or set of processes that count as "science." But there always seem to be exceptions to each new account of what "science" is, which always seem to generate people newly convinced of the limits of science.

Sean continues:

Science doesn’t do a bunch of experiments concerning colliding objects, and say “momentum was conserved in that collision, and in that one, and in that one,” and stop there. It does those experiments, and then it also proposes frameworks for understanding how the world works, and then it compares those theoretical frameworks to that experimental data, and — if the data and theories seem good enough — passes judgment. The judgments are necessarily tentative — one should always be open to the possibility of better theories or surprising new data — but are no less useful for that.


We tend to reduce science down to a method or a certain body of knowledge, and then leave it frozen up to those limits and suggest that whatever else is "beyond" science, which has doomed in their respective turns, verificationists, logical positivists, and falsificationists. Defenders of religious insight generally don't have a difficult time punching holes in "science" as outlined by these theories because you can (seemingly) always use language in a way that wasn't anticipated by people defining science, which always "proves" that there is some kind of truth that science isn't.

And if I read Chris correctly, he is using that strategy when he says:

Though these and other scientific models would later become refined and legitimated through measurement and observation, there is nothing evidentiary within hypothesizing itself. The creation of models in science [is] itself a poetic function.


and, a little downward:

Reason does not--cannot--produce the initial visionary flash that generates scientific ideas. It can only take these ideas as given and evaluate them methodologically. The ideas themselves come from elsewhere; from the imagination.


I'm curious what he thinks of the notion of an unanswered scientific question, which seems like an idea that straddles both sides of the "divide." For even to formulate a question is to make enough sense of your experience that you can recognize it as a problem, and fix its answer within certain limits. The P = NP problem for example, is obviously a scientific question, a question that is unanswered, and a question whose hypothesizing must occur within fixed limits. The "visionary flash" then, becomes quite corralled.

But more can be said. There are all kinds of things that count as visionary flashes (note the bit of conflation that crops up here- there are processes of thought other than the scientific method that nonetheless belong to a world describable by science- when we call something "not scientific" it should be taken to mean having less or a different kind of precision than our task requires, not that it involves a crossover into some other category of reality) but even in that initial casting about, it seems unfair to suggest that we get something different in kind from what we would obtain under the guidance of an explicitly rational process.

What exactly is going on, anyway? Well, one pulls apart concepts and recombines their pieces, shift contexts, adds or takes away assumptions, ratchets up or down the need for adherence to some principle, and every now and again looks back at the question, and at any available evidence to see how well such thoughts hold up. Where a "vision" fits in, I'm not sure.

If we didn't do this, whether via "vision" or rational process I'm not sure it would be possible to realize such a thing as a new model at all, and so to speak of it as though outside the limits of the scientific method deprives the method of a large part of its meaning, exactly the problem Sean Carrol was being careful to avoid.

A visionary flash seems to mean the sudden appearance of a new idea, together with an instant and firm grasp of its application. The closest analogy I can think of would be an explorer tasked with making a new map. She would already know beforehand the limits of existing maps, she would probably have already walked beyond those limits and perhaps have a vague idea of what the map is going to look like, and most importantly, she would already know how she was going to make the map of the new territory she encounters. What she can't control is what she sees. But this isn't quite right- what also needs to be said is, there is a chance of seeing landmasses wholly unlike anything that has been mapped before, so its not simply an issue of drawing up old images in new places.

But that's not a difficult problem- one can still draw. And a new discovery about reality can still be articulated in the same old mathematical language- its no problem that it describes wholly new rules.

So is it the fact that we can't anticipate what shape, or in what order, our new concepts might appear before us as we hypothesize (in that, an inability to anticipate tips us off to a process obviously outside our immediate control)? Or is it that we are constrained to speaking of them as though they were newly appearing in a "flash," when in truth there was an ongoing and finer struggle to "make sense" of something that precedes what we can deal with in empiricism or even language at all? If that's the case, it's not that things pop out of nowhere, rather there suddenly comes a moment when these ruminations produce something clear enough that we can "catch" it, deal with it in language, which makes the concept "new" in the sense of being for the first time as manageable as all the other ones we can comfortably deal with in language.

