It’s probably the case that students studying the sciences have a much better taste for the humanities than visa versa. Certainly it’s easier to imagine a physicist penning a fine lyric in her free time then picturing, say, Griffin Johnson dissecting a frog in his kitchen out of curiosity. Any biologist with a measure of reflectiveness can appreciate the charm of Shakespeare or have a hair-raising experience listening to the cannon blasts at the end of the 1812 Overture. On the other hand, while we humanities certainly enjoy the benefits of longer lifespans and increased mobility that modern science has delivered for us, the actual processes that secure these findings we have trouble finding much inspiration in. Maybe fifty years ago, when the frontiers of science were clearer – you regularly saw people with diseases or got to watch the moon blastoff … but you just don’t get the goosebumps the same way now when you read, for instance, that some faceless scientists huddled in an underground lab in Switzerland saw a blip on the screen they called the “God-particle.”
What is pretty fascinating to me, however, is the psyche of scientists (perhaps especially because unlike humanities student they aren’t as self-conscious about how interesting they are). For what do they spend their long nights scurrying around Mudd, Olin and Hulings eyeballing pipettes, hunched over problem sets or cursing titration machines? What must be true about the universe in order that the scientific process they dedicate themselves to makes sense and forms an enriching part of their lives?
For the Ancient Greeks, natural science meant escaping from the decay and intransience of human affairs by contemplating the permanent nature of the things. Thales, the first Greek philosopher and second scientist after Democritus, wrote, “Nothing is more ancient than God, for He was never created; nothing more beautiful than the world, it is the work of that same God.” Investigating the cosmos was an activity that began in wonder and constituted for them the peak of human activity. “The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival,” Aristotle wrote.
The motivations of Greek scientists were not much different from their Christian successors. It’s well documented that almost every great scientific mind from Copernicus on through the early 20th century was a Christian, and they saw little conflict between their religion and their vocation. Inquiry into nature meant discovering the mind of God and affirming the glory of his creation.
The rise of Christiandom, though, did contribute one new justification to the scientific project: charity.
In Christian Europe, science became valued not only for its own sake but also for the inventions and discoveries that it could produce. The fruits of the new scientific method could be used to alleviate suffering and raise up the downtrodden. “For the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate” went the slogan employed by Francis Bacon.
For the first time, scientific knowledge wasn’t valued for its own sake but for its power to remake and improve the world.
It’s hard to overstate how this aspect of the Christian mission redirected the scientific project. It is not that the Greeks were unaware of the power that scientific discoveries could have. Plutarch, for example, describes how Archimedes’ machines helped defend Syracuse by decimating an invading fleet. But to Archimedes these inventions were afterthoughts, since he “repudiated as sordid and ignoble the whole trade of engineering, and every sort of art that lends itself to mere use and profit; he placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life.” Greek scientists disdained practical scientific research as base preoccupation with the mere useful or necessary. Classical political thinkers did likewise because they thought innovation threatened social cohesion.
But after the spread of Christianity, the idea of creating inventions to meet human needs was not viewed as base but rather as a part of the religion’s charitable messianic mission. This opened up the scientific endeavor to a wider range of practitioners and won it public support. The increased social prominence and financial investments in science also began to attract not just the curious and pious but also the glory-seeking and acquisitive.
The Enlightenment built upon this Christian foundation with the goal of making man “master and possessor of nature,” bringing down secrets from the heavens to aid human needs. Of course, it turned out that one of the biggest causes of human suffering was the religious wars battering Europe.
The strategy of the Enlightenment with respect to this was suffering was the religious wars battering Europe.
The strategy of the Enlightenment with respect to this was simple and attractive. Political strife is caused by differences over social foundations. And so instead of basing a political order on things like myths or religious doctrines, man ought to base it on scientific facts. Jesus’ teaching in the Bible can be interpreted many different ways, but who can dispute objective scientific observations about nature? Surely no one now could dispute that, say, gravity isn’t 9.8 meters squared. So first you observe basic foundational facts, and then build on top of them more facts to create systems of explanation of increasing accuracy. If you do the same thing with facts about human beings and human societies and identify why problems arise in them, then sooner or later you’ll be able to know how to construct society in such a way that it perpetuates in harmony. You don’t even have to make human beings more moral. You in fact start at the assumption that they are nasty creatures, but once you discover the predictable ways they are nasty, you can direct their base passions using fancy techniques like checks and balances and the invisible hand to divert their self-interest so that it ultimately contributes to the good of the social whole.
