Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Tale of Three Loves, Part Two

As one who chose to become a philosopher, I have often felt some dismay at the fact that science seems to guard its territory, i.e. the natural and physical world, from incursions by other disciplines. It is as though scientists say, "You poets go over there and sing your songs; you philosophers go that way and speculate; but leave the study of nature to the professionals. We have instruments, calculations, and empirical data, after all. What do you have but pretty words and abstract notions? Your heads are in the clouds, while we soberly examine the real world."

So there.

Ours is a scientistic civilization, which is to say one that affords science with the prestige we used to give religion in terms of providing us with ultimate truth. Scientism is not science but rather a philosophical doctrine which holds that science is the supreme arbiter of truth in everything--including what have traditionally been considered matters of the heart and of the spirit, the answers for which have traditionally been provided by things like religious faith, philosophical wisdom, or literary and artistic works.

This worship of science as the be-all and end-all of human knowledge has created an unnecessary conflict between science and other forms of knowledge in our culture. As a young science lover who also loved to write stories and draw, and who had a religious upbringing, I never understood what the big deal was. Whether or not I actually heard it or read it, I knew instinctively the dictum that "All truth is God's truth." All modes of human knowledge were valid. They did not contradict each other, but rather were complementary, members of a team that worked together toward the common goal of understanding reality. Each member of the team had a different job, and each member was valuable and important in its own way.

It is true that each field of knowledge has its particular domain, its area of expertise and authority. However, the definitions of these boundaries may not always be properly understood. I feel that this is the case with science in today's world. Yes, science studies the natural world. But that does not mean that science provides us with all possible truth about nature, and it does not mean that other disciplines such as philosophy, poetry, and art cannot tell us anything about nature that science cannot tell us.

For it is not enough to say that science studies nature. Science studies nature in a particular way--a scientific way. It observes, records, experiments, verifies, and makes hypotheses and theories about general laws of nature. But is this quantitative approach the only way to study nature or to know anything about it?

I would say no. There is an assumption in our culture that if someone is interested in the wonders of the natural world or the mysteries of the physical universe (as I very much was when I was a boy), that person should study science. Well, science is good--I've made it plain that I have had a lifelong passion for it myself--but it is only part of the picture. Science seeks to approach nature objectively (although many philosophers will point out that it is never truly, completely objective), without reference to any human values. (It can be thought of as the Dragnet approach: "Just the facts, ma'am.") The humanities, on the other hand, are by definition concerned with human values and seek to understand reality in human terms. Why can't the humanities--things like philosophy, poetry, art--seek to understand and know the natural world in their own way? Why can't a poet tell us things about a flower, for instance, that a scientist cannot tell us? The poet speaks a different language than the scientist, and is looking at different aspects of the same thing... but why isn't the poet's knowledge about the flower valued as highly as the scientist's quantitative data? What about the philosopher's musings about the nature of the flower? The artist's vision of the beauty of the flower?

Of course, the reason lies in our ideas about what makes knowledge valid and valuable, and our current bias is toward the practical, the verifiable, the quantifiable. All very useful in the world of business, industry, and technology, but if we (quite unreasonably) accept that this is all there is to life, we find ourselves living in a very dull and drab world indeed.

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