Even granting that the process was in some sense non-scientific, how could there be a point of crossover that consistently saw non-scientific concepts translating into ones with relevance and meaning essential to a scientific insight? What kind of mechanism could do that? We can refine and increase levels of precision- but that would mean there was something properly scientific about a concept from beginning to end. If we deny that there was, within a concept, something properly scientific from the beginning, we'd also have to deny that this was the case once it became clearly understood, and be left with the absurdity that one could manufacture "science" just by increasing the amount of clarity in the absence of content.

What is left, I think, is a body of experiences (in the most all-encompassing sense possible) that undergo a progressive escalation of confidence. If that is the case- this progressive escalation of confidence means that every bit of knowledge, however vague, is situated on the same track, even if only at the very beginning of it. If one wants to say not all segments on this track of escalation are equal and that only after a certain point do they become scientific, that's fair, but it totally leaves behind the question of why or how the "visionary" process was doing something fundamentally different from what science does.

It also affirms something that almost no one believes: that scientists and poets alike draw from a common reservoir of experience and that insights uncovered by poetry are always already promised to a corresponding scientific description.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bigotry at Redstate

So I have, in fact, been banned from Redstate for this post (a link I can no longer access from home) about the Pew poll showing a minuscule 6% of scientists identifying as Republicans (12% with leaners). Moe Lane, an administrator, replaced most of my post with a youtube video and replaced my headline, "What's up with the Pew Poll? 12% of Scientists identify as Republican" with a generic "What's up with Democrat Spending?" This is what I originally wrote- just some numbers pulled from the Pew poll and a few very reasonable questions asking what they think about it.

Since I was banned, I'd like to respond here to some of the commenters I got over at Redstate who tried to question the legitimacy of the poll, (and also, I'd like to respond to Moe and his banning "rationale").

Aesthete says:
...I don't see your point
Are you trying to prove that the Bush administration suppressed scientific research? If so, you’re going to need to provide a substantially greater amount of proof than polls.

Are you trying to spread the idea of conservatives as being anti-academic, or anti-science? In which case, wouldn’t the results on voter beliefs on science contradict that claim?

As to the “conservatives in the mist” segment of your diary, I don’t overly concern myself with group polling. I don’t think that the fact that blacks vote Democrat, that the military votes Republican, or that (not Native American) Indians vote Republican automatically lead to the conclusion that Dems are anti-military or anti-Indian, or that Republicans are anti-scientist or racist. In reality, there are several plausible explanations for the results indicated in the polls (assuming that the methodology is sound). As such, such data is only useful as an interesting anecdote, and not in my preferences for policy. Neoclassical monetarist economic policies encourage the development of a strong economy with high potential for growth, and that includes science and technology-related investment.

Also, aggregating all scientific fields to prove your “point” is an amateur move, as the “soft sciences” are much more partisan than harder sciences, esp. Engineering, Physics, and the like.


This last point is absolutely false. The scientists are broken into four groups: Biological and Medical (1,255), Chemistry (348), Geosciences (154), Physics and Astronomy (229). So much for the "amateur move." As for the questions- no, I don't think polling constitutes proof that the Bush Admin. suppressed evidence, I think the fact that the Bush Admin suppressed evidence constitutes proof that they suppressed evidence. And yes, I am trying to "spread" the idea of a disjunction between conservative thought and mainstream scientific thought, since it's supported by polling and ought to be discussed by people who don't seem to want to believe it's true.

Uma Ritcie says:
In most science-related articles
the author concludes with calls for “more government funding” to continue exploration of the topic. I assume that if you spend hours and hours on grant proposals when you’d much rather be in the lab doing research, you’re not going to identify with us tightwad Republicans.


