Friday, September 17, 2010

Is Science Interesting?

(The above purports to be a Chinese periodic table; if the characters instead express sentiments hilarious or profane, the more fool me).

Over at 13.7 Ursula Goodenough eloquently makes the case for scientific understanding as a civic and spiritual duty--it is not enough that we admire or respect nature, as individuals we must know how she ticks, at least in basic terms. She recognizes that such knowledge not only doesn't always come naturally or easily--often it is actively resisted. And yet she is not primarily interested in science as a means to technology.

It seems to me that curiosity is to science what speech is to the written word. Curiosity is spontaneous and natural, whereas science is part of culture and must be taught to successive generations. And while humans are inherently inquisitive about the physical world, we tend to be most curious about those environmental aspects that affect us most directly, and even so, our interest in social matters of love, violence, power, and gossip is often stronger still.

Is science necessary, any more than the invention of writing was necessary, or are both these merely contingent? Verbally and scientifically literate cultures are not superior to oral and pre-scientific ones, or if we consider them so, it is only because that is the water that we swim in. The most straightforward importance of science is its enabling us to manipulate the physical environment; when we wring our hands about the state of math and science education in this country, this is no high-minded spiritual concern, but rather worry that other nations may develop competitive technologies ahead of us.

I think that beyond the salience of science as means to other ends, it offers two other enticements, one spiritual and the other, for lack of a better term, I would call the human pleasure of puzzle-solving. These sometimes contrasting satisfactions shed light on different cognitive styles.

Science performs certain spiritual functions in relation to the physical world, functions pertaining to origins, essences, regularity, and plenitude. Science teaches us, in a manner dependent on logic and replicated experiment and not dogma, that there is far more to reality than what our immediate senses may perceive, from the microscopic to the cosmic and to the extent and variety of the living world. Science reassures insofar as it shows that reality obeys laws rather than whimsy, endowing the universe with a sublimity beyond that achieved by art or religion. However, beyond a certain point, details do not matter so much; I can appreciate the grand implications of evolution without a thorough acquaintance with the development of snails over two billion years.

The spiritual offerings of science go only so far. Over the years I have often had an intense interest in science, but I never felt a temptation to become a scientist. I majored in chemical engineering and then chemistry before realizing that I was not enough of a puzzle-solver to do science. I found scientific research to be soul-crushingly dull.

Many people (fortunately) take delight in how things work, either mechanically or verbally. They get a kick out of Rubik's cubes, crossword puzzles, or detective stories. My mind never really worked that way--I am naturally drawn to semantic, verbal, emotional and narrative insights. Neither mindset is superior, and I'm sure it's no evolutionary accident that human nature encompasses these two ends of a spectrum.

To be sure, I "got" science well enough to get into and through medical school without a problem, and it is wondrous that a biological system generates the insights I'm interested in, but the existential condition of suffering is what engaged me in the first place; the mere details of neuroscience are not, finally, compelling. That is, neuroscience does provide self-knowledge, but it is not the primary or even the best source, and it says nothing about how one should live.

And yet one might object: isn't psychiatry or psychotherapy like puzzle-solving? Not really. Yes, it is about pattern recognition, but it is not about arriving at a final aha! moment at which all the ambiguities drop away and nature stands revealed. Psychological treatment is an amalgam of personal history, emotional hermeneutics, and biotechnology in the service of existential goals and values.

Goodenough makes excellent points in her piece, but I think she protests too much. As a scientist and a puzzle-solver, she is baffled that many are not similarly wired. She ascribes it to some degree to fears of reductionism, but I think this applies only to a few scientific issues, such as evolution or neuroscience inasmuch as many see them as opposed to God or the soul.

Otherwise science is a specialized and contingent preoccupation. I am glad that I understand that plants grow not because spirits in the ground are telling them to, but because they convert solar energy into carbohydrates via photosynthesis in their leaves. However, the precise chemical equations involved, unless or until they are practically imperative for me to know, I am content to leave to the scientists.

1 comment:

Dr X said...

I'm sure it's no evolutionary accident that human nature encompasses these two ends of a spectrum.

This has come up in other discussions here. Without an evolutionary perspective, I think we'd be at a total loss to explain the range of stylistic differences seen among human beings.