We all know by now how in the 20th century this great rationalist project spiraled towards the most widespread desolation and bloodshed in human history, and so I won’t rehearse that part of the story for you. The slogan of Soviet Russia during the first 5-year Plan, “technology will solve everything,” seems absurd to us living in a world now thats biggest problems are caused by our machines outstripping the capacity to control them (i.e. global warming, nuclear proliferation, internet addiction, etc…). However, we can’t just turn luddite. Science, once an activity of solitary aristocratic leisure, has now become a bloated institution necessary merely to sustain our techno-capitalistic social state.
That’s all a long but hopefully necessary preface to the main concern of this piece: what has happened to that original motivation for scientific inquiry? Science as something other than a tool for good will, glory seeking, political calculation, corporate profit – is it still possible?
The issue at stake is the idea of order. A poet could draw wonder from the stars because of their regular orbits or random swirls. But from a scientist it would seem to be very crucial that the universe does indeed have regularity.
We’ve already discussed the confidence Greek and Christian scientists had about nature’s eternal order. Contemporary physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed expresses a similar sentiment:
“The things that we find beautiful today we suspect would be beautiful for all eternity. And the reason is, what we mean by beauty is really a shorthand for something else. The laws that we find describe nature somehow have a sense of inevitability about them. There are very few principles and there’s no possible other way they could work once you understand them deeply enough.”
But from where does Nima known these principles are inevitable and that they could be no other way?
“The constructions of [a scientist’s] imagination appear so necessary and so natural that he is apt to treat them not as the creations of his thoughts but as given realities,” Einstein wrote once.
The attacks of thinkers since Nietzsche on objectivity in morality have permeated pretty thoroughly through our culture but less widely acknowledged are their implications for science.
It is no longer possible, I think, to think of science as merely an investigation into nature. At least, there is nothing natural about natural science anymore; all science is a computer science. This isn’t even so hard to see when we think about the kind of experiments we do nowadays. How many machines and processes go into producing just an everyday experimental result? How many unnatural ways to we pry and poke at nature and “control” its conditions before it tells us its secrets? Information obtained under torture isn’t usually isn’t considered admissible – and yet we claim in our experiments all we’re doing is observation!
Of course, some of the major lessons of 20th century physics (like general relativity, quantum uncertainty, Schrodinger’s Cat, etc) kind of sort of feel like some of the same lessons the trending post-modernists are saying. Writing in the 1930s, James Jeans said, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder in the realm of matter.” But to draw a straight line between the two would be just repeating the mistake of reductionism.
Unless one maintains the idea of an eternal order based upon some sort of theological foundation, how can one consider science anything but a form of self-assertion? “The myth of the neutrality of science allows it to be used to achieve the goals of those who hold power in society.”
One can take record all the data one wants, but that data is always underwritten by a theory produced by cultural and historical circumstances. And so if one cannot escape the influence of the observer into nature, then how can what one subjectively observes be useful to anyone else? If data are always underlain by theory, then they can only build off each other when one’s companion is a part of the same horizon, and there’s no guarantee this horizon will not soon expire. With this in mind, how can our peer-reviewed, progressive institutionalized scientific endeavor make sense?
“The dream is over,” Edmund Husserl declared in his 1936 work The Crises of the European Sciences. He asks “Can we live in this world, where historical occurrence is nothing but an unending concatenation of illusory progress and bitter disappointment?”
One who spent many years confronting these challenges to scientific inquiry was the late Ian Barbour. Barbour, who passed away over winter break, taught at Carleton from 1955 to 1986 and is one of those handful of campus figures that every Carl ought to know. He taught physics and religion classes, founded the program that would eventually become the ENTS department and by the end of his career had become one of the country’s leading voices for dialogue between the scientific and religious communities.
Barbour agreed that “science is neither a mirror of nature nor simply a reflection of culture,” stating “Mind is a player, but not the puppet-master himself.”
Barbour developed a view of the scientific endeavor he called critical realism. Especially interesting to me is his exploration of intersubjectivity. I’ll leave the rest to Barbour, and if you find this sort of stuff neat, I invite you to check out more of his work (which is very accessible online):
“Critical realists view theories as partial representations of limited aspects of the world as it interacts with us… we do have to abandon the sharp separation of the observer and the observed that was assumed in classical physics. In quantum theory, the observer is always a participant. We will find a similar epistemological lesson in relativity. In complementarity, the use of one model limits the use of other models. Models are symbolic representations of aspects of interactive reality that cannot be uniquely visualized in terms of analogies with everyday experience; they are only very indirectly related to either the atomic world or the observable phenomena. But we do not have to accept an instrumentalism that makes theories and models useful intellectual and practical tools that tell us nothing about the world.”