I originally mistook this comment for a claim that this study ends by calling for more funding, and struggled in vain to find the part of the report where this occurs. It was, however an attempt to dismiss the report based on a lazy generalization, that's not even appropriate in this case because Pew doesn't take money from the government.

civil_truth says:
It's been quite a while since I've seen a true-blue "conservatives in the mist" diary
So let’s get down to nuts and bolts - when the Obama adminstration suppresses dissenting views on global warming climate change, is that a bad thing (as when the Bush administration allegedly did that) or is that just a necessary silencing and suppression of heretics who dare to challenge a new scientific orthodoxy?

Your answer to that question will establish whether you believe in the old fashioned scientific method as a path to determining objective truth, or whether you agree with the predominant doctine today that science is simply a tool to leverage a post-modern political agenda that rejects objective scientific truth.


I hadn't heard of "conservatives in the mist" before. It apparently comes from a Jonah Goldberg article about the condescending practice of treating conservatives as poor, clueless creatures who don't know better; the quiet background premise being that this is not a legitimate observation. Goldberg's article is now meme-ified, which provides a handy defense mechanism should anyone suggest a divergence between conservative thought and mainstream thought in any context.

As for the question- I would agree provided the report in question were actually "suppressed" rather than unsolicited. So, I'm glad (I guess?) to have proven my commitment to objective scientific truth.

JadedByPolitics says:
Your question on the military and overwhelming support for R's...
is indeed PROOF that the Dem’s are out of touch with the military and have been since Vietnam. The Military likes to get the job done without interference from the Congress and yet while they were no longer militarily engaged in Vietnam they watched as the Democrat Congress pulled the funding ensuring that people that helped them in anyway were slaughtered by the millions. The military in more recent times watched as those who were at war with us were treated by Dem’s as a police action instead of the war it was ie: 92 Twin Towers, Somalia, and well you know the rest.

So in conclusion I am saying that yes the military MISTRUSTS D’s as they should and with regards to Science the fact that Scientist’s consistantly want Government Spending which I believe makes their conclusions biased would not make a GREAT fit for Republicans.


JadedByPolitics appears to agree with the premise that polling a community for their approval of the political parties is a legitimate measure, or "PROOF," of whether those parties are "out of touch" with said community. Which apparently means they think Republicans are in some meaningful way "out of touch" with mainstream science.

Vegas_Rick says:
You've obviously already made up your mind
So why do you waste our time and bandwidth?

You’ve never spent a day in the military yet you talk of the indoctination of military recruits. Where’s your evidence?

Get lost moby.


("Moby" is a term they use at Redstate for liberals who come to Redstate and pretend they are conservative.) I base it on my experiences with one close friend and three or four casual friends who have each joined different branches, as well as my own personal thought that soldiers need to believe the war they are risking their lives for is a war worth fighting and Republicans tend to always have reasons why wars are worth fighting.

Finrod says:

I'd wonder about the internals of that poll
12 percent of scientists identified as Republican? What was the total number of Democrats and Republicans polled? I’m guessing that this poll way oversampled Democrats and way undersampled Republicans; whether intentionally or due to bad polling techniques it’s impossible to tell.


The total number of scientists polled was 2,533. I understand the notion of separating out Republicans, Democrats and independents in a poll, asking them questions, and then weight-adjusting their answers to compensate for over/under sampling and show the public's perspective on a given question. But I'm not sure where the idea comes from that you can weight-adjust the party affiliation numbers when the purpose of the question was to determine party affiliation.

Finally, site administrator Moe Lane says:
He's not returning anyway.
This is a partisan political site, not a therapy session for Democrats and liberals desperate to convince themselves that they aren’t bad people, really.


He certainly has me figured out. I ask them to account for the reported gulf between mainstream science and their Republican party because I feel guilty about Republicans who support policies injurious to the country because of their scientific illiteracy. Well, Moe, as long as you agree that every accusation you ever make of "bias" and "partisanship" is by your own admission hypocritical partisan garbage, that's fair enough. But even a partisan site secure in its message stands to benefit from a little introspection and self criticism.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Venturing into RedState

I'm about to find out how well RedState likes opposing opinions. I recently authored a post there that is now "submitted for review". I don't remember the review process from the last time I was a member of RedState, but I do remember the hostile climate toward non-conservatives who would stop by, and a very aggressive policy of banning people who weren't conservative. We'll see.

It's below. It's actually quite bland, which is by design.


Hey guys. First post here, and I'll get something out of the way quickly: I probably don't agree with most of the political opinions on this site. That said, I think mingling of opposing views is healthy and helps make people on the other political side more human, and helps restore good faith. For all its celebration as a new way to engage with Democracy, the blogosphere is, in my experience, a very self-segregated place. So this is my little foray to the other side.

Anyway, I don't want to bury the lede on the Pew poll:

  • 22% of Republicans polled say U.S. scientific achievements are best in the world, vs. 16% of Democrats

  • 52% of Republicans polled say religion and science are in conflict vs. 62% of Democrats

  • 45% of R's say science conflicts with their religious beliefs vs. 45% overall

  • 77% of scientists say it is true that government scientists could not report findings that conflicted with Bush Administration positions

  • 71% of scientists say that the above happened more often under the Bush Administration

  • 56% of scientists view scientists as a group to be politically liberal, 2% view them as conservative, 42% as neither

  • 6% of scientists are affiliated with the Republican Party, vs. 55% Democrat and 2% other

  • Including leaners, it's 12% Republican and 81% Democrat

  • 9% of scientists call themselves "ideologically" conservative

  • 64% of the public view scientists are neither politically conservative or politically liberal

  • 84% of scientists view global warming as due to human activity, vs 21% for Republicans


So, in a variety of cases, on a variety of issues, there is a gulf between the opinions of Republicans and the opinions of the scientific community. The most staggering to me was the most talked about one, where 6% of scientists self-identify as Republican (12% with leaners). Most of the public (64%) don't think this would be the case. Were you a part of that 64%? For me, I honestly expected there to not be as many Republican scientists, but I didn't expect it to be this low.

So, is this a surprise to you? Do you take this as evidence that there is indeed a gulf between Republicans and mainstream science? (If not, I'd like to know what evidence you would need in order to believe that).

I think the obvious counter what I'm saying is to cite any similar polling that's been done on the any of the branches of the armed forces- my guess is you would find overwhelming support for the Republican party in each of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Is that supposed to prove that Democrats are "out of step" with the military? I would say no- there is rather a cultural identification with the military, with war heroes and with war in general that is entrenched in the military, and young apolotical recruits tend to get indoctrinated into that culture and keep the tradition alive.

Then, by parity of reasoning, can't some cultural reasons explain lack of Republican scientists? I don't think so. Issues of peace and war are more intrinsically ideological, and I don't think there is anything inherently "liberal" about being scientific, I hope not! I also don't see the logical connection between appreciating the importance of and using the scientific method, and thinking the Bush Administration was trying to suppress politically controversial science. At some point it's not right to call it bias any longer, and I think this is one of those cases. Thoughts?


Edit
: From their "posting rules":

The purpose of this site is promote conservative and Republican ideals. This is our home, and we ask you kindly not to track mud into it. Revocation of posting privileges (banning) will take place after a warning of behavior which violates the intent and spirit of these rules.


'Intent and spirit' - that discussions should converge toward agreement with conservative mainstream thought?

Edit II: That didn't take long. I'm now seeing the dreaded "601 Database redigestation error", which apparently is Redstate speak for "you've been banned." I thought some commenters might give me hell, or that I would at least get a few diaries off before they decided I wasn't welcome.